In 1970, the author Wendell Berry wrote an essay called “Think Little”. He argues that in order to sustain the Green Movement over the long-term, it can’t just be something we expect Big Thinkers in government to fix. It’s got to be dealt with by personal change in how we live. “For most of the history of this country [the USA] our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little”. P.54. By Think Little, he means we need to stop hiding behind general, vague slogans, and get specific. We need to build our marriages, care for a garden, and switch the lights off. There’s nothing Christian about the essay. But I love the basic idea.
“Don’t Think Big. Think Little”. I wish Christians would adopt this mindset.
This doesn’t sound obvious, at first, does it? As Christians, we have all kinds of reasons to Think Big. Our God is Big, after all. Isaiah tells us “the nations are like a drop from a bucket” to him (Isa 40:15). The Great Commission is Big; Jesus sends us out to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). The consequences are Big – people will spend an eternity in heaven and hell depending on how they respond to Jesus (John 3:16). Therefore, having big ambitions for Christ’s kingdom seems only natural. Surely, we want the little mustard seed to grow big (Matt 13:31-32)? Jesus is Saviour of the world (John 4:42).
But it’s precisely at this point that the danger of Thinking Big appears. It gets very hard to disentangle our promotion of Christ from self-promotion. Every Christian ministry knows this, if they’re honest. It’s scary how building platforms and “brand” have become part and parcel of our thinking. We feel the pull of the internet, and the size and scale of the audience it offers (especially among the young), and we’d love to harness it for Jesus Christ. But before we know it, our well-meant enthusiasm gets sucked into the hype of Big Thinking. Fads and bandwagons periodically roll through the Christian church. So-and-so becomes “the Next Big Thing”. The Think Big slogan doesn’t fit very well with the spirit of John the Baptist, who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
This is where the Think Little strategy kicks in. Thinking Little isn’t an attempt to shrink and narrow our horizons; it’s not a strategic withdrawal. Nor is it an attempt to glorify little churches or excuse ourselves when we play it safe and avoid risk. Rather, it’s a strategy for a certain kind of growth. When we Think Little, we’re attempting to build something solid and real, rather than fake. It’s an attempt to build with gold, silver and precious stones, rather than wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor 3:12). It’s an attempt to build on rock (which is slow and hard), rather than sand (which is quick and easy) (Matt 7:24, 26).
Thinking Little is what Jesus did when he spent his first thirty years in quiet, obscurity, obeying his parents in Nazareth. It’s why he spent his three-year ministry training 12 disciples, and confined himself to a small area, in order to change the world.
Jesus consistently cared about the little things. He will reward a “a cup of cold water” (Matt 10:42); he records “every careless word” (Matt 12:36). He makes a big deal of how you treat “these little ones” (Matt 18:6, 10). Stanley Hauerwas says somewhere: “Listening to the weakest member is the kind of church government that is at the very heart of the Gospel”. Jesus gives eternal rewards to those who were “faithful over a little” (Matt 25:21). He says it’s inasmuch as you did it to one of the “least of these my brothers” that you did it to me (Matt 25:40). For Jesus, it’s the little things that really count. As P J O’Rourke said: “Everyone wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help mum do the dishes”.
Now, there’s a kind of Little Thinking that we need to avoid. The Pharisees tithed their garden herbs, while neglecting the bigger issues of the law (Matt 23:23). There is a petty, narrow-minded form of thinking, that squabbles over minutiae. The Pharisees were nit-pickers who couldn’t see the Big Picture; Jesus the Messiah was standing right in front of them, but they were always lost in the detail. This isn’t a call for hyper-sensitivity.
But Jesus is clear that what we do with a little is very telling. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Cutting corners is always a bad sign. Thinking Little means Christians thinking about where God has placed them and serving him faithfully there. Thinking Little means taking care in who and how we appoint people to positions of responsibility. For example, we don’t let someone’s gifts allow them to leapfrog over the moral qualifications for eldership. “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:5). It means every minister should be planning their exit; serving an institution, in which he is replaceable.
To Think Little is no cop out. It’s not an excuse for churches to lack ambition for Jesus. Rather, it’s the strategy by which we will keep the cutting edge of Christ’s kingdom in contact with our church and nation.