Christmas with Stuart McLean

My wife and I began listening to Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe nearly 20 years ago. Listening to the Christmas ones has become a regular part of our family’s annual Christmas traditions.

The most famous of McLean’s Christmas stories is “Dave Cooks the Turkey.” If you’ve never listened to Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe, much less this particular story, it’s time for you to address this egregious omission on your part. Trust me now and thank me later.

And Merry Christmas!

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

“We’re not big, but we’re small.”

That is the slogan of a fictional record store called “The Vinyl Cafe,” created by the late Canadian storyteller, humourist, and broadcaster Stuart MacLean. The Vinyl Cafe was also a weekly radio show on CBC. On it Stuart narrated funny and often poignant stories about Dave (owner of the Vinyl Cafe), his wife Morley, and their family, friends, and neighbours.

The slogan of Dave’s store–We’re not big, but we’re small–has always stuck with me.

Because it is saying that being small is a good thing, perhaps even an advantage. Other words come to mind when I think of it. Homey. Local. Available. Friendly. Accessible. Particular. Personal. Familial.

Know what I mean?

Now, the reason I share this is because I am the pastor of a small church. And for a long time I felt like being a small church was a disadvantage to overcome. As a pastor in this situation, you can–I’ll be honest–feel like a failure. You can feel less than. Insignificant. You find yourself asking, “What am I doing wrong?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to grow. I’m certainly not saying we should be content to remain as we are. No, no. Christ calls us to live out the great commission, to reach into our communities in love and truth with his good news. That’s non-negotiable. So if a church is small because they are ignoring the calling they have from Jesus, then that’s a serious problem.

No, what I’m talking about is when churches have an inferiority complex. When as a small church we feel like we have less to contribute to God’s kingdom. When, because we think the main point is to continue increasing numerically, we feel perpetually discouraged if that doesn’t happen.

In the book of Numbers, the Israelites scout out the land of Canaan, and they give a report to Moses upon their return. Remember, this is the land God had promised to them, that he was calling them to occupy. He said he would bring them into the land. Here’s their report:

So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. We even saw the Nephilim there-the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.”

Numbers 13:32-33

With the exception of Caleb, they didn’t want to go into the land. The Israelites were looking at their circumstances and not at God.

Pastor Karl Vaters, in his book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Thinking that Divides Us, reflects on this story from Numbers and writes: “There is no ideal church size. Every size meets the needs of the people who seek them out.”

And this: “Loving God and loving others is not a church growth strategy. It’s not a means to an end. It is the means and the end.”

And also this: “What makes a family healthy and loving has nothing to do with numbers. It should be the same in the family of God.”

Here’s the truth: small churches worship and serve a big God—infinitely big, as it happens.

In an article at The Gospel Coalition by Erik Raymond called “Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things,” he writes that “small things add up. Small things are ordained by a very big God.” The title of his article comes from Zechariah 4:10: For who despises the day of small things?

There are people who will never go to a large church. Maybe they’re really close to the people in their small church and they deeply value those relationships. Maybe they are apprehensive in big crowds. Maybe they even feel a sense of calling to participate in God’s work right where they are. Heck, some might simply want to go to church where everyone knows one another’s names.

God wants to use small churches. God can use small churches. God does use small churches.

Even large churches know the value of small. That’s why in addition to their big gatherings, most large churches also promote small groups.

Every church—large or small—has to answer one question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? The way in which God seeks to use your church will not be how he plans to use the larger church down the road or in the next town over.

So don’t worry about what God is doing with that other church. Instead, don’t underestimate what God can do in yours.

Don’t despise the day of small things.

And then trust that God—who is more than big enough to work in and through churches of any size—can also work through yours.

Consider what Paul says:

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

This applies to all churches. So remember small church, you’re not big, but you’re small.

When Less is More

“We’re not big but we’re small!”

So goes the slogan for the fictional used record store in Stuart MacLean’s radio program The Vinyl Café.

And I love it.

You see, seldom in our church culture is small a point of pride. Instead, we worry and fret when numbers are down. We hope and pray for more people to come, to participate, to get involved. I recall in my earlier years as a pastor, other pastors and people from other churches would ask me if and how much my church had grown during my ministry. Denominations tabulate baptism numbers. Ministry effectiveness gets reduced to mathematics.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am aware that numerical growth, while not necessarily important in itself, can be indicative of spiritual health, of the vitality of a congregation and the impact this vitality can have on the surrounding community. I also know that we want more people rather than fewer people coming to Christ. I simply want to suggest that vitality and numbers is a more complex equation than some think.

There are things that are true of smaller churches that can never be true of a larger church, good things, things to be grateful for. Yes, there are disadvantages. But for now I want to focus on what makes being a small congregation a positive experience.

First of all, there’s a real sense of family. Everyone knows everyone. Heck, everyone knows where everyone sits. Whatever the downside of this might be, it also means that we know when someone is sick, when they’ve been away, when their participation has begun to ebb. Since I have friends who’ve been to large churches where weeks can go by before someone knows your name, there’s something wonderful about being that much more acquainted and connected with the other folks sitting around you. You can’t drop out without being noticed.

Not only this, but in a smaller church things tend to be less formal. Our Sunday morning worship service isn’t as professional or polished as that of some large churches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we have this folksy “aw shucks!” attitude about how well things are done, and take a certain weird pride in making mistakes. But neither do we get all bent out of shape when things don’t run like a well-oiled machine. Put another way, ours is not a congregation filled with perfectionists.

New people can also make connections easier. Someone new can more quickly become a part of the congregation. They don’t get lost in the crowd. They can participate almost immediately in the life of the church. Most regulars make a real point of welcoming someone new because having someone new is such a rare but wonderful gift.

If you are a part of a smaller church, maybe you can think of other strengths they offer.

Oh, I know. Every upside has a downside. There are cons as well as pros. I could very easily describe the shadow side of all these good points. However, I think most of us know already the negatives of small churches. But since a lot of churches—particularly rural congregations—may always be smaller, it’s important to consider what is specifically valuable about being a smaller church. This is significant because without reflecting on these good things, we might always end up with this inferiority complex, this feeling that we haven’t quite made it, that we weren’t quite up for the job. Since being in a small church can actually be a wonderful and rich experience, I’d rather that we be able to say, with all the joy and gratitude we can muster, “We’re not big but we’re small!”