I grew up attending a small Adventist church of 54 in a small town of 625. Most of my early years of ministry were in similar environments.
Tales of that mythical megacongregation in Seoul, Korea, were just a churchman's urban legend.
Then, thanks to men like Bill Hybels and Leith Anderson, the megachurch became American. I heard about them, and my wheels began to spin. I attended a couple, and my wheels really spun.
Why couldn't an Adventist congregation become a megachurch? All you needed to do was add the word Community to your name and some praise songs to worship and, well... the rest would become history.
Then I landed in Marshall, Minnesota, on the edge of the prairie. Walk or ride your bike and you're anywhere in town in a few minutes. Most everyone goes to church at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Not a very likely place to build a megachurch, but with over 12,000 population, Marshall is the largest town in southwest Minnesota, so why not? I could visualize a smaller-sized megachurch here, so---with great enthusiasm---I began.
Although I wanted to focus exclusively on Marshall, my district spans the entire southwestern corner of Minnesota, with members living everywhere from Montevideo to Luverne, from Sleepy Eye to Flandreau and Brookings (they're in South Dakota). That's over 100,000 square miles, which includes 136 communities of varying smallness, and endless farms! I had two (now three) small congregations and a tiny company meeting on a side road outside of Marshall.
Reality hit me hard---and fast.
"When is the pastor going to live here, in our town?"
"Isn't it time we got our due for a change?"
"What? You mean you're going to be here only once a month? We're as important as that big church in Marshall!"
I soon realized that my megachurch wasn't going to come easily. It was a realization that I wholeheartedly refused to accept. Then I listened to an interview with Patrick M. Morley, author of What Husbands Wish Their Wives Knew About Men (Zondervan). He concluded that the single biggest thing in a man's life is significance.
Men have a compelling need to be important. Some men sacrifice their families for their work; with others it's the way the vote at the church board meeting goes. However they seek it, the key motive of men is their significance.
I don't remember the exact circumstances when I finally felt a conviction from the Lord, who spoke to my heart, saying, "Which of us would you like to be more significant, John, you, or Me?" I had to get on my knees to confess.
Why did I want a megachurch in Marshall? The answer was simple: I wanted significance. I wanted to be someone important. I wanted my name in lights. I wanted popularity.
As I began to think about it, more and more the idea of a megachurch in an area like mine became laughable. It just didn't fit.
Meanwhile, day after day I drove by thousands of acres of farms. Day by day those thousands of acres of corn and beans became more beautiful. I prayed for the farmers to have good crops. I gasped in awe at the mountains of grain beside the elevators. I prayed for the farmer whose grain wagon tipped over into Heron Lake. The power and force of the Minnesota River in flood awed me. I prayed that in some way the farmers would hear what they needed to know, if they were ever going to leave with Jesus when He returns. And I prayed that I would be open to be used of God to help reach these souls, in whatever way He deemed fit.
Then it clicked. It took driving past a lot of acres, but it is so simple, so obvious: Buried seeds germinate and grow and produce food to feed the world simply by receiving what God provides for their growth. Minnesotans are just fields waiting to be planted with the seeds of the gospel, and all the church needs to do is supply what God provides for spiritual growth.
"The plants and flowers grow not by their own care or anxiety or effort, but by receiving that which God has furnished to minister to their life. The child cannot, by any anxiety or power of its own, add to its stature. No more can you, by anxiety or effort of yourself, secure spiritual growth. The plant, the child, grows by receiving from its surroundings that which ministers to its life air, sunshine, and food. What these gifts of nature are to animal and plant, such is Christ to those who trust in Him."1
One day a member requested that I be gin a group Bible study in my apartment on Friday evenings. It continues to be one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in ministry. We sing praise songs to my heart's con tent. The studies focus on God and His character as revealed in the Word. Even a Baptist minister and his family join us. Recently I started two other groups, and I'm already hearing about their positive impact.
This wasn't exactly the megachurch of my earlier dreams, yet I have learned from these small, Spirit-filled meetings that our significance comes not from our size but from our willingness to be faithful and committed to the Lord, in whatever work He gives us.
There's always time for personal commitment to God; of that there's no question. And who knows, maybe there's even time for a megachurch, maybe even in Marshall. Until then, through the grace of God, I plan to be faithful to the work that He has given me, both here in Marshall and along the wide open fields of southwestern Minnesota.
1. Ellen G. White, Lift Him Up (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1949), 70.