Dear Students of the Pastoral Ministry:
Charles Haddon Spurgeon had it right when he commented on Zechariah 4:10:
“It is a very great folly to despise ‘the day of small things,’ for it is usually God’s way to begin His great works with small things.”
As pastors and other Gospel servants, we are prone to be swayed by the marketing prowess of merchants of promised greatness. We may come to believe that our ministries are only important if they are reaching a large number of people. We are tempted to believe that a pastorate can only be considered greatly effective if there are great multitudes hearing it. We think those pastors who are the greatest are those who have produced the most books or the most articles or have the most-read blogs or are reaching the most people with Facebook “likes.” The sensate culture builds on what is already in our fallen minds: “More is better. Success is in numbers.” This may be true sometimes, but not necessarily so all the time. It is not a helpful way to think. it is usually a very toxic way to think. Now I want to careful. It is certainly not wrong to seek to reach more people with the Gospel — in fact we should desire that. It can be spiritually deadly to see “smallness” as the only sign of orthodoxy, when, in fact, it becomes a badge of spiritual pride that is driving otherwise needy souls away! Yet beyond these caveats, we must not despise “the day of small things.” We must recognize that our Savior was born in a relatively anonymous and forgotten village. We must remember that God chose the small things to magnify his glory in the small things to show us the hope when the large things fail.
This really is the story of Ruth and of Hannah, both of whose stories interrupt the larger stories of the great nation of Israel. You would think that the greatest things accomplished would be accomplished through the Judges, the leaders, and the nation of Israel as a whole, as it witnessed to the world of a Covenant made with God of the coming Messiah. Yet this was not so. Judges ends with “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” God refocused our hearts after the decayed hope of Judges by telling the surprising story of a widowed and childless Gentile woman who would become a “grandmother” to God in the Flesh. Ruth, an otherwise anonymous widow woman would become the key to reaching the greatest number of people, not the Judges. God followed the story of Ruth with the story of a childless, oppressed woman in grief named Hannah. Yet from Hanna’s tearful prayers, a prophet arose who would indeed influence the world greatly, her little boy Samuel.
Listen. Do you hear the cadence of the redemptive tip-tap of small things? A woman? A widow? A barren woman? An oppressed woman? The larger story of the nation of Israel would not resume in Scripture until we had understood well that Covenant fulfillment was not dependent on national greatness but divine deliverance displayed through faithfulness in the most unlikely places. Glory.
All of the small stories of the Bible lead to a larger story, to a greater story, when small things became the best things, the life of our Savior Jesus Christ.
His glory is magnified in this way.
Friends, as you consider calls and ministry opportunities, do not fall for the line, “but this will leverage your gifts in a greater way and reach more people than this smaller ministry.” That sounds good. And I am not arguing against strategic thinking in the kingdom of God. We are to be “wise as serpents… ” However, despise not the day of small things. Let the Gospel story of Ruth and Hannah guide you to the story of Jesus and His twelve disciples: glory wrapped in the unlikely.
This past week, five young man came into my office with their youth pastor, seniors in high school all, who were sensing a call to ministry. These boys were not only considering college but they wanted to think about seminary afterwards and to prepare for the ministry. So they sat in several seminary classes. They interviewed professors. And they ended up in my office for a time of conversation and reflection upon the pastoral ministry and a time of prayer. Several of these young men were little boys in my pastorate before I came to the seminary. As I embraced them, it was all I could do to keep from shedding tears of joy for them. It made me remember how important it was to minister to each person and each family. Their cheerful visit caused me to reflect upon the times that I had spent with that little boy who was now in front of me. It caused me to remember that as I would ascend the steps of the chancel and take my seat awaiting the beginning of the service I would allow my eyes to move across the rows of people gathered for the assembly that day. I would gaze in wonder upon the marvelous visage of Gospel-transformed families. I would look into the eyes of fidgeting, giggling children. I would look upon those I laughed with in the previous week at jokes told in hardware aisles where we met looking for plungers. I would look upon those who were in counseling with me over troubled marriages or trouble minds or doubting souls. I was their pastor—their shepherd for the Good Shepherd. I knew their stories. It was my job to not only exegete the Scriptures but to exegete each of their lives. It was my calling to stand between heaven and those people, to stand between the Celestial Throne-room of God and sometimes the foul, urine-smell of a nursing home vigil of death and bring Communion to a saint of the Lord—and see that foul place of aging and death become a beautiful sanctuary. It was my calling to interpret the redemptive power of Christ at Lazarus’ tomb to the personal struggle of one old man who lost his wife and was trying to make sense of a life without his helpmate and how he could go on. In short, I was not standing between heaven and the entire earth of people multiplying ministry through television and social media, I was bringing the Word of God to people, in their otherwise anonymous world and remind them that God does not major in only the big things, but also the small things.
But what I’ve learned is when you are faithful in those small things, and you appreciate how God can miraculously connect the stories of one family with another family and with one church and another church, then with churches and communities and nations, you begin to see that the power of multiplication is not really about technology but the Gospel in relationships. The power of multiplying the Gospel is about God’s Glory and God’s redemptive purposes. He will not share his glory with any man. We must not approach calls to pastoral ministry with just the question, “What will reach the most people?” We must approach our calls with “How can I bring God the most glory? How can I pour myself out in such a way as to bring healing to one person or two people.” God will do the multiplication better than any Twitter or YouTube.
Now. You certainly know that I am not a Luddite. I believe in using the resources God had given us to multiply and maximize Gospel witness. What I am saying is the impact of one pastor and one family or one pastor and one individual is still the bedrock of how God is building his kingdom. It is a message to myself as much as to any graduating student seeking a call.
Do not despise the day of small things for in the small things God’s glory is magnified. That is the story of Ruth and Hannah, of Mary and Joseph, of our Lord Himself.
Faith peers through the small things and through the generations to witness a multitude of souls gathered with Christ when He comes again. So don’t overlook the little farming community church in Iowa without remembering this God of small things.
May Christ Jesus bless you and anoint you and your families for the journey of ministry before you. What an honor to stand between heaven and earth to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ—to many and to few! For the glory of multiplying loaves and fishes is His work, not ours.
Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.
The James M. Baird Jr. Chair of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary