The Importance of the Local

Dr. Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. A previous version of this article was published in Christianity Today magazine.

After Jesus' ascension, the disciples must have looked like a sorry bunch as they made their way down the hillside of the Mount of Olives. To say that they were a small, defensive group utterly without influence would be almost to understate the case. What could be expected of such a little group?

Less than three hundred years later, however, the Roman emperor himself would adopt Christianity and the entire Roman empire would fall into line behind him. However much the joining of church and state together under Constantine and his successors was a mixed blessing for Christianity, there is no question that his support of the Christian religion marked considerable success in the spread of the gospel outward from that lonely Judean hill.

Over three centuries, that is, the gospel spread both horizontally and vertically throughout the Roman Empire. By the end of the classical era, there were Christian churches in every major city and in every province. And there were Christians in every stratum of Roman society. Christianity may have begun among the relatively poor, powerless, and oppressed (although even in the gospels it is clear that some persons of influence were converted as well), but over three hundred years it claimed adherents — even under the sporadic but intense persecutions of this era — from bottom to top.

The story culminates in the situation late in the third century and early in the fourth. We know that Constantine (d. 337 AD) adopted Christianity after the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 and made Christianity legal in 313 in his Edict of Milan. Immediately before his reign, however, the church underwent the most widespread oppression it had ever experienced: the program of scapegoating under Emperor Diocletian (245-313) that the Christians called the Great Persecution. In the light (or perhaps "shade") of this event, Constantine's victory and support for Christianity looks positively miraculous: from darkest night to brightest day.

For all the ferocity of Diocletian's decrees, however, the Christian church did not disappear. As historian W. H. C. Frend notes, "the Christians were too well organized, too widespread, and too numerous to be destroyed." Indeed, most ironic of all was the fact that Diocletian and his "deputy emperor" Galerius were themselves married to women suspected of Christian leanings. The faith had spread, in fact, to the imperial family itself. Rather than being a dramatic reversal, then, one can see the conversion of Constantine as simply the next and last logical step in the utter permeation of the Roman world by Christianity.

How did this happen? How did the shaky faith of a little band of Jews become the dominant religion of the entire empire? We are inclined to look at the noble missionary heroes of the New Testament: Philip, Peter, John, Silas, Barnabas, and, above all, Paul. However grateful we ought to be for these men, though, we must be careful not to misrepresent them. This was small-time evangelism: no media campaigns, no tents or stadiums, no P.A. systems, no choirs, no celebrity guests. Instead, there was a lot of tramping about, in one's or two's or three's or four's, conversing and preaching in homes and synagogues and marketplaces — even prisons. The only "mass evangelism campaign" we know about from Acts happened right away at Pentecost, and we hardly think that everything went downhill from there, do we?

Not at all. Scholars of the early church have concluded that the gospel spread so far, so fast, because of local initiative. It spread because ordinary Christians lived out their faith and took it with them as they moved around the empire. We have stellar examples right in the New Testament in Prisca and Aquila, who lived in Pontus (Asia Minor — Aquila's home), Corinth, Ephesus, and on two different occasions in Rome. Indeed, even enemies of Christianity such as Celsus (a pagan philosopher of the second century) praised the high morals of Christians.

To be sure, the church owes much to the itinerant preachers, the pioneer missionaries and church leaders who travelled all over the Mediterranean world: from Asia Minor to Spain, across the top of Africa, and from Arabia to the British Isles. (The Mar Thoma churches in India credit the apostle Thomas with their founding, and this tradition may have historical support.) Leadership matters a great deal, and without the guidance of apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers the early church would not have spread so well nor would it have overcome its many problems.

It remains, however, that the spread and vitality of the church depended mostly upon the faithful leadership of "small-time" itinerants and local, "ordinary" Christian witness. Similar stories fill volumes of church history. Whether the monastic reforms of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and the similar work of Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), or the reforms of individual cities by the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, almost every significant movement of renewal and expansion of the church began locally as gifted leaders and willing workers invested themselves in small, but worthy, projects.

Another angle brings another aspect into view. The Evangelical Awakening which brought the gospel to so many in England during the eighteenth century arose out of the faithful, but ignominious, preaching of George Whitefield and the Wesleys as they stood up to their ankles in the mud of fields and crossroads. Refused the privilege of pulpits, they preached where they could. Small-time indeed! Yet we now understand that the roots of this revival go back further, in one case to an unhappily-married Christian woman who determined to succeed in one particular local project. "There are few [persons], if any," she once wrote, "that would entirely devote above twenty years of the prime of life in hopes to save the souls of their children, which they think may be saved without so much ado; for that was my principle intention, however unskillfully and unsuccessfully managed." How grateful so many of us are, though, that Susanna Wesley persevered in her calling as mother to that family and to John and Charles in particular. Her child-rearing was one "limited undertaking" which had unforeseen but immense consequences for millions.

Another turn brings another issue into focus. Mordecai Fowler Ham (1877-1961) was a fiery American evangelist in the stereotypical Southern mode. He preached against evolution, communism, and the "liquor interests," and prided himself on "skinning the local preachers" if they didn't support his causes with equal vigour. Ham claimed one million converts at the close of his career and was awarded a doctor of divinity degree by Bob Jones College, but few today would recognize his name. His work apparently could never be compared with the other notables mentioned so far. He scarcely seems to belong in the same company with Bernard, Francis, Luther, or the Wesleys. Yet of those many converts he claimed, Mordecai Ham could be especially pleased with one. For this virtually unknown evangelist was the instrument by which one young Southern boy came to faith in Christ, William Franklin Graham, Jr. — known to the world as Billy Graham. And if Mordecai Ham had been used by God to make only one convert, this would have been a pretty good one to make. This would have been another kind of very profitable "local ministry."

We modern Christians, and especially evangelicals, however, like things big. Big events. Big projects. Big institutions. Big budgets. Big personalities. As much as we take pride in our particular localities, we parallel the general culture as we tend to admire someone only as he or she has "made it" nationally or internationally. (Compare, indeed, the common phrases "local hero" and "the big time.") We must beware that this attitude poses several dangers to us and our work with Christ.

First, if we are preoccupied with the hugely impressive, we can wait around for someone, somewhere, to take some grand initiative to solve our problems and meet our challenges. Why don't our denominational leaders help us, for instance? Why don't they give us money, or at least tell us how to raise money, for a new church building? Why don't they provide better Sunday School materials? Why don't they show us effective programs of evangelism and social ministry? Why doesn't somebody "big" do something?

Well, one might ask in response just why we don't do something. Our problems and challenges generally are local, and we are local, so what are we going to do about them? We can read good books and attend valuable seminars offered by experts that will furnish us with tools. But ultimately it is who must discern God's plans for our church; we must determine the goals and objectives; we must draw up the programs; we must pray and think and study and teach and grow; we must do what is to be done.

The second danger of our preoccupation with bigness is that we will fail to support, and perhaps even to notice, the worthy work that is already being attempted around us locally. We may ignore, and even despise, fresh initiatives of worship, fellowship, or ministry in our own church or local community because it does not have affiliation with or the stamp of approval of some widely-recognized figure or organization. Yet which eminent national organization sponsored John Wesley and George Whitefield? What imperial or papal approval could Martin Luther have produced to validate his work? What major foundation provided the start-up funds for the Franciscan order? What prominent mission board sent out the apostle Paul? Let us then look around among us for those who right now need our local support.

The third danger is that we will look down on ourselves. We will think less highly of ourselves than we ought to think (cf. Rom: 12:3). Yet in the view of our heavenly Master, all of our work, every day, is pleasing to him as we offer it up as faithful service. We are part of his truly grand project, and he weaves the threads of all of our lives into a work of art which has eternal significance and beauty.

This glorious vision of our work fitting into a great pattern, however, may not always help us get out of bed in the morning to go to work, much less get out of bed in the middle of the night to attend to a crying child. At times we can rejoice in God's great symphony, but often our own parts still seem pretty minor.

C. S. Lewis, however, reminds us that things are not always what they seem, and especially that people are not what they seem. "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses," he writes, "to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare." The sturdy Reformation doctrine of vocation, that is, teaches us that God values all of our work as it is performed according to his calling. So the famous preacher is no more to be praised than the faithful slave.

So far, so good, perhaps. But what Lewis tells us, in concert with the testimonies of Susanna Wesley, Mordecai Ham, and so many others, is that our apparently little service may in fact turn out to be of unimaginable importance after all-in this world, possibly, but certainly in the next. We must see, furthermore, that Susanna Wesley and Mordecai Ham properly tried to convert the Wesley family or the young Billy Graham whether or not those converts would become so influential simply because they believed that each individual is terribly important.

We have at least a sense of that even now, from a highly personal point of view, as we look back on those who have given of themselves to us in the past. Parents, relatives, friends, teachers, coaches-however wide their influence, their influence upon you or upon me individually carries on through the years, never lost, as it marks each of us forever. To you or to me, at least, those persons' local ministries cannot be denigrated or forgotten as their influence continues within our very selves, and we are deeply grateful for them.

For we must see that renewal movements wax and wane; denominations come and go; and institutions of all sorts will not outlast the earth itself — but we will. We will — and so will all of those whom we influence every day, right around us. The importance of our daily faithfulness within our families, with our friends, and in our occupations cannot be measured by human reckoning. But one thing seems sure: it is not little.

Can we therefore take care of our part of God's vineyard and trust God to make of our efforts what he will? Let's have the courage and wisdom to think small and local. For in doing so, we concentrate properly upon the eternal.