During our service a few weeks ago, I was passing the offering basket over to my wife, when I heard the sound of change dropping to the floor. Pennies and dimes bouncing and clanging, not in tune with the song the band had begun to sing. As a few of us were trying to get the change off of the concrete floor and keep everything moving, I felt more annoyed than anything. After all, I thought,Who in their right mind puts some loose change in a wicker basket full of holes, anyway?
The children do.
Without me saying a word, my wife picked up on my irritation, and would not have it for a second. She told me that some kids had put their own change in. Standing there, feeling like a fool unworthy to go preach the message I had prepared, Jesus reminded me of his love for children and his love for pennies.
WHO IS THE GREATEST?
In Matthew 18, the disciples were taught a similar lesson. “The disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” (18:1). They equated significance with status. For them, greatness was a measurable. What made one worthy, according to the disciples, was who one knew, what he had done, or what he was capable of. As Jesus does on numerous occasions, however, he shatters their categories and presuppositions and morphs their definitions into their own new creations. Upon hearing the word “greatness” uttered from the lips of his friends, Jesus turns to an unidentified child (18:2), and says, “this is what you’re looking for” (18:3-4).
This is a familiar story from the life of Jesus. He is pointing his disciples to the importance of humility, emphasizing the childlike nature of authentic faith. But there’s more here than may meet the eye, especially for those of us who think of loose change in the offering plate as more hassle than help, of those of us whose hearts still ask the question, “Who is the greatest?” without accepting this kind of answer.
PRECIOUS IN HIS SIGHT
“How many does your church run?”
It’s the awkward, keep-the-conversation-going question that people ask pastors, and pastors ask one another. It happens too far often to be mere coincidence. We believe the answer to it tells us something. Embedded deep within us, pastor or not, is that what makes a church successful and healthy is being able to boast in the people it has gathered. It seems our Western understanding of “greatness” has borrowed from a group of ancient fishermen and tradesmen in the East.
The ways we prop up church-greatness are Legion. It sneaks into conversation. We use Sunday morning analytics and metrics to evaluate services. We convince ourselves that the only kinds of growth our congregation benefits from are increases in quantities. Maybe we’re done falling for the lie that attendance or cash is the mark of a healthy church. We’ve graduated to higher and more spiritual evaluations, like how many churches we’ve planted, how many discipleship classes have been offered. It’s all measurement, but we explain it away. We buy the books of the pastors who have found success creating church ex nihilo into something with national acclaim. We go to their conferences in the hopes of getting what they’ve got, like Bugs Bunny drinking Michael’s Secret Stuff. And on the flip-side, it’s the publishers and the conference circuits who are giving these voices pride of place. Supply and demand strike again.
What if we believed that little children truly embody “the greatest” among us? And in turn, that little churches embody “the greatest” in the Kingdom? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a big church and a big budget and big numbers (only more complexity, and more potential opportunities for things to go south). But we must believe there’s nothing “wrong” with a little church, either. Jesus loves the little churches.
I recently saw someone post the stat that 83% of American Christians are part of churches of less that 500 people. Only 8% participate in churches over 1,000. And yet, it’s the 8% that the rest strive to be, that they use as resources for their own body. We may not want to say it out loud, but we believe it: bigger is better.
We should strive for greatness in our churches, because God is great. But the striving for greatness probably won’t look similar to what we see around us in the world. Our definition of greatness does not involve hoisting trophies and jockeying for position. Our definition of greatness demands decrease. It carries crosses. It pursues holiness. It depends on the power of the Spirit. Any church can get in on that kind of greatness.
Jesus doesn’t look at the pennies that fall through the wicker basket and think to himself, “What a waste of everyone’s time.” He does not look at the congregation of ninety people, who don’t post their sermon audio online or have church database software, and shoo them away. God is equally as present in The Village Church as he is in the church in the village with no name or sign or website. God’s omnipotence is not varied on the basis of stats. Rural or urban, old or new, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little churches of the world.