God Works Through The Insignificant
According to various studies done in the last decade, the vast majority of congregations in the United States have forty or fewer people at their main service on Sunday morning. Although some congregations have grown by leaps and bounds, most surveys indicate that most congregations, regardless of denomination, have experienced a decline in numbers in the last few decades. All of this has caused much hand wringing in the church, especially amongst clergy and denominational authorities. In my own congregation, the overall membership has only declined slightly in the last decade, but average Sunday attendance has taken a more significant hit.
Because we live in a society that assumes that bigger is better, the decline in numbers can also affect a church’s sense of worth. I have noticed that people in very small churches often underestimate their value. That these smaller churches usually have minimal financial resources compared to the bigger churches makes them feel even less important.
Is it possible that the church’s decline in numbers and influence in this country is an opportunity for the church to recover a more authentic vocation? If we are truly honest with ourselves, a church that is faithful to the Gospel probably won’t be all that attractive to many. For example, a church that believes that we are called to love our enemies as Jesus commands us probably won’t find that to be a strategy for quantitative growth. A church that believes that we are called to love all our neighbors—no exceptions—will probably offend many. A church that believes we are called to forgive others—even 70 times 7—probably won’t win over the multitudes.
But for the few who do respond to this call, who as St. Paul says “are not ashamed of the Gospel (Rom. 1.16), what an opportunity to bear witness to an alternative way. Maybe we will find ourselves back in the earliest days of the church when a handful of committed disciples began a movement that changed the world. And not just a handful, but a handful of marginal people. Remember Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…” (1 Cor. 1:26-28a).
As we approach Christmas, let us never forget that God chose to save the world through a person that came from an insignificant family from an insignificant place. (Nazareth is never mentioned in any literary sources outside the Bible.) Maybe God can use even the smallest and most insignificant group of disciples to bring hope to the world now.