According to the National Congregations Study, the average church in America has a regular Sunday morning attendance of 75 people. Small churches continue to be the norm, though the larger mega-churches get all the notice. This is particularly true in the large rural areas of our country.
A church with 75 people in attendance on Sunday morning would be considered a large congregation where I was born and raised. My mother, for example, currently attends New Life Church of God in Christ in Idlewild, MI. The pastor of this small rural church lives in Benton Harbor, MI and for the past 10 years has traveled 163 miles one way every Sunday to preach to 20-25 people (on a good Sunday), who are mostly older women. This seems outrageous to most of us. And I would have to admit, that my commitment would be called into question if I had to endure such circumstances in order to preach and pastor. And yet, when I was a young boy growing up in that community, this was not the exception, but the norm.
Of the three pastors I remember pastoring our church, only one actually lived in the community. After he died, the next two pastors traveled good distances every week to preach and lead our church on Sunday morning, and often Wednesday evenings. Like most of the pastors in our community, these black men were bi-vocational. They lived and worked in the factories and industries of the city and yet would joyfully take up their pastoral callings on the weekend. Traveling those great distances often through rain and snow with little pay, and hoping someone shows can be tiresome and discouraging. Yet, they did it for the sake of Christ, his church, and his people.
As a church planter for over 6 years now, I often need to be reminded that a big church in this world does not correlate to the best seat in the kingdom of God. In fact, if we understand Jesus correctly, the faithful with the least in this world will be those with the most in the world to come (Mt. 19:30).
Therefore, when the ministry gets difficult and tiring for me — when I find the valleys seemingly outnumbering the peaks it helps to reflect upon those faithful men of God of my youth — men whose names are not in history books, or spoken about with great respect for their charismatic presence and lofty sermons. They didn’t lead any great social movement or prominent denomination. You can’t YouTube their sermons or read them in preaching anthologies. They won’t be quoted in preaching classrooms. And yet week in and week out they stood before God’s people and proclaimed God’s word as best they could. And as a testament to them most of those churches, still small, are yet still standing.
When I think about them, I am challenged and encouraged by their passion. These men had passion for the ministry. They loved the idea that God had called them to preach and care for his people (1 Tim. 1:12). The ministry was hard, but it was also joy-filled and they embraced all aspects of it. They had passion for preaching. They believed that God had called them to preach, first and foremost, and like Jeremiah, it was shut up in their bones (Jer. 20:9). If they had to travel great distances to do it every week they would. They had a passion for the church of Jesus Christ. Like any pastor they desired to see the church grow. They traveled those great distances not because they wanted the church to die, but because they wanted it to live and thrive. They loved the church even in its most humble and obscure expressions. They had a passion for Jesus Christ. These men did not have the finest education. In fact, I feel confident in saying that none that I knew even went to seminary. But one thing you can be sure of, they believed in preaching Jesus. They were not going to write a systematic theology, but when it came to pointing people to Jesus in simplicity and clarity they took no back seat.
Admittedly, these men were not perfect. The trappings of small ministries are the same as the large ones. The temptations of money, sex, power, and pride do not discriminate based on the size of your congregation. And yet, while some fell at various times in various ways, most held the line and even today serve to remind us of the blessed words of our Lord and Master we all would delight to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:23).
“Faithful over little…” These are marvelous words to hear. And according to the National Congregations Study, this is the portion of most who pastor and minister in the church today. If this is your lot, may you receive it with joy knowing that your Lord and Master will delight to reward you one day – not because others knew your name but because you faithfully proclaimed His.