These 9 verses in our Bible are often titled, “The Call of Abram.” I’d like to take this opportunity to share a piece of my call to ministry story and some thoughts on our calling as a church.
The first church I belonged to was, I believe, a church God called me to, just as God calls you to this church. I was called to High St. Christian Church in Akron, Ohio where God knew my call to ministry would be cultivated. It was a medium-sized church. There were over 200 members between the 3 worship services it held. There were many elders and deacons. There were 4 ministers on staff. There was an organist and a 7 member praise band.
From the outside, you would think it was a successful church. But, that depends on how you define success. One of the worship services was growing; however, much of that growth could be attributed to members of another worship service changing rooms. There were plenty of new comers, but growth wasn’t all from the outside.
This added to the tension that had been going on for years. The church had once been well over 500 members. It was a downtown church with lawyers, judges, doctors, the well-educated, the elite of society. All their senior ministers over time had a doctorate degree. It was a 3-story building with one of the biggest organs I’ve ever heard played and one of the tallest steeples in town. And, all that had slowly changed.
As people left the cities for the suburbs, people stopped coming downtown for church. Their membership dwindled. The people who came downtown for church were not the upper echelon of society and giving dwindled. The formal traditional worship took the biggest hit and the worshippers felt their existence threatened as more and more people gathered in the fellowship hall for the contemporary worship service.
It is not the greatest of the church that cultivated my call to ministry. It was the fighting that led me to accept my call to ministry. The church was fighting between generations and between worship services for control of the church. They couldn’t work together because their interpretation of Scripture and their call to mission was different. Neither was right, or wrong, they were just different.
In my 2 short years there, I accepted the call to ministry, not because I thought the church was great. I accepted the call to ministry, because I knew the church could be greater than they were being. I knew the church was not acting like a church who could witness to their neighbors the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. I accepted my call to ministry because I no longer loved the church.
In seminary, I never settled in a church. I bounced around to hear my friends preach. Many Sundays I didn’t go, because I was regularly worshipping on Tuesdays with my faith community at seminary. I didn’t regularly attend Sunday morning worship services until my 3rd year in seminary when I accepted an internship.
My internship was at a medium-sized church in a suburb of Lexington. The church was only 50 years old with nearly 300 members. It had 2 worship services, lots of elders and deacons, lots of committees, lots of people. It took me a long time to learn everyone’s names and, after 9 months, I still didn’t know everyone.
This was the internship I had wanted since I got to seminary. It was the position of outreach minister. For 9 months, I would work with the local outreach committee steering their outreach work and connecting them with local agencies and ministries that served the needs of their neighbors. This is where I fell in love with the church again. Not because it was big, but because I was able to do outreach ministry, which I think is the most important work a church can do.
After seminary, I accepted the call to Litchfield, Il to a church with over 100 members, about 125. They had 12 elders and 24 deacons. They had 7 committees with 5 people each. I wasn’t happy there. I foolishly accepted a call to work with youth and committees when I wanted to be doing outreach. Like the church in Akron, they were inwardly focused on maintaining church programs. They were trying to hold onto their past of what had been as if it could once again be.
Finally, I accepted the call to Bethany, a little church, a church where I feel I belong. I love small church ministry. There are many great things about a small church.
There is a sense of family that cannot be cultivated in a larger church. I often hear you refer to one another as family, because you have been a part of each other’s lives for years, maybe even generations. It’s difficult to hide in a small church; you are forced into a sense of community. Visitors don’t easily escape without being introduced to most of the church and offered baked goods and a welcome bag. That’s what people are truly looking for, a place to belong.
Second, people in a small church have a greater opportunity to serve. With a small group, everyone can get involved. It is difficult to assume someone else is going to do it. We are challenged to use our spiritual gifts and step out of our comfort zones, because, if the ministry of the church is going to happen, we need an all hands on deck work ethic. This means everyone can get involved.
Third, we are forced to accept our diversity. Tolerance is required in a small church. We’re from in-town, the country, Dalton City, Sullivan, all over. That creates diversity. Some are retired; others work. We work in Bethany, Sullivan, Decatur, Mattoon, the farms. There are different levels of education. We’re conservative, moderate, and liberal. Some receive a good salary; others are struggling to get by. Some have little kids, grown kids, or no kids. We’re married, divorced, widowed, and single. All of us in this room make up the body of Christ in all its glorious diversity and it takes work to love each another because we’re all different.
Finally, we have opportunities that we wouldn’t have elsewhere. This is like the greater opportunities to serve, but a little different. We don’t have to accept the jobs we are most inclined to or the ones we think we have the gifts for. We can try to do things we’re not sure we can do.
This one is 2 fold for me. I am forced to be a generalist. I can’t focus on education and outreach. I need to have an understanding of the whole life of the church. It means I can be involved in all the ministries of the church, not just some of them. And, I have opportunities to lead that I wouldn’t have in a larger town. It means, I can be the president of the ministerial alliance.
We may get down, because we’re not sitting on top of each other and standing in the aisles on Sunday mornings. But, there are many great aspects of a small church. Sure, we’d like to be bigger and that’s a good goal. We can appreciate the benefits of being small. They will be true of us even when we reach 100 members. 80% of American churches are small like us and together we make up much of the work of ministry of the body of Christ.
It is all a matter of how we define success. Abram is known as a great man. God made a covenant with Abram that He would make his name great and he would be a blessing to the nations. Well, isn’t that true of what God has done for the church. The Church’s name is great around the world. And, our little church is known as a great church in town. Our neighbors know us for having nice people. We’re known for helping our community.
Christians find ourselves wrapped up in the covenant of Abraham. We are still bound to be a blessing to the nations as we live out our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We are called to leave what is comfortable in order to be that blessing to all. We can’t sit comfortably in our pews and worship God in the sanctuary alone. We are called to gather around tables for prayer and Bible study. We are called to serve our neighbors through the many ministries we already do and the ones we have planned. We have been chosen for great work that will bless all those around us.
We are called to be and share the Good News; it is not meant to be kept for ourselves. There’s a buzz word in the church currently. It is missional church. A missional church is at its core reaching outward. Outreach isn’t just a program or a committee. Outreach is a value that permeates everything the church is and does. A missional church is “not just about perpetuating itself, maintaining its own survival; it is about being a blessing to and for the world.”
God establishes the covenantal relationship with Abraham, not because he and his descendants can be useful. God makes the covenant and chooses Abraham, because God loves Abraham through generations to us. God loves us, not because we are useful; God loves us because that’s who God is and what God does. R.W.L. Moberly says…”Even if that love brings with it a call to serve, that service is a corollary to being loved, not the core of being loved. So…” Abraham, Israel, and we “are loved…prior to any impact for good that [we] may have on others.”