What we want to see and expect to see when we go into a new situation shapes what we do see. And it can hinder us from seeing what’s actually there. Small church pastor Kyle Childress reflects on that in a Christian Century article entitled “Oversized Expectations: A Small Congregation Gets Megachurched.” (July 27, 2010 issue.)
It’s painful when visitors seem not to want to give a small congregation a chance. He describes the kinds of criticism he and his flock hear from visitors. Here’s a sample: “The big criticism, the one that sticks the knife in and twists it, is: ‘You don’t have a youth (or children’s) program?! Well, what do you do with your young people?’ The fact that a teenage girl just led the liturgy seems to have been missed.” Visitors can see that this is a small church when they drive up, and yet they often still bring large church expectations with them.
Here is another scenario many of us have experienced: “I remember a young family that visited one Sunday morning. Several people in our church knew them and had invited them. I was excited. They were new to town, looking for a church, had two small children, and both adults were active with environmental issues, something our congregation is heavily involved in. But when I went to see them in a follow-up visit, they said, “You have a good church, but a person has to work too hard to be a member of your church. We don’t have time to work that hard.” They ended up joining a large church.”
Yes, it’s true. Life in a small congregation does require a lot from us, but it also offers extraordinary blessings. To illustrate, Childress describes the ordination service for one of the church’s daughters who had just graduated from seminary. In her testimony, she described how every time she sings the hymn “How Firm A Foundation,” she thinks of this congregation. Then, as Baptists practice this rite, the entire congregation laid hands on her, “including her Sunday school teachers, the adults who had gone to youth camps with her when she was the only youth going to camp from our church, and my daughters, whom she had babysat. Many of those present had heard her preach her first sermon when she was 11 years old. Everyone quietly walked by, putting their hands on her head and ordaining her.”
Childress concludes, “It is true that she could have learned “How Firm a Foundation” from a video screen [megachurch style] just as easily as from a hymnal. But my instincts tell me that in that case she would be different. Maybe I’m wrong. All I know is that it took about 20 years for a whole community of people in various ways to nurture and raise her so she might know that hymn in this particular small-church way and become this particular kind of young minister.” Hear, hear!
What we expect to see and want to see certainly does shape what we do see. When small church folk visit large congregations, we need to go with the same open mind and heart we want them to bring when they visit us. Wherever we go, if we’re looking for God, there is a pretty good chance we will see God somewhere.