Noah. Abraham. Gideon’s 300. David. Elijah. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego. Esther…
Take a moment to ponder these characters and the situations they faced. What do they have in common? Are they (and dozens of other similar biblical examples) not proof of how God scoffs at the world’s “strength-in-numbers” / “bigger-is-better” / “more-is-more” mentality? Sure, God used large Israelite armies at times to defeat cities & enemies. He used an outwardly unmatched physical specimen like Samson to open up a can of you-know-what on some Philistines. But over all, it would seem God prefers to demonstrate His power through small, outwardly unimpressive individuals and groups.
This past Sunday night, I, Deborah, and our three kids drove to Bedford Heights with three others from Bridge Church to Hope Together where we joined pastor Dallas Lauderdale and six others from Trinity Christian (our host church) for a time of prayer. I’m ashamed to admit my initial disappointment at the small turnout. “Fifteen people, really? Doesn’t our association believe in coming together to pray?” I thought. Even though I didn’t voice that frustration as the meeting got underway, I felt it.
We sang a couple of songs, prayed for pastors & families, lifted up our churches currently without pastors, and we prayed for Cleveland’s outgoing and incoming summer mission teams.
In the middle of all of that, I received a text from Julie Calloway. It included just three words (really only two): “Pray please pray!”
Most of you know Jeff and Julie Calloway, but in case you don’t, together they served with the North American Mission Board for 8 years until last October helping train, deploy, and encourage church planters & wives across Cleveland. Before that, Jeff pastored two northeast Ohio churches, including a brand new plant where I now preach and where he serves as an elder. Long story short, Jeff has been very sick for many months and went in for colon surgery two Thursdays ago. What was supposed to be one surgery became two, and what originally was to be about a three-night stay turned into two weeks. On Sunday night Jeff’s pain level reached 10/10 and Julie’s emotional and physical energy reserves hit 0. It was a dark and desperate hour. “Pray please pray!” Through tears and with broken words I read Julie’s text to the small prayer huddle and after sending her a quick reply, “On our knees at Trinity for Jeff,” I invited everyone to kneel. Dallas took over; the rest of us groaned in agreement as he pleaded with the Lord. I couldn’t form words.
What began as a moment of secret and selfish frustration on my part became a moment that, Lord willing, I’ll never forget. Black & white, young & old, urban & rural—none of those distinctions mattered. What mattered was God’s people interceding for God’s people by the power of God’s Spirit. What mattered was not how many or how few had gathered, but THAT, in precisely the moment of one dear couple’s deepest need and darkest hour, God had saints in position to call down His healing mercy. While the winds and rains of that stormy Sunday evening thrashed across greater Cleveland, a small, unimpressive group prayed and hoped together for the comforting touch of Him who calms storms with a word. And that group was answered!
Julie’s Monday morning update indicated one of the most restful nights of the entire ordeal for both she and Jeff. Heart rate slowed. Pain level dropped to 3 or 4. A banana popsicle was shared for breakfast between sweethearts. I got to be in the room Tuesday when the nasal feeding tube was removed. Jeff’s first words—after a bit of gagging—were “Thank you, Jesus!” Today (Friday) is Jeff’s second full day at home.
God did it all. He’s doing it all. Surgeons, nurses, machines and medicines—sure, they’re all part of how He’s doing it all, but so was a small, tactically-placed team of supplicators. How humbling to be an instrument, a participant in God’s program of mercy! And I know Jeff and Julie see themselves in the same way—as instruments of mercy. On one level, Jeff’s extended hospital stay was unexpected and frustrating. On a more important level it was also instrumental. Jeff’s daughter Sarah shared with me how a nurse told her one day, “I know what you and your family are all about. You’re different." And do you know what Jeff’s surgeon said upon his discharge? “Jeff, I’m gonna miss you. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
Size matters, but not the size of the group. Size matters, but not the size of the gathering. Size matters, but not the size of the need or problem. The only size that matters is the size of our God. When we see Him rightly, everything else is dwarfed.
Are you disheartened that your problems seem big and your resources small? If so, your biggest problem isn’t on the outside; it’s on the inside. Your frustration isn’t due to dwindling dollars in the offering plate or having too few in the pew. Frustration follows a faulty focus and a faulty footing—what are we standing on: human ideas of success, or a human-divine Savior?
“His oath, His covenant, His love
Support me in the whelming flood
When all around my soul gives way
He then is all my hope and stay
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”
We all want to see the kingdom of God built, but for that to happen on a global level, things often have to get more granular at the local level. If our gatherings get too big, temptation to find strength in numbers may rise. If our resources are too plentiful, we might start to trust them like a fool who trusts in a desert stream after a rain storm. They could dry up overnight! Better to look to the One who gives the rain than to the rain itself!
How precious to our Lord are small but precious lives, small but focused groups and gatherings stripped of outer appearances of power and offered as small but useful instruments in His merciful plan. How precious to our Lord are small churches! Oh, and by the way, with all due respect to the larger churches of our association, Cleveland Hope—and the Southern Baptist Convention for that matter—doesn’t have any big churches. You see, compared to the unnumbered multitude of the redeemed of all the earth that will one day gather before the Lamb, every local church is itty bitty! Even if you pastor a church of 1 million members, if the total number of redeemed of the earth was 1 billion (a hopefully very low estimate), your million-member church would only be 1/10 of 1% (one one-thousandth) of that number. Big from our vantage point, but not from God’s! From earth’s orbit an aircraft carrier and a canoe make about the same size splash when dropped into the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Let’s look to be available to God, not admirable to men. Let’s focus on Him and be His ready warriors smashing pitchers, blowing horns and waving torches with all our might as we trust Him to put our enemies to flight and establish His name in the earth.
I send you into the weekend, into your service to the body of Christ—whether outwardly small or large, highly- or hardly-resourced in physical terms, strong or weak before human eyes—with these words from the psalmist:
“The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
And to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the LORD;
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in Him,
Because we trust in His holy name.
Let Your lovingkindness, O LORD, be upon us,
According as we have hoped in You.”