In March I attended a conference put on by a ministry called Small Town Summits, a partner of The Gospel Coalition New England. Throughout New England, they host one-day Summits and training sessions to provide encouragement, connection, and equipping for small-town pastors, laypeople, and churches.
That day I had the opportunity to meet pastors and laypeople from all across Rhode Island and Southern New England. The theme of the summit was “The Gift of Weakness in Ministry,” and over the course of three sessions we examined Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for wisdom, remembering that he boasted gladly in his weaknesses, for Saint Paul understood that his own weaknesses magnified the glory of God.
I came away from the summit feeling encouraged for a couple of reasons. First, seeing so many other faithful members of small churches across Rhode Island, all of whom are struggling with the same concerns and ministry challenges as we are, reminded me that we are not alone. In a church as small as ours, it is very easy to become discouraged in the work of ministry. In a small church, it is easy to feel as if you are alone, especially when you are not seeing the fruits of your labors brought forth in the ways you had once hoped. Yet, I was reminded that there are small churches all over the Ocean State who share the same passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our communities.
Second, I was reminded that although our churches may be small, we serve a big God. Speaking to the theme of the summit, it is easy to think of being a small church as a weakness. We equate faithfulness with church size; if we are small, then we must be inherently unfaithful in some way.
Then, when the reality of ministry does not align with the picture we have in our heads, be it church size, or location, or status, or reach, the temptation to resentment sets in. We end up viewing our circumstances as a burden, rather than looking for the opportunities for Gospel ministry to which God might be calling us.
I do not see small church size as a weakness, however. That is not to say it does not come with its own weaknesses and challenges. A small church will never match the resources, or manpower, or ministries which a large church is able to provide (and we are thankful for such large churches when they advance the Gospel). Though we may serve in small places, the God whom we serve is magnified when we are faithful in the midst of our weaknesses. This was the encouragement I received at last month’s summit: size is not indicative of faithfulness, and there are many other faithful, small churches across the region to prove it.
Being a small church, and having the challenges which accompany it, is not a weakness – it is simply the reality of ministry going forward into the 21st Century, especially in New England. We are trying to reach a culture that is totally un-catechized and increasingly hostile to the Gospel, all the while facing the realities of ministering to an aging demographic outside of the church facilities we once took for granted. Many smaller churches can no longer afford maintain their buildings. Many others can no longer pay (or find) full-time pastors, and bi-vocational ministry is becoming more and more normative. Realities which churches did not foresee a decade ago are upon the Church today, yet the many faithful men and women who I met last month are aware of this, and eager to go forth and joyfully spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is not season for discouragement, but season for hope, a season for optimism. We are not alone; we are accompanied by the Triune God and all the heavenly host, as well as all the angels and saints praying for us in heaven and working beside us here on earth. The harvest is ripe, brothers and sisters – what an exciting time to be a Christian! We know that many people today are hurting, and the only thing that can heal their wounds is the love of Christ.
I am reminded of how, after hearing Saint Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the thousands of converts responded:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”Acts 2:42, 47
“They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” As our Common Prayer tradition reminds us, the breaking of bread and praying are inseparable – “lex orandi, lex credendi,” as we affirm in the Anglican tradition – “the law of praying is the law of believing;” what we pray is what we believe! Indeed, just as God’s Grace bestowed to us in the Sacraments is efficacious no matter our church size, so too are our prayers no less efficacious because our congregations are small.
Yes, we are a small church, as are many others in the small state of Rhode Island. Yet the Apostles numbered only eleven on the Day of Pentecost, and God used them to spread the Gospel across the world. “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). For churches big and small, God’s plan of salvation works by changing one life at a time, one day at a time.
The Rev. Nathan Stomberg
The Reverend Nathan Stomberg is the Rector of Holy Communion Anglican Church. He has a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, works as a project manager, and is a loving husband and an avid distance runner.