As I mentioned in my book Prepare for Rain, I spent too much time early on in my ministry thinking, “If I were in a bigger town, church, etc., I could do great things for God.” One day, God spoke to my heart and radically changed my perspective: “I did a pretty big thing in a little town called Bethlehem.”
Because of the size and scope of the ministries of Sherwood, it would be easy to challenge that statement. But, you need perspective. The population of Albany has declined by over 20,000 since I first moved here in 1989. We’ve lost major plants and factories like Cooper Tire and Merck.
In addition, Albany is in the top 10 in identity theft in America. We are the fourth poorest city in America, yet we are called “The Good Life City.” Most folks have given up on that thought. A column in the local paper called The Squawkbox is a place where negative people vent, complain and throw stones while remaining anonymous. I am convinced 90 percent of those complaints are from a handful of people who have no life except to tear down others. Having that column on page two of the paper doesn’t help our image. It may sell papers, but it destroys a city.
Most of the churches in our area are declining or just swapping members. Eighty-eight percent of our tri-county region would be classified as lost and unchurched. Our community is dying spiritually and economically … yet I have hope. God is not done with this city.
In the midst of all this, we are expanding for the future. We are in the process of tearing down 50-year-old one story buildings to build state-of-the-art three story facilities for every generation. We are expanding our ministry to the hurting and homeless in the inner city. We sponsor church plants in San Francisco, Baltimore and Cleveland. We have taken the challenge of the International Mission Board to embrace an Unreached People Group and an Unreached Unengaged people group. We are building a strong home base (Jerusalem) so we can reach the uttermost parts of the earth.
I will not go silently into the night. I will not stand and pound the pulpit complaining about the darkness while we have an opportunity to turn on the light. Too many pastors and churches have given up, settling for status quo and wallowing in the pits of a defeat.
Nor will I assume that God can only do things in big ways. Yes, we are a “big” church by some standards. Yes, we are the largest Southern Baptist Church in this region. But God measures sort, not size.
I’m a member of several mega and large church organizations, but I do not believe that size is what God is looking for. You can have a crowd and never have a congregation. You can be 10 miles wide and one inch deep. I can watch some of the most successful churches on TV and rarely hear a definitive word about the Gospel. They have a crowd, but do they really have a church or just a group of positive thinkers?
It’s gotten to the point that we think God can’t bless anything under 1,000 people. We look to statistics and numbers as a sign of success. In some ways, they are. In other ways, they can deceive you.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a crowd. I love to see strong attendance at anything we do. However, I don’t buy the line of using “where two or three are gathered in His name” as a justification for a poor attendance at prayer meeting or visitation. It is possible to be more conscious of the absence of people than the presence of the Lord.
Sunday nights are a prime example. We still have Sunday night services. We average close to 700 on Sunday nights. It’s obviously not the same size crowd as Sunday morning. But I can say without reservation or hesitation that our greatest services in my 23 years as pastor have been on Sunday nights. It seems God lets us get through the Sunday morning service and waits for us on Sunday nights to meet with us. We see it over and over. The House of Prayer before our evening worship sets the stage for what happens when the worship service begins. We have more time, there seems to be more freedom.
Most importantly, those folks want to be there. I don’t have to beg them. They aren’t living the lie that Sunday night is family night when they’ve had other nights during the week to focus on family. As a side note, family night usually means every member of the family is doing their thing in separate rooms and they order pizza and share 15 minutes together at the dinner table.
Okay, I’ve digressed and chased that rabbit, now let me get back to the main purpose for this blog. Some of the greatest moments in the history of the people of God and the church have happened in small places and small meetings. Sometimes it only took one to see a move of God. Think of Abraham, Noah, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist. What if they had waited for the majority to catch on? They would have missed God.
What about Gideon? He was a nobody, but because He yielded to God we remember him even today. Gideon wouldn’t have been asked to speak at a church growth conference. He started out with 32,000 soldiers, which was nothing compared to what he was facing in the Midianites. God said, “Too many.”
Think about Pentecost — just 120 people started a worldwide evangelism and missions movement. Study the church planting of Paul and his small team. They moved in and revolutionized cities immersed in paganism. Think of Martin Luther, one man who stood against the established church and brought us back to “the just shall live by faith.”
Charles Spurgeon was saved in a meeting where you could have put everyone present on one pew. Think of the small start of the Wesleys. I can go on and on, but you get the point.