The first time a pastor ever made me cry out of frustration was when I was 18 years old and working as an intern at a megachurch. I proposed that I spend the summer focusing on about 10 middle school girls, intentionally developing relationships with them.
“Just 10?” the pastor responded, berating me for wasting his time on a small vision. He wanted to be wowed by numbers and metrics. He wanted not just a small group of girls to know Jesus more deeply but a revival where hundreds would be baptized.
This pastor, while I disagree with him, isn’t uniquely evil. He was simply influenced by ill-formed impulses in evangelicalism to grandiosity and efficiency. But we as a church need to rediscover the goodness of smallness and particularity. If we do not, we are in danger of trading depth for shallowness and discipleship for spectacle.
Arguably the most important institution in America today is the local church. And one of its most important and prophetic callings in our moment is to remain, characteristically, local—that is, committed to a particular people in a particular place.
Wendell Berry said that the things we “love tend to have proper names.” We cannot love the church or the world abstractly. Instead, when we preach and minister to others, we must learn to do so for people with proper names in a place with a proper name.
Jesus’ ministry is the ultimate example of embracing smallness and particularity. “The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God,” wrote former archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. “Our Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few or to the one man or woman.”
He continued: “Our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.”
When I read the Gospels, it seems that if Jesus wanted to quickly reach the masses with his message, he wasted a lot of time. Ramsey notes how, like us, Jesus lived in “a vast world, with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies.” Yet, he lived most of his life in obscurity, and even once his public ministry began, he spent the majority of his time with a small group of people or alone in prayer.
Though he did preach to large groups, from a strategic growth perspective—when one considers the amount of time Jesus spent sitting with a very few and not out healing, rebuking, preaching, teaching, or wowing the crowds with miracles—our Lord’s ministry seems positively inefficient.
One of the chief temptations of our digital age is to aim our ministry at those outside the church and to preach to those outside the sanctuary. I heard from one friend that their church began streaming online worship during the pandemic but now plans on offering it broadly for everyone for decades to come. The expressed reason for doing so? They discovered their services garnered a “national audience.”
But disciples are not usually formed in a mass “audience.” They must have proper names.
A sermon is an act of love, not punditry. Preaching flows, in part, from sitting across from a church member over coffee, from pastoral care and counseling, from hospital visitation, and from walking the streets of a particular city and neighborhood.
In general, discipleship is only possible if we know real people and their struggles, needs, and paths of growth. To seek a national platform is to subtly center church on a worship experience—which becomes a performance akin to a rock concert or a TED talk—as opposed to being an embodied local community, living life together, gathered around Word and sacrament.
The quiet, small, and slow work of local churches and pastors witnesses to a different way of being in a world that often embraces the loud, the big, and the efficient. This patient work follows Jesus in seeing and affirming the infinite worth of the one, whom he knows and calls by name.
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