Every Thursday evening is my date with my sons, Josiah (age 6) and Joash (age 2). At the same time, my wife leads a small group within a building complex. Each week we think of different ways of entertaining these energetic boys. This past week was playtime in the park within the complex. It started on the wrong note when Josiah was shattered as the children in the park refused to play with him. To shift gears with Josiah, I took out a ball, a Frisbee, and a scooter from our car. Josiah immediately took these items to the other children. In just five minutes, the rejected boy was the center of attraction. The other children wanted to play with all the items and Josiah was happy to share. The evening ended on a happy note with Josiah promising to meet them the following Thursday.
A ball, Frisbee and a scooter. Small, seemingly insignificant items had the potential to break down walls and build relationships. The evening’s episode set me thinking on an important connection to planting a church.
Church ministry, including church planting, requires a lot of focus on the big areas. And rightly so. Prayer, leadership, funding, promotions, strategy, training, and other big areas take the stage at every church planting and leadership conference. But sometimes God wants us to focus on small things, so that we don’t run a big show based on things we think are big! Small things emerge when we are listening to God and when we are listening to new people who walk into our church plants.
These small things are sometimes God’s simple reminders not to stagnate in our standard static methods. Small things matter a lot to God, because most of the time they revolve around people. And people are different. And God works differently with everyone—including in cultures where little is known about God. Church planters—especially in communities/cultures with little theological foundation for their work—must be open to the small things. Here are a few small things—balls, Frisbees, and scooters—than can help create community.
In my city (and most cities across my nation) at least 10 different cultures with 10 different languages intermingle. It is actually foolish not to consider the ‘language’ factor and run the church based on the leadership’s language preference. But we are discovering that people worship and experience God better in their ‘heart’ language instead of ‘head’ language. When the praise and worship, message and the entire context is geared to reflect the local culture and language, people respond better and God is able to do a deeper work in every single life.
Language is not just about what is spoken in a culture or city. Language also covers the relevance and sensitivity of what is spoken. As pastors and leaders in our context, we are constantly deleting phrases and terminologies from our public vocabulary which we feel are offensive to anyone experiencing Christ. A few of the changes made in our context are from ‘heathen’ and ‘pagans’ to ‘friends’ and ‘neighbors.’ “Conversion to Christianity” has been replaced with “following Jesus Christ.” This change of vocabulary is not just an external/public change, but reflects an internal/personal love and respect towards everyone created in the image of God. These are extremely small things, but we have seen how these small things have hindered sincere seekers from following Christ. Conversely, we have seen how these small things when wisely considered have the potential to bring in entire communities. These language shifts may seem obvious (or not) to you. What language shifts are you not making because they are not obvious but that are necessary to you, though they might be to others?
This seems like a strange “small thing” in the context of church planting. In multicultural cities, there is unnecessary offense to people open to the gospel when we disrespect their food habits. The other day a genuine seeker and vegetarian in meal preference because of religious tradition who attends my wife’s small group, refused to participate in the post-meeting meal because the vegetarian meal would be served on plates which may have previously contained non-vegetarian food. In some cities of our country, church planters have made a life-long choice to avoid certain kinds of food so that they find respect in the community they live and minister in. Foolish as it may seem, this teaches us to love people more than we love food. If our church plant is in a location where certain kinds of food are taboo, then we have to refrain deliberately from certain food so that our church plant finds respect in that community. What is the equivalent in your community? What sacrifice as leader do you need to make to love people more than the thing you’re sacrificing?
The other day I heard about how a genuine seeker, invited into our church service by a passionate believer, walked out even before the service started. The reason? It was unthinkable and a prohibition based on his religious tradition to be found standing in a church building. Many across our religious context don’t mind singing songs of worship to Jesus and even praying to Jesus as long as it is not within a church building with all the trappings of traditional Christianity. One of our fastest growing church plants in my city is among a community who is most opposed to the traditional paraphernalia of Christianity based on language, food, or place. The reason for this fast growth? Definitely it is God at work and nobody can take credit for it. But I sense it is also because we are giving extra focus on these small areas: speaking and worshipping in the language they love and they are most comfortable and avoiding any food which is taboo to them. Interestingly it is not held in a church building, but a small hall with no external fittings of Christian religion.
Don’t assume that place makes no difference in your culture. People do not attend places they are uncomfortable. They go to familiar places or kinds of places. How might your place need to change or be modified to reach more people?
Multiethnic communities can give us a glimpse of the beauty of heaven. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
Our leadership has decided that we are not going to let our ignorance of small things be a hindrance to anyone encountering God. We will abandon anything which would be an obstacle to anyone coming to Christ. Paul got it right when he said: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
Language, food, and place can be small, even invisible things, but these small things make a significant difference in our context. They may mean nothing to you in your context, but there are parallels. What is the Holy Spirit whispering to you about your context? What are the small things you have hidden in the back of your car which could potentially open you up to experiencing genuine community with the world around you? Take out the ball, Frisbee and scooter and watch God break walls in your community.