The Gifts of the Small Church is a rare book that is not about “fixing” small congregations or “turning them (us) around.” Jason Byassee has glimpsed the presence and working of God in three small United Methodist congregations in rural North Carolina, and he tells the stories of the saints he met there with loving appreciation. His wife, Jaylynn, served two of them as a two-point charge, and he took his own appointment as part-time pastor to a third small church. He sees the people of God in these congregations through the gracious, yet discerning eye of God.
Jason often had me laughing out loud, as when, for example, he describes his discovery of an ancient Easter egg during cleanup day at one of the churches. “Yes,” I chuckled, “sometimes you do find fossils of one kind or another when you poke around in a small congregation.”
Jason also drew many “amens” from me. He asserts that “the small church is just God’s primary way of saving people” (p. 4), and always has been. (Amen.) Why? Because you catch faith and learn how to be a Christian from a small group of people who know you by name and interact with you over an extended period of time. God doesn’t save people in general. God saves particular people by grace mediated through particular people.
Moreover, that small group of particular people serves as a school for discipleship. Whether you are the pastor or a person in the pew, in the small church there’s no way to avoid the people that you hate, or that at least get on your nerves. You must learn Christian virtues like patience. You must practice the gospel gifts of grace and forgiveness. You must learn to love people as they are, not as you wish them to be. In other words, you have to want to learn to be like Jesus in your heart.
While Jason looks at the small church through loving eyes, he also looks through realistic eyes. Every church, whatever its size, is beset by sin and the problems that result. As he puts it, “[S]inners are all God’s got to work with” (p. xii), and preachers certainly are in that number. (Amen again.) And yes, I agree with Jason that some small congregations are not healthy, and that some need to die by closure so that God can bring about a surprising resurrection. (more…)