Publication: Pastoral Letter, August 2016
Greetings in the Lord! I want to describe what I believe that the Lord is saying to me and pray that it will be useful to you. Together, let’s look at the contrast between “big” and “small”.
Certainly, big enterprises have a lot of power, often well-deserved, sometimes not. Americans are impressed with big things, so success is often equated with big things. Now we have big business, corporations, banks, stadiums, labor unions, ships, planes, and even churches. Most small endeavors want to be big. Big increases influence, brand appeal, profits, and power. Big is awesome! Big buildings, big games, big news all get our attention.
Several years ago I drove by what was then the world’s biggest church located in Seoul, South Korea. I went there because it was the biggest; I wanted to see it.
In the course of pursuing success associated with being large, we have also accumulated some rather big problems: big debt, big crime, big divorce, big drug use, and big changes in our culture, some of which are not so good. As our pursuit of largeness has increased, so has the distance between our institutions and the average person’s life. “The little foxes are eating the grapes,” Scripture says. And, we hear, “the devil is in the details.”
Something else has happened: we have lost our appreciation for what is small and the potential power in little things. Big ideas only come to pass if small things are done well. Large can be brought down by the collection of small errors, inefficiencies, and carelessness. Zechariah 4:10 tells us not to despise the day of small beginnings. Keeping an eye on the seemingly small things is essential. When atoms are split, explosions happen; big dreams become nightmares when the importance of small issues are overlooked.
The Promise of Small
A small child has great potential if given proper care in the little issues of life. Neglected, children can become destructive or even dangerous. So it is with God’s children. He desires for us to be light in the world, a city set on a hill and doing His will on earth as it is done in Heaven. I believe that He wants us to have a positive impact upon our culture as light does darkness. The question is where and how do we begin to affect positive change?
The big picture or global view can be daunting and discouraging. There are many who want to change the world as they see it. Ideals are fine, but what makes them happen? I like the saying, “Think globally but act locally. If problems are not solved locally or personally, then ideals come crashing down globally. We should know that from history, but, the image of human utopianism always falls on its own flawed feet.
Jesus had the most grand vision of all, that His Kingdom would fill the earth; His glory would cover the earth as the waters covered the sea (see Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:18-20). However grand His vision, He began small with only a few ordinary men who ultimately accomplished extraordinary things. Whatever anyone thinks about Jesus, whether or not He is Who He said He is, His impact upon the world has been unique and undeniable.
Jesus called a few men and spent a lot of time building a small model, imparting and modeling His principles, and demonstrating His power. He attracted large crowds, but rejected their crowns and sent them away with very hard sayings. He warned His disciples of the cost of following Him and gave them the option to leave. In the end, He promised them the power of God to perform His mission, and they did. Yet, after touching multitudes, in the end there were only 120 who responded and waited for the “promise of the Father”—a baptism of Holy Spirit fire.
Soon after His resurrection and departure, many thousands were added to His small band of committed disciples. I find it interesting that even in explosive growth, the groups remained small, house to house, eating together, fellowshipping and following the apostles’ teaching and pattern. This model seems to have existed throughout the days of the New Covenant and for 300 years. The Church, the Body of Christ, was founded in living cells as is our natural body. Unhealthy cells were noted and dealt with. The apostles were vigilant in their care for the churches.
Two or Three
There is another text which has caught my renewed interest, Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in their midst.” I have heard this quoted in the context of trying to encourage a small crowd. I believe Jesus had far more than that in mind when He said it. He had often gathered with two or three or twelve. I believe that Jesus was giving a key to how He would manifest His power in a small group that was gathered around Him. The potential of Jesus’ power can be experienced in a small number who are rightly related to Him and each other.
Every great revival has begun on a Matthew 18:20 basis. I am thinking of the Moravian Revival, the Great Awakening, the Welsh Revival, the Hebrides Revival, and many others. In 1806, five college students were gathered in a field to discuss the spiritual needs in Asia. A thunderstorm came and these young men took shelter in a haystack and continued to pray. Out of their prayers, the modern missions movement began.
There is a quote attributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that has.” Whether Mead actually made the quote or not, it is true. I think that Jesus is saying the same in Matthew 18:20.
Can just my small group change the world? Of course not; there are some key characteristics of a world-affecting small group. We are speaking of a Christ-centered group because it will be His power that can affect the world. There are several implications when we focus on Him: mutual love, unity, commitment to Him and each other, forgiveness, mercy, accountability, vulnerability, and confidentiality. Christ-centeredness becomes Christ-likeness, a place where He desires to fellowship with us.
I want to focus on one other quality: sensitivity to the Holy Spirit; He is Jesus among us. He is the Inspiration, the Guide, the Revelator of the Word, Author of gifts, the One who tells us when to talk and when to remain silent. In other words, He will lead or leave the gathering. Do you recall Peter’s interruption of Jesus while on the Mount of Transfiguration? The revelation ceased and Peter was rebuked by the Father.
Let me say, I am not writing about a program for small groups in which a lesson plan is appropriate. I am writing about where a small group gathers to seek the Lord, hear His Word, and know their mission. There is power in both groups but the latter is more likely the source of revival or some great mission.
The qualities described in the previous section were present in the group that I entered in 1964. I had been in a very busy season of pastoral work in Mobile, Alabama, at our Southern Baptist church. We had a “revival” that did not revive. We had a good evangelist, good music, and good promotion, but apparently the Lord wasn’t involved. I was “dry.”
Then I heard that my friend, Ken Sumrall, a Baptist pastor in Pensacola, Florida, had been fired from his church due to being baptized in the Holy Spirit and having admitted to speaking in tongues in his devotional life. After his dismissal, he began with a small group of friends to seek the Lord. That is where I showed up, tired, hungry, and thirsty for the Lord. The presence of the Holy Spirit and sensitivity to Him among the people there were obvious. The impact for all of us was life changing.
Ken and I began waiting on the Lord together, studying together, seeking and learning how to respond to the Holy Spirit together. It was contagious, and out of those times together, thousands of other people were eventually affected by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Neither Ken nor I laid any claim to “super spirituality” or special righteousness; we just discovered what Jesus was saying in Matthew 18:20.
The Fiery Furnace
Jesus often warned His disciples about the trials that would test them if they followed Him (see Matthew 16:24). Wherever the fire of the Holy Spirit comes, the fiery trial of the enemy is soon to follow (see 1 Peter 4:12). That is why a high degree of mutual love and commitment are important before the fire of the Spirit falls. We need one another to stand together in the midst of tests.
The story of the three Hebrews told in Daniel 3 illustrates this point. They knew how to pray together to seek the Lord (see Daniel 2). Then they were commanded by the king to bow to his idol. They would not bow. One is never so tall as when others bow. So these three were cast unto the superheated furnace. But the king observed a fourth person whose appearance was like the Son of God, walking in the furnace with them! We are never more close to God and each other than when we walk in the fire together! Both the fire of the Holy Spirit and the fires of opposition forge bonds only comprehended by those who walk that way.
The guest speakers at our 2016 Gatlinburg Leaders Conference were Joseph Bondarenko and Takoosh Hovespian. Joseph had been imprisoned and tortured three times in Russia. Takoosh was the widow of a pastor martyred in Iran. Our staff held a private luncheon for them. They had not known one another but upon getting together privately, they shared a strong and emotional bond. My son Stephen and his wife, Susanne, said that it was moving to watch and hear them and their adult children fellowship together. They were a small group whose lives had affected many!
I would like to say more and perhaps will in a future letter. My purpose is to encourage like-minded friends to seek the Lord together and see what He can do with a small group. Our world and our culture are at a critical stage and Jesus alone knows the future; but if we will seek Him, perhaps He will show us what we can do to be of use to Him and what He can do when He joins our gathering.
CSM is actively facilitating and encouraging these gatherings across the United States. With your prayer and ongoing financial support, we can equip and train them as they fellowship and multiply. Please remember us in your budget throughout August and into the final quarter of the year. Challenges are many, but so are opportunities!
Scripture References: Matthew 18:20, 1 Peter 4:12; Daniel 2, 3; Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:18-20;Matthew 16:24