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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Small but Exceedingly Wise (1)

"Ants are creatures with little strength, but they prepare their food in the summer" (Prov. 30:25).

Here's a fun fact for you: Ants may form 15-25% of terrestrial animal biomass.  That means that if you took all land animals on the planet and weighed them on one huge scale, 15-25% of the total weight comes from ants.  Wow.  Is it safe to say that the tiny, lowly ant is pretty darned successful?

The authors of Proverbs thought that the ant was special for several reasons, and Agur gives one of them: ants prepare their food in the summer.

So how can a small church learn wisdom from the ant?  The lesson that I think jumps to most folks' minds goes something like this: "Times will come that will be tough.  So we need to set aside our income to save for those bad times.  We need to spend as little as possible so that we have plenty in the bank, so that if something catastrophic happens or we lose lots of members, our church will still be able to keep going.  That is prudent."  Along these lines I know of a smallish but fairly wealthy church where there once was a treasurer whose goal was to build the church's endowment to a million dollars so that no one would have to give to the church ever again to keep it going.

Let me suggest that this is about the most disastrous lesson a small church could learn from ants.  Yes, hard times will inevitably come.  Yes, keeping an operating cash reserve is a very prudent thing to do.  (Goodness knows that a frightening amount of my salary has been paid out of such reserves in my five years of pastoral ministry.)  But notice that this lesson, which you might consider a cross between this Scripture and Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper, is more about impending scarcity in the winter than about present opportunity in the summer.  But the summer is where Agur's focus is!  What makes ants so wise, and what small churches can learn from them, is that ants seize current opportunities that won't last forever.

A church that is small but wise like ants can be enormously effective for the kingdom.  One of the challenges faced by large churches is that they have so much going on to coordinate and so many people to communicate with and get buy-in from that it can be difficult to act swiftly to seize opportunities for ministry.  A small church doesn't have to have that problem.  A small church can allow communication to flow through the body quickly and buy-in doesn't have to take as long to obtain.  So if a new opportunity arises to serve someone in the name of Jesus, the small church can shift gears and respond rapidly where a larger church might not be able to.  Like ants that begin appearing above ground as soon as it becomes warm, a small church can coordinate and love people as soon as they see the chance.

Unfortunately, small churches often fail to display this wisdom and employ their natural strength.  Churches that once were medium-sized or large in particular have a structure and protocol (written or unwritten) that guarantees that the body moves at glacial speed.  A complicated tangle of boards and committees that require more people than the church has, disinterest in forward-looking discussion (I know one church whose board meets for no more than exactly 60 minutes each month), a "can't-do" corporate attitude, and a demand for absolute consensus rather than a compromising majority and a graciously yielding minority all combine to squash the small church's potential for haste.  By the time they do get around to acting, if at all, the opportunity to touch sensitive hearts may be gone.

But if the small church learns to be nimble, recognizing opportunities to evangelize and serve and seizing them quickly, it can do great things.  So how practically might a small church become as wise as ants?

I think that a shared vision is essential to this (a theme that I think will arise often in this series).  Such a vision emerges out of the church's corporate identity.  Every church has a unique identity, just as every person is unique—every Christian is bound to obey the two great commandments, but how that is expressed in the flesh varies as widely as people do, and churches are no different.  It's no challenge to create a corporate identity, because the identity already exists.  The work is in getting to know the church deeply enough to figure out just what that unique identity is and then put it into words so that people in the church say, "Yes! that's us!" as soon as they hear it.  The vision is nothing other than the blooming of our identity—how we might become the best "we" that God made us uniquely to be.  (I'd like to go further on some tools I've found to ascertain this, but that's a longer story and a post for another day.)

If the church shares that articulate, instinctively grasped and compelling vision, then decisions can be made quickly.  If an opportunity for ministry arises that meshes with the vision, someone will be apt to see it right away.  When that person tells their friends, its suitability to the vision will accelerate its transmission through the body.  When it comes time for decision, the choice to do something or not to do something can happen quickly on the criterion of whether it fits the vision.  More talk and work then needs to be done on the practical side ("What do we do and how do we do it?"), but just to say "yes" to an opportunity speedily goes a long way toward seizing it.

One way I'm really proud of my church in this area is that we are really good at caring about people with needs.  When a friend of a neighbor of a relative of an occasional attender of our church loses their job or goes into the hospital or needs to move, my church springs into action to help like I've never seen anybody else do.  That's the wisdom of ants that I'm talking about, seizing opportunities for the kingdom while we have them.  So what we're beginning to contemplate is, "Hey, why not do everything that way?"—why not define our reason for existence as being instruments of God's care for others along the way and coordinate everything we do around that objective?

Of course, one of the things that keeps us from doing everything that speedily is a structure that stifles the advantage of a small group of people who all know each other really well.  At some point we have to fix that.  But I think it would be a big mistake just to rework our bylaws and think that that all by itself will make us ant-like.  The vision needs to be cast and shared first and only then do we rework the structure to accomodate the vision.  Otherwise a new structure without a vision would just impede our nimbleness some other way.

Small churches can do great things if they, like ants, seize current opportunities for ministry that won't last forever.  It's not our size but our lack of wisdom that limits us.  What do you think, or how have you seen small churches do this?

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