December 14, 2019

“Nothing can make us more blind to the Holy Spirit than the ordinary”

Church on the hill in Advent (2016)

Each week during the winter months and until Easter, I preach to a little country congregation. The congregation is over 180 years old, the building 150. Like many small, rural churches, our pews are populated by members in the second half of life. We have a few children, fewer teens, a couple of college students who visit on holidays. Many are related, most have been connected to the church through family ties for generations.

Our congregation has been without a permanent pastor for several years. Two of us, a retired minister and a full-time hospice chaplain, provide a measure of pastoral coverage over the course of each year. The congregation pretty much runs itself, and we in the pastoral roles primarily enjoy their hospitality and trust.

Are we a “dying” church? Statistics might say so, but Christ is with us.

In an article by one of my favorite pastoral authors, Craig Barnes, called “A glimpse of how heaven sees worship,” he describes the experience of sitting in the balcony and looking down on the congregation of his local church. His wisdom comes through in this observation:

Most of those in the pews probably had a week that was neither great nor horrible, but they’ve learned that nothing can make us more blind to the presence of the Holy Spirit than the ordinary. These worshipers don’t feel broken or particularly blessed, but they find their lives centered in saying an old creed, singing a hymn so familiar they barely need the hymnal, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and hearing a sermon that treats God’s Word and human words seriously. They just want to know that grace can also appear in the routine.

He is describing my friends in our faith community too. And I am happy to be with them. We make up perhaps one or two grains of salt sprinkled on the bigger world of central Indiana, but that world is more flavorful and satisfying because of little churches like ours.

Barnes concludes his meditation with one of the best quotes I’ve read recently:

This is the secret to understanding the persevering health of the church amid the narrative of decline. Churches are not healthy because they’re sufficiently growing, diverse, or making a profound impact on their communities. Some are doing these things and some are not. But all of them are healthy because when even two or three come together in the name of Jesus Christ, he is in their midst.

Maybe Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom is found in small, overlooked places really does mean something after all.

Comments

  1. Chaplin Mike, I liked this and needed this. You put words to thoughts and feelings that’s I could not express even to myself. Thanks

  2. David Cornwell says

    Yes.

  3. Yes. This. There can be a depth in small churches and gatherings that is just not found larger churches. And it exists because of the things they don’t have: no marketing, no performance, no show, no theatre, no power, not much money, etc. That makes room for the important things. For grace to break through.

  4. What size church is most sustainable? My county has many rural Lutheran churches, held over from the Pennsylvania German farmers spilling over into Maryland. I doubt that any will survive the next few decades. Their reason to exist back in the day was farmers and their families hitching up the wagon on Sunday mornings. There are far fewer farmers and family members out there today, and it is just as easy to drive into town for church. We also have several small municipalities, each with its Lutheran church. Those I think have a shot at surviving, each drawing from town and the surrounding countryside. What I fear is the allure of the megachurch. That would be regrettable, even were it a theologically sound Lutheran megachurch. The best size for a church is one that is large enough to pay a pastor, but small enough that the pastor knows everyone’s name. I also suspect that the megachurch model is not sustainable. It is strongly centered on the senior pastor. In the best case scenario he will eventually retire or die in the pulpit. And then what? The tendency of some to turn the church into a hereditary fiefdom just shows us that they haven’t figured out anything better.

    • “The best size for a church is one that is large enough to pay a pastor, but small enough that the pastor knows everyone’s name.”

      +1

      ‘pastor’ from pastoral ‘shepherd’ of the sheep, and a shepherd knows his flock

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The best size for a church is one that is large enough to pay a pastor, but small enough that the pastor knows everyone’s name.

      Which according to human troop-size limit would be between 100 and 200. This seems small for paying a pastor plus financing ministries outside the church itself. My church counts by family/household instead of individuals, which would translate to around 600.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      I would think that a church of 15 households should support a pastor comfortably if they all tithed. It gives the church some slack of 5 households for sickness, temporary unemployment, or some other misfortune, but not for truculent and obstinate stinginess.

      Of course, I think that if there are 10 churches in a district they should work together to ensure that there is a decent library for their 10 pastors.

      • Michael Bell says

        In most of my experiences the Pastor’s salary has been roughly half of the church budget.

        Your numbers also assume that people aren’t only tithing to the church. I know for me, my church giving, is only a fraction of my total giving.

        Given those two facts I would double the number of households needed.

  5. “Was blind, but now I see.”

  6. That’s a great photo. So much texture.