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Being a mustard-seed church

"Nothing is wrong with smallness if that smallness is chock-full of faithfulness," writes Whitney Wilkinson Arreche.

Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

In Matthew 17:19-20, when Jesus calls out his disciples for thinking too little of the power of God within them, he talks about tiny mustard seeds. He tells them that if they had the faith even of a mustard seed, they would be able to tell massive things like mountains to move, and those massive things would move. 

The mustard seed becomes an object lesson in faith. We usually hear it used to illustrate that if such a small amount of faith can do such great things, we can only imagine what big faith can do! Perhaps like those disciples, who have just witnessed the transfiguration, we think bigger is better. And perhaps like them, we miss the entire point of Jesus’ lesson. 

Nothing is wrong with smallness if that smallness is chock-full of faithfulness. I say this as the new pastor of a small but mighty church of 50 or so active disciples. Ours is a mustard-seed-sized church. We just cannot do some things because of our size; and if we were like those disciples in Matthew 17, we might get hung up on that. For example, we cannot host the fancy, huge events that churches in our area with several hundred members can put on. But we have so much we can do, precisely because of our size. 

Nothing is wrong with smallness if that smallness is chock-full of faithfulness.

A choir member, who is also a deacon, can knit a prayer blanket during worship that will later bear sticky notes full of prayers from people who personally know the ill person receiving the blanket. In a tiny church like ours, prayer is radically tangible and personal. 

Our youth activities are intergenerational by necessity, but also by design. Teenagers lead people who are their grandparents’ age in studying books on whatever is close to their heart — from gender identities to hobbits. Nothing is off-limits. These young people find a space tailored just for them by caring and present adults. They go on to serve as liturgists, cheered on by adults who know them as well as anybody. 

One church member who is passionate about social justice can ignite that energy in the entire church through her witness and presence. Someone dedicated to supporting scouts in our community becomes an ambassador for those young people — who might not worship with us each Sunday but who remain a vital part of who we are. 

We cannot hire someone to address every facilities need that arises in our church. However, an all-member work crew descends upon the church every Wednesday (yes, with matching T-shirts). People of all abilities help maintain our building in whatever way they can, and they share life organically over coffee and pastries in the kitchen. This same group shows up to help church members needing wheelchair ramps, to help isolated neighborhoods needing care and to offer frequent service at the local food pantry. 

When we in Christianity believe that bigger always means better, we are following the spirit of capitalism rather than the Spirit of Christ. That will never save us or our churches, our neighbors or this planet. If we are very honest with ourselves, life can feel overwhelming with all the bigness around us: the major events, the terrifying diagnoses, the enormity of violence and hatred and bigotry. 

We crave smallness in those times, the smallness of a still moment when we remember we are more than calendars and obligations. We crave the smallness of human connections that are utterly ordinary. We crave the smallness of God, who surprises us with a little bit of kindness when we most need it. Those small kernels of faith keep us going no matter what bigness we face. 

Maybe this craving is why I love pastoring small churches so much: these imperfect and yet deeply incarnational communities where God is as close as the person who remembers your name and wraps you in a blanket of love. 

In these mustard-seed places, the mountains of our social and spiritual isolation from each other move, little by little.