I knew exactly who I was going to ask to read the scripture for that Sunday. She has a willing heart. She’s comfortable reading in front of others. And she comes from a Jewish family. All of these, and especially the last, are huge advantages when the scripture reading is the entire second chapter of the book of Ezra. It consists almost entirely of a list of Hebrew names. The entire chapter.
We are doing a series on Ezra entitled “Come Back.” The Israelites are called to come back from exile in Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Ezra 2 is a list of the families who returned. In light of Christ—the cornerstone of the new temple (the people of God themselves)—the book of Ezra becomes an invitation for us to come back to God and rebuild our souls as a temple for Him. It would have been easy to skip the chapter entirely or at least cut out large portions of names. But one of the central messages I wanted to drive home is that God is inviting us personally to come back. It’s not just a general invitation.
To drive this home, I did something at the end of the message that could only be done in a small church. After expounding the very heart of the Gospel—that we are not accepted into the presence of God on the basis of works (i.e. Jewish ethnicity, religious or moral performance) as was the qualification for entrance into the promised land in Ezra 2—but rather, on the basis of faith in God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ, starting with the very back pew and working my way to the front I mentioned every single person in the sanctuary by name and then told them that God was calling them personally to come back. As our church continues to grow it’s getting harder and harder to pull off something like this. I was strangely grateful that by God’s providence we had low attendance and a smaller than average number of visitors that week. I also spent extra time in preparation studying the attendance records for the previous month. But still, the only kind of church where this sort of thing is even possible is a small church.
At the end of the service one of our members came up to me and said something that sums up the small church advantage in one sentence. She said “If my pastor knows everyone in the church by name, how much more so does God know me by name?” Pastors, is your church too big for you to know everyone in it by name? If so, it might be time to start another one.
Kevin Hanly is Pastor of River Vale Community Church located in northern New Jersey (35 minutes north of Manhattan). He and his wife Laura are blessed with two kids Grace (age 4) and Caleb (age 2). He holds an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and ThM in Church History from Princeton Seminary. In 1994 he fell one match short of playing Mark in the Wyoming state men’s tennis final where they planned to lead the crowd in gospel-centered devotionals during each changeover.