A lovely gift showed up in my mailbox one day, a package from Abingdon Press. I was confused because I did not order anything from there but Abingdon has been known to send stuff out from now and then. So I didn’t think much of it. As I unwrapped this gift it was a book that Jonathan Marlow had sent to me to read and review (thanks again Jonathan). Jason Byassee, one of my TAs at Duke and fellow Western North Carolina Conferencer, had written a book, The Gifts of the Small Church. The one request from Jonathan was to read and write a review of it on my blog. I am fulfilling my contractual obligations with this post…enjoy.
After collecting some dust on my shelf, the guilt of a free book and request to read and review it finally caught up to me. My personal ministry is in a small United Methodist congregation and as I read Jason’s description of his two year experience as a minister of a similar church I saw a mirror being held up in front of my face. The issue with small church ministry is the very personal nature of it all. It is the face to face combat of issues and souls that we experience day in and day out in the life of the small church. It can wear a minister down to a nub and when I cracked open this book I was heading in that direction.
Small church ministry is bi-polar. I can leave a worship service feeling the real presence of God and excited about this thing called ministry. The following week or the next day I can be knocked down to my knees by no one showing up to an important meeting or getting a complaining phone call about whatever topic needed to be vented. When you are welcomed into a family, called a church, ministry takes on a personal nature as you pour yourself out to these people and in return they pour themselves into you. I had been through a frustrating stretch as worship attendance after the summer hasn’t come back to the level it was in the spring. Thoughts were going on in my head like, “did I do something?” “How did I scare people away?”
Yet as I read Jason’s book I was reminded about the gifts that are there within the bricks and mortar of the small sanctuary. Then I got this reminder, “The small church is just God’s primary way of saving people.” Crap, that’s right. It is in this small family that God’s salvific acts of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love can be seen, felt and lived out. There is no escaping the person you had an argument with at the last council meeting. He will be there in the third pew from the back and on the left side that next Sunday. “The small church may just be Jesus’ means of liberating us from the anonymity and the accursed loneliness of life in our world. If we just stick with it.”
The small church is easy to give up on because it does reach in and rip out your heart once in a while. The large churches we, I, dream of serving look like bastions of hope and joy as we live in the dirt and grime of small church ministry. Yet it is here we can see the glory of God being revealed daily. The small church welcomes in the least of these who they call family. They listen weekly to what Rob Bell described once as the “homiletical turds” we call our sermons. We bury their families and baptize their children. They welcome us, love us, and call us one of their own and we as ministers, if we are truly honest, pray to leave soon for something bigger and better. Jason’s book gave me new eyes to see my congregation. To be thankful for the gifts they are giving me now, while in their midst. If you serve a small church, don’t let dust settle on this important read.