Stu was one of the first people to help me see that the patient work of discernment was a big part of what I was called to do. I was right out of seminary at the time. I thought that the biggest part of my calling was to grow the church’s membership, and I was busy going about it. I bumped into Stu while I was caught up in these pursuits. Fortunately for me, Stu was a quiet, patient elder in the church. He rarely spoke, but he was someone who was intently listened to by the congregation when he did finally say something. Stu was several years past retirement age, but he still ran the grocery store his father had started. He had done well and was respected in town, even though he still drove the rusted-out, white Ford F150 that people loved to joke about.
I had not realized that I had roused the latent Scottish ire of Stu until he arrived at my study one morning. He came to dissuade me from changing the church’s lone Bible study of six to eight souls, which met at the horrible time of 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. I had all the right reasons for changing to a better time that would accommodate more people. He seemed stubborn and hardheaded in his resistance to change. Before I could bring this up at a session meeting, his daughter called and wanted to start a new Bible study during Sunday school hour for the “young people.” At the moment I felt angry at being outmaneuvered, and now I had two Bible studies to go to!
It took a couple of years for me to appreciate the wisdom of what had happened. The “young people’s” Bible study took off, and they enjoyed being together. Over time I came to understand the depth of relationships in the other Bible study, which was a community of people who had spent much of their lives together. One day Stu came prepared for studying the good Samaritan parable. He was engaged in an unusually passionate way that afternoon in his questions and conversation about this passage. He was exploring what it means to serve the needs of neighbors.
Later that same night a crowd of people gathered for a town meeting about a proposal to build a new post office. The town had received word from the state that they could receive funds to build a brand new post office. Everyone was excited by the thought of a new building in town. People spoke enthusiastically for the benefits of an attractive new post office and how it might spruce things up a bit.
Then Stu slowly came forward to speak. People were surprised and wondered what he would have to say. The problem that Stu saw with this whole idea was that the state wanted to build the post office almost a mile out of town on the main highway. This strategy had been employed in numerous small towns as a matter of convenience to the postal workers for getting deliverers to their routes. But this strategy also presented a problem for many. Stu saw people walking to the post office when he drove along Main Street on his way to the store. He knew many of these folks personally, and he knew a number of them did not have cars. He liked the idea of a new building, especially because it would be close to his house, but he was concerned that it would force people to walk long distances to receive their mail. The last words of his short speech were a question, “Should we ask our neighbors to walk so far for the sake of our convenience?” The crowd was silent. And the post office stayed. Stu showed me that the small church that focuses so much attention on nurturing its own folks is a blessing to its people in order for them to be a blessing to their neighbors.
Mission and outreach grow naturally out of the depth and commitment of these covenant relationships. The small church will preserve and protect these relationships, and where these relationships are nurtured they will touch other people. People hear the sacred stories of Scripture amid the relationships of family and neighbors and respond by reaching out to their community. This dynamic is not unlike Jesus calling Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John from their fishing boats to follow him. Their discipleship would grow amid these family and neighborly interrelationships and be nurtured in Peter’s home in Capernaum and around the table that they shared before they started traveling to other towns.
One Sunday after church, Sandy invited me to go with her to visit the veterans’ nursing home. I had recently begun supply preaching at this small, mountain church of approximately forty members. It seemed like a good way to get to know some church members, and so I rode with Sandy and her friend Jan. The veterans’ home was in very poor repair, and the men that I met that day were struggling with numerous physical and emotional illnesses, as well as having little to no family and no financial resources. But I was amazed to watch how the veterans greeted us, and later three others from the church, with such gratitude. It was a family reunion, like so many small-church gatherings.
Many years ago some friends from the church who had family in the military started visiting the isolated men of this veterans’ home. This group of friends has grown into a sizeable mission outreach. They visit twice a month, celebrate birthdays, play bingo, decorate for Christmas and holidays, and simply build community. One elder leads an informal worship service and prays for and with them. They have assisted and contributed to funerals for those who have died. They know all the men by name and are known by name. The depth and continuity of these long-lasting relationships of church friends has created community among the veterans. The continuity of these church relationships has helped the commitment to this ministry endure over many years.
As modern, technologically minded people, we often disdain continuity. We view it as a sign of bored indifference. Yet we rarely see how the pendulum often swings so far back the other way. Our Internet-driven, television-altered minds are addicted to changing scenery, changing images, and changing patterns. How strange it is that the rapid movement of Facebook pages and text messages have become numbing comforts in our highly mobile world. If we have to sit still with the same images in front of us, we are afraid that we will fall asleep. If our lives have to be still with the same people and places in front of us, we are afraid that we will die. “Novelty is a new kind of loneliness, . . . the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder,” writes Wendell Berry [What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1996), 9].
Covenant love lives with continuity. People have a smaller sphere of options within covenant. Living and ministering in the small-church context means a number of limits and constraints. They can feel like a straightjacket for the person who has not empathized with or embraced the small church’s vocation. But these limitations provide the necessary context for the good neighborhood of meaningful and deeply satisfying relationships. Small churches have quite a diverse range of theological and political perspectives, and the individuals within them have even more diverse perspectives. Yet a healthy small church will practice this limiting work of keeping first things first.
At the same time, the small church has a liberating impulse as well. Within the good neighborhood protected by the conserving temperament of its leaders is an organic hospitality that welcomes a wide-ranging diversity of God’s children.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path by Steve Willis, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path
by Steve Willis
Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path bears witness to what God is doing in small churches. Steve Willis tells stories from the small churches he has pastored in rural, town, and urban settings and dares to imagine that their way of being has something to teach all churches in this time of change in the American Christian Church.
Inside the Small Church
by Anthony G. Pappas
Small-church expert Tony Pappas has gathered a cornucopia of essays into an indispensable book for anyone interested in the rich life of small congregations. Drawing on classic and updated articles by a variety of writers, and adding new pieces developed especially for this volume, Pappas provides timeless ideas on learning to value, pastor, develop, and lead the small church.
Entering the World of the Small Church, Revised and Expanded Edition
by Anthony G. Pappas
What does ministering in small churches require? Leaders who are willing to enter into that world with wholehearted, unconditional love for their congregations. Tony Pappas shows how to do just that in this new edition of an old favorite that broadens and deepens his classic instruction on understanding small church tribes on their own terms. Grounded in proven principles, rich with anecdotes from real-life situations, and brimming with practical strategies, this is a fresh “must-read” for every small church pastor.
Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered: Leading Worship in the Small Church
by Peter Bush and Christine O’Reilly
While worship is the primary purpose of all churches, worship in the small church is distinctive. Whether a house church, a new church plant, a rural church along a country road, or a city church whose neighborhood demographics have shifted, these small faith communities present unique opportunities and challenges for worship leaders. Bush and O’Reilly draw on their passion and experience equipping lay people to plan and lead worship to answer the question, what makes for effective worship leadership in family-size congregations, where fewer than 50 people gather Sunday by Sunday to worship?.
From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church
by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger
Small congregations can have beautiful worship! In From a Mustard Seed, an experienced pastor-professor and an experienced church musician provide a model for faithful and excellent worship in congregations that average 75 or fewer people in weekly worship. While the limitations of small congregations are obvious to their members and leaders, the possibilities for creative music and worship are often greater than we can imagine.
Vision and Skills for a Long Pastorate
Leader: Ed White, Alban consultant and author
April 9-11, 2013, Simpsonwood Conference and Retreat Center, (near) Atlanta, GA
Strategic Planning in Congregations
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant and author
April 16-18, 2013, Doubletree Airport Hotel, Cincinnati, OH
Finishing Strong, Ending Well: Crafting the Culminating Chapter of Your Ministry
Leader: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant
July 9-11, 2013 Zypher Point Conference and Retreat Center, Lake Tahoe, NV
Raising the Roof: Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition in Congregations
Leader: Sarai Rice, Alban consultant
July 16-17, 2013 Doubletree Airport Hotel, Cincinnati, OH
Leading Adaptive Change
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant
July 23-25, 2013, Simsonwood Conference and Retreat Center, (near) Atlanta, GA
Dealing with Congregational Discord
Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
July 30-August 1, 2013, Roslyn Conference and Retreat Center, Richmond, VA
Motivating and Equipping Leaders and Volunteers: Understanding Personality Types n Your Congregation
Leader: Linda Rich, Alban consultant
November 12-14, 2013, Holy Family Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT