Stories of mustard seeds and mountains
Feels like home
Thinking we’ve failed because our church is small
by Sue Washburn
The church smelled like home. As I walked through the door to be interviewed for a ministry job in a small town in Pennsylvania, I was transported back to my own childhood in church. The slightly damp smell of wood, concrete, and books evoked memories of being cared for by an entire community. It smelled like being welcomed and loved.
Walking down the narrow staircase to the church basement was like going into my grandmother’s house. The shades of color on the floors and walls were outdated, and the pastel, fake flowers were faded and dusty, but the floors were shiny and clean.
“Did all the Presbyterian churches in the ’60s go in together to buy this vinyl floor tile?” I wondered silently. It was ugly, but comforting nonetheless.
The interview took place in a room full of pedestal fans (there was no air conditioning). I sat poised on the edge of the chair and felt droplets of sweat form on the back of my neck.
We talked together about where they saw Christ in the church. I asked about their hopes, challenges, town, and finances.
“We are a small church,” said a woman with owl-like glasses with big lenses. Like so many others, Harriet said this with sadness. As the oldest active member, she recalled Easters when the sanctuary was full of girls in patent-leather shoes and boys tugging at ties. She remembered delivering Meals-On-Wheels and teaching rooms full of children about Jesus, before those rooms were turned into storage for unused pageant costumes, parade signs, and broken electronics.
It’s an apology that I’ve heard over and over from preachers and members alike. We are a small church is what they say. We have failed is what they think.
But, I wonder if that is what God thinks. As a pastor, my job is to scrutinize an inscrutable God, to glimpse the invisible God at work in their midst, and to listen as the God of eternity whispers into the present with a still, small voice.
For many of us faith is a collection of small things—glimpses and whispers. We are connected to God by a series of small moments that have eternal impact. God comes as a deep understanding around a bonfire at church camp. God connects us to something bigger than ourselves when we accidently brush hands while passing communion bread. God cradles us while we sing “Silent Night” with a cheap, white candle. God shows up in the tears we find on our cheeks when a child we’ve never seen before gets baptized. God calls to us through the familiar scent of our childhood.
God is big, eternal, and infinite, and, yes, we are a small church. But make no mistake, small matters.
Sue Washburn is a freelance writer and bivocational pastor at Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.