The first thing you realize, probably, when you join a small church is how integral you are. Just super, super important. Pivotal, really. Entire ministries, and probably the pastor’s general feeling of adequacy, rise and fall based on whether or not you show up. This is not something easily understood by mega-chuch-goers. If you don’t show up at a mega-church, nobody notices. Not one single being. Which is, of course, the appeal of mega-churches: you don’t have to be in charge of the choir, count the money, and serve a two-week-a-month shift in the nursery at a mega-church. At a mega-church, you are in and then, after the service, you are out. Like you’re attending a matinee at the movie theater, you throw your coffee cup in the trash at the door and then make your way to the car, which is parked in the Donald Duck lot, third level.
Although I’ve only been at my current tiny church for a couple months, I already feel it. In fact, as early as Scott’s interview, before I was officially attending and living in the state, I was asked: 1. Whether or not I could sing, 2. Whether or not I could play the piano, and 3. How I would feel about re-vamping the children’s ministry? I was ready for these questions, in some respect. I’ve done the small church thing before. I’ve felt the overwhelmedness that comes from attempting to run a church with fewer able-bodied people than a little league line-up.
Now, only four or so months in, I am already on the other side of the conversation; I’m already the one looking around wondering who might be available to bake communion bread next week, and whether or not I could get them on a semi-permanent rotation.
But it’s not only about the tasks. Whether we want it to be true or not, success sometimes feels tied to the number of bodies that are occupying seats on Sunday morning, and this is especially apparent on Sundays when people are out of town. All it takes is one or two families to go on vacation and it feels like the whole thing is a sinking ship. Likewise, visitors become something of a hot commodity. Have you ever heard someone complain that “Not a single person at that church even said hello to me”? At Santa Monica Nazarene, the opposite is true. You may be driven away by our desperation, but not by our aloofness. In fact, you will probably leave with the phone numbers of people who have volunteered to water your plants if you ever go on vacation, a few hard candies, and maybe a lipstick stain from somebody’s grandmother on your cheek. A few weeks ago, we had a new couple from around the neighborhood show up, and I had to almost physically restrain myself from hugging them too tightly and begging them to never, not ever, leave me, in the vein of the overzealous redhead Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toons Adventures, who loved fluffy animals so much she veritably choked them to death with affection each episode. So that is a little bit of what I feel for Fred and Valerie.
While all of this might be interpreted as a warning to avoid churches like mine at all cost, it’s far from it.
I first realized this a few years ago when I attended one of the most memorable church services I’d ever been part of. One I shared with only twenty-three others.
The church was my father-in-law Rick’s. It has been around for millions of years, and, if you added up the years of the thirty or so regular attendees, it would probably be in the millions, too. (My father-in-law often joked that he and his wife were the “youngsters” in attendance.) The building itself was beautiful if a little aged—wooden pews, a stained glass of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an old piano, dark wood beams flanking the ceiling.
After the singing, which was just Rick and a pianist, and neither could quite agree on a tempo, came the Scripture reading. It was from Romans—the passage that includes the “more than conquerors” verse. An older gentleman read for us, and he began with a shaky voice and the disclaimer that he hoped he would be able to get through it, as he seemed on the verge of tears. He almost didn’t. He had to pause a few times to collect himself, run his handkerchief gruffly across his nose, clear his throat. “The Word of the Lord,” he said after what seemed like ages. I don’t know whether he was embarrassed by this show of emotion, the stuttering and the pausing and the obvious nose running, because everyone in that arched sanctuary knew what was on his mind.
You see, their pastor, my father-in-law, had just been diagnosed with cancer– and this, the second round. That Romans passage speaks differently to you when you’re faced with circumstances like those. The twenty-four of us “suffered with,” so to speak, in the moments in which the Word of the Lord was read in our hearing.
Rick asked me later that evening if I thought that a church like his was still relevant in today’s world. They were just a bunch of old folks, only a handful of them at that, and, in the interest of full disclosure, that church body is no longer in existence anymore– swallowed up and taken on by a bigger church.
But I suppose that this is my answer.
This week, I was back with the kids– we’ve got everyone, from our tiniest two-year-old to our most mature teenagers– in one room. I had prepared a craft I was excited about: they were glitter bottles that swirled and twisted and glittered and then, after a few minutes, settled. These bottles are used often as “time out” bottles for kids– watching the falling glitter is calming and peaceful and something to take one’s mind off of all of the feelings he or she might be feeling. I thought we could all use a little of that. Plus, the story that week was on Jesus’s parable of the leaven, which basically says: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. So, yeast or glitter, we were getting mixed up and overwhelmed by that little image.
I continue to be a terrible planner who is only motivated by the thought of impending doom, so, while I had put together the lesson and the craft only the night before, I was obsessed with making it just right, so much so that I was fifteen minutes late to church because I couldn’t find a store that sold clear glue. (What is the deal with Elmer? Is he trying to take over the world?) Anyway, after the hassle of two days’ worth of searching for stupid clear glue (five stores, to be precise), my kids were the only ones to show up to Sunday School. My kids and three teenagers who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else than listening to the kids’ sermon that Sunday morning.
Total flop. #fail. #whybother. But you know what? The six of us, plus my mom, who had driven a few hours to help– and who had braved Walmart in search of the blasted clear glue– made glittery bottles together. Some of the teenagers might have even laughed. And maybe that made all of it worth it. Maybe that will be a Sunday morning I will remember for the rest of my life.