Dizzying changes have taken place in American religious life in the last half century. Yet in spite of that fact, taking a snapshot of a “typical” Christian church in America would reveal a surprising number of small-to-mid-sized congregations, rooted in a local neighborhood or community, tied to a specific denomination, where most of the members know each others’ names, and hence are blessed (and cursed) with being the church together.
In this clear-eyed, humorous appraisal, Jason Byassee contends that the “church around the corner” occupies a particular place in the divine economy, that it is especially capable of forming us in the virtues, perspectives, and habits that make up the Christian life. Not that he romanticizes these churches, however. Having been a rural, small membership church pastor, Byassee knows too well the particular vices and temptations to which they are subject. But he also knows the particular graces they’ve been given, graces like the “prayer ladies,” those pillars of the congregation who, “when one told you she was praying for you it meant something. When one hugged you, you remembered all week. When one cooked for you the casserole tasted like love. And when you were around them you were in the presence of Jesus.”
Anyone who serves, or belongs to, a “church around the corner” will find their ministry strengthened by this enlivening, inspiring book.
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About the Author
Jason Byassee is the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at Vancouver School of Theology. He previously served as senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church, a 1500-member congregation in Boone, NC. He is trained in systematic theology with a PhD from Duke, and he worked as a journalist at faithandleadership.com and at The Christian Century magazine. He authored six books, including The Gifts of the Small Church and Trinity: The God We Don’t Know with Abingdon Press.
Read an Excerpt
The Gifts of the Small Church
By Jason Byassee
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow'd You Get out Here?
When you think about who introduced you to the Christian faith, my guess is you think of a small group of people. An influential friend, a youth pastor, a teacher, someone in your family. This is likely true even if you came up in a large church. For even in large churches people find their niches, break down into small groups, get in one another's kitchens and living rooms and become friends.
This book is a set of stories about my time as a pastor of a small rural church in Zebulon County, North Carolina. I never meant to be any such thing. It was an unplanned trip. But once I got there I realized the place was beautiful. This book is meant to tell you how.
I'd had some preparation for the small, rural church. My wife, Jaylynn, had been a pastor of what we Methodists call a "two point charge" for a year before I took over my own. A two-point charge means two churches that couldn't afford a pastor on their own band together and share one. That pastor preaches in one church at 9:00 and drives to the other in time to preach at 11:00. So I'd been a pastor's spouse for a year. I also attended a seminary that sends students out to lots of rural pastorates for a glimpse of the life they would likely lead as pastors. So it made perfect sense that we were in one.
But my upbringing prepared me for no such thing. As a relatively irreligious kid I got dragged to the big university Methodist church downtown, if I ever went. We were what I've learned to call "Chreasters," Christmas-and-Easter Christians. Then I had a conversion experience in a Baptist camp on a lake in North Carolina, responding to an altar call. I responded because the counselors loved me, knew me by name, asked after my story, and then told me theirs, and how Jesus was the answer to all our problems. They were right, of course, he is the answer. He just doesn't sew up our problems quite as tidily as they let on. But we were kids, and so were they, truth be told, college kids, who loved us into loving Jesus. It was a first step, one to be glad for.
They instructed us to find a "bible-believing church." I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it probably wasn't the Methodists, and I figured a place called the "Chapel Hill Bible Church" was not a bad place to start. And sure enough, this nondenominational evangelical church taught me to treasure the Scriptures. It sent me on my first short-term mission trips, where I saw poverty firsthand and could not look away. It was filled with blazingly smart people—scientists and professors and business types, plus the college crowd. It's hard to have all that talent without a church of a thousand or so people.
But within that church we had a little church. It was called youth group. And it was big enough that we could do some cool stuff (what I know on this side of the pastor curtain is called "programming"). We went to the beach and the mountains. We had retreats and Sunday school. And we knew one another by name. We knew who annoyed whom, who dated whom, who would tell what joke when. We weren't all the best of friends. But we knew we could count on the bulk of the forty or so of us to be there, same time and place, each week.
Which is more than most of us could say about our families. I come from a family that divorced and multiply remarried, as do many of my peers in Gen X. Ours is the first generation of mass divorce, so we're naturally a little afraid of intimacy. People who made promises to us broke them. This is not to judge any individual divorce, mind you. It's just to say that across a society that has an effect—we grew up hedging our bets, not sure who to promise ourselves to, or who would break their promises to us. But we also longed for community. And we found it in odd places, like youth group. You might not like everybody, but they'll be there when they're supposed to be—like the families we wished we had.
By college I was looking around outside of evangelicalism. I'd learned evangelicals' burning heart for the Scriptures and laudable desire to introduce Jesus to the whole world. I'd also seen some nasty marriages of partisan politics to faith that I wanted no part of, and my world had grown big enough that I wanted some introducing to it.
And at the time I was going to a Methodist church. Why? It's where the good preaching was. And the preacher seemed to love Jesus, preach from the Bible, and want the world to be more like the kingdom Jesus preached. That didn't seem so bad—it seemed evangelical even. I gradually came to see that the mainline, tired and slumping and old as it was, was also a place where I could find the battle lines. It lacked the chaos of evangelicalism, praise God. Plus the Methodists' seminary was just down the road, they'd baptized me as a baby, had me occasionally as a teenager, and now wanted me to attend their seminary at Duke. They'd even pay for it. And I'd even grown up a Duke fan.
This was not thorough planning, I realize now.
"You don't sound mainline to me," one Methodist minister said to me. I don't know how I answered at the time. But he had to be right—I'd come from evangelicals, I wanted to convert people to Jesus, I memorized Scripture for fun, and felt like my college was dangerously relativistic. I also liked my college, and wanted that Scripture studied critically, and wondered if I didn't need a little converting more deeply into Jesus myself. Methodists had been evangelical once themselves; still were, in pockets.
In a way our church, like many mainline American churches, lives off the fumes of the conversions of the Second Great Awakening. Churches popped up all over the South and Midwest in response to fiery, conversion-directed preaching and emotionally manipulative altar calls in the early nineteenth century. Much like the one I responded to at the Baptist camp (since many Baptists still engage in such proselytizing behavior). There are fancy theories afoot about how that and other revivals paved the way for American democracy. I'm not as interested in that legacy as I am in the legacy of churches that dot this country as a result of those revivals. It works like this: your grandparents go forward at an altar call in the woods, your parents benefit from their disciplined parenting and earn a little more money, and then you build a neo-gothic church on your town's main street to show your religion has gotten civically respectable. An evangelical friend of mine says there'll be liberal churches as long as there are evangelical churches to convert and wound 'em. And, as sociologists tell us, when people make more money and get respectable, they tend to leave the soul-winning preaching behind. Something is lost there.
So off I went to a seminary that prepared people for rural pastorates. And I found there a place much like the ones my grandparents left behind. It was wonderful and mysterious, and small and provincial all at the same time. Jaylynn served her two churches for three years, I served my one for two. It was not very long. And then we had to go off to a job where I could make more money.
I wonder now whether the best thing I'll have ever done in my career wasn't those two years in that small rural pastorate. I know for sure that if I ever do anything else good it's because I was steeped in that place, not nearly long enough, almost a decade ago now.
And you know what the crazy thing is? Once I was a mainline minister myself I heard myself preaching sermons that sounded a lot like the ones I got dragged to at mainline churches when I was a Chreaster kid. That is, I'd learned something about Jesus from the very mainline my evangelical self had once lambasted for refusing to share Jesus with the younger me. Apparently they had, and it'd stuck. My first Easter in Zebulon I was pulling a vignette from the big university Methodist church I grew up being dragged to. Why? Because the preaching at University Church came from the Bible and was meant to convert people and sought to make the world a more grace-filled place. I remember precisely what it was, in fact—the word in Mark 16:7 that could be translated "and" could also be translated "even." The angel tells the women at the empty tomb "Go, tell his disciples and Peter." And the one who betrayed him. And the one who hurt him the worst. Even that one. There is a place for him and for all of us.
That was both evangelical and mainline, apparently. And if the combination worked, I wanted in. Still do.
When we moved to Zebulon County people would ask, "How'd you come to be out here?" I'd ask how much time they had. Or maybe I wouldn't yet—I'd give them a one-line joke to indicate I didn't have time. Now I see the answer they wanted was the long one. They'd listen. And that was what I was looking for.
What This Book Isn't and Is
Many books promise to have the answer. They have the secret. They will show you how to live your own, personal, best life now. They can introduce you to purposeful living. Some of those books sell in the tens of millions. People are desperate for those sorts of answers. And, truth be told, if I had one of those sorts of marketable answers to give, I'd probably write it up.
But I don't. The church doesn't either. We should stop looking for them. They're a lie.
Did that come off too strong?
The small church is not the answer to the world's problems, any more than living purposefully, "bestly," secretly, or whatever else. The small church is just God's primary way of saving people.
Think of the small villages you may have seen in the United States or elsewhere. Local communities on the roadside that we fly by on interstate highways have a small church at their heart. Imagine the standard European village, however small. Now try and imagine it without the stone chapel as its nerve center (it may now be a bar or a B&B, but bear with me). If you've been privileged to travel to the non-Western world, in Africa or Latin America, imagine the villages you've seen without a church in the middle. Even if that church was a hut, or doubled as someone's house. And I'm guessing that it's not shuttered like our small churches here or rehabbed like many in Europe. Megachurches and suburban churches are well suited to an age that likes things fast and professional and suburban. But most of us through most of time have met Jesus in small churches. The great diversity of Christ's body through time and space has proliferated in the small.
And this is no accident. Break open your New Testament to the letters of Paul and others and you will find letters written to small churches. Specific people are mentioned by name. Spats between individual church members are made public. Paul can even ask recipients to bring his personal items to him: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments" (2 Tim 4:13). Can you imagine such instructions being read from the ginormachurches in Barrington or Orange County or Houston, while millions watch from home? Paul here is more like the pastors of rural churches where announcements can go on, and on, and ... and can get unbearably quotidian and personal.
One Sunday a parishioner interrupted my wife's sermon. Her sermon. Jaylynn was preaching away about whatever it was and Janet stood up. "Jaylynn, I've made a mural of photos of the veterans for Veterans Day, and I want to make sure everybody sees it." Jaylynn rolled with it. "Thanks, Janet, we'll be sure we remember." Janet smiled, satisfied, and sat back down for the rest of the word preached.
How could anyone forget?
By contrast think of Willow Creek, the first of the uber-churches where my fellow small-church ministers pilgrimage regularly, encouraged by denominational officials who want their own McCongregations someday. I complimented a pastor at Willow one Sunday in Chicago that the announcements were so tight. "Three minutes, twenty seconds," he said. What? "That's how long they were today. A little longer than we like, but not bad."
They have the service timed. To the second. That's the quality people expect, if they're going to show up in the tens of thousands. How polished. And how different from Paul's churches or those of Zebulon County.
After the admonition for the coat from Timothy, Paul continues, "Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds." Such public airing of dirty laundry sounds more like Janet interrupting the sermon (maybe to tell of someone else's misdeeds) than Willow Creek to me. We're not even sure Paul wrote those words in 2 Timothy, but don't bring that up at Willow. At a small church we're used to such messiness.
Not to dump on suburban churches generally, or even large churches necessarily. Not all suburban churches are gigachurches, by any stretch. Jaylynn also pastored a small church in suburban Chicago once. Tabor, Illinois, had been a rural town once. Still was, really, it was just swallowed up by suburb at some point. And Tabor United Methodist Church was still small. Most of the people going there in 1950 were still going there when we were there in 2005. It had been an overwhelmingly Catholic town at one point, as still evidenced by St. Michael the Superarchangel Church a block away. Our older members remember their children being raised in town being referred to by the Catholic kids as "the publics"—it was that unusual in such a Catholic town to go to public school.
At Tabor the music is too slow, the children's ministry is too 1950s, and the people are unbelievably friendly.
And it's growing. Not like an uberchurch. But people are coming. Young couples, even. At a church of twenty regulars, one new family adds 20 percent. Hard for Willow to beat that percentage. Some of these are young professionals who have moved in to the Chicago area and are looking for church that reminds them of home—maybe even a home they never actually had. Tabor, with all its jagged edges, is it.
Some of that energy comes from the matriarch and patriarch couple of the church, who I'll call the Youngs. They moved to the Chicago area from the West Coast as a young couple for his work, spent a lifetime in Illinois, and their kids and grandkids still attend and provide most of the leadership. When one of the Youngs preaches, it goes on too long. When they lead a youth event, it's never slick. Local advertisements, flyers paid for at great expense (for us anyway), featured several typos. But there all the members of that three-generation family were. Leading. The church is theirs, and their future is bound up with it, and vice versa. Where do we find that sort of commitment to anything in our age?
It astonishes me this sort of multigeneration family in one congregation is still possible, after cars and careers have scattered most of us from the dirt farms our ancestors once worked on. I have first cousins I wouldn't recognize on the street (one refused my friend request on Facebook once!). Here's a three-generation family, willing to invite you and me in on Sundays.
Some of Tabor's energy comes from Abe. Abe's been at Tabor forever. He still laments the wife he lost young, buried out back. Maybe she keeps him coming in a sense. He was at church every time we were, before we got there (and remember: we were the pastor's family). Abe passed out bulletins. He sang in the choir. He even lit the altar candles, as something of an overgrown acolyte. He usually had a prayer request. He didn't like to be in charge. Our predecessor, Pastor Charles, told us Abe approached him his very first Sunday. "I want to be an usher. But not head usher. That's too much responsibility, I just want to support the other ushers, not be head usher."
Charles looked on him and loved him. "Abe, we don't have head ushers. All we have is you."
Once, Abe got a new job that required him to be at work on Sundays. This didn't stop him. Tabor has a community of Filipino Methodists who worship on Sunday evenings. They do so in their native language, Tagalog. And Abe attended. One white guy in a sea of Asian Tagalog-speaking Methodists. "It's my church, and it's at a time I can come," he explained. "I can tell when they're saying the Lord's Prayer." And not much else.
Where do you find people like Abe outside the small church?
Excerpted from The Gifts of the Small Church by Jason Byassee Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Where the Local Church Is the Solution,
Chapter 1: How'd You Get out Here?,
Chapter 2: A Little Growth Is Enough,
Chapter 3: Priestly People,
Chapter 4: Grief from Pastors; Grace from Parishioners,
Chapter 5: Faces Shining,
Chapter 6: To the Ends of the Earth,
Chapter 7: Blessed Be the Lord, Who Trains My Hands for War,
Chapter 8: Being Buried with Saints,
Chapter 9: Take Thou Authority,
Chapter 10: God, Who Gives Life to the Dead and Calls into Existence Things That Do Not Exist,
Chapter 11: Oh Yes, You Did Laugh,
Chapter 12: Divine Election,
Chapter 13: How to Talk Right,
Chapter 14: A Pharaoh Who Knew Not Joseph,
Chapter 15: An Arena for Holiness,
Chapter 16: No One's Cute Up Close,
Chapter 17: Discipleship Despite Sunday School,
Chapter 18: Sneaking Sacraments Back In,
Chapter 19: God's Patience and Ours,
Chapter 20: Be of the Same Mind in the Lord,
Chapter 21: Deeper Wells of Peace,
Chapter 22: Overdue Wisdom,
Chapter 23: There Is Now No Longer Jew nor Greek,
Chapter 24: Anointing,
Chapter 25: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
Chapter 26: Cynical of Cynicism,
Afterword by William H. Willimon,