Most readers of my blog know I pastor a small church in Palmyra, NJ. I’ve been here for 19 years, in fact, which blows my mind. In those years I’ve changed quite a bit, so has the congregation. Many changes have been for our good, and some have come from lessons we’d rather not have experienced.
And I’d like to invite you, if you’re interested in seeing what faith is like in a small congregation, to come visit. Not necessarily to Palmyra, NJ, but to any small church that’s just plugging away trying to do some good in the world.
You might be trying to make sense of the chaos we can see all around us 1. Or perhaps you grew up in a faith tradition, but as you’re maturing the sureity of where you’ve been is unraveling. Maybe you’re looking for a path of spiritual expression. Faith might even continue to be important to you, but wounds inflicted in “organized” religious settings make have you hesitant to engage again.
If any of these things are true for you, as well as any other number of journeys I’ve not mentioned, there’s a lot of small churches out there which might be a good place for you to explore, heal, and grow. Not every small chuch, mind you, but a lot.
Even as I write that, however, I do have to point out some things which should be understood going in. Small churches, after all, are made up of people. And people are messy.
There will be unwritten rules
To be honest, every human community on the planet has unwritten rules. Most of us are even unaware of what they are until someone breaks them. The paradox is, the smaller a group is the more obvious it will be when a rule is broken.
Sometimes, people will point this out as a way to be helpful. They’ll say things like, “Oh, you don’t need to dress up here.” And sometimes an oblivious soul will point it out to force conformity by saying something like, “That’s my seat.”
Either way it’s uncomfortable and, because the group is small, noticeable. And even groups with meticulous “assimilation” procedures 2 will drop hints when unwritten rules are broken. Human beings can’t help it. Take a deep breath and nod, the folks who make it their business to point out the breaking of unwritten rules have stuff going on, too.
Small Churches are Grieving
Small churches tend to live with significant grief. This is something most folks do not recognize, nor is it a process many pastors have tried to address. Our culture is not good with grief.
What are small churches grieving?
Well, they’re grieving friends who are no longer around–people who have died, folks who have moved, and neighbors who decided they needed to be elsewhere on their faith journeys. When you are used to seeing someone in worship, at choir, at socials, or in prayer their absence becomes noticeable. And so people grieve the absence of others because they feel they’ve been, in some ways, abandoned.
They’re also grieving things they used to do–programs they ran, ministries which fizzled, and tasks they can’t physically do any more. Like the empty spaces where friends and loved ones once sat, the loss of old tasks is felt. The infamous phrase, “We’ve never done it that way before” is often seen as obstructionist. It’s really an expression of grief.
Be Prepared to Insert Yourself To Get Involved
A lot of folks assume not being asked to jump in on a lot of tasks, projects, and volunteer efforts is an intentional cold shoulder. In reality, it also stems from grief.
People who have been part of a church for a while, particularly smaller ones, have been burned. A lot. Over the years they’ve struck up friendships, invited people to joined, embraced ideas from newer folks, and come to enjoy their energy and gifts.
And then people leave. Not always for bad things, often for very good reasons, but they leave nonetheless. And those departures leave scars. Scars which make people hesitant at the notion of openning up again. By the time a church shrinks to a certain level, those scars can become blinders which prevent them from seeing folks who are newer in the community.
But, if you insert yourself into a ministry, task or project you might be shocked at how fast you’ll be embraced. This can be for selfish reasons, “Oh great, this person can continue what I’m doing!” But most times I find it’s because people’s defaults can’t really be wiped out by scars. People who are hospitable will be hospitable, it’s who they are. They just need to have even the smallest excuse in order to open up again.
Why On Earth?
So why in the world would you want to explore faith among a small group in which you’ll be obvious when you break unwritten rules, is often unaware of their own collective grief, and in which you’ll have a push a bit to get involved? I mean, on the surface this appears to be a terrible idea!
And, sometimes a combination of forces does combine to make a small church toxic. Thankfully, this is often easy to spot 3. But there are a lot more small churches which are looking for people to love. And, given the opportunity, those folks might be some of the best people you’d ever want in your corner. They’re people who are flawed, who’ve been hurt, and who maybe even realize they’ve hurt others–but even despite it all, they want to do what Jesus told his disciples to do and love others.
And, just maybe, they can help you on your journey even as you help them re-embrace their’s. It’s just a thought.
Full disclosure, be wary of any group which says it can make total sense of the world. All I can promise to offer, for example, is a different perspective and bit of hope. ↩
You will be assimilated. It’s such a creepy word. ↩
If the pastor stokes anger to keep people in line, or someone informs you that people who dress or look like won’t feel welcome, feel free to run. ↩