Why We Preach for Proper Names

The local church is small and placed for a reason.

The first time a pastor ever made me cry out of frustration was when I was 18 years old and working as an intern at a megachurch. I proposed that I spend the summer focusing on about 10 middle school girls, intentionally developing relationships with them.

“Just 10?” the pastor responded, berating me for wasting his time on a small vision. He wanted to be wowed by numbers and metrics. He wanted not just a small group of girls to know Jesus more deeply but a revival where hundreds would be baptized.

This pastor, while I disagree with him, isn’t uniquely evil. He was simply influenced by ill-formed impulses in evangelicalism to grandiosity and efficiency. But we as a church need to rediscover the goodness of smallness and particularity. If we do not, we are in danger of trading depth for shallowness and discipleship for spectacle.

Arguably the most important institution in America today is the local church. And one of its most important and prophetic callings in our moment is to remain, characteristically, local—that is, committed to a particular people in a particular place.

Wendell Berry said that the things we “love tend to have proper names.” We cannot love the church or the world abstractly. Instead, when we preach and minister to others, we must learn to do so for people with proper names in a place with a proper name.

Jesus’ ministry is the ultimate example of embracing smallness and particularity. “The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God,” wrote former archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. “Our Lord devoted himself to …

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