Last week, I had the chance to spend some time with a large group of ELCA pastors from the Midwest. Despite being from the heart of Lutheran country they, like the rest of us, are facing the full litany of declining things: members, attendance, budgets, programs, optimism, etc.
During a Q&A session, one pastor asked the presiding bishop, “What word of encouragement and hope do you have for us small, rural congregations?”
Pausing for only a split second, the whip-smart bishop – the youngest female ever to be elected to the office in the denomination – replied, “There were only 120 gathered on the first Pentecost (Acts 1:15). Fueled by the Spirit and magnetized by Jesus, this small, insignificant group of people transformed the world.”
What the bishop so powerfully reminded us all was that God’s decisive, life-giving work in the world has never depended on large crowds, big steeples, or cultural prominence. Far from it. The Gospel always breaks forth from the margins and in the shadow of Empire. The Word became flesh in the body of a poor, dark-skinned man who was likely homeless and illiterate. So insignificant was Jesus’ hometown that Nathanael once asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus’ followers were mostly the working poor of the Galilee for whom a prayer for “daily bread” was a cry of desperate hunger. And after Jesus’ death, there was only a small band of women who expected to find something living among the dead.
Yet, within a few short years the crowds in Thessalonica would bring charges against Paul and Silas on the grounds that they, along with the early church, were “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The word used here for world, oikoumenā, is not the typical Greek word for all created things (kosmos). Rather, oikoumenā refers to the world as a social and political realm – empire, economics, education, civic life, the marketplace, and families. It is this world that an under-funded, barely organized, not-yet-branded, culturally insignificant group of disciples was turning upside down.
As my colleagues and I reflect on gratitude this month, I find myself being increasingly free of the burden that is the decline of the institutional church. This isn’t because I deny the data or am immune to the real grief and loss that goes along with it. Rather, it’s that I’m coming into a greater awareness that the wellspring of hope for the church, both ancient and modern, is not the conviction that God keeps dying things alive; it’s the conviction that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life.
Join me in being grateful for the big things that God can do, and always has done, through that which the world judges to be unimportant, insignificant, and non-essential.