in praise of the small church

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.



9 thoughts on “in praise of the small church

    • katie savage says:

      from what i know of you, which, granted, is not much, you sound outstanding; i’m sure you’re more than semi-missed. cheers! thanks for reading.

  1. Ladyrev says:

    Thank you, Katie, for this blessing! I pastor a church that really cannot justify the adjective “small” – it is tiny, no two ways about it. It is also Nazarene on the LA district (Fillmore, to be specific). We rejoice when we have 20 in the pews. And no kids – the youngest regular attender is 22, but then the next youngest is mid-fifties. And it goes up from there. I have had that conversation that you had with Rick (“is it worth it?”) more times than I care to admit. Your post reassures me that, indeed, it is, and it makes me love my little flock all the more! Again, thank you! I will pray for your ministry, and I covet your prayers for mine!

    • katie savage says:

      You know, it sort of floored me when Rick asked me that question because I thought it was so obvious how lovely and real that service– and, by extension, his congregation–was. I suppose when you’re in charge and in the thick of it, it’s easy to feel disheartened. Small (or tiny, as the case may be) does not equal unimportant. The goal is not to become big but to be faithful, as my husband reminds me when I am gripey. Bless you in your ministry, Ladyrev. So happy to meet you!

  2. Growing up in a small church, my dad as pastor, song leader, Sunday school teacher, etc, I was able to do a multitude of things that I couldn’t do in a large church. I was the pianist for several years as a teenager. Our youth group was as tight as can be. I was very active in any “drama” we did. All kinds of stuff. I appreciate your words on this. (I will have to push back a bit on a large church swallowing up Rick’s small church. The details reveal that that wasn’t really the case.)

    • katie savage says:

      Thanks for the pushback! I didn’t mean to make that larger church sound predatory– Rick’s church was on the brink of closing, and it was absolutely a Godsend to have Montrose come alongside. His new place in your ministry has been very life-giving for him personally, too, I think. Have watched a lot of the burdens of running a small congregation on fumes just totally disappear. Cheers!

  3. One more thing I MUST add: Your father-in-law Rick is now a part of our staff at Montrose Church and I am unable to fully express the value of his presence here. One time he spoke at our men’s retreat and the things he said brought me to tears of joy and peace. I couldn’t even get the words out when I was telling him later. We are so gifted to be in ministry with him! Thank you for speaking of him in this blog.

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