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The Secret Small Churches Know Best

Most Christian churches in America are small. In 2012, the National Congregations Study found that the median Sunday morning attendance for churches in the United States was 75 people. The study also found that 43% of American churches had fewer than 50 regular participants, 67% had fewer than 100 regular participants, and 87% had fewer than 250.

Many of these small churches are located in small places. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow notes in his book Small-Town America that “there are more churches per capita in less populated areas than there are in more heavily populated places.” A recent Barna study found that in my own region of New England, 40% of churchgoing Christians live in small towns or rural areas (though, of course, some may commute to urban or suburban churches).

Small Churches in Small Places

Small churches in small places face certain realities. With 45 regular Sunday morning attenders (or 85, or 145), there will be few things outwardly impressive about your gathering. Your meeting place will likely be humble — perhaps not always well-heated or air-conditioned. You probably won’t enjoy the sound of professional-level musicians, see visually appealing graphic design, or hear preaching that generates thousands of views online the following week. The natural pleasure and encouragement of welcoming new visitors on Sunday morning may not be an experience you enjoy very often. With many in your congregation aging, your church will have lots of accumulated wisdom, but may struggle with health, energy, and a willingness to venture into new things.

Beyond these realities, there will be an ever-present awareness of fragility. You will know that if even a few of the regular attenders move out of town, tire of coming, become offended, opt for a more exciting church, get sick, or die, your church could suffer. Even if a few people stop giving, or if a few get laid off, your church likely won’t meet its budget and your pastor will need to find a part-time job. It will always feel possible that the church doors could close for good sooner or later.

Minnows in a Small Pond

Faced with these realities, you will find there are some things you can work to improve. As a church, you may patiently, prayerfully grow toward God-glorifying excellence in your facilities, your music, your pulpit ministry, your small groups, and much else. But you will eventually reach a point where you recognize that, no matter what you do, you will always be a small church in a small place. Even if God brings revival, and you double from 45 to 90 people, you will still be a small church in a small place. At the point of this realization, you will have a very important choice to make.

Some small churches and their pastors will become dissatisfied with who they are. This may manifest itself in a restless striving to implement the latest program from some big church in some big place. It may result in a pastor applying the latest terminology he has heard (in the city) to his own small context, in manifestly absurd ways (like a small-town pastor exhorting his church to “love their city”).

Or it may settle into a long, slow simmer of discontentment and restlessness and endless tinkering and yearning for something more and better. I once participated in a gathering of fellow small-town and rural pastors. We were a bunch of no-names, but passionate lovers of Jesus and of people. We met in a wealthy suburban mega-church that had a worship band good enough to sell out concerts, a sound board as big as a dining room table, and huge hi-tech projection screens. I’ve wondered since then whether this was a parable of the contemporary American church: a group of small-place, small-church pastors, lifted out of our own contexts and set down, wide-eyed, in an enormously impressive facility that bore little resemblance to what most of us knew, quietly yearning for the resources, personnel, and excellence of a bigger place.

God Tends Bruised Reeds

We have another, better way to respond to our small church’s manifest weakness and fragility. Yes, prayerfully improve what we can. Yes, plead with God for conversions. And then receive — as a gift from God — the manifest weakness of our small church in our small place.

Every church, big or little, urban or rural, is utterly dependent upon its Head. Without Christ’s sustaining grace, no church will last, or have any lasting impact. Every church must receive and reckon with this knowledge. But the particular gift God gives to small churches in small places is that their weakness is so very evident.

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

In his book The Bruised Reed, the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes reflects at length on the nature of weakness. He writes,

As a mother is tenderest to the . . . weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest. Likewise, he puts an instinct into the weakest things to rely upon something stronger than themselves for support. The vine stays itself upon the elm, and the weakest creatures often have the strongest shelters. The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing.

Will you receive the manifest weakness and fragility of your church as a gift from God? Will it make your little congregation willing to lean on Christ, and hide yourself “under his wing?” Your church (and every church, everywhere) will eternally impact people, not by showing them how big and impressive you are, but by showing them the greatness of the God who says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6).

Author: Stephen Witmer
Posted: January 21, 2018, 1:03 am
Why We Should Escape Social Media

Yet another former Facebook exec has issued a warning about how his previous employer has conditioned us with bad habits, poisoned our civic lives, fleeced our sanity, and sabotaged our relationships. This time it’s Chamath Palihapitiya, age 41, now a venture capitalist and co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

Fake and Brittle

Palihapitiya explained how Facebook corrodes social discourse, recently speaking to students at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he warned. “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in the short term — signals, hearts, likes, thumbs-up — and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead what it really is, is fake brittle popularity. And that leaves you even more vacant and empty before you did it.”

But then we reach for another hit. This addiction now plagues Facebook’s entire user base of two billion people, he said. All by design. “You don’t realize it but you are being programmed,” Palihapitiya warned, disavowing the students of the idea that high intelligence and education will immunize from the plague. They don’t.

So what’s the answer?

“You must decide how much of your intellectual independence you’re willing to give,” he said. “I don’t have a good solution. My solution is: I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

Social-Media Addicts

Sounds good. Sounds simple. Just turn social media off. But of course that’s not how it works. Christians know deeper desires are at work behind the digital addictions. For all the social-media habits that plague our lives, for all the inattention we give to those around us, most of us would never seriously consider deactivating our social platforms (even Palihapitiya keeps an active Facebook account!).

Social media addicts each of us — we love matching wits in Facebook comments, nesting the perfect GIF into Twitter, or spreading another throwaway selfie on Snapchat. The allure of social media is the desire to be seen, omnisciently seen, if not always affirmed, at least always put in view of others. Smartphones promise to protect us from athazagoraphobia — the fear of being forgotten. So we impulsively connect, from the moment we wake up to the moment we must surrender ourselves to sleep.

All of it conditions our digital behavior to benefit social platforms as they reach for billions of dollars in profit. Our emotions are conditioned — self-conditioned. We do it to ourselves. As one writer put it, “Each social media platform is a drug we self-prescribe and consume in order to regulate our emotional life, and we are constantly experimenting with the cocktail.”

Facing the Silence

Social media is a brew of emotionally stimulating drugs we mix for ourselves. And it means to leave social media, even for a few days or just a couple weeks, is to encounter the harsh reality that we will be un-missed on our absence, un-noticed in our silence, and even un-anticipated upon our return back. To escape social media is to taste the bitter sting of oblivion, a little hint of elderly loneliness or the midlife identity-crisis brought down now into every age demographic.

Stop attempting to be seen in social media and you vanish entirely. We dare not stop. And that’s why the first step away from social media — that first day disconnected — tastes bitter. It tastes bitter because we use the noise of media in our lives to drown out two things we’d rather not face.

Silence and the Self

In his sermon on Psalm 62:1 — “For God alone my soul waits in silence” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer took time to explain the modern fear of silence, and to show how modern man has avoided it by media, a phenomenon operating in late 1920s Germany.

First, he said, we seek new noise to avoid ourselves.

“We flee silence,” Bonhoeffer said. “We race from activity to activity to avoid having to be alone with ourselves for even a moment, to avoid having to look at ourselves in the mirror. We are bored with ourselves, and often the most desperate, wasted hours are those we are forced to spend by ourselves” (Works 10:503).

We hate it. Silence inevitably forces uncomfortable truths back into our vision. Who we are, who we have become, the good and the bad and the revolting and the boring — all things about our lives, the things we would love to change, the memories and events and the scars we would never expose on social media. In the silence, nothing about us remains hidden; everything bubbles again to the surface. Taking and sharing new selfies is always easier than the fearful unknown of what will emerge if everything becomes silent.

But our fear of quiet solitude exposes something even deeper.

Silence and the Lamb

Repeatedly in Scripture, silence is a demonstration of our steadied faith, a resolved trust in the Redeemer to move and act and deliver. When the temptations and dangers increase, the godly can hush the noisy alarmists around them and reclaim silence.

  • “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
  • “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).
  • “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken” (Psalm 62:1–2).
  • “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5).

Silence is confidence in God.

Silence is also a divine invitation. And that’s the deeper modern fear.

“Not only are we afraid of ourselves, of discovering and unmasking ourselves,” Bonhoeffer writes, “but even more we are afraid of God, that he might disturb our aloneness and discover and unmask us, that God might draw us into partnership and do with us whatever he wants. Because we fear such unnerving, lonely encounters with God, we avoid them, avoid even the thought of God lest he suddenly get too close to us. Suddenly having to look into God’s eyes, having to be accountable before him, is too dreadful a notion; our perpetual smile might fade, things might get completely serious in a way to which we are not at all accustomed.”

Fake brittle popularity or God’s serious presence drawn close — what sounds more appealing in the digital age? So we wake up and check our phones immediately in bed.

This anxiety characterizes our entire age. We live in perpetual fear of suddenly being seized and called to task by the infinite and would rather socialize or go to the movies or theater until we are finally carried to our grave, anything rather than having to bear a single minute before God. (Works 10:503)

Every silent moment in 1928 could be interrupted by the social life or with media. Ninety years later, we can maintain the distracting noise in social + media simultaneously.

Social media is not the problem; social media is the mask over our underlying fears. We all want new breaking-news alerts or viral tweets or a new text message, because it means, for at least one more moment, we have evaded eye contact with the Savior, evaded the seriousness of what it would mean to meet him, to hear him, and to be faced with the call of God that might disrupt our comfy lives.

Silence and the Community

Bonhoeffer is not celebrating social isolation and loneliness. There is an aloneness that stems from brokenness. Bonhoeffer is applauding the intentional silence we should learn to embrace — what we now call solitude, the decision, when given opportunities for noise, to choose stillness. Self-chosen silence is the new expression of social empowerment in the digital age. Silence is freedom. And silence is a form of guarding the health of the local church.

As Bonhoeffer’s ministry developed, he would take the two truths of this early sermon (that silence forces us to face ourselves, and silence opens us to God’s voice and call), and apply them to community life.

In his book Life Together, he says we learn in community the patience and honesty necessary to be alone. While alone, we meet God and develop the authenticity necessary for communal flourishing. “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (Works 5:83).

In a media-saturated world, into the ubiquity of the self in social media, we lose the discipline of solitude. We lose a sense of listening to God. God feels distant. We get emptied of the substance of divine truth we must possess ourselves before we can offer grace to our friends.

So Bonhoeffer asks his age — and asks us now — “Is the Word of God close to me as a comfort and a strength? Or do I misuse my solitude against the community, against the Word and prayer? Individuals must be aware that even their hours of being alone reverberate through the community. In their solitude they can shatter and tarnish the community or they can strengthen and sanctify it. Every act of self-discipline by a Christian is also a service to the community” (Works 5:92).

Healthy fellowship in our churches will never thrive when each member abuses social media and starves their own solitude of its serious attention.

Serious Solitude

Serious solitude in the media age can feel unnatural. It’s weird. Uncomfortable. Too serious. Bonhoeffer grants it “will feel rather funny, indeed perhaps even quite empty the first few times. Before long, however, the soul is filled; it begins to come alive and feel stronger” (10:504). He might as well have been speaking of the first few days away from social media.

Bonhoeffer believed it to be the special work of the Holy Spirit to lead each believer into this serious solitude, into the quiet place where our deepest needs are exposed and the greatest eternal truths can once again wash over our souls. For who alone, without the power of God himself, could desire silent seriousness in an age of incessant self-projection and self-affirmation?

By the power of the Spirit, we learn to embrace the unaccustomed seriousness of solitude, as we pray with the heart of Psalm 139,

Lord, search me, know me, and deliver me from any social-media habits that treat digital media as a cocktail of emotionally stimulating drugs I mix for myself. Cure me of this appetite to be seen by men. Kill in me this desire for endless digital acknowledgement. Draw near to me. Confront me. Comfort me. Equip me to love again. Make your presence known to me again, as I learn what it means to embrace becoming completely forgotten by this world, yet in Christ, always fully known and loved before your eyes.

Author: Tony Reinke
Posted: January 20, 2018, 1:00 am

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