Churches that struggle do so because they lack, identity, mission, vision, community, and more. – Rob Rynders
It is the day of my ordination. I have preached my sermonette, been questioned on the floor of Presbytery, and now stand with a group of other folk being ordained. There are about 12 of us – all headed to serve in small, largely rural, churches.
The gentleman welcoming us, means, I am sure, well, when he says, “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I said no one of any quality would want to serve in a small church. But look at all these quality folk.” Or something like that.
I remember being appalled as I searched out the faces of the folks from my own small rural church who had come to support me and witness this important milestone in my life and saw the woundedness in their expressions.
In seeking to compliment us, the class of new pastors, the congregations we serve were gravely insulted, told in front of God and everybody that they lacked any qualities that would appeal to any pastor worth their proverbial salt.
Nothing has changed much in the intervening eight years and I am left to wonder whether this is a phenomena of the United States or if it’s a world-wide thing – this eschewing of ‘small’ as ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’ or ‘broken’ or anything except what it actually is: small? What is this obsessive need to supersize everything in our lives?
Thus do I read yet another blog post on how we’re doing it wrong, as evidenced by our smallness: lacking in identity, mission, vision, community and more. And more? Really? Small is per se evidence of lack, is it? Hmmm.
Well, of course, small must be bad. After all, everyone* says so. Google “the problem with small churches” and you get 355 million hits in less than 6 seconds. And we all know that if Google says it, it must be true, eh?
Or do we?
Rob Rynders may be right – at least partially. I’m sure there are churches who struggle because of confusion or lack of clarity as to who they are or what they are about.
But does it occur, ever, to the many hypothesizers out there that struggle is actually a part of all life? Including church life? That struggle + difficulty + challenge is simply the landscape we inhabit both as humans and as children of God (if there is any distinction to be made there, which I doubt)?
The principal struggle I experience in serving a small church is actually financial, which I am told over and over again biblically is the least of my worries.
Most Christians I know actually have a pretty clear sense of their identity – individually and as members of a faith community (yeah, that’s church). And they understand their and our mission here on this earth – love and serve. Most days, they do it pretty well, if quietly. And strangers don’t remain strangers for long in a small church – there’s just nowhere to hide.
When I get discouraged, thinking we should somehow be ‘bigger’ (whatever that may mean) than we are, I remember that small is actually a part of our identity, of who we are. We live in a place where big in terms of numbers of people is simply not part of the landscape. The people who live here actually prefer to avoid crowds. In fact, one gentleman told me that he did not attend church because there were just too many people there. He was delighted when I told him that I had the perfect worshiping community for him and he’s been faithfully attending ever since.
It’s easy to tell folks how they’re getting it wrong. I wonder why that is? And I am left wondering whether the diagnosticians among and within us ever find a patient who’s doing just fine? Or one who could use a little help who actually gets the help rather than a reminder of just how very sick she is?
Small churches can mostly see just fine. And they too are about their Father’s business. It would be nice if money worries weren’t part of the equation, but that’s okay – that just puts us closer to our neighbors who are going through the exact same struggle.
There are folk – maybe even most folk – who need to be drug or enticed to church. There are churches for them. And then there are those who need to find their own way here. We’re the church for those folk.
Most days, I’m Presbyterian enough to believe that when folk need to be here, they’ll find their way. And we’ll be here waiting to welcome them – the same neighbors and friends they and we have known all along, small enough you won’t get lost in the crowd.
*Well, everyone except the Bible and Jesus – yeah – that guy: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18.20). And just how many original disciples cum apostles were there? Oh, that’s right – 12.