Not Despising Small Things: The Slow and Subversive work of Church Revitalization

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At the end of August, the IMAGINE Bay Area and FirstPres Hayward staff team spent 6 days reflecting, praying, planning, and preparing for a new year of ministry. Some of that time was spent looking back- celebrating all that God had done in this past year. And some of that time was spent praying and listening- discerning what God might be saying to us about our calling and ministry in the coming year.

Through several different moments of prayer, I felt God speaking to me about a similar theme in a couple different ways.

First, as I was reflecting on a potential “theme Scripture” for the ministry of Bethel Community- the church that Michael and I are now leading- in the coming year, I was reminded of the parable of the mustard seed. Doing some research on the significance of the mustard seed, I was struck by the ways that when mustard seeds grow, that they become an invasive force- something that grows slowly but can take over a space in unexpected ways. And I learned about the ways that this parable had political and social implications, highlighting ways that the kingdom of God stood in contrast to the ways of the Roman Empire. The kingdom of God may have small beginnings, but ends up becoming a pesky, subversive, and unavoidable force that challenges the size, force, and domination of Empire.

The next day, when we were spending some additional time in prayer and reflection, our staff team went to the Hayward Japanese garden. Spending some time there made me curious about the difference between Japanese gardens and typical Western gardens, so I did some googling and learned that one of the main differences between the two is that Western gardens primarily exist to optimize visual appeal and highlight physical beauty, while Japanese gardens are focused on conveying spiritual and philosophical ideas through garden elements. What’s most important is not how big or attractive something appears at first glance, but on the depth, intention, and meaning behind what you see.

Hayward Japanese Garden

Hayward Japanese Garden

As somebody who has now been leading a church revitalization effort at Bethel Community church in San Leandro for about 4 months now, I’ve been reflecting on these two themes as they relate to our work.

The church that Michael and I are currently pastoring, by most popular external metrics, is not very noticeable or attractive. We have about 15–20 people on any given Sunday, and most of them are 60 years or older. Our building is old and has a lot of both structural and aesthetic issues that need to get worked out. We don’t have a functional website yet or any consistent social media presence. Our powerpoint slides on Sundays are simple black and white slides. The sign for our church that stands curbside still needs to be re-painted and updated. There is nothing sexy about what our ministry currently.

As one of the leaders of this community, and as a 3 on the Enneagram, I have been tempted at times, to compare our situation to the other church plants or popular ministries that are emerging around us, and feel a bit sheepish about what’s “attractive” about their communities. Their hip and sleekly designed websites. A strong and consistent social media presence. Good looking and well-dressed pastors. Well-edited videos and cool swag. Free, artisanal snacks and third-wave coffee during services. Kids ministry with lots of “fun” activities.

Being immersed in this culture of church, it’s hard not to get caught up on building a big, sexy, and attractive ministry that provides people with a nicely packaged “product” that can be easily consumed. But I know that is not what we have been called to. And I know that’s not the type of ministry we want to build. We don’t want our church to be measured by the same markers that drive our consumeristic and capitalistic culture. We want to be marked by kingdom values.

Through our staff Vision week, God was speaking to me and challenging me to remember what’s truly important for us.

I was reminded not to despise the small things, because even the smallest of seeds can become powerful and subversive forces that, over time, can come to impact many others.

I was reminded not to rush growth, remembering that just like carrying a baby to full-term, many things in nature require a lot of time, energy, and space for cultivation and lasting growth.

I was reminded that it’s easy to manufacture fruit that is mass-produced, but much harder to cultivate true, organic fruit that sustains and multiplies for generations to come.

I was reminded not to focus merely on what we “look like” externally, but to focus on depth internally, and to prioritize substance over appearance.

I was reminded that true “diversity” is not just photos of smiling people from different races on websites and brochures, but is actually the slow, painful, and often awkward work of helping people learn how to love when it’s not easy.

And I was reminded that my role as a pastor is not to focus on creating a marketable product for the masses to consume, but upon truly loving and walking with people- whether it’s 10 or 100 of them- through a lifelong process of discipleship that might not bear any visible fruit for a long time.

My hope and prayer, as Michael and I continue to lead at Bethel Community, is that we would pursue faithfulness over fruitfulness, and be part of the miracle of the subversive growth that happens in the kingdom of God. We want to commit ourselves to loving unconditionally- no matter who is in the room. We want to commit ourselves to trusting in God’s timing, centering people on Jesus, and following the Spirit’s movements. And as we do so, we want to be undeterred by small beginnings, believing that even the smallest of mustard seeds can a disruptive force that becomes the largest of trees that become a home for others.

May we continue to see God move in surprising and upside-down ways. And may we be faithful enough to keep planting the small, humble, seeds of the kingdom, even if we can’t control what the end result looks like.

What an adventure. What an honor. What a gift.