It can be frustrating to do ministry in a small town setting since we know the numbers. We know that, despite what Gallup (and others) has previously reported, that the vast majority of US-Americans do not attend Church. The Halo-Effect (the tendency of people to exaggerate socially desirable behaviors such as church attendance and understate socially undesirable behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol consumption) has probably led more people to state that they regularly attend church. For those of us in small towns, it may be fairly simple to determine the percentage of people in our community who are attending worship.
I serve two small towns and a quick, non-scientific, calculation reveals anorexic numbers. In one town, my guestimate calculation leads me to believe that about 25% of our population attends one of the churches in our village limits. In the other, the same guestimate registers around 23%. If you’re in a small town, what is your educated-guestimate? What do these numbers suggest to us? To me, it shows what a vast mission-field there is even in small towns and rural communities. These numbers make me passionate about spreading the Gospel message all over again. So what is stopping those of us in small towns from growing? Simply put, change is hard.
It’s hard when one serves an established congregation that in many ways, operates the same way that it did 50 years ago. Why does it look the same? Often, despite our best efforts to do good ministry, change or anything “new” is not accepted easily. It’s hard when one is attempting to start a new ministry from scratch in a small town. Why? Despite the passion and good intentions, change or anything “new” is met with relative suspicion.
Yep, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. But I’ve been being challenged lately to think of this opposition as a great opportunity. In Luke 4, the people of Nazareth (a small, of no-account town) rejected Jesus’ teaching in the temple. I wonder if his teaching challenged their assumptions about God, about their lives, if their sense of normalcy was being shaken?
And what about in Jerusalem? Jesus comes in to town doing something completely new! (Check out Matthew’s Account) He comes riding in to Jerusalem to his own little parade, with some of the people exclaiming him as “Son of David” and “Blessed”. This can’t possibly look good to the institution. Then he goes in to the temple where the religious authority have created a smooth-running flow of income for the temple. Jesus takes exception to this and turns over the tables and reminds them of what the temple was to be used for in the first place. I’m sure this didn’t go over well with the established order, either. Matthew says that after they saw the parade and the scene he caused in the temple that “they were indignant”. The rest of Matthew 21-25 is devoted to this sort of back and forth between Jesus and the establishment. What was he modeling? What was he teaching? CHANGE! A change that would really bring people in to the Kingdom of God. It was a hard pill for them to swallow…they didn’t feel they needed anything new or a change.
Matthew 26 begins this way, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest…and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.” They, quite literally, were deathly opposed to this new change Jesus was bringing about. Opposed to the point that their plan was to kill him so that he would be forgotten. We know that this did not happen, however. Their opposition, their resistance….his death and resurrection brought about the greatest movement the world has ever known. It’s the movement that changed my life and yours. It’s the movement of God in the world that we have decided to be engaged with in ministry. The Church was spawned because of this.
So here’s my encouragement to my fellow small-town pastors and church leaders. I know it’s rough out there and change is hard and not received well all the time. While I’m certainly not saying that any of us are on par with Jesus, I want to suggest that we follow his lead. He led from his passion, his relationship with his Father and brought about change. Not change simply for the sake of change, but change that could transform the world (and it has and will continue to do so). Lead from your own relationship with God, from your passion in ministry and keep following after Jesus. When change is necessary (and there are some practicalities for leading change or starting something new; but that’s a different blog), work at it lovingly. Who knows, God may take your passion and leadership and do something magnificent! I know it can be terribly hard, I know it can be frustrating….but I’m counting on God to make something beautiful out of it all!