Stories of mustard seeds and mountains
Why I love my little old church
In a church that worships innovation, who celebrates the 30 people who’ve been showing up for years?
by Sue Washburn
Most of my life I’ve identified with the prodigal in Jesus’ parable about the lost sons (Luke 15:11–32). Early on, I bounded off to do great things. I imagined grand visions for my ministry. But somewhere along the way I discovered I wasn’t the prodigal.
Called to a declining church in a small town, my visions and my enthusiasm ran smack into the wall of tradition. For a while this left me dizzy and resentful. I’d read ministry articles and blogs about innovation and be frustrated I couldn’t do it. I’d watch the denomination celebrate new church development with music, balloons, and all the devotion a new parent gives her new one year old. I’d attend events where young men in beards and jeans encouraged us to give up our buildings and do “real” ministry. Inspired, I imagined ways that the church could change.
Except nothing changed.
Church was still the same old church. Thirty people showed up week after week wanting the same songs and traditions that had been happening for years. That darned older son of a church always did what was expected. It never set off for a new land, and I was itching to go.
Then, one Sunday I was enthusiastically preaching another of Jesus’ great stories. I was earnestly describing how we should be sheep and not goats by helping the poor and serving the least of these when I stopped for a moment and fumbled. I looked out at the grey hair, hearing aids, and canes and realized that was exactly what I was doing. God had called me to serve these people in this town. The “least of these” look different depending upon where you are.
I didn’t change the church with my passionate preaching or grand vision; the church changed me with its steadfast faith. Rather than fight these older sons, I decided to love them.
‘In a world that values speed, technology, and youthfulness, my congregants come to church to be reminded that God cares for them, too. . . . They come because it’s a place where they matter.’
Today, I’m not doing anything terribly new and innovative. My church wouldn’t register on the cool-o-meter of jeans, music, and coffee. Instead, I’m doing something tried and true. I say my prayers, put on my robe, and serve the people God has put in front of me, people who are being left behind by the changes in our culture and, increasingly, our church.
A lot of the people I serve wouldn’t know where to begin if they went to a church that offered them a latte, cappuccino, or espresso. Asking them to tweet a prayer request from a phone they don’t have is pointless. So when a 94 year old says she doesn’t really check email because the computer confuses her, I pick up the phone and talk, not text.
In a world that values speed, technology, and youthfulness, my congregants come to church to be reminded that God cares for them, too. They’ve come, in faith, week after week and year after year—donating a lifetime of volunteer hours and money to God’s church.
They come to encounter the living God. They come to sing a song that they know because the radio plays music that they don’t. They come to hear a story that stays the same even when the world around them changes. They come to worship in a building that stands strong when their own bodies are falling apart. They come because it’s a place where they matter.
And so with Jesus as my model, I meet them there. I leave my latte and praise music in the car. I walk more slowly and speak more intentionally. I minister to them using their language, liturgy, and songs. I drink their coffee. I preach the love of Christ, I touch their ailing bodies, I offer them part of myself, and I say to them, “Go and do likewise.”
In our big world, however, not many people notice a small church doing ministry in a little town. Nobody heard the resounding “YES!” in my heart when the deacons give away all their money to mission at the year’s end. Nobody saw my affectionate smile when my church awkwardly, but wholeheartedly, sang along to the praise songs on my iPhone the morning the musician called off at the last minute. Nobody knew that they collected shoes for poor children or that the same old jello-salad luncheons fed people who were not raised to ask for help.
I’m not the prodigal. I confess, my thoughts echo that of the older son, the one in the story we tend not to like. The one who is resentful at all the attention that the younger son gets. I want the people that I serve to be celebrated, too. All these years they’ve been faithful. They’ve contributed. They’ve worshiped. They’ve donated. They’ve loved. They’ve helped. They’ve been obedient. Who is celebrating them?
Oh wait. I know . . .
Sue Washburn is a freelance writer and bivocational pastor at Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.