“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That is what one billion earthlings heard Neil Armstrong say as he stepped onto the face of the moon on July 20, 1969. But that is not what he intended for us to hear. Whether distorted by the microphone or just a misspeak, Armstrong meant to say, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The very small definite article we call “a” made a world of difference that day. Armstrong was just one man who took a step, but his one step changed all of us.
At the risk of sounding like a commencement speech, one person who makes one step, a step, in the right direction can still make a big difference. One person who speaks up at the right moment can change the conversation. One person who makes the right decision can help a lot of other people choose well. Armstrong’s Definite Article still changes things.
The racial division, social injustice, senseless violence, and political animosity that rage around us are big problems. The complexity of it all feels overwhelming. Pundits offer suggestions, pessimism is winning the day, but the local church pastor possesses the power of Armstrong’s Definite Article.
Renowned pastor-theologian John Wesley is famous for saying that the world was his parish. Despite Wesley’s zeal for the world, he never reached the world. Instead, he just reached the ones within his reach, and they reached the world. The apostle Peter instructed pastors to “shepherd the flock among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Peter was not limiting pastors’ influence, but only reminding us that our greatest influence in reaching the world begins in shepherding our own congregation.
Pastors cannot undo the last two centuries of racial injustice. We cannot stop every shooting spree. We cannot eliminate the pain of every social travesty. We cannot do everything that needs to be done. But we can take a new step that displays God’s character. We can call our people to return to God. We can announce that our one hope for reconciliation and healing is rooted in the redeeming work of Jesus.
For me, that one step was an email, which led to a conversation over a cup of coffee. Our community, and consequently, our church, is monolithic. That means we are very white. Although African-Americans live in our city, most of us, whether white or black, live, work, and play with people who look like we do. As a result, we just do not know one another, and if we do not know each other we sure do not love each other. We may be friendly to people of another color, we just do not have any friends who are of another color.
So that email went to our police chief who is an African-American brother in Christ. He also serves as the associate pastor of an African American church in our community. As we talked, God knit our hearts together. We had known each other before, but now we were building a friendship. The next step was a conversation and meeting with his pastor. We discovered that their church would be moving just across the street from our church in just a few days. As we spent time together and talked together, our relationship moved from friendly, to friendship, and then to partners in ministry.
We agreed that the problems in our community were first problems in our churches. The problem is a heart problem among God’s people. The segregation and suspicion and the pervasive lack of love reveal a rebellious heart toward God. And so our call as pastors is to examine our own lives, repent of our sin, and then call our people to do the same. We agreed that the heart cry of God is revival among His people. We agreed that the Gospel of Jesus is the one hope for reconciliation and healing in our community. We agreed that as we build our relationship and demonstrate genuine unity with one another, then God just might ignite a Jesus movement to awaken our city and heal our land.
Our next small step was to invite our congregations and any others to gather for a simple, but united worship service where we could make new friends, exalt Jesus, and affirm our commitment to show and tell the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is what we did. With less than three weeks of planning, people from all corners of our community showed up to make new friends and cry out to God together. God met with us and began doing a fresh work in our lives. It was just a beginning, but it was a beginning.
As enticing as it sounds and as much as we want to see fire fall from heaven, we are not trying to start a movement. Only God can move the hearts of people. Only God can bring revival. So we are trusting Him to turn His people back to Him. We are committed to join Him as He re-orders our community in the long-term. We are excited about cultivating new friendships over the months and years ahead. But for now, we have Armstrong’s Definite Article at our disposal.
God works when one person takes a small step towards another person for the glory of God. We can all take such a step.
Featured image is James Meredith walking to class at the University of Mississippi, accompanied by U.S. Marshals.