In America’s “bigger is better” culture, small church leaders can suffer from an inferiority complex. Large churches with flamboyant leaders are mostly the ones receiving pats on their backs, not the folks from small town America who work tirelessly and faithfully without institutional recognition. But what if bigger is not necessarily better? What if smaller churches are better poised to answer God’s call more directly and efficiently than larger churches?
Ministry is not about mass media or marketing; it’s about listening, loving and sharing the life of Christ with those around us. This means that vast amounts of resources are not necessary for continuing the ministry of Jesus in our communities.
In fact, small churches are uniquely positioned to reach out to the poor and oppressed in our communities just as residents of small towns are better at taking care of each other. I have never lived in a small town, but I have visited family members who do and I’ve seen how they are involved in one another’s lives.
Even though I am a city slicker, I am a part of a small church. For over a decade I’ve been serving small churches in Latin America. I currently serve in Buenos Aires, Argentina, population 14 million. It’s a large cosmopolitan city that is loud, busy, and very diverse. Yet just like small town America, Buenos Aires is filled with people who are very dear to the heart of God.
A careful reading of the gospel without the blinders of American consumerism and individualism opens our eyes to the reality that God is always, first and foremost, on the side of the poor and the marginalized. God’s wrath is not only against our individual sin and idolatry, but also against that sin which translates into oppressive social structures that keep the poor poor while the rich get richer.
In Jesus’s day, Galilee was full of rural peasants who were exploited, over taxed, and pressed to make a daily wage enough to feed their families. In rural America, we see many of these same phenomena. It was to these people that Jesus directed his blessings (Luke 6:17-23). In contrast, Jesus offers woes or curses to those who, directly or indirectly, are responsible for the harsh socioeconomic conditions of those who experience God’s blessing through the proximity of his reign (6:24-26).
If God’s inbreaking kingdom is for those who are poor and hungry, for those who weep and are reviled, Christ’s body, just like Jesus himself, must be found walking with them. When Jesus began his ministry, he publicly announced the nature of his divine vocation: he came to proclaim good news to the poor, to give liberty to the captives, to recover the sight of the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).
To state that this vocation took place primarily in Jesus’s teaching, death, and resurrection is to deny his transformative ministry of solidarity with the poor, healings, exorcisms, and social reconciliation. Jesus’s ministry, along with his passion, serve as signposts as to what God will do for all of us as he redeems all of creation.
Small churches can be a part of this meaningful ministry. A pastoral ministry that faithfully reflects Jesus’s own ministry is what we are called to–nothing less, nothing more. A church of four, four hundred, or four thousand can be involved in incarnating the ministry of Jesus in their community.
Too many churches today are too busy “being the church” and trying to “do church better”. It’s truly a shame because churches that are always preparing for future ministry are missing out on serving God where they are at today. Let us not get so carried away with doing church that we forget to be the church, the hands and feet of God who listen to, love, and serve the poor and most vulnerable in our communities.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series developed in conjunction with the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit 2017.
Jonathan Hanegan has served as a missionary in South America since 2006, first serving in Caracas, Venezuela and now in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He studied missions and Spanish at Oklahoma Christian University and completed a master’s in Global Service at Abilene Christian University. Jonathan enjoys studying modern languages, Latin American theology, and the social sciences. He serves at the Redeemer Church of Christ (idcredentor.com) in Buenos Aires and helps coordinate the Latin American Theological Workshop. Jonathan also mentors missionary interns and exchange students interested in missions with the Latin American Missions Studies Program (buenosairesmission.com). He blogs at Taller Teológico Latinoamericano (tallerteologicolatinoamericano.org/jonathan).