Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Benefits of a Small Church

I'm a member of a small church. The church had around 150 members when we started attending almost seven years ago, but now our numbers are closer to 70-90 including children. Our sanctuary, built for 200 or more, is often a bit sparse on Sunday mornings. Our nursery is stocked with toys older than I am. I make our coffee, and it was an upgrade when I switched to the Costco brand. We still sing hymns, we still have Sunday school (which I teach), and our color scheme is anything but modern.

In short, we are not a megachurch in people, resources, or mind-set.

Yet over the years I have been so grateful for our small church, and many of the things I'm grateful for are specifically related to its smallness. Here's a sampling of the benefits I've observed.

  • Being in a small church has forced me get involved. When I was in college and attended the big college-town churches, it was very easy to take in a sermon, get the free college kid care package, and book it back to the dorm. This is much harder to do in a small environment. When Isaiah has his vision of the Lord, there are lots of angels around, but Isaiah is the only human witness. When the Lord says, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" there aren't really any other options. I suppose Isaiah could have refused, but doing so would have called out his own unwillingness as the excuse--there was no one else to hide behind. Similarly, in a small-church environment, when something needs to be done, it's much harder to trust that "someone else must be taking care of it." Often my response must be similar to Isaiah's: "Here I am. Send me." This isn't always (often?) my preference, but it is often (always?) for my good.
  • Being in a small church has forced me to be in community. Again, when there are fewer people in a place, it's much harder to hide. The first Sunday Abby and I attended the church where we are now members, we sat in the back. Our intent was to bolt as soon as the benediction was pronounced so we could convene in the car and decide if it was worth returning. This was our traditional practice, and it was a good system that had worked so far. But we were--quite literally--chased down. The pastor's wife said, "Wow, you guys are fast!" and when someone acknowledges that you are running away, it's impolite to continue running. Before we could reach the door, we were introduced to the rest of the church. The next week we came early for Sunday school and stayed late for choir practice. As much as we craved anonymity, and as much as I would like sometimes to slink into it now, it was (and is) good for us to be known.
  • Being in a small church has forced me to reckon with diversity. My church isn't "diverse" in the sense that we often talk about in the culture. There are some people of other races, and there are many people from different cultures (which reflects our community), but the diversity in my church body comes in other ways. Someone might look at our little body and say, "What are you there for? What do you have in common?" And that is exactly how the church should be. Because we have one thing in common: our Head, Christ. If I am self-selecting a group of people to gather for a party, I'm tempted to choose those who are most like me in looks, beliefs, and interests. And, indeed, a small church body isn't necessarily a guard against homogeneity--a congregation can reach homogeneity no matter its size. But in our body, whenever someone new comes in the building, and especially if they stick around, they bring their unique perspective. Their presence seasons the stew. When our body was larger, Abby and I were able to stick with people who were almost exclusively like us. It has been such a gift to us to be forced to interact with people who are older than us, who are more conservative than us, who are more liberal than us, who have less education than us, who have more education than us, who have different struggles from us. GK Chesterton, in his typical contrarian way, talks about how there's greater diversity on the street where you grew up than in the city. He explains, "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty toward humanity, but one's duty toward one's neighbour.... We have to love our neighbour because he is there... He is the sample of humanity which is actually given to us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident." This may seem a strange way to describe a self-selected organization (more on this in a moment), but when you are committed to a body, you are committed no matter who shows up. And you are committed to stick with the others who are there, even when you disagree.
  • Being in a small church has offered opportunities I might not otherwise have had. When you have a larger pool to draw from, you get to decide who does what based on already honed skill. And believe me, there is something to be said for this. But there's also something to be said for the development that takes place in an environment of need. Several years ago I began teaching adult Sunday school at my church. I had only ever taught junior and senior highers, with variable results, and I was very much unprepared for the task. And at the time, there were already a few adult Sunday school classes--it seemed a little silly to start another one. But I was feeling called toward it, so my pastor agreed to let me start one. Soon afterward, the adult Sunday school teacher with the biggest class left our church, and my class was the destination for those in his group. I wouldn't say I was ready for this, but often our readiness isn't important; obedience is. This opportunity would likely have been closed to me in a larger church, but I'm grateful I was given it when I was in many senses unprepared because it forced me to use and develop latent gifts I didn't know I had. Similarly, I have been given opportunities to preach--and develop preaching. This isn't something I feel particularly called to or gifted in, but my pastor has encouraged me to preach a number of times. He has worked with me to develop more of a style, he has counted my "ums" (...), and more important, he keeps asking me to do it. GK Chesterton has said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and there is much more opportunity for doing something badly in a small church. And doing something badly is how you begin to do something well.

Of course, I used the language of force in my statements above, but the truth is that none of this is necessary. We live in an age of denominations, nondenominations, and church libertarianism. It's not necessary to submit yourself to a church body, or to even leave your home to "attend" church, and it's easy if you don't like something to vote with your feet--to go to the church down the street, which won't require as much of you, or that aligns more with you in this way or that way.

And, indeed, there are some days when being part of a small church isn't great. When I'm forced to deal with conflict within the body because these people are family, and I can't abandon family (as much as I want to sometimes). When I am compelled to take one more duty onto my already full plate. When my family can't worship together during the service because we can't bear to make T sit in the service and the person who is scheduled to be in the nursery either isn't there or forgot to show up. In these situations, nerves wear thin and I pine after the church with the regimented structure and legions of volunteers. But when, in Sunday school, someone offers to hold baby E so that Abby can attend to T, and I steal glances at some of the others at the table admiring my children, and I know that when they stood at my children's dedications pledging to do what they can to help us raise them and meant it. When I am struggling and can approach someone who genuinely cares and wants to help. When Sunday school or service is interrupted and redirected because of a pressing need. When I see a small community committed to each other not because they are alike but because they are there, I see a small segment of the Kingdom of God.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing. You've inspired me to do more....