Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia
Pallara Christian Church - April 6th, 2014.
Sermon Notes. ‘How to make a small church great.’

By Pastor Trevor Marshall

John Benton in his Book – ‘Why join a small church?’ tells the following story: ‘When US troops captured the Pacific Island of Okinawa towards the end of World War II they found a state of moral and social collapse. But as they gradually advanced through the Island, they came to the village of Shimbakuku. There they were greeted by two men – one carrying a Bible. The soldiers entered the village cautiously, but were amazed to find everything neat and tidy, in contrast to the almost total chaos elsewhere. Why? 30 years earlier a missionary had stopped in Shimbakuku on his way to Japan. He did not stay long and just two people, the old men, had become Christians. He left a Bible, urging them to shape their lives by it. Following the Bible alone, others became Christians and the whole community was transformed. So the soldiers found no jail, no brothel, no drunkenness – just humble, contented people. The war correspondent who brought this story to light was Clarence Hall. He quoted his dumbfounded driver, who said, ‘So this is what comes out of only a Bible and a couple of old men who want to live like Jesus! Maybe we are using the wrong kind of weapons to change the world.’ By God’s great grace a Bible and a couple of old men changed the community. That’s what a small church can do when used by God.

This true story cuts across modern thought that says, ‘only what is big is significant, only what attracts mass audiences is influential, only those who can deploy vast resources of cash or people are truly powerful.’ It is easy for us to fall into accepting this secular propaganda as absolute truth. What appears small and weak is written off by the world, but God delights in using what the world writes off to accomplish great things. The Bible completely disagrees with modern secular thought that ‘big is always better and more powerful.’ The Bible strongly emphasizes that God is sovereign and rules over everything that exists. Luke 1:37 declares, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” As a small church we need to believe the truths concerning God’s sovereignty and power with great conviction. I will be using material from John Benton extensively and not always acknowledge him as my source. Why should we as a small church be encouraged?

1. Seven Encouragements for the Small Church.
(i) The potential of the church is far greater than we realize. The Lord Jesus is the temple of God, the place where heaven meets earth and man meets God. And being in him, Paul is able to speak of the local church as the house or temple of God (1 Corinthians 3.16). As God’s people struggled to rebuild the OT temple, the Lord gave Zechariah the prophet an extraordinary vision to encourage the temple builders (Zechariah 1:18-21). He saw four great horns, symbols of strength and power. God explained that these represented the empires which had previously destroyed Jerusalem, scattering its people and taking them into exile. But then, the prophet was shown four craftsmen. ‘What come these to do?’ asked Zechariah. Listen to God’s remarkable answer. ‘And he spake, saying, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, so that no man did lift up his head: but these are come to fray them, to cast out the horns of the Gentiles, which lifted up their horn over the land of Judah to scatter it. ’ In the context of rebuilding the temple, the craftsmen are those who are working on the house of God. God’s temple (because it is the house where God dwells) is able to overthrow the nations! Translating this into NT terms, just so, we must believe that God’s church (because Christ himself dwells among us) has the potential to overthrow all worldly opposition and be victorious for the kingdom of God. Who can stop Almighty God from accomplishing his glorious purposes? Nothing and no-one can stop what God ordains.

(ii). The Lord is able to use small groups comprising of ordinary Christians to transform communities. This should not surprise us. Often Paul’s missionary band consisted of just a few people. But such was the impact of their Christian witness in towns and cities across the Roman Empire that they were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’. The Lord is able to use the most unlikely people to do remarkable things.
Some years ago now, in an old book titled The Romance of Primitive Methodism; John Benton found that he had a namesake, who was used by God during the times of revival in and around the Potteries area of Staffordshire. This story took him aback when he read it.

The other John Benton was an uneducated man who was not at all naturally gifted as a speaker. He had little or no sense of grammar or good English. Converted to Christ and full of zeal for the Lord he often tried to share the gospel with others. But such was his roughness of speech and lack of education that he was forbidden to speak by the local vicar. However, one day John Benton found himself preaching to a group of miners beside the road. The Spirit of God came down and the men were under conviction of sin, possibly with tears flowing. Just at that moment, the vicar who had forbidden him to preach came around the corner and saw the sight. John Benton turned to him, pointed him to these men on whom God was evidently at work, and said to the vicar, ‘Look, there’s my grammar!’ The lesson is obvious. If God can use a man like John Benton he can use any of us!

(iii). The Lord Jesus said he will build his church. The Lord Jesus, God Incarnate, said: (Mat 16:18 KJV) “…I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” We are here told that the building of Jesus’ church takes place against the background of fierce opposition. We are warned in advance therefore, that there will be difficulties. The fact that the churches are facing opposition in our day is normal. But Christ has promised that all the opposition which the devil himself and all his forces can throw at the church will not prevail. Therefore we must have great faith as a small church that Christ is working in us and through us to build his church. The fact of Christ’s power for his church has been marvelously demonstrated for us in recent years. During most of the 20th century Christians under Communism faced ferocious persecution. Sometimes during those dreadful years we wondered how the church in those countries could survive. But in 1989 Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed. After all that persecution it was not the church which folded, but Communism itself. ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail.’ Christ is much stronger than the opposition. Have faith!

(iv). The Lord’s power is not dependent on great human resources. The governor of the Jews during the time that they were seeking to rebuild the temple was Zerubbabel. Returning from the exile he was the civic leader, responsible to the Persian emperor. In Judah it was a day of small things. The Jews came back to a devastated land, much diminished in size. The harvests had not been good and everyone felt poor and had decided that now was obviously not the right time to rebuild God’s temple. But God’s encouraging word came through Zechariah to Zerubbabel.

(Zec 4:6 KJV) Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.  The word ‘might’ here is used in the OT concerning armies of soldiers or armies of workers such as Solomon had to build the original temple. It refers to collective strength, to what can be done with big numbers of people. But God specifically says that he does not need large numbers. That is an encouragement for a small church. The word ‘power’ is about individual ability. Surely the key to making God’s work successful is an individual of great brilliance, or of commanding character and enormous energy. ‘That’s what we need — someone who is an international athlete, or from a celebrity family, with a few degrees and letters after his name.’ But God says he does not need this either to accomplish his purposes. This fact has to be a great encouragement to us as a small church of very ordinary people. God is able to do all he desires through us by the power of his Spirit.

(v). The power of God’s Spirit is at work in all Christians belonging to small churches.
The Lord, as we know, has been doing astonishing things in China over the last 25 to 35 years with millions of people being saved. Not long ago one of the British broadsheet newspapers reported that there are now many more Christians in China than card-carrying Communists! It is interesting to read the agreed statement of faith put out by the Chinese house churches in 1998 recorded in Tony Lambert’s book China’s Christian Millions. ‘In Christ, God grants a diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church so as to manifest the glory of Christ. Through faith and thirsting, Christians can experience the outpouring and filling of the Holy Spirit.’ It is that word ‘thirsting’ that is very interesting. Do we as a small church thirst for the Spirit and the glory of God? Surely there is a case for saying that people in small churches are less likely to be happy with the status quo and therefore more open to thirst for the Spirit of God’s work. The Holy Spirit can supply every gift required for the building of Christ’s church, we should not doubt, but believe we will have the gifts needed.

(vi). The breakdown of secular society is a sign of how much each community needs a church. The beginning of the 21st century in Australia has been sadly notable for a marked decline in the quality of life and civilized conduct. Not only has family breakdown become very common, but the culture of drugs and its attendant crime, together with binge drinking and thuggish behaviour, has become prevalent. There have been a number of newspaper reports of teenagers as ‘Unhappy, unloved and out of control’. Teenage gangs in some places exercise a reign of terror in their neighborhoods. We should not be surprised at this. The Bible tells us that where a nation rejects God, all kinds of hurts and wicked behaviour result. But we must view this breakdown of society which we are experiencing as a clear sign that the gospel and, therefore, our churches, big or small, are needed to transform the lives of those tormented by sin.

(vii). The labour you do for Christ Jesus is never in vain. Listen to 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” Paul gives this exhortation to believers in Corinth to encourage them to serve the Lord. We all need to take the promise from this verse and write it on our hearts and minds and place a spotlight on it – “know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” Notice it says, ‘knowing’ not thinking or hoping, but actually be sure, certain and positive that your labour is not in vain. In thinking about the term ‘labour’ we need to remember that the word ‘labour’ is often used by Paul in a missionary setting and means working with his own hands for his own support ‘and for activity in the Christian community as a whole.’ Such labour given freely in service to the Lord is never in vain because the Lord himself blesses his servants (Matthew 19:29). This would include setting up the hall – washing the dishes after morning tea and doing a clean up after the service. Anything and everything you do for your brothers and sisters in the Lord is noted by God and he assures us it is not in vain. This means that every time you or I have thought, felt or said that serving in this congregation was a waste of time – we were wrong to think, feel or say that. Our Master who is the Head of the Church notes what we do and says, “your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

2. What makes a church great in the eyes of God?
It is important for all Christian to strive to see things as God sees them and not as we see them through eyes tinted by sin. You and I see things through the eyes of God when we see them through the truth of his word. There are many things that the Lord expects and requires from his people to keep their relationship with the Lord, healthy, vibrant and loving. We will consider four simple things that we are to strive for.
(i). Make your relationship with the Lord the most important issue in your life and pursue this relationship with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This means that your life is God-centered and God focused in all that you do, say, think, feel and love. The shorter Westminster Catechism tells us: ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ As a believer you must live for God’s glory and enjoy living for his glory. In a sense we can say that the words ‘glorify God’ describes the actions of the mind, heart, and strength, while the words ‘enjoying God’ relates to the soul’s or spirit’s response to our glorifying God which ought to fill us with delight and joy. The enjoyment of God will depend on the state of your relationship with God, your motivation and your desire to please God. Legalistic obedience can be seen by men and women as ‘glorifying God,’ but in God’s eyes because the obedience is not done to express love for him, or exalt him, or please him or to honour him the obedience falls short of God’s requirement. If these requirements are not present in obedience it is a cold relationship between a Master and servant – our relationship with the Lord is that of a loving relationship between sons and their Father. Sin has a real impact on your relationship with God as it grieves the Holy Spirit and can provoke the Father to anger. In a small church it is vital for each member to constantly evaluate the state of their relationship with God and to praise God when it is healthy and repent when it is not.

(ii). Make a conscious decision to be faithful. Within church life there are many things that can change, but truth never, never changes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be changed in anyway to make it more appealing or more acceptable to an ever-changing world. The gospel that changed the lives of three thousand on the day of Pentecost is the same gospel that will change the lives of people in Australia today. As a small church the pressure to grow in numbers is real, but we must not entertain the idea of changing the gospel to win the approval of the community – to do that is like asking a blind person to evaluate a painting. In a small church we should all be on guard against any compromise of the truth. Are you being faithful to the truth of the Bible in word, deed and thought?

(iii). Make a commitment to be prayerful. If a small church wants to see change in their church they must give themselves whole-heartedly to prayer. We live on a spiritual battlefield and the war is fierce, but the power of God in believers makes them very able soldiers. Satan has filled the hearts and minds of unbelievers with thick darkness which only the power of God can remove – our prayers must plead with God to pour out the Holy Spirit to dispel the darkness from the hearts of men and women. Richard Bewes said, “The work of God cannot be undertaken without prevailing intercessory prayer. Indeed we must go further and insist that prayer actually is the work.“ This means that if you are not praying for the Lord to build his church in us and through us you are not working for change. As a small church we need to make a real binding commitment to praying for this congregation as a labour of love to the glory of God.

(iv). Make witnessing to the power of God a part of your ordinary life. It is very important to know the truth in theoretical and practical terms which transforms us to be more like Christ. The Scripture would have us know the truth, live the truth and also share the truth with others. You are to share the truth with believers to have fellowship in the Lord. You are to share the truth with unbelievers to evangelize those in darkness and bondage to sin. If you do not share your faith with fellow believers there is every possibility that you will never share it with unbelievers. You have been saved to shine for the glory of God. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. {15} Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. {16} Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” In a small church it is imperative that all members let their light shine and witness to the power of God in them in example and deed. Everyday we are obligated to the Lord to show and tell of his mighty power.

Being a great church is not about the numbers, it is about enjoying God and the people he has called to be part of the congregation. Satan naturally will seek to prevent us from enjoying God and each other. To accomplish this he uses two strategies – he will constantly tempt us to focus on what we do not have rather than on what the Lord has given us. Secondly he will tempt us in subtle ways to make us critical of others in the congregation. For us to be a great church we need to fix our eyes upon Jesus and strive by the power of the Holy Spirit in us to please our Heavenly Father. You will depend on me to do this and I will depend on you to do this. May God in his grace move us to do this with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength? Amen.