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.