A Place for Small And Local

Bill Mowry

The older I get the smaller I think. I’m not sure if this is because of my declining energy level or whether there’s some maturity taking place. I’m learning to appreciate thinking small and local rather than big and wide. This is a change for me since I’ve always been kind of a “vision guy.”

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be like Caleb, the Old Testament leader who said “I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me… so now give me this hill country…” (Joshua 14:10-12). At eighty- five, he’s asking to conquer the baddest bunch of Canaanites in the land. Don’t I want to be like Caleb?

Maybe you’ve come through the BHAG phase of planning — formulating Big Hairy Audacious Goals for life and ministry. Didn’t the founder of The Navigators, Dawson Trotman, exhort us to think big, claiming the promise of Jeremiah : “Call to me and I will answer you… and I will show you great and mighty things ” (Jeremiah 33:3 RSV). Shouldn’t we (me!) be believing God for great things — for city-wide revival or disciplemaking movements?

It’s good to trust God for the big (numbers) and the wide (nations and movements) but there is another way of thinking in the Bible. Sometimes God wants us to invest in the small and local.

When my mother was near death in the hospital, the Lord brought to mind an obscure passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (NIV): “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands so that you’re daily life may win the respect of outsiders…” I sensed the Holy Spirit whispering to me, “Your mom is someone who lived in the quiet.”

Most people live in the quiet — working hard, raising families, and serving in their communities or churches. My parents served in a small church, worked with organizations that helped the poor, led in organizations like the PTA and the Boy Scouts. My dad led a small group Bible study in his mobile home park for years. They lived small and local — serving in the quiet.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter discusses the proliferation of ministries, materials, and churches dedicated to changing the world. Take a look around you and observe the number of churches and ministries that have some variation of this theme: “Live the life and change the world.”

How successful are these big visions to change the world? Hunter documents that “…despite such enthusiastic participation, the history of conservative faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination [the culture].”

Our big visions don’t seem to be having much impact. Time doesn’t allow me to discuss Hunter’s analysis and justification. However, his conclusion for how the church can have an influence is a simple one. He prescribes the practice of faithful presence. Faithful presence “means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.”

The task of disciplemaking, then, becomes “the hard work of teaching, training, and cultivating believers with wisdom in the ways of Christ so that they are fit for any calling and for any service to him.” This calling or service is our faithful presence — living out His presence — in the places where we work, live, or worship. We help one another cultivate faithfulness to Christ in all of life not just the “spiritual” or church life.

My disciplemaking goal is to build and release people to practice a faithful presence in their neighborhoods, networks, and workplaces. I call this the mission of pushing back the darkness and bringing in Jesus’ light to a local and fallen world (Matthew 5:14-16, John 1:6-9, Philippians 2:14-15).

My friend Dan, a public school teacher, models a faithful presence. He wants to serve with excellence and start faith conversations but he has something more in mind. Dan wants to push back the darkness and bring in Jesus’ light. How does this happen? To counter unprofessional behavior, he provides teachers with the best resources possible. To counter seeing children as only numbers or test scores, he’s building a culture of compassion and value. Wouldn’t you want your children to be in his school? Dan is living local and small, bringing God’s faithful presence to a public school.

I’ve been thinking about writing another book titled, “Who cleans up after the Avengers leave?” If you’ve watched any of the super hero movies, the ending is almost always the same — a city gets destroyed and the super heroes leave in victory. I often wonder, who cleans up the mess after they leave?

The Book of Acts is a little like this Avengers scenario. The Apostles roar into town, preach, get imprisoned, start riots, have mass meetings, and then leave for the next place. Who cleans up after they leave? It’s the small Jesus gatherings — local churches — that are left behind to do the work.

These local Jesus gatherings are places where we’re taught to love our spouses (Ephesians 5:22-24), raise our children (Ephesians 6:1-4), honor God in our work (Colossians 3:23), serve the poor (James 2:16), care for widows (James 1:27), support one another in trying times (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15), seek the civic good (Titus 3:1), honor all ages of life (Titus 2:1-6), do good to as many as possible (Galatians 6:9-10), win the respect of outsiders (1 Thessalonians 4:11), and advance the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:8). So much of our life in Christ is designed to live small and local.

I’m not writing to dismiss those who think big and wide. Big goals stretch our faith and push our limits. Small and local is always rooted in the big and the wide. After all, Jesus commands us to make disciples of “all nations.” God does have a big and wide redemptive plan to unite everything in the cosmos through his gospel (Colossians 1:19-20). The big and the wide gives meaning and direction but the local and the small is where the vision happens.

One last story. When I was in graduate school, my advisor was a near-retirement education professor. He commented that: I have been through a lot of educational fads and goals. To me, nothing happens of consequence until it affects the interaction between the teacher and the student in the classroom.

I think this is true in church life; we move from fad to fad, program to program. However, nothing happens of consequence until it impacts my interaction with my neighbors, family, other believers, or co-workers. A vision’s effectiveness is not in packaged brochures and motivational sermons but how people impact one another in the local and the small, through everyday relationships and everyday conversations.

For the big thinkers reading this, keep thinking big! Keep us anchored in God’s big redemptive purposes. However, let’s cheer our local heroes, multiplying those who are choosing to live small and local — faithfully practicing God’s presence in the quiet places of life.