When I was a missionary, it sometimes happened that the only people listening to my preaching were my wife and two small children. After that experience, smaller churches have never troubled me. Faced with a church of forty, I can always tell myself it’s more than twelve times what I sometimes saw as a missionary! Regardless of the numbers, all those in the pew need the gospel. The following story illustrates how no one should ever “despise the day of small things.”
Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) was a controversial Presbyterian minister in the US. At least he became controversial later on. Early in his career, he was invited to exchange pulpits with a country pastor. It was a cold, wintry day. Travel was difficult because of the thick blanket of snow on the road. Nevertheless, Beecher pushed his horse forward and they arrived at the church.
When he went into the building, no one was there. He waited. Still no one arrived. He decided to go and sit on the chair behind the pulpit.
After some time, the church door creaked open. A young man walked in and sat down. No one else came. Beecher wondered whether or not he should preach. He decided that, as he had come to preach, he had no right to refuse because only one man might be helped by the sermon. He went through the whole service, praying, reading, singing, and preaching – with only one hearer.
Following the benediction, Beecher descended the pulpit to speak to the man. However, he’d vanished and was nowhere to be seen.
Lyman Beecher often thought about this strange service and who the man was. Twenty years later he was travelling through Ohio. There a stranger accosted him by name. The stranger asked Beecher whether he remembered him. Beecher didn’t. “I suppose not,” replied the man, “but we spent some time in a church during a storm. Do you remember preaching in a place twenty years ago to just one person?”
“Yes, indeed I do, and if you are that person, I have been wishing to see you ever since!” replied Beecher, grasping the man’s hand.
“I am the man,” said he, “and that sermon saved my soul, made a minister of me, and yonder is my church! The converts of that sermon, sir, are all over Ohio!”
Even if you’re only preaching for one or three or forty, God’s Word never returns to him empty and our labours are never in vain.
(Adapted from R. Cameron-Smith, Strange Events in the Lonely Cabin and Forty-Six Other Stories)