Reimagining Church: Embrace Small

Reimagining Church: Embrace Small

Posted 03/18/2024
Moses Chung, Chris Meehan

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series on the missional church based on their book, Joining Jesus, by Moses Chung and Chris Meehan.

At a conference several months ago, I (Moses) met pastor Andrew Yi and Sunna, his wife. They invited me to preach at an anniversary celebration for their church in Seattle. While riding with them to a restaurant, I mentioned the book Joining Jesus: Ordinary People at the Edges of the Church, which Chris and I wrote. I described our book as the story of people in the Christian Reformed Church who are flying under the radar but faithfully following the Spirit for the long haul. I told them about the three takeaway words that stand out for me in how I see the Holy Spirit working: small, slow, and patient. Sunna immediately replied, “That's my husband!”

She explained that’s how she sees Andrew and their church: nothing flashy, just steady and calm. Their ministry is small, and they have sought to embrace that. They have labored for many years in the shadow of larger and seemingly more successful ministries, and sometimes they have felt as if they were doing something wrong. But hearing those three words from me seemed to affirm who they are and what they have done. Although their church remains fairly small, they work humbly to open their hearts and those of their congregation to the ongoing grace, goodness, and stability that comes from following the Spirit.

In the past year I have often been surprised by people’s strong responses to “small, slow, and patient.” They have shared how those words helped them feel seen, acknowledged, and supported. They feel a sense of relief, and perhaps hear the Holy Spirit whisper, “Don’t worry about the smallness of numbers in your church. You have been faithful with little.”

To be honest, there was a time when I believed the size of my church, the reach of my preaching, and the growth of my ministry were what defined my success. But I now know God doesn’t judge us by the number of people we have in the pews on Sunday or the size of the crowd that might hear me speak somewhere.

About 20 years ago, when I was working on my doctorate at Fuller Seminary, I had what I see today as a turnaround, a conversion in my thinking. In my studies there and through my professors and the people I met, as well as through my own introspection and reflection, I began to see how what I thought and believed about what it meant to succeed in church life was a lie. Wanting to be big without the leading and loving presence of the Holy Spirit is a kind of sickness, an addiction that can lead to ruin. Not that big is bad; rather, only by God’s gracious guidance can I be the leader—the Christian—that I am meant to be. Like Sunna Yi, I fully realize today the value of appreciating and going deep in what I have. Embracing “small” is key.

What does embracing “small” mean when it comes to church? I think of Matthew 17:20, where Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Inspired by Jesus, I’m speaking about a mustard-seed type of faith.

We need to recognize and resist believing in and idolizing a culture that glorifies and defines success with big numbers. That means, as church leaders and members, we must shift our mindset about the definition of success. It is not about having big numbers, but being faithful with whatever we have been given by our Lord. As we renounce the lies of our culture, which worships bigger and faster results, we embrace one person, one neighbor, one family—whatever “small” ministry God has placed in front of us—with gratitude and joy. Especially in a time of doctrinal and cultural clashes, we must tell each other that we are OK as a small church—or any size church—as long as we can say we are doing what we can with what God gave us. No matter how big or small we are, God’s Spirit is working through us.

The truth is, we are simply ordinary humans who spend most of our time just making it from day to day. We forget that doing anything worthwhile in our everyday life often requires patience and involves taking small steps. This is also how the kingdom of Jesus comes near. This is how a ministry in God’s kingdom, even one facing decline or stagnation, can grow like a mustard seed. We plant; God grows. We water; God warms the land with the sun. The seed sprouts. We have a new life!

A Small and Sacred Saga in North Philadelphia

In our book, we tell the story of Manny Ortiz and Sue Baker. They never dreamed of building a megachurch in Philadelphia. They had a completely different imagination. They knew the secret of God’s kingdom was found in a different journey far from the North American build-it-faster, make-it-bigger mindset. It was the mustard-seed secret of God’s kingdom that Jesus spoke about.

Baker and Ortiz embraced one person at a time on the streets of North Philly, starting with youth in the neighborhood who had nothing to do after school but watch TV or learn the gang culture of the barrios. They began spending time with these young people, which led to starting a youth group with friends of their own children. These youth brought their younger siblings, so Baker and Ortiz started after-school programs for young children. Then parents began showing up, and those new friendships led them to start a church.

Over the past 27 years, their church, Spirit and Truth Fellowship (a Christian Reformed congregation), has partnered with so many ordinary people of faith, all from this one small neighborhood. Baker and Ortiz planted several new congregations in nearby neighborhoods and established a Christian school with neighborhood children that now has a long waiting list, a legal clinic for lower-income neighbors, and the Esperanza Health Clinic, which treats hundreds of patients every day. They’ve also started a bike shop, an art school, a music studio, and a vocational high school—all for the residents of North Philly, one of the economically poorest neighborhoods in America. This is how the seeds of God’s kingdom grow and birth new life! Baker and Ortiz did not start their church with a vision of building something big; rather, one thing led to another, and it all became something beautiful beyond their dreams. They embraced small; God took their humble, faithful offering and brought God’s kingdom right onto their doorstep (Luke 10:9, The Message).

Thinking Small in British Columbia

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, members at The Well Church in Kelowna, B.C., wondered if they could keep going. Numbers of those attending the Christian Reformed congregation had dwindled, and they had lost the space where they met for worship.

When The Well began as a church plant before the pandemic, they had high hopes of becoming a congregation that offered attractive programs and ministries. Their goal was to become a beacon of grace for people living in their community. But, like many churches, they were battered by the headwinds of a swiftly changing culture. They were depleted and confused. Without the bells and whistles people have come to expect from a church, they wondered, would church matter?

But a light went on after participating in the Innovation Experiment Grant Program facilitated by Resonate Global Mission in 2023. Jenn Burnett, The Well’s pastor, and John Gerrits, a church leader, came to the program fearing for the future of their church. However, in designing and experimenting, their project opened their eyes to the opportunities they already had. They began to believe they could take a few small steps forward in saving and stabilizing their church by starting where they were instead of where they wanted to be.

As 2023 came to a close, leaders at The Well were putting the final touches on an action plan. They were reformulating themselves and their approach to church. They thought hard about the connections they had already made by offering an English as a Second Language program to a group of Syrian refugee neighbors. Setting aside tried and traditional ways of doing church, they decided to move toward developing a “dinner church” that will gather folks for a weekly meal. It will be a time of feasting, of course, but more than that too. Folks from the church and Syrian families from the neighborhood will break into small groups to talk and pray about many matters, especially how they think about and relate to God. They will build friendships. “Each week, church members will gather over a meal and delve into a menu of theological topics,” Gerrits said. “But once a month, this meal will be deliberately crafted as a bridge for building community and friendship with the unchurched and people of other faith backgrounds.”

It will cost money to buy food and rent a space. The small steps the congregation will take will be uncertain. And there will be questions: Is this new land into which they are moving worth the effort? What will happen? Can The Well become a place for everyone without the trappings of what so many have traditionally seen and believed to be church? Will worship reform itself over dinner tables? Will the meals be the communion they all need? Can The Well, in fact, become the beacon it has always sought to become—but in a way different from what they expected?

Inspired by the Mustard Seed

Until earlier this year, I (Chris) worked as an associate pastor under Rev. Jerome Burton, a Black leader who grew up during the Civil Rights era in Selma, Ala., and served for more than 30 years as the pastor of Coit Community Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. I respected him, learned a great deal from him, and came to care deeply for him. Tragically, he died of lung disease in July 2023 after spending more than 40 days in the intensive care unit at a local hospital.

One of the last things Burton did before he went into the hospital was to fulfill a long-held desire to find another Black man to succeed him in the pulpit. In the weeks following his death, many of us in the church were gripped by grief. Our new pastor did his best, working diligently and with great energy to lead us forward.

A couple of months into our new journey, the pastor asked me to preach. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my sermon should be on what Jesus had to say about mustard seeds in Matthew 17. After all, I thought, churches grow and die, they change and transform, and they can reach a crossroads. Small as we were, we were at a crossroads. We were at a time of new planting.

I believe the sermon summarizes what Moses and I are trying to express—a new way forward for the church. From the pulpit in our tiny church, this is essentially what I said to the 20 or so people spread out in chairs in our sanctuary:

Despite our grief and our sense that things aren’t working out as we might want, Jesus reminds us that having faith is essential. Even faith as small as a mustard seed can move formidable obstacles. Like so many churches these days, we are unsure if we can go on. Even though we have a new leader, a powerful preacher, we might still wonder what’s the use when we look around and see empty seats. With Jerome gone, what do we do? The days ahead might seem cloudy and gray. But Christ told us that if we have faith, we must put it to use and hug tightly to hope in the face of sorrow and uncertainty.

Like so many churches, we might feel stuck and wonder if maybe we need to undertake some large, all-encompassing program to survive. Maybe we need to shake things up in a major way. Maybe we should do something big! But instead, we need to remind ourselves that Christ tells us to stay humble, to stay who we are. The key for us is to let the Spirit lead us through troubled times. Take small steps. Plant new seeds.

We can embrace this truth: Living deeply into who we already are is how God’s kingdom comes near. This is when we can hear the Spirit whisper words of encouragement, telling us that what we want is already here; it has already come. Living deeply into who we are helps us realize that Jesus brought God’s kingdom, a new world of justice and joy, to us all. He gave us the good news. He brought us all together. This is the ineffable reality: Christ ushered in a new history. He brought the kingdom close. And knowing this as the truth gives us the solid ground on which to stand to spread a few small seeds that, through the sunshine of God’s radical grace, can sprout into plants of many colors and more opportunities that we can yet imagine.

And we will know in our souls—deep down in our souls—that embracing small is what God wants us to do.

Discussion Questions

  1. When you think of a “successful” church, what image first comes to your mind? Describe it.
  2. What might be some of the advantages or benefits of a small church?
  3. How might we shift our mindset about defining success in our church ministries? If not numbers, what other metric might we use to measure success?
  4. “Living deeply into who we already are is how God’s kingdom comes near.” How might your church live deeply into who your church members, by God’s grace, already are?