In 2015 I made a ministry transition from a multi-site church of about 3,000 attendees to a parish church of roughly 400. I had longed for a smaller church context, desiring to serve a body where people knew each other well and where I could use my gifts more broadly in church leadership. Still, the change in church size revealed an idol I didn’t realize I had been worshiping: the idol of attendance.
I understood that the position involved a re-start of the high school ministry, which had declined during the cultural shift from Millennials to iGen. What hadn’t occurred to me was just how dependent I had become on numbers to validate my performance in ministry. At my previous church, I had often advocated “people over programs!” But in the absence of those programs I felt suddenly exposed, wondering if I had what it took to begin something new.
Maybe you find yourself bowing to this numbers idol, too. If you serve a small to medium-sized church you may hold your breath, wondering if anyone will show up for youth group or events; if they don’t, you question your calling and value. Or maybe you regularly compare yourself to another church that seems to attract all the students, making it difficult to sustain youth ministry in your own congregation. Perhaps you’re doing start-up ministry at a church plant and coveting a position at a more established church, or longing for the good old days when youth were more engaged in your aging congregation.
At some point in my first few months of cold-texting high schoolers and wondering how long it might take to see growth in our ministry, I read Zechariah 4:10 (NIV): “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” I was cut to the heart for my false worship, reminded that I was called to proclaim the gospel of grace: that Christ died and rose again to rescue sinners, not to validate my own identity through ministry performance.
Rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple
These words about “small things” came to Zechariah following the Exile, seventeen years after Israel started returning to Jerusalem. At the time of Zechariah’s night visions in 520 B.C., the people in Jerusalem had begun to despair. The rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, commissioned by King Cyrus of Persia was taking a long time to get going—and they were losing heart.
In his fifth vision (Zechariah 4), the Messianic angel showed Zechariah a golden menorah in the middle of two olive trees (vv. 2-3) to supply it with oil for continuously light, a picture of Eden restored. Responding to Zechariah’s confusion about the meaning of this vision, the angel explained that the two trees are the two anointed ones (vv.14-15)—Joshua the High Priest, and Zurabbabel, a descendent of David in the line of Judah, both types (or symbolic analogies) of Christ, the coming priest-king!
The angel assured Zechariah that Zerubbabel would indeed complete the Temple (vv. 9-10). But to show God’s great power, he declared that the renovation would be completed “‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ declares the LORD… ‘For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel’” (vv. 6, 10, ESV).
The message to Zechariah and to his people was this: Stop looking at the finite progress of your rebuilding program and start looking to God, who is working beyond what your eyes can see to bring His glory.
This is God’s way with us as well. “He uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong… so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). He uses our feeble efforts in ways we can only begin to imagine. If we focus only on the progress we can see, we will often miss the bigger vision of His coming glory.
The Temple Restoration Project and the New Jerusalem
According to the New Testament writers, the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple was a type, or symbol, of the true Temple to come. The Temple is now God’s people (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5), and the Lord Almighty and the Lamb will be the true and lasting Temple that his people inhabit forever (Revelation 21:22).
Youth minister, this means that you and I join God in His “Temple restoration project”as we teach and equip a generation of young Christians. The great Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline wrote, “The Great Commission calls the church to a construction project, a building of the holy temple of God. Risen from the dead, slayer of the dragon and so validated as the true King of kings…He is himself the Masterbuilder, but he commissions his people to enter into his work of redemptive re-creation with him.”
Some days it seems painfully slow, and we are tempted to lose heart. But we are promised that our small beginnings with students will give rise to an unending Day of glory when the project is finally complete!
My own day of small things was a gift from God in my life and ministry. It reminded me that it’s “not by might, nor by power,” but by the Spirit of the living God (Zechariah 4:6) that students are called from death to life in the gospel; this truth began to slowly dethrone the idol of attendance in my heart.
As we began to pray and dream about rebuilding youth ministry in our congregation, it was clear that the efforts would be small for a while. Rather than trying to start something big that might not be sustainable, we gathered a small group of underclassmen interested in helping to relaunch high school ministry. I was hesitant even to call our weekly gathering “youth group,” since our small size meant that we played board games rather than traditional large group games. We studied John’s Gospel and talked about what it meant to be disciples who follow Jesus and make disciples. God used that sweet season of five students gathering every Tuesday night to set a tone for our group that continues to foster warmth today—even as our initial group of freshmen graduate from high school this spring. Through their sacrificial offering of small beginnings, He started a movement of teenagers loving Christ and our church.
If you find yourself in such a day of small things, I’d encourage you to prayerfully consider how you can steward the gifts that God has given you and your church in this particular season. Rather than trying to do youth ministry the way larger groups might, consider how to scale your ministry to your particular small group of students. Even more critical, imagine how you can enlist their gifts and energy in the “Temple renovation project” within your local church.Perhaps, as in our church, students can be called into leadership to build a culture that helps other students connect in gospel-centered community. Or maybe your small group of students can engage in service in the church or your community to the glory of God. However you sense the Lord leading you to shape ministry, I pray that you will not lose heart.
Our great God delights to use small things for the glory of His beloved Son. When the final Temple Restoration Project is complete, we will delight to look back and see how He used our many small beginnings to bring the glory of His presence to bear on every part of life. And every living creature will gather to cry out,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).
For a thorough treatment of Isaiah’s night visions, see Meredith Kline’s Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-Theological Reading of Zechariah’s Night Visions, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001). Pastor Bryan R. Gregory gives a more popularized treatment of Zechariah in his excellent book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series, Longing for God in an Age of Discouragement, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).
Kline, Glory in Our Midst, 169.