An Unspoiled View: Following Jesus means learning to see truth behind the appearances. by Brandon O'Brien
Monday, December 27, 2010)
In September 1540, Spanish conquistador Garcia López de Cárdenas and a handful of comrades happened upon something no other European had ever seen before: the Grand Canyon. It's difficult to imagine what they must have felt. López didn't keep a journal. We only know that he hurried back from the edge of that chasm as soon as he saw it, gripped with "awe that was almost painful to behold."
Novelist Walker Percy believed that López was not only the first European to see the Canyon. He was nearly the last to see it as it truly is, the last to see it for himself. This is because the explorer—tired and thirsty after a 20-day march across the Colorado Plateau—stumbled upon the gorge with no expectations. He was just trudging along, and there it was.
As for the rest of us, our experience of the Grand Canyon is largely determined by our expectations. Popular culture has immortalized the iconic road trip out West, which invariably includes a stop by the great gorge (think National Lampoon's Vacation). Even if we've never seen it ourselves, we've seen enough movies, postcards, textbook photos, and television specials that we have a pretty good idea what it looks like.
As a result, all of us after López come anticipating the Grand Canyon experience as it is defined by the experts—the filmmakers and postcard photographers. We predetermine whether we will like it. The way we rate our encounter is based, in large part, on how well it conforms to the expectations we already have. Percy puts it this way: "If it looks just like the postcard, [the sightseer] is pleased; he might even say, 'Why, it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!' He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be."
Many ministers have surrendered their judgment about what constitutes "the authentic church experience" to expectations shaped by experts. These experts write books, speak at conferences, and typically lead large and influential congregations. Because of their success, we imagine them to be great pioneers who are part of something we have never seen—the "real" church experience. Over time, the experts have done for church what postcards and PBS specials have done for the Grand Canyon: they've made it difficult for us to appreciate our own experience apart from theirs. We have lost the ability to see and experience and appreciate ministry for ourselves. All we can see is the disparity between what our churches are and what they are "supposed" to be.
Ambitions and Revisions
I began my ministry career at the tender age of 20 (it seemed like a good idea at the time). When I accepted my first post as pastor, I was entirely seduced by the experts' description of ministry success. The arc goes something like this: at some point in your life you sense a clear call from God to enter the ministry. It makes a better story if this happens after years of success in a lucrative secular career or a period of profound and sinful rebellion. After some sort of preparation—whether in seminary or careful perusal of church planting materials—you take a position in a small church. Over the next several years, your ministry grows. You see people reconcile with God; lives are changed. You feel confident you are squarely within God's will. You've found your calling. You may move from church to church—usually to increasingly larger, more vibrant congregations—or your church plant grows rapidly. Soon your peers recognize your success and a publisher asks you to write a book about your story. You share it at conferences. You have arrived.
I was confident that this story would someday be mine. I came by the fantasy honestly. After all, I grew up in a congregation that exemplified it. It was small when we joined, but by the time I left for college, our youth group was larger than most churches.
So when I took my first pastorate in a small church in the middle of nowhere, I had a big vision for that rural congregation of 15 or so. I assumed it needed to grow exponentially, as my home church had. I assumed that it needed everything that made my home church grow—midweek programs, professional musicians, a dynamic youth ministry. Never mind that the church didn't have enough members to run programs, any money, or any youth. I had read the experts. It was fortunate for them I came when I did. I was God's man, I thought, to lead Anchor Baptist Church to the "real" church experience.
But something happened there that I hadn't expected. First, the congregation helped me recognize that the small church is fully equipped to carry out the mission of God in the world. They didn't need me to put them on course. They didn't need to be more staffed or better resourced in order to effectively disciple the current members or to make a significant impact in the surrounding community. Everything the church needed, it had been given by God. I began to recognize potential and strengths where the experts had trained me to see limitations and liabilities. In fact, I began to believe that the smaller church is actually uniquely equipped to meet the particular ministry challenges of the twenty-first century.
The good news is, most churches are small churches. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 94 percent of churches in America have 500 attendees or fewer each week. Only 6 percent—19,000 churches—have more than 500 attendees. Megachurches (regular attendance over 2,000) make up less than one half of one percent of churches in America. The narrative of success may be the one people write books about, but it is not the typical one. We have allowed the ministry experience of 6 percent of pastors to become the standard by which the remaining 94 percent of us judge ourselves.
An important part of following Jesus is learning to see the truth of things behind appearances. In Christ, the foolish things of the world confound the wise; in Christ the powerless supplant the powerful; in Christ, the eternal purposes of God were fulfilled in the death of the Messiah. If our ministries are to reflect the values of Jesus, we should be skeptical when we are more "successful" than Jesus was.
Of all Jesus' parables, the one that may be most valuable for disciplining our understanding of ministry success is the story of the mustard seed.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed," Jesus explains, "which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches" (Matt.13:31-32). The obscure, the small, the insufficient—such are the means God uses to bring about his kingdom. These are words of life for the small church pastor and any Christian longing to see the results of his or her obedience. Though at first and on the surface, the work of God appears insignificant and inconsequential, it mysteriously yields a harvest of abundance.
We need to let Scripture retrain our imaginations. To see the small church as God sees it.
In fact, it appears that what God delights in most are the tiny efforts that yield results that only he can take the credit for. Christ's starting lineup was a band of fearful, unqualified disciples. With all of creation at his disposal, he chooses to mediate his message of Good News through a community he calls the church. That church—your church and my church—such as it is, is his mustard seed.
Please do not misunderstand me: I don't mean to say that God is not delighted by large churches or that their ministries are somehow less faithful than those of smaller churches. But in larger churches, ministry impact is easy to see because it shows up in ways we are accustomed to measuring success. I only mean that the parable of the mustard seed should encourage us that we can be part of a mighty work of God even when the results of our labor are not readily visible. God is not limited by our size, resources, or qualifications.
When we forget the principle of the mustard seed, we risk seeing the church through others' expectations. We view the small church not as God's mustard seed, but as an obstacle to be overcome. We then rely on our vision to bring about the success we desire. We need to let Scripture retrain our imaginations. To see the small church as God sees it. To learn to see things as they are, not as we imagine they are "supposed" to be.
Walker Percy used his illustration about the Grand Canyon to describe the role of the educator. The teacher's job is to help people see for themselves—to engage the world afresh. The single greatest problem with small churches is perception. Low attendance, small budgets, and limited staff are not, in and of themselves, problematic. What is problematic are the insecurities and defensiveness that result when we fail to live up to expectations of success established by a relative handful of churches.
As a dear friend and mentor of mine likes to say, you can do two things with expectations. You can meet them. Or you can change them. I say we change them. We can help our people learn to see for themselves. Or more precisely, to see the church and the world as Jesus sees it. And that means valuing the mustard seed and viewing the church as if we are the first people ever to see it.
Brandon O'Brien is associate editor of Leadership and author of The Strategically Small Church (Bethany House, 2010)
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.