The vast majority of churches, especially Protestant churches, are small. Many are rural churches that serve fast disappearing communities. Others line the streets of our urban centers, many living in once great cathedrals. Now populated by that remnant that remains committed to the memory of a ministry that the church once had. Small churches are resilient. They don’t die easily – holding on until the last breath goes out of them. Many once had full time pastors, but few can now afford that luxury.
Jason Byassee, a scholar and journalist, who is also an ordained pastor, currently serving as the Executive Director of Leadership Education and Director of the Center for Theology, Writing, and Media at Duke Divinity School, tells the story of the gifts America’s small churches bring to our communities. He writes from the vantage point of having once been the pastor of a small church. In addition, his wife, Jaylynn, is also a Methodist minister, who like Jason has served small churches. As he notes, the Methodists have lots of small churches, and due to the nature of their system do everything they can to staff these churches – even if that means spreading a pastor over several parishes.
Byassee isn’t naive about the problems and difficulties faced both by the churches and the pastors who try to lead them. He knows that there are many difficult and foreboding congregations, congregations that might be better off if they did die. And yet, there are many stories present in these churches, stories about real people who struggle with their faith and with life in general. Despite the brevity of the book, Byassee manages to fill twenty-six chapters with reflections, analysis, and most of all, the stories of real people and real churches (though the names have been switched and changed to protect privacy). These chapters are followed by an afterword written by William Willimon, formerly of Duke University, and now a Methodist Bishop in Alabama.
The author begins by noting that it’s not his intention to provide a manual for growing, changing, or developing small churches into big ones. Big churches have their place, but so do small churches. Big churches are, of course, more attractive to prospective pastors – both because they pay better and because they offer more prestige and opportunity. Still there are a lot of small churches, and as Byassee points out, these churches appear to be the means by which God is introducing people to Jesus. They also bearers of gifts, gifts of community and friendship and support in an ever mobile and depersonalized world. Small churches lack the ability to have big programs. They can’t hire the best musicians and likely don’t have much in the way of staff. If they even have a pastor they’re doing pretty well. Small churches, unlike their larger siblings, are not places one can hide. You will be known, with all of your blessings and foibles visible to everyone.
I came to this book as one who has also served small churches. The church I currently serve has about 100 members, but it is one of those churches that was once an urban cathedral, but now is a much smaller community of faith living in the suburbs. For a small church, this one has a lot of resources, largely due to the legacy of earlier donors and current strong givers. This is actually the largest church I’ve served, having come from a smaller church in a relatively small town (45,000 people) on the central coast of California. This previous congregation has many of the qualities that Byassee lifts up in his book. It has the feel of a rural congregation or a family chapel, though it’s by no means a closed circle. They’re very willing to open their arms to others. Though small, this congregation like my current one, has been blessed by estate gifts that keep it from floundering. So, I too know small churches – though not quite the same setting as those that Jason has experienced. California is a lot different from rural North Carolina. Therefore, the stories I might tell would likely be different from those Jason tells -- though not necessarily.
In the stories that Jason tells, we encounter real people who have their troubles, who fight with each other, hold political views different from their pastor, and sometimes embrace a merging of church and state that might make some uncomfortable. Being that the churches he encountered, there were hunters and other gun lovers. Some didn’t have a lot of education – though some did. What he discovered is that some of these people, especially the ones who liked their guns, could be some of the gentlest and gracious people you could ever want to know.
Because this is largely a collection of stories that highlight and illustrate the value, especially the relational value of the small church, pastors of such churches might wish to read this book together with David R. Ray’s Indispensable Guide for Small Churches (Pilgrim Press, 2009), as Ray’s book deals more with theory and practice than does Jason. Having participated in a seminar with Ray, I can attest to his intimate understanding of the joys and pitfalls of the small church, and offers useful guidance. If read in tandem with this book, the small church pastor or the small church leader will be empowered to fulfill their calling as a congregation – to bear witness to the grace of God to the world.
I truly enjoyed the book – even though my experience hasn’t been with rural churches. Due to the nature of this book, Byassee doesn’t focus on other manifestations of small church life, including those, that like the one I serve, once were much larger and struggle with a changed community. They may not have the ability to grow back into the size of yesteryear, but they desire to be good stewards and good witnesses. Their story also needs to be told – and David Ray is helpful here as well. I also understand, having now read this book, that the situation in the United Methodist church is very different from that of most other Protestant communities. Many Disciple, UCC, and Presbyterian churches, for instance, function not with pastors with M.Div’s, but with licensed ministers with rather minimal training, many of whom serve part time, earning their living by other means.
As noted in the previous paragraph, I enjoyed the book. Jason Byassee is a gifted writer who knows how to tell evocative stories. He brings the people who populate the book to life, so you have a sense of who they are. He is also very gentle, so that even when critiquing a congregation or a person, there is no hostility or condescension. These are good people and he wants to tell their stories.
It is unfortunate that this gracious book is marred by a rather ugly afterword written by William Willimon, a church leader, preacher, and writer, for whom I have had great respect. I understand that the Methodist church is struggling with how to staff small churches, and that due to the commitment to provide trained leadership, these congregations are getting a kind of pastor that is not available to small churches in my denomination. That said, to speak of these churches with such antipathy as Willimon has is truly sad. Yes, many small churches aren’t the kinds of loving and gracious communities that Jason describes. Many can be insular and club-like, full of pettiness – but that can be true for much larger churches – but to suggest that the “small church is a body that only a Savior who would die for a bunch of betrayers and torturers could love,” may be true, but for a bishop of the church to write this is frankly appalling. So, it would be my word advice to readers that you simply ignore the afterword. I had to read it, as a reviewer, but you don’t! Instead be blessed by your encounters with the people and the churches whom Jason introduces you to, and know that in every kind of church there are good people and not so good people. All kinds of churches can be gifts to their communities, whether large or small, if they are willing to offer God’s gracious love to everyone they meet.