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The Illusion of Greatness through Proximity

Stephen Witmer on small churches:

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

One principle often spoken of about Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns was, “a crowd draws a crowd.” This is one of the reasons ‘flash mobs’ became popular a while back. Everything looks more impressive when a big crowd is involved. But the key word here is “looks.” It’s an illusion. It’s an illusion of greatness.

E.B. White’s idea of the “excitement of participation” rings true as well. I was a part of a worship service last week with several thousand people. At one point in the service we sang, In Christ Alone. I’ve sung that song with 40 people, with 800 people and with 4,000 people. It’s always the same song. But it feels different when you’re with 4,000 people than when you’re with 40. Remember that much of this is illusory.

Small churches can’t hide their weaknesses as easily as big churches. But they both have weaknesses. In a small church, you’re stripped of all illusion and get straight reality. Most of us can’t sing well enough to join the opera. And our sins are ever before us. Sometimes it’s good to see reality. To make a joyful noise that’s off-key instead mumbling the words and hoping the masses will drown out my voice so that God won’t notice how awful I sound. To look the preacher square in the eye instead of staring at the big screen and ducking down and hiding behind the 500 people sitting in front of me. To be forced to shake everyone’s hands instead of being able to sneak out without shaking anyone’s.

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