The following message was delivered at the Near East School of Theology's 85th Commencement on June 10, 2017
The church today, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, is living perplexing and challenging days. No matter what the sphere of human existence – science, culture, the family, religion, the arts, education, technology, politics, economics, and on, and on, and on… – the terrain around the church is shifting to the point of unrecognizability, making it difficult for Christians to find and keep their bearings. And one of the most basic challenges, and one that we often overlook because we rely so fully on it, is the propensity to quantify life – to render it in numerical terms. This has completely overtaken the church, individual Christians, and anyone who holds a smart phone or sits at a computer, such that we don’t realize how fully it has changed our perception of the church and our fellow humans. Look at the term we so blithely use to describe our age: the “digital” age. Digits. Numbers. Ones and zeroes. That’s all it is, you know. All the pictures in your photo album, all the messages you launch hither and yon, all the voices you hear on your phone, all the cat videos and breaking news reports you take in are just ones and zeroes. You and I have become virtual ones and zeroes in this brave, new world.
This is, of course, one of the legacies that western culture – my culture – has brought to the world, one of the very mixed blessings of globalization. You see I come from a culture that loves to talk about numbers. How many, how high, how hot, how deep, the frequency, the trend, the percentages, the bottom line, the ranking… it’s all about numbers. And the church of the west is also the often-unconscious purveyor of this attitude. It wants to see results, to count baptisms and decisions and funerals, to quantify and measure its existence, and so… it exports this way of thinking, and sometimes imposes this way of thinking; and we in this region, assuming they know better, because they are, after all, bigger and better organized than we, and they are in the west – we “buy” these goods. We buy into this way of thinking. A way of thinking that thoughtful Christians in the west are themselves seriously questioning and rethinking.
Because of our 19th century western missionary legacy – and that’s what most of us are in this room, a product of that legacy – it is difficult for us to call into question the assumptions that were a part of our founding efforts. It’s like getting into an argument with your elderly aunt. But just as people like Luther and Calvin, half a millennium ago in Europe, struggled mightily to dig deep into the root of the matter, or as thinkers in the Ottoman Empire like Yeznagian and Utujian and others did 175 years ago for the Armenian and other indigenous churches, this struggle to discern what God would have his church do and be in this or that culture is crucial for us in these days. We, too, must expend the effort needed to hear the Lord’s voice over the din of contemporary life as well as the resonating echo of tradition, local or imported. Because today, the Lord is calling his church here in the Middle East and environs to a ministry that the church in many other places, such as where I come from, cannot fully grasp. It is a biblical call to you and me, and not something springing from the wells of wishful thinking. No matter where in the world, no matter what our cultural leanings, we have to pay attention to this call: to hear it, to consider it carefully as the church of the Lord Jesus and as churches of this region, and then to follow our Lord in the paths that he leads us.
(In case you want to go to sleep for the rest of my speech, I will tell you up front:) This is what I perceive that call to be: it is the call to be small. To be insignificant and unimportant in the eyes of the world. A call to be ignored and forgotten, sometimes even a call to be taken “for granted”. This flies in the face of how the world operates, even in these parts. The larger you are, the more important you are. Why, even (as the Arabic saying goes – for men) the size of your belly is the measure of how important you are! One must be showing growth in order to have a voice, to justify the expenditure of money, or to clothe it in religious terms, to demonstrate that God is blessing you. But God’s blessings manifest themselves in the strangest of ways; yes, including growth and health and enlarged tents, but also in ways such as perseverance and contentment and joy. The birth stories of the church in the Acts of the Apostles show us both sides: explosive growth (at first), but also, down the road a bit, growth in the ability to endure hardships, misunderstandings, and, yes, persecutions.
A little while ago I mentioned how even the United States is learning this lesson. I meant to say that churches in the U.S. are learning it. One of the things they are questioning concerns what constitutes a healthy church. The underlying assumption is that small churches need to get big. In this way of thinking, a small church is merely one that hasn’t yet experienced God’s anointing and his undeniable will that it should get bigger. Much of the writing about church dynamics over the years emanating from the U.S. (and after all, where else do we get our theological ideas from but the U.S.…?) – much of that writing views small churches as merely miniature big churches. But now writers are being bold to say that the metrics (there’s our fascination with numbers again) – the metrics of a small church demonstrate that smallness is a quality, and not a problem to overcome. This demands a paradigm-shift, especially when you are a church that was once large, and now, through emigration due to civil war and economic threats, have turned into a small church, and often a small church with a large facility to maintain. These are undeniable challenges, and I am also not saying that large churches have no place in society. But I want to highlight the Lord’s calling to us and to our churches, and the challenge it represents to our traditional way of thinking of the Christian church and the Christian believer.
This call and challenge is to be something very unlike what is promoted in the culture we imbibe on a moment-by-moment basis. It is the call to be small, even to be forgotten. To fall into the ground and be buried. To be scattered and dissolved in order to flavor food. To be kneaded (and needed) to make a lump of dough rise. To be satisfied in seeking not the highest place, but the last. To strive to lose your life, not to preserve it. To take your deepest acts of devotion into your private room. To block the view between your right hand and your left. And on… and on… and on. God’s word is replete with these sorts of images, images that challenge the consumerist gospel, so apparent in promo videos about today’s church. But here we have Christ’s vision for his church, and for his individual followers, and it has ever been thus: his call to be small.
We live in an environment where great powers, near and far, may seem to acknowledge the rights of the small and oppressed. They might be paying lip-service to human rights and minority voices, or to the importance of the church’s existence in the land of its birth. But we know very well that in every influencer’s and every policy-maker’s mind there is a silent tallying going on, a mental census, assessing how numerous this or that group is, how many churches and schools does it have, how many rich and influential members does it boast, how much land and property does it own. This is a fact of our life we have to deal with, but it must not affect our basic calling to be a church that testifies to a God who chose to be small, even unimportant, taking on our flesh, wearing the garb of a servant, serving in the least desirable corner of the Roman Empire (I was going to say “armpit” of the Empire, but I decided not to). God, who through his eternal love for us and desire to lift us out of our miserable and sinful state, preached to us good news, news of the power of his grace to forgive our sins… and then, submitting to the political and religious powers that be, who unjustly charged him with sedition and put him to a shameful death, landing him on the roster of the dead. This is the Lord who calls you and me to not think grand thoughts about ourselves. God was the one who lifted Christ out of that obscure and ignoble tomb, lifting him to his throne, and sending his Holy Spirit to empower us to be a mustard seed, a grapevine’s branch, salt, a lamp, a woman dropping a pair of coppers into a big offering box, a man somewhere faithfully tending his garden. His is the call to be even a bewildered disciple of Jesus, like Philip, who saw very plainly the inadequacy of the available resources when faced with the needs of thousands. Or to be a disciple who embraced the irrationality of it all, like Andrew, who took those inadequate resources to Jesus, not knowing how his Master would ever be able to make them fit the critical situation they were in. Or to be like that young boy who surrendered his lunch, those few loaves of bread and that pair of tiny, salted fish, for the Lord to bless this crowd of thousands. Note that the Lord was aware of the numbers, and knew that the odds were against him. He paid attention to what was available, and what was left over. But it wasn’t about numbers. It was about willingness, generosity, and obedience. Our Lord measures his church – his disciples – us – by the quality of our faith, not by the quantity of our resources. He knows we are weak and small. But he wants us to be faithful in our small things. And when the temptation presents itself to think in terms of power and influence, he leads us by his example. Not seeking star power, after his miracle of feeding the crowd, he withdrew and distanced himself from the plans people had to make him king by force. That was not the path he sought, nor the path he leads us to take. Our Lord puts his treasure in insignificant clay jars, so that it be evident to all that the transcendent, surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (II Cor. 4.7).
I suppose my being a minority within a minority within a minority (i.e., an Evangelical Armenian in the Middle East), though I originate from a country that is used to “running the show” and “calling the shots”, has helped me to see the so-called “weaker” and “smaller” aspect of Jesus’ call, the aspect he exemplified in his atoning death for us, and the type of path he calls us to follow. Our calling is to faithful living, serving, and dying. Our calling is to pray for more workers to enter God’s harvest. And when he provides those workers, albeit only a few (or even just three), our call is then to train them in scattering and watering the seed; but it is God’s work alone to give the growth and help us in our labors (I Cor. 3.6-9). We need to keep the idea of smallness foremost in our minds, so that we do not imitate the ways of this world, imposing change from above, whether good or bad, abusing and manipulating and obliterating others precisely because we consider dominance as our God-given calling. The way that we deal with change and disorientation and our smallness in relation to the “powers that be” must demonstrate that we trust in the One who has the power to bring a yield of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold from just a handful of scattered seeds (Mk. 4.8).
This is your call, and mine. This is God’s calling to the church of Jesus Christ. To embrace our call to be small. And to rejoice in the One who is great, who shows us what greatness means as he implants his Spirit in the hearts of the child, the sorrowing, the displaced, the elderly, in men and women of every tribe and every tongue under the sun, who have been chosen and redeemed to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light of Jesus Christ (I Peter 2.9). To him be honor and glory and majesty, now and forever!
Nishan and Maria serve with the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East (UAECNE). Their appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.
This commencement address was posted with permission.