What small churches can teach us about discipleship

July 30th, 2019

The lay-leader stood up to do the prayer requests. He grabbed a hand-held microphone and wandered out of the chancel. Standing between the two rows of pews, he explained how this part of the service operated.

“If you’ve been here before, you know that we take prayer seriously. It’s important. So, we’ll start over here and work our way around. If you’ve got a prayer request, a joy, or a concern, let us know so we can pray for you. Alright. Jane, you have anything for us?”

The lay-leader patiently wound around the small sanctuary, asking every one of the fifty people gathered  from the toddler to the most elderly  if they needed prayer about anything. The congregation was not shy, either. They prayed, by name, for the teachers of the classes of their kids and grandkids. There were vulnerable prayers about faith and mourning, requests for healing and peace.

On our way out, I asked the lay-leader how and why they decided to do prayers like that. It was both an effective and aggressive way of collecting prayer requests. It’s the same tactic we use with our youth group each Sunday.

He seemed surprised by the question, as if I had asked about a basic pillar of the faith. “Everyone needs to have a chance to be heard. Prayer is really powerful, and we want to make sure everyone gets prayed for.” It never seemed to occur to him that it was a unique way of doing things, or that he might just stand at the front and ask people to shout out their requests.

Because my work focuses on strengthening the small-membership rural church, I often find myself in a small church that is not my own. One of my favorite parts of visiting these small-membership churches is the gift of witnessing the unique flavor of each congregation.

When I preach in churches of a hundred or more, the worship is usually seamless, a well-oiled machine in which everyone knows their part. The liturgists and scripture readers have gone to some training (or at least practiced), and the musicians are usually at least part-time employees who exhibit a high standard of professionalism. In these churches, I often find that the biggest difference between churches is the preacher and the sanctuary.

Small-membership churches are more democratic. In a church of fifty or sixty people, volunteers fill key positions out of necessity. With that democratization comes a distinctiveness, a signature of that particularly community. It’s more than just stylistic differences — it’s a reflection of the habits and ethic of the particular community. The same order of service, with the exact same liturgy will be different in different churches.

In recent years, church growth experts have emphasized the importance of making worship accessible to visitors. They argue, rightly, that a visitor needs to be able to understand what’s happening well enough to participate. In a world where people barely know scripture, we cannot also expect that a newcomer to church will know the words of the doxology.

At its best, this emphasis on accessibility has meant that congregations take time to understand why they do what they do. They know why they have the offering after the sermon or the importance of the creeds. In turn, they are able to explain it well to others.

At its worst, the emphasis on accessibility has eroded the distinctiveness of Christian worship, erasing important symbols and liturgies from our lexicon. Rather than explain the significance and action that is the liturgy of The Great Thanksgiving, we simply excise the parts that seem strange and repetitious. In the end, we are left with a pithy story with no context about what the Holy Spirit is doing in that bread and juice.

This is a place where I think the Church at large can learn a great deal from the distinctiveness of small-membership rural churches. Rather than flattening worship, the many vital small-membership churches I have been privileged to attend embrace the complexity and strangeness of worship.

Small-membership churches are often accused of a great number of faults: insular, resistant to change, and unwelcoming. Truth be told, there are some for whom those accusations are painfully true.

But more often than not, I find that the small churches I visit and preach in are quite welcoming. These are the churches where, when a child begins to cry, the worship leader checks to see if everything is okay. Or, when my toddler is scared of the new sanctuary and is uncharacteristically shy, no one bats an eye when she sits in my lap and hides under my stole.

In my previous parish, the worship service invoked an ethos of communal responsibility. Ushers were never preassigned; whoever could do it volunteered that morning, usually by casting a quick glance around the room when I asked the ushers to come forward. When our normal scripture reader was out, no conversation was needed. Another person was ready to fill in, no prompting required. The liturgy was quite literally the work of the people.

That ethos spilled over into the rest of our life, too. When a new member came to join, an older member quietly leaned over the pew. “I am so glad you’re ready to join. This is a mighty fine place to give your gifts, service, and talents for God.” Translation: We’re glad you’re here, but we have work to do and you have a job in it.

It was the distinctive flavor of that congregation’s worship, and one that I cherished. Worship meant that our community came together. Being a member meant that you would work, too, whether it was in worship, in missions, or in some other capacity. That was the call of discipleship.

Whenever I get to visit a new small church, I watch for that distinctive spirit. So, as the lay-leader walked onto the chancel to begin the prayer requests, I perked up. I listened as he described the process to all of us who might not otherwise know what has happening. I noticed the importance he placed on the life of prayer. And, as I listened to people leave the sanctuary, I heard the snippets of conversation as they promised to pray for one another.

These distinctive flavors are not a hindrance. Rather, they are a reminder that being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being a little bit different from the rest of the world. It means being formed into a community larger than yourself and your own preference, so that you can be a part of transforming the world.

Each Sunday that I get to sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit of one of these congregations, when I get to notice the unique flavor of that congregation, I am amazed and grateful for the ways in which these churches have formed and continue to form people to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

For those of us in the business of making disciples, it is a skill that we would do well to emulate.

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