In our culture, success means more: more people, more money, more fame, more comfort. The bigger the better. It’s made a lot of us—from churches to non-rofits, from print media to the arts, from justice advocates to working people — feel like failures. But I wonder if we’ve gotten it wrong.
I think back to my first year in college and to how I would have been alone for Easter but for a small kindness. Many of the students had left for the weekend, and to be honest, it was hard not feel a little lonely, a little homesick. The thought, however, that I could skip the measly offerings of the dining hall made me smile. An older couple at my church had invited me, along with several other college students, to Easter dinner.
It was like going home. The hug I received at the door. The smell of roasting turkey and buttery stuffing. The table full of green beans, carrots, toasted rolls, mashed potatoes and pies. A family of sorts around the table, though several of us had just met.
I don’t know exactly why this moment out of so many has stuck with me. I suspect it’s because I felt loved in a very simple and familiar way.
Here in this smallish congregation, people wanted to know me, talk with me, sit with me. That year, I started going to a small Bible study before worship. I connected with the pastor who took me out for coffee. I was invited to preach and read Scripture. I met friends as we gathered in the church basement to watch and discuss "The Matrix." I threw on borrowed gloves to plant flowers outside the church. Every Wednesday, I stopped by for a free, home-cooked lunch for students.
There was nothing particularly fancy about the church — traditional worship, no projector screens, no sweeping catalog of programs, no big-budget website. But I felt loved. And really, that’s all I wanted.
I talk with so many congregations that feel like they’re failures because they’re small. They think they can’t accomplish great things because they don’t have the money or the membership numbers. They are battered almost daily with doomsday messages of decline and the need to “grow.” And through it all, one terrifying thought persists: that all their devotion, all their love, is not enough.
Maybe you can relate. Churches aren’t the only ones struggling these days.
As I listen, all I can think of is Jesus on some slapped-together cross, perched on a hill beside thieves, most of his disciples nowhere to be seen, a paltry dozen to begin with. And I wonder: Was there ever a moment that Jesus thought to himself, “I’ve failed”?
To be clear, we are not Jesus. We are, more often than not, the disciples who were not there at the cross that day. But the image does raise an interesting question: Would the Joel Osteens and Dave Ramseys of the world have considered Jesus a success if they had lived in the first century, or would they have chastised him for driving away his flock by demanding too much from his disciples, associating with the unwanted, failing to maximize his financial potential, and “settling” for the small moments of footwashing and breaking bread?
The fact is that being faithful to God can mean that we’re going to be small. In our churches, in our professional endeavors, and in our personal lives.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t large, faithful congregations or small, unfaithful congregations. There are plenty of congregations that are small because they are change resistant or just don’t want new people.
Being small, though, should be the least of our worries. These are the questions that matter: Are we present in our community? Do we welcome strangers? Do we have the courage to speak up even when it’s unpopular? Are we growing in our faith and putting it to practice in our daily lives? Is our worship passionate? Do we risk thinking and creating in new ways? Are we obedient to Truth and Justice?
And most importantly: Do we love?
In this, we pray we will not fail. In all else, let us, whether large or small in number, gladly, ambitiously, triumphantly, be failures. I’ll settle for a home-cooked meal with the lonely any day.