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Faithfulness in a 'day of small things'

Why might words written twenty-five centuries ago resonate so strongly with us today? Reading Zechariah recently, I found the phrase, ‘Who dares despise the day of small things?’, reverberating in my spirit and taking up residence in my thinking.

Writes Steve Aisthorpe

From a purely empirical viewpoint, most of us do live in a ‘day of small things’. With notable exceptions, the church of our day is characterised by the small. Some years ago, while writing The Invisible Church (SAP, 2016), having reviewed data relating to the changing shape of the church, I was forced to conclude that, ‘… the Church’s mode of being is shifting rapidly from being predominantly institutional towards patterns of fellowship and discipleship that are characterised by small, loosely organised, relational groups.’


Zechariah’s words emerged from a context of exile (or, more accurately, post-exile) and we live at a time when many thinkers from across the theological spectrum find the metaphor of exile to be a helpful lens through which to understand our contemporary context. Being moved from centre to fringe, the church has experienced a kind of dislocation. Questions and insights arising from biblical experiences of exile have taken on new significance.


Our ‘day of small things’ has emerged as the big has become smaller, but also through a burgeoning of small, informal, Christian communities. Many of these exist ‘below the radar’, failing to show up in denominational statistics or censuses. However, when researchers do the diligent digging necessary, they find them to be diverse and widespread. When the Church of Scotland asked parishes about ‘new worshipping communities’ in its 2021 statistical returns, over 250 parishes reported at least one recent ‘mini church’ development. When those statistics were explored through a personal telephone call with someone involved in each new community, it was discovered that, for two thirds of the 12,500 people involved, one of these relatively new, invariably small, faith communities is their main or sole experience of church.


The context of Zachariah’s exhortation, cautioning the people not to spurn the small, is best understood through the words of his contemporaries. Ezra describes how, as people saw the foundations of the new temple ‘many … who had seen the former temple, wept aloud …  while many others shouted for joy’ (Ezra 3:12). Some were distraught, wondering how this could be God’s promised future when it looked so insignificant. Nostalgia rendered them unable to see what was in front of them with anything other than disappointment. However, others saw the same thing as a reason to rejoice, the first signs of a new thing. 


Every season is characterised by its own challenges - and blessings. The small is the ideal context for the radical mutuality the New Testament calls us to foster. It is in the intimacy and highly relational context of the small that we are best able to ‘one another’ one another. As Bishop John V. Taylor, a messenger to the church ahead of his time, explained: ‘the ideal shape of the church... will provide this “one-another-ness”… [with] the least possible withdrawal of Christians from their corporateness with their fellow men in the world… little congregations must become normative if the church is to respond to the Spirit’s movement in the life of the world.’ (The Go Between God, SCM, 1972).


With such a strong theological imperative for the small, it is unsurprising that smaller Christian communities are more likely to experience numerical growth. The From anecdote to evidence report (Archbishops’ Council, 2014) was unequivocal: ‘Small churches exhibit the most positive growth trends.’ When the Institute for Natural Church Development analysed responses from 70,000 church congregations, they concluded that, of 170 variables, it was ‘small groups’ that had the strongest positive relationship with numerical growth.


‘Small’ is also the best context in which questions and doubts can be explored and we know that the lack of opportunities for that is an important factor in people disengaging from congregational life. Where the small is celebrated, it is easier to nurture a variety of expressions of church – and that kind of diversity is vital in enabling more people to encounter the gospel. 


As we seek to be faithful in this ‘day of small things’, hear the words of another of Zechariah’s contemporaries. Addressing that crowd, with their mixture of despair and hope, joy and despondency, Haggai declared the words of the LORD Almighty: ‘Be strong … and work. For I am with you … And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ (Haggai 2:4)  

Steve Aisthorpe leads Kilmalieu, a place of Christian retreat and environmental restoration on the west coast of Scotland. He is author of The Invisible Church (SAP, 2016) and Rewilding the Church (SAP, 2020). He was previously a Mission Development Worker for the Church of Scotland and Executive Director of the International Nepal Fellowship.

Steve works 1 day a week for RM, establishing a Rural Mission Hub on the West coast of Scotland.

First published in MOSAIC Issue 12, January - April - December 2024


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