I was a young pastor in a small church in Massachusetts. We were attracting a few teens and young adults, largely through the influence of an attractive young woman’s dramatic conversion. Someone thought it would be a good outreach strategy to organize a team to play in the town’s recreational softball league, so we did. Bill Eaton, a high school athletic coach and an excellent athlete, was the natural to be the manager. The early practices were energetic and enthusiastic. Several youngish men of the church formed the core of the team, and they were supplemented by two or three guys of questionable character and lengthening rap sheets who attended a couple of church services in order to qualify to play ball. The result was a pretty good team that won its first few games.
My role on the team was to play wherever I was likely to do the least damage, which meant either right field, second base or relief pitcher (since this was a slo-pitch league, all I had to do was lob the ball over the plate). This is a shorthand way of saying I wasn’t the star.
After the team’s initial successes, the guys got a little full of themselves, and the most athletically gifted among them began skipping practices. I remember one evening when another mediocre player and I were the only ones who showed up for practice on time. About fifteen minutes later, Manager Eaton drove up, climbed out of his car and said, “Where is everybody?”
I still remember the tone of his question; I still remember the look on his face; I still feel the sense that he was looking right through me trying to see someone who “mattered.” I think it was in that moment that I knew I was never going to amount to much on the athletic field.
But I was there! That ought to count for something. Of course, Bill Eaton wasn’t thinking about me; he was thinking about all the good players who weren’t there. However, his words unfairly diminished me, when I was doing my best to be where I was supposed to be for the good of the team. It’s amazing that I still remember the incident and the feelings.
I’ve tried not to project that sense onto people who gather, many times in small numbers, for various church programs and groups. I make a conscious effort to be glad for those who are there, rather than showing disappointment that our numbers are few.
We live in an age that celebrates the megachurch as the success model in Christianity. We are frequently encouraged to attend workshops led by experts in the principles of developing a modern megachurch, with thousands of members, multiple worship services, state-of-the-art high-tech media facilities and extensive programs for all ages. It’s all very intimidating.
But right at this moment in ABC’s history, we feel led to emphasize smallness as one of the key strategies God wants us to use in our ministry. First of all, we’ve been reminding ourselves that, whatever modern experts on church growth may be telling us, Jesus has already told us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Secondly, our recent discussion in the “Strategic Visioning Process” has underlined the importance of small groups in the past, present and future ministry of ABC. Thirdly, virtually all megachurches have discovered that they are successful in meeting people’s needs only to the degree that they are able to involve them in small groups, in addition to large worship gatherings.
So the theme of this year’s Homecoming Sunday, November 8, 2015, will be our re-commitment to the more intimate fellowship, accountability, nurturing and spiritual growth that can only come from regularly clustering together in small groups.
The next time you come to a worship service or any of the many small group opportunities at ABC and are tempted to say, “Where is everybody?” bite your tongue. Are there two or three (including yourself)? Then you should feel a spark of anticipation to see what Jesus is up to among you.
– Pastor George Van Alstine