Updated: Mar 29
We know that during the Roman Empire, the followers of Jesus were a very small minority of the small majority of Jewish people. Today, we often view being “small” as a deficit to ministry, and despair over the dwindling number of people who participate in churches. We are all familiar with this parable from Matthew 13.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
During my trip to the Holy Land in January, one of the places we visited was the Dar al-Kalima University. There we learned that Christians make up between 1-2% of the population in Palestine, emigrating from the country in increasing numbers because of the ongoing conflict and lack of economic challenges. That was not surprising having seen the conditions in which Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens.
What was surprising is that 49% of the organizations (a total of 296) that offer continuous assistance “in the service of humankind” are affiliated with Christian churches! At present, 93 schools, universities, and vocational centers, 19 healthcare facilities, 47 social protection institutions, 77 cultural and tourism centers, 38 youth and scout centers, one environmental center, and 21 local and international development agencies deliver a variety of services to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as part of their Christian identity and culture. (This is according to a 2021 study by George Akroush.) And over 90% of these organizations' beneficiaries are non-Christians from across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Their small size does not stop them from doing ministry, ministry done in collaboration with churches around the world, ministry that “is an important cornerstone of peace and state-building.”
Visiting with pastors, leaders, and members of the six small congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, I heard many concerns expressed about the dwindling presence of Christians in Palestine, about the flight of young families to find better living conditions, about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of poverty and conflict. They were honest about the realities they faced. What I did not hear was despair. What I experienced was an abundance of hospitality and commitment to continuing to change lives. Very legitimate concerns do not stop them from planting seeds, growing trees, and helping neighbors so that all Muslims, Christians, and Jews can be fed with hope. Again, they do not do this work alone but in partnership with others, including the ELCA.
So how might we travel the way of Jesus by being honest about challenges and concerns? Instead of giving into fear and despair, we focus on the abundance of God’s grace, the abundance of partnerships, and the abundance of resources when we travel the way of Jesus together. Being part of the ELCA enables us to travel this way with others and do amazing ministry.
We know that small, which many of our congregations are, does not mean insignificant. It doesn’t mean we have an aversion to growth and reaching out, and it doesn’t mean that we just “settle” because there is nothing much we can do. It means we focus on traveling the way of Jesus into our communities to become cornerstones of peace and service to humanity and all of creation.