Where Two or Three Are Gathered
by Dave Slabach
This article is currently featured in the Expectant issue of Daughters of Promise. Click here to order a personal copy.
Although we are separated in time from Jesus’ disciples by 2,000 years, our human nature has remarkably similar desires. We want our significance to be noticed by others; we want to belong to something bigger and grander than ourselves; and we want to be served rather than serve.
Pastoring a small congregation has required me to wrestle with these all too common desires. My struggle is not unique, but I have found new ways of thinking about my situation that have revitalized my ministry.
Embracing my sense of call
Essential to finding contentment in pastoring this small congregation has been a genuine sense of God’s call. Truly these “sheep” are His “sheep”, not mine. I am an under-shepherd who is charged to love and serve them sacrificially, to nurture, protect, correct, and build them up for His glory.
In moments of wishful thinking, every pastor desires a large church with every pew filled with parishioners eager to use their gifts. The reality for many small pastorates is a church where the number of pews exceeds the number of attendees and the pastor by necessity wears many hats to carry out even a minimal program.
The firm conviction that God has given this assignment enables me to foster a positive attitude and to labor faithfully with innumerable odds. No longer is the success of my ministry measured in terms of membership size, attendance, or even flurries of activity. Rather, experiencing God’s grace to keep on moving forward, witnessing spiritual growth in individuals, and developing deep loving relationships with those I am serving provide a new perspective of successful ministry.
Focusing on what I have
I have no problem enumerating what my church does not have. It is more challenging to identify and thank God for what my congregation does have. Especially of value to my sense of equilibrium is the practice of celebrating opportunities that are unique to my small congregation. Observing a Passover meal together in the home of a member, transporting the entire congregation to a small island by pontoon boat for a worship service, and working together on a church work day are congregational activities that are uniquely suited to a smaller body of believers.
Our God specializes in accomplishing big things with the most unlikely, small things dedicated to Him. Often, I have succumbed to Satan’s temptation to be discouraged and fearful because my little boat is taking on water with no help in sight. In these dark times, I have learned to assess and thank God for what I have, then pray for what I lack. This practice has opened my eyes and filled my hands for accomplishing great things for the Kingdom.
Staying connected to the big picture
When Jesus said He would build His church and hell would not prevail, He was not identifying any denomination or size of church. It is important to connect with believers outside my little huddle to experience the encouragement and instruction of the Word. When week after week I am engrossed in preaching or teaching in my small corner of the Kingdom, my spirit craves the rejuvenation that comes from worshipping with a larger group of believers. Not only is the rest enjoyable, but the experience of being fed spiritually is a powerful anecdote for ministry exhaustion and discouragement. Staying connected to the big picture – the Body of Christ – is essential for my guarding against becoming consumed by the demands of ministry.
Doing a few things well rather than a myriad of things with mediocrity
Pastoring a small congregation well requires prioritizing the different programs of the church and choosing a few things that we can do well. To attempt to compare and emulate the exciting and stimulating programs that a larger church offers guarantees two outcomes: burn out and mediocrity.
A few ever so committed disciples cannot expend the same collective number of hours of time, nor have access to the budget of that larger group. To drive my congregation to copy the vision of another group is to deplete them of spiritual energy and the courage to embrace the ministry God has called us to fulfill in our part of the vineyard.
Rather, I remind them that God has called our place of service for such a time as this. Together we must discern what God is asking us to be and do, and then commit our time, talents, and treasure to that end. Energized by a renewed sense of purpose and direction, any small congregation will see far more spiritual fruit from its limited program than from an exhausted effort to limp along copying larger congregations.
Developing gifts of members
It is easy to be enamored with the ministry of the full-time staff of larger churches. Often small congregations feel inferior and therefore accept a lower standard of quality for their performance as being par for the course. We tend to forget that the spiritual gifts are assigned and empowered by the Spirit.
Helping members identify and sacrificially use their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the brotherhood is vitally important. Of necessity, smaller churches tend to expect more participation and provide opportunities for individuals to take responsibility for an activity or ministry. Consequently, their members often are more experienced in manifesting their spiritual gifts than their counterparts in a larger congregation. Often, I need to simply ask big things of people. Creating a sense of expectation and responsibility can help individuals overcome obstacles, such as personal pride (possibility of failure), low self-esteem, faulty priorities, laziness, or over-commitment.
People normally rise to the expectations of their leaders. Communicating an expectation of sincere effort on their part and acknowledging progress in development and expression of their spiritual gifts are critical for the spiritual health of my congregation.
Capitalizing on the unique opportunities for ministry presented by small congregations
Unity of spirit and purpose is particularly important for the spiritual health of a small congregation. An important way to foster such unity is to provide teamwork and fellowship. Many large churches organize their members into small fellowship groups – for Bible study, prayer, and service projects. Just as these small groups can accomplish goals that are not as easily attained by the entire church, so a small congregation can experience a level of interpersonal relations and the sharing of struggles and victories not easily found in a large church.
As relationships grow, it becomes easier to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. No one is easily overlooked or falls between the cracks. When someone is absent, everyone knows, and many can show concern and care for individuals in time of need or loss.
There are ministries that a small congregation simply does not have the personnel nor resources to undertake. Rather than recounting these impracticalities, our congregation responds well to identifying and rallying to a ministry better suited to our size: Singing at a retirement home, having a service in the home of a shut-in, and hosting a holiday dinner for widows in our area allow us to minister together.
Neither the size of the church building nor the roll of members is an accurate indication of spiritual health. While we pray for a bountiful harvest of souls from the lost world about us, our kingdom responsibility is to faithfully demonstrate the holiness and love of God, regardless of the public response. Just as the Lord added to the early church those who were being saved, He continues to do so today. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, we must be willing to be planters and waterers and allow God to give the increase. Each one of us will receive his own reward according to his own labor. (1 Cor. 3:6-8 NKJV)
Jesus’ commendation on the day of judgement will not be “Well done, good and successful servant,” but rather, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21 NKJV) Many Old Testament prophets had small congregations and labored without numerical growth, yet God faithfully used them in His plan for the ages.
As I think of Jesus and His disciples, I notice some similarity. We are small in number; so were His disciples. We are spread thin; so were His disciples. We have people come and people go; as did His followers. Sometimes we lack commitment and willingness to assume responsibility; so, it was with His disciples. Despite these ills, I rejoice as I see God at work in the lives of these sheep.
To be small in number is not to be obscure, forgotten, or weak. Jesus has promised His presence and power to every gathering of true believers - even those with two or three.
Dave is a bi-vocational pastor in southern Virginia. He is the husband of one wife and the father of six adult children. His house remodeling business, Solid Rock Construction, provides opportunities to share his faith as he serves customers in the area, many of whom are elderly. Dave's passion is to faithfully labor in God’s vineyard until he has nothing left to give.