Monday, May 7, 2012

Church Growth, Relevance, and How It Really Feels

I never know what H is going to preach about until I hear it from the pulpit with everyone else. This weekend, I slipped into a pew in the middle of the sanctuary, behind my friends Marge and HL. HL was adjusting the volume on his hearing aid and Marge was writing out a check for her offering. Next to me, Mary Lou leaned over and whispered, "It's Marge's birthday today." Her 92nd birthday.

I reached into to my purse and fished for my iPhone, adding Marge's birthday to my calendar. For next year. Her 93rd.

H and I serve a small church in the American Midwest. Well, the honest truth is that the church is not small. It’s the congregation that’s small. Ours is one of those downtown churches you read about in studies about church growth. You will find us in the “declining” category.

Decades ago, long before I could even locate Nebraska on the map, businesses in this capitol city were changing their models and prairie grass was being turned over in favor of suburban neighborhoods with covenants and yearly neighborhood association fees. Downtown churches in this city pulled up stakes and joined the migration toward open air and expansive skies. Our church decided to stay put.

These days, every Sunday, about seventy people sit in the cavernous sanctuary. Some of us get entire pews to ourselves. Church growth people would probably be horrified. The experts might write us off, saying we are past our prime, behind the times, and lacking relevance in this brave new world. Some Sundays I agree with them.

I mean, honestly, it's hard not to look at the numbers and feel all knotted up on the inside. I imagine Gideon may have felt the same way.

At the front of the sanctuary, H says a prayer over the communion elements - the small white wafers and tiny cups of grape juice resting in silver trays. And then we go about the sacred work of serving one another, passing the trays from left to right and then right to left, blessing one another as we go. Sometimes we have to get up and walk the distance from one end of the pew to the other because of all the space between us. But it's just physical space. Somehow, on this day, we seem closer than ever.

I hold my tiny wafer and sip of grape juice in one hand and stare at Marge's silver curls and when I think that I would never have met her if we hadn't moved to this strange, new land, my heart fills up and tears hang on the edge. I can barely contain my gratitude to God for knowing that I needed Marge in my life, and for loving me enough to send me to this place that's been oh so hard, because He wants to make me better. Better, as in more than I used to be. Better, as in healed and more complete.

We sing some songs and my voice is raspy, so I stop to let it rest and I can hear the voices all around me and it feels like church. Or heaven. And when H stands up to preach, he leaves the pulpit and walks down from the platform and stands close to where we sit. He reaches out his arm as if to gather us in and hold us close and he tells us, "God has hand picked each of us to be here for each other. It's no accident. We need each other." And we, who need each other and who have been chosen for each other, nod or say "Amen" or wave one arm in the air or whisper "thank you" because it feels like relevance is in the eye of the beholder and maybe growth isn't all about the numbers after all.

Photo: Breakfast at Cracker Barrel after church one Sunday afternoon. That's Marge, in front wearing the blue sweatshirt.


With Michelle, full-time writer.


eggthoughts said...

This is a great and thoughtful post. The church my dad pastors is usually about a third full, and it isn't a big building-so twelve or or fifteen faithful farm folks come on a given week. But it isa special, caring church and I love going there when i'm in town.

I had a great Aunt named Marge, she was a neat lady.even though she died when I was very young I have good memories of her. She gave me a doll and I named it"Margie Showercap", no idea why :)