Thanks to generous support from this Presbytery, this fall, I will be welcoming my 11th small church ministry intern to work and learn with us in Ashland. As a regular part of the internship, I assign students a book written by my seminary colleague Steve Willis called, “Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path.” In the book’s introduction, I love that Steve is quick to say what his book is NOT. He says, “The book boasts no ten or fifteen steps to a successful small church. Instead, I hope to encourage you to give up on steps altogether and even to give up on success, at least how success is usually measured. I also hope to help the reader imagine the small church differently; to see with new eyes the joys and pleasures of living small and sustainably.” My hope is for this sermon do the same – upend the assumptions you may have about church success and allow all of us gathered here to imagine the small church and the pastors who lead them differently.
Paraphrasing Jesus’ question from the reading (Mark 4:30-32): “With what do we measure the success of the church? What metrics do we use to describe it?” As Presbyterians, we tend to be less chatty than some other denominations about the number of souls we’ve saved, and yet we still measure our vital statistics in butts and bucks. How many people attend and how much goes into the plate? The Presbytery wants to know. The Office of General Assembly Statistics wants to know. Get in your annual report in early and get a gold star – right? Larger numbers must mean more success, and dwindling numbers means failure, or maybe even death. How in the world will we keep people coming to church? My hunch is that somewhere you’ve heard the rumor that the Presbyterian church, or perhaps Christianity itself, is dying, that if we don’t start growing soon, we will pass from simply being irrelevant to being non-existent. That sounds scary, and it has been selling books and workshops to anxious pastors for all of the 25 years I’ve been in ministry. Friends - there is nothing new under the sun.
Will we grow or will we die? That question gets posed as if the numbers are the ONLY story of the church’s relevance. And the next move is then to ask already stressed-out pastors, “What steps are YOU going to take to save the church?
Here’s where Steve and I agree 100%. There are no steps – other than one foot in front of the other. And there is no solution – only a deeper dive into the vulnerability of BEING the church wherever it is we happen to be planted. Jesus isn’t the one calling us to save the church. Let me propose instead that Jesus calls us to bury the church, over and over and over again.
Jesus is so good at asking those questions that will challenge our thinking about who we are as his followers, even as we struggle to see where he’s leading us in this 21st century world, “With what shall we compare the kingdom of God? What parable shall we use for it?”
The answer wasn’t “the kingdom of God is like a profitable corporation.”
The answer wasn’t “the kingdom of God is like a sold-out auditorium.”
The answer wasn’t “the kingdom of God is like receiving a huge financial windfall.”
The answer was, “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” A What???
A MUSTARD SEED.
The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that is buried so it can grow. Then when it does grow – it becomes a home, a nest, a habitat for a variety of birds who will come and go as they please. If we want to grow like the kingdom of God, like the community of the faithful that Jesus was talking about, we cannot let those articles about being a dying church scare us. Fear not, my friends. We have to embrace that the church will hold a thousand funerals for what “used to be,” and do so willingly. If Christians can’t talk about, let alone, embrace the power of endings to give rise to something new – what’s the point of the Passion narrative exactly? This is our story. This is where we shine. They thought he was dead. They buried him. Jesus may have told his followers a thousand times that the ending was necessary, purposeful, essential to the story, but they didn’t really know, couldn’t actually imagine that he would rise again.
I remember, early in my ministry with Ashland when we had this conversation about being a dying church. They were looking at the numbers, and as is the case in most small congregations, the numbers painted a grim story of limitations. Only a few more years of a paying a full-time pastor and they would face immediate financial struggles. The money they had from the sale of the manse was finite, and wouldn’t last forever. There were no children actively involved in the church. They were discouraged. We might die. But I asked them, if you are going to die anyway, don’t you want to die BEING the church?
We had plenty of assumptions we had to bury about success. But as we buried them, we didn’t know that what we were really doing was planting seeds of faithfulness, of trust in the living God to do something with our resources. They couldn’t afford a full-time pastor – but they did plant the seed of continuing with a part-time pastor who was also parenting and studying to become a spiritual director. They weren’t drawing in families with kids – but they did plant the seed of welcome for the single women retiring to Ashland on their own to find home and community among friends. They felt like there were so many things they couldn’t do – so I simply said - don’t do them. Instead, we will build partnerships with other congregations and become friends among our colleagues in ministry. It’s more important to be what you can be. Be the church. They didn’t know that in letting go of past expectations, they were flinging mustard seeds everywhere.
As we continued to face new challenges, we started to think about success in new ways. It wasn’t the same old metrics or the same old script. To boost your numbers or fail as a church. The growth was in spirit, in authentically embracing what we could be, not fuss about what we couldn’t be, not worrying so much whether or not more people were going to show up with open hearts and open wallets. Let me tell you – giving your congregation permission to scrap Vacation Bible School when no one has the energy for that is incredibly freeing!
Valuing productivity and proliferation as what it means to be “successful” amplifies a cultural message, not a spiritual one. For our small churches to not just exist but to thrive – we have to quit sending congregations the message that their numbers are what tells the story of their ministry. That message becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and churches that are told they must do and be everything for everybody in order to be valued exhaust themselves and can end up overextended and find it necessary to close. If God has planted them where they are – who are we to stop them from celebrating the kind of organic growth that allows the local birds to make their nests and learn to fly? Small churches don’t need saving by folks who think they know better how to be the church. Rather, they need open-minded support and encouragement to live by the parable that Jesus gave us for understanding the kingdom of God. Be like the mustard seed. Bury the church as it “used to be” and watch what might grow up in that place.
As we use our imaginations today to envision the kingdom of God measured in mustard seeds, I also want to use this pulpit today to lift-up and recognize those who are serving as pastors and leaders of small congregations, so that these frequently unseen servants of God might be fully seen. I know I often feel invisible in the same way David appeared invisible in this familiar biblical story about David’s courage to show up in defense of God’s people. David, as was presumed, was no match for the giant Philistine. Saul thought he was “just a boy.” His big brother Eliab thought he should have stayed home with the sheep. And the military leaders thought he asked stupid questions. He didn’t have the training and he was too small to even put on the armor. David was utterly dismissed. But who showed up in defense of God’s people? David showed up in defense of God’s people.
Small church pastors aren’t often recognized for their courage to take on giants or skill with a slingshot. But I can tell you, they’ve been tending the sheep like nobody’s business. Those servants may not be the first person that comes to mind when clergy are invited to headline leadership conferences, and yet they have an eclectic range of clergy skills that may include slinging chicken at the annual barbecue, keeping their own aging computer going even as Zoom and livestreaming made it gasp and wheeze, or being experts at navigating today’s maze of insurance options from the menu at the Board of Pensions, to the healthcare marketplace, to making sure their family has adequate coverage through their spouse’s benefits. They may be doing more than you can imagine by also working their side hustle or managing a full-time job while doing congregational work AS their side hustle. So, this amazing thing happens from being fairly good at a whole variety of things. In it, your sheep come to know you. Your congregation sees what lengths you will go to stave off bears and lions or direct them to living water. They see how you love them – and they sometimes know how hard they can be to love.
Many of us who are clergy have been taught self-care skills through seminary that dictate that intimacy between a pastor and their congregation should be of some sort of professional grade. In the small church – you don’t always get the choice to remain professionally aloof. Small church pastors, especially the ones who allow themselves to be known, are incredibly vulnerable to the emotional plight of their people, even as they seek the courage to engage the world and its dangers. And I find that the REALLY good ones are even willing to sling a few stones if they have to.
I dare say that biblically God seems to like it when the underdog gets their shot. There’s joy in being able to say, “I’ve got this” when no one else thinks you’ve got this. Perhaps behind the scenes, listening to the varied questions and stories of small church pastors might offer us creative insights for imagining the future church – as we celebrate – as Steve calls it - “a simpler path.” Together, we can then scrap and fight as David did, for what’s truly important – alongside of our people, knowing that they are really God’s people. Then it won’t matter if our resources are limited or our situation difficult, God will give us courage and remind us that we have been saved from the paw of the lion and the claws of the bear before. And God will go with us again.
The world in its powers tries to tell us what’s important – wealth, popularity, strength, visibility, authority. Yet God uses weakness and poverty, insignificance and smallness to make a point that God’s kingdom is wholly unlike earthly kingdoms in about every possible way. When the world tries to tell us that the church is dying, are we going to get scared and try to save ourselves? I hope not. Those who try to save their lives, as Jesus said, will lose them. Will the vanity of wishing for cultural significance bury those church relics that no longer matter? Oh, I hope so. For those who give up their lives will save them. I say – may we be planted deep and covered up with good soil. The headlines have been greatly exaggerated – the church is not as dead as it looks – but we repeat and learn this pattern of faithfulness each time we have the wherewithal to tend to the idols and presumptions we need to bury.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and beloved contemporary Christian mystic, sums it up this way, he says: “A church that has been humbled by disruption and decline may be a less arrogant and presumptuous church. It may have fewer illusions about its own power and centrality. It may become curious. It may be less willing to ally with the empires and powers that have long defined it. It may finally admit how much it needs the true power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. That’s a church God can work with.”
Together, Presbytery of the James, let’s be, as Rohr describes it, that humble church God can work with. To do so, we must listen to those on the margins as Jesus did, to not be afraid to befriend the least, the last, and the lost, to walk alongside those who are far from the centers of power and traverse the periphery of society. We have heard a calling in this Presbytery to be fully Christ-centered and partnership based, to follow Jesus where he leads us – which very well might be out of our churches and into the world. That may not save any of our churches in the forms we now know, be they small or large, but I can guarantee that God’s kingdom will come the more we set ourselves to planting mustard seeds and using the weird collection of skills God has given us.
Charge & Benediction:
I’d like to leave you with a quote that originates from a line by Greek poet Dimas Christianopolos.
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
My friends, “With what WILL we compare the kingdom of God?” A seed? A mustard seed?
Whenever your face hits the ground and the soil smells musty in your nostrils,
Whenever you hear that you are too small, too inexperienced, not good enough,
Whenever the cloud of Good Friday looms, and Easter feels so very far away,
Remember that you are seeds. You are seeds.
Being planted, watered, and grown exactly as God intended.
So - Go – and may the Lord go with you.
Take courage. Be not afraid.
Raise your slingshot against those who align themselves with imperial power, and strength above all.
When God is for you, who can go against you?
God did not withhold anything from us, not even God’s beloved Son.
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword?
No, none of these things. In all these things we are more than conquerors through the holy one who loves us - more than we can imagine.