The Transforming Power of Small Faithfulness

One of the features of modernism, that worldview that has dominated the West for the last few hundred years, is its obsession with the big and the systematic. We think in the aggregate. We set policies based on the imagined median person. We confront the huge problems of our world and try to solve them with equally huge solutions.

This large-scale approach to the world isn't wrong, exactly. It has produced some great benefits. Big ideas can have real effects on individuals. For instance, U.S. economic policy has unquestionably altered the Midwestern world where I live, often for the worst. There are certain people whose vocations call them to think in such broad terms. If you are a superintendent of a school district or the head of a large company or a U.S. Congressperson, thinking about systems and policies is a necessary part of your job.

That said, one of the blights of modernism is that it has tended to encourage us to think in the big picture in a way that destroys the significance of the small, faithful parts of living well. This neglect of the personal and local is perhaps the greatest source of damage it causes.

Most of us are not called to think on a global scale, or even a national or state-level scale. We are tasked with something smaller. Even if we are connected to the world that way in one part of our lives, all of us live small lives in other areas. It doesn't matter how many people read your memos at work; you come home to the one spouse you are called to love and the couple of children you are called to raise well. A few of us are tasked with doing big things well; all of us are called to do small things with an equal amount of diligence.

Too often, we let the fact that we aren't doing big things discourage us from the second half of this calling. This disease can manifest in a variety of specific forms. There is the way national politics distracts us from doing local good. Liberals talk about helping the poor while spending the time they could be helping them discussing it on Twitter; Conservatives talk about the values of family and community while ignoring both for angry meme-posting and arguments on Facebook. There is the anxiety about issues like climate change or the loss of traditional values that keeps us from being hopeful and encouraging and working blessing for our neighbors. More generally, there is a sense of futility many people feel because their good works will never be featured on the evening news or get a thousand likes on Instagram.

The problem in all of this is that the greatest changes in society and the most enduring good things in this world can only be worked on the small scale of individual relationship.

The child struggling in school almost never remembers the name of their superintendent or principal, despite the fact that their policies and leadership unquestionably touched their lives. It was that one teacher or fellow student who reached out to them and took the time to get to know them who turned them from a course of self-destruction to one of flourishing.

The delinquent young person isn't changed by the systemic reforms meant to help with juvenile rehabilitation, even though those programs were the context in which they were helped. Instead, it is the presence and wisdom of a mentor who was willing to see the potential in them when no one else did who can put them on a path toward wholeness.

No person is changed by a system; people are changed by people. No program can begin to approach the power of the persistent neighbor or caring parent or selfless friend.

In that, I am not saying that systems don't matter. They do. However, there is no systemic solution to loneliness or brokenness that can work without specific people doing small, faithful things in their particular places, and no systemic failure than cannot be overcome for an individual through relational presence and faithful love. You cannot change the big problems in the world. However, you can impact the small problems around you in big ways.

To do that, though, requires two things. First, it requires us to have an imagination for the power of small faithfulness.

Try this thought exercise. In your life, you have the power to significantly alter the lives of twenty people. Probably quite a few more, if we're honest, but let's say twenty for this thought exercise. In a given year, you could find that one lonely neighbor or depressed coworker or unloved young person and really start to invest in them. Just one person, say one hour a week, inviting them over for dinner every Thursday or knocking on their door or whatever. One person, once a week, for the long term. If you do that, you will radically alter the life of that person. 

Then, a year or two later, you could find another person and do the same. By this point, that first relationship will hopefully have grown to a point where it doesn't take as much work and is a natural part of the rhythms of life. So find the next person and do the same thing. Do that, starting in your thirties, and by the time you are in your sixties you will have been a huge influence in the lives of twenty people.

Now here's where you need your imagination a bit: reflect on the fact that, hopefully, through your influence those people are investing in others. Not all of them - there are people we pour into who never move past their brokenness, and that is okay. However, say half of them do. Ten of them start the same pattern in their lives. Suddenly, two hundred people are being blessed by your faithfulness. Replicate that out just one more step and it is two thousand. Your faithful love in the small place God has put you is like a rock thrown into a pond; it ripples outward beyond anyone's comprehension.

Of course, all of that sounds easy on paper. To have such an impact on people requires several hard tasks.

1. It assumes you are choosing to invest in people who need it. One of our great temptations is to choose our relationships based on their utility to us. We befriend only people who give us advantages. The calling I am describing requires us to ask not "who do I get the most from" but "who can I give the most to?" It is an investment - it should be costly.

2. It assumes you are investing in people intentionally. Lives are not changed by shooting the breeze about the weather or local sports. Of course, relationships can't be deep all the time. Small talk and fun activities and relaxed banter are all important parts of growing closer to someone. However, to really change a life requires a willingness to also step into the hard stuff. To be vulnerable about our struggles and what we are learning and to invite others to explore those same places in their own lives.

3. It assumes you are investing in people for the long term. You have to keep showing up. Often, there will come a point in a relationship where the person tries to withdraw. Even if they don't, you will realize that human brokenness is tenacious. Relational transformation comes not from a single conversation that fixes someone but through consistent presence over years. Growth, while it often does come, occurs in increments too small for the human eye to see.

In addition, as we step back from this imaginative exercise, we should recognize that all of the above is tidier than real life. You won't have a single relationship each year. At times, you'll start the process with several people and discover that only one or two of the attempts stick. At the same time, it might be years of trying before a relationship begins. I remember talking to one woman whose life was altered by being invited into the community of her neighbors, but it took a decade of invitations and people knocking on her door before she was willing to begin the process.

Yet for all of those caveats - this is what faithfulness looks like. It is almost always small and particular. Nobody will write news stories about such a life. Nobody gets famous for doing it. Yet such small faithfulness is the channel through which transformation flows. We cannot fix the world, but we can bless the corner of it where God has placed us, and the thread of that blessing woven invisibly through the tapestry of history can completely change the composition of the whole.