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.
In an afterword to this book, Jason’s friend Will Willimon, now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, takes a bit of a curmudgeonly tone. He has seen more than his share of unhealthy small churches being kept alive on life support. And yet, by the end of the afterword it is clear that Willimon finds himself wondering at Jason’s “gentle, loving, generous eloquence toward the small church” (p. 113). Willimon adds, “To see our people as Christ sees them, to see the church as Christ sees it may be the one thing needful in all Christian ministry” (p. 114). (Another amen.)
Jason exercised that gift with the people of God, and other gifts, too. Humility is one. He recognizes that pastors are much in need of grace and forgiveness from their congregations. He writes, “If there’s one area in which pastors should lead the congregation, we should lead in repenting” (p. 35).
Tuning in to particular people in a particular context is another gift. Jason is sensitive to the language and culture of the three small congregations he describes here. One of his sweetest memories is of this voicemail congratulating him and Jaylynn on the joyous news of their pregnancy: “Jlyn, Jsn…just herd! Congrtchlations! This is gret! We love yuh! So proud uh yuh! Yuh dun good!” (p. 16). He hears the deep support in this message, wrapped in rural Carolina expressions and touched with a very distinctive accent. Every pastor in every context needs to tune in to God’s people in a similar way.
One especially helpful point that Jason makes is that the small church pastor is a prayer-gatherer: “And the minister’s job is to gather these offerings, like pearls, and set them before the Lord” (p. 29). Indeed, citing work by Anglican priest and Cambridge professor Sarah Coakley, Jason notes that in prayer pastor and people join a conversation that is already in progress in the triune life of God (p. 30).
The pastor also needs to appreciate the gifts of the people in the congregation. With great respect Jason describes a group of women in his church who had the gift of prayer. If the prayer ladies said they would pray for you, they really would. These persistent, persevering “pray-ers” taught Jason how critical prayer is to the church’s life, especially in times of turmoil. He regards them as the most genuine leaders in the congregation (p. 60).
Jason wishes he could have hung in there longer with the faithful folk in these small churches. In the introduction he makes use of two terms coined by Wallace Stegner to describe the kinds of people who moved to the American West: “Boomers,” who went west to extract wealth from the land and then move on; and “stickers,” who moved in to stay, make a life, and build a community. Wistfully he writes, “I went from being a boomer to a sticker [in the small church]. The sad part of the story is that I went back to boomer” (p. viii). He is sorry that he could not be a sticker in small church ministry, but it became necessary to seek a better income. He wonders what it could mean for small congregations if more of their pastors could be stickers. Most of all he dreams of a future where small congregations are part of God’s solution to what ails the church in general. (One more amen.)
Who knows? God may guide Jason to a place where he can be a sticker. Perhaps God already has. I’m just thankful Jason was able to stay in the small church world long enough to be able to write this beautiful book. The Gifts of the Small Church is a gift to the small church, and to us who serve there.