A while back I had a conversation with an elderly gentleman. He told me that when he was a young man, single, new to town, he decided to find himself a church. One Sunday, he got up, dressed, had breakfast and hopped in his car. He knew where he was headed. He had read in the paper about a new church not too far from his house. He would try that one. He drove to a very small building—a house, actually—but it had a church sign out front. He pulled his car onto the front lawn that served as the church parking lot. Only a few cars there. So few cars, in fact, that he wondered whether he had read the service time wrong in the paper. The front door was open, though. He was greeted by a man who handed him a bulletin and informed him that the service would begin soon. As this visitor walked toward a line of chairs in the makeshift sanctuary, he heard the greeter say, “Can you usher?” The young man turned around. The greeter was looking at him. The young man said, “Well, sorry, but this is my first Sunday!” The greeter shot right back. “Mine, too. Here’s the offering plate.”
This young man stayed that Sunday and the ones following--and when I talked to him he was probably in his 80’s—still a member at that now much larger church. I asked him why he stayed. He said, “Well, I stayed because the church needed me!”
We are not so desperate, maybe—but we certainly could use a few more souls, and helping hands. Maybe like that man, you have noticed that, and you are here to help, by making a commitment, throwing in your lot with us, joining this fine body of Christians—a body of Christians living out its faith the best way it knows how, in the small town of Scottsville.
On the other other hand, right now, you may be wondering what you have gotten yourselves into. So I thought I would spend some time talking about that. What IS Scottsville Presbyterian?
The good news is that this is a small church, as you have already noticed. “How can that possibly be good?” you might be thinking. I am here to tell you that Absolutely it is good. I have served one large church and one small church, and been part of the leadership in others, both big and small. Small is good. For one thing, at a large church you can get pigeon-holed. So say you have an accounting background. You can’t say that too loudly, because if you do, you will probably be asked to lead the stewardship committee, or the finance committee. Small church, no committees! You may still be asked to be treasurer, or take the lead in stewardship, if accounting is in your background, but probably the asking won’t stop there. There’s a lot else you may be asked to do, too—We call those opportunities—opportunities for service.
You have the opportunity to lead worship, teach, arrange flowers, sing, sew, knit, cook, paint, plumb (as in taking care of the toilet), work on the web page, visit the sick, do electrical and carpentry work, change lightbulbs, garden—how am I doing? Said differently, and I am taking this from a book on small churches, “Thousands of small-membership congregations act on the premise that the office can mold the person.” Which is a poetic way of saying that often in a small church members learn as they go. And it goes without saying almost, in a small church, if you want to develop what is as yet a latent talent, here’s the place! So say you decide to take up the saxophone or tuba? We promise to listen and cheer you a long in your progress.
Also in a small church is the fact of personal recognition. I used to serve a large church in McLean, Virginia. I had been at that church for many years when one Sunday, I met a man on his way into the first service. Two services at that church—you can see right there how that would add to a recognition problem—first service worshipers, second service worshipers. As the associate pastor at that church, though, I made it a point to know the members at both. Still, I had never seen this particular man before. I introduced myself. He told me he had been coming to the church for five years! Five years! I apologized profusely for not knowing him. Turns out, though, he was a journalist for the Washington Post—and because of his job, he WANTED to remain anonymous. Where did he worship so that he could remain anonymous? A big church.
Not so at a small church. Not so here. Like that bar in Boston, everyone knows your name. Already people here know that Duane is not spelled with a W and Valerie does not end in a Y, and you haven’t even joined yet! We are small enough that we can handle those details. And, you will note, that we try, anyway, to remember birthdays and anniversaries. If you are sick, you will be prayed for. If your car breaks down, we can drive you where you need to go. If you have a doctor’s appointment and you just want someone to sit beside you in the waiting room, —here we be. It’s what Christians do for one another in THIS community.
And, there is this, in small churches—Accountability. I would argue that it is easier to be accountable to each other in a small community, which because of its smallness lends itself to intimate, one-on-one relationships. Not too long ago, I read about a man who has developed a new cell phone app. The way he explained the idea for his new creation: “I am a runner. Every morning before work, I used to run with a running buddy. Then my work moved me to another state. No more running buddy. It just became easier and easier not to get up early for a workout. In frustration, I called my running buddy. We developed a plan—simple. In the morning, after I was dressed and ready for a run, I would call him and we would talk via cell phone as we ran—he in his state and me in mine. It worked!”
That runner just needed one other person to whom he would be accountable for his morning runs--to keep him on track, literally. He figured other people might want to take advantage of his idea. That’s how his cell phone app was born. It connects runners with other runners in an accountability network!
Doubt there will ever be an app for Christian community, though. Our struggles are not so simple as clocking miles. Our Christian struggles cannot be so easily resolved over the phone. How do we live out our faith in the world? What is God calling us, or me to do? Are we living lives that glorify God? Are we being generous with our time, talents, and finances? That’s what we are about here. Determining that requires accountability in face-to-face, weekly conversations.
Which brings us to that, our Christian struggles. I want to stop in our discussion of large churches vs. small churches to talk about what we are up against as Christians—large church OR small church, same struggles even if we may approach them a little differently. What we are up against as Christians, our overarching struggle is living out our faith in a world which is consumed by negativity, competition, greed, and so on and so forth. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves getting caught up in that. Sometimes it seems like the world is one humongous spider web of negativity, and we are that one lone fly, doesn’t it? We hardly stand a chance.
As you may know, I went to a Montreat, North Carolina, for a conference and to take in some R and R. That was in August. While I was there I shared lots of conversations with other pastors, in a magnificent mountain setting. Great way to spend a few days! One of us was installed as the new pastor in a church about a year ago. That church was sooo negative. It was like the whole church was one enormous fly caught up in that spider web of negativity. You know how we have celebrations and concerns here? Nary a celebration in that church, ever. When the congregation members sang hymns, it was like they were singing dirges. People trudged into church, they trudged out of church. That pastor dreaded Sundays; the most depressing day in her week.
So, she got creative. One Sunday she put a strip of colored paper in each bulletin. During the service she asked each parishioner to write on that strip something they were grateful for--a blessing in their lives. She asked them to put their written-on strips in the offering plate. I imagine those depressed souls found even that simple exercise very challenging. “ I have a cold, can’t breathe, I’m cold, probably got a fever, but at least I don’t have pneumonia-yet!” The pastor made congregation members write their blessings on those strips of paper every single Sunday for the next several months.
Finally, the pastor had a good collection of strips. She made them into a chain—you know, you probably learned how to do that in elementary school. Then on a Sunday, she made a big deal of draping the colored chain across the chancel area—it stretched from the lectern to the pulpit. A chain of blessings. Childish, stupid, really, but it had an effect. It started a movement. Now church members want to know, “Can we create enough chain links to encircle the entire sanctuary?” They are working on it. And guess what? Finally, finally, that church’s celebrations are outpacing concerns and worship isn’t so dreary anymore.
Now on to our passage in Romans. Paul, wrote his letter to the church in Rome, late in his career—by the time he writes it, he had been imprisoned several times, and he had been beaten with rods. Also, during his ministry he lived with some sort of physical handicap—maybe partial blindness. That’s my vote, anyway. And of course, Paul lived in the first century, so his Christian colleagues were being martyred by the Roman Empire. And yet, in this letter Paul tells the Church in Rome and he tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world –that is, to it’s resignation, hopelessness, negativity, mercilessness, cruelty, and general snarkiness; but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.”
You want to memorize one line of scripture, this is it! It’s what Christianity it all about; and it is what WE are about in this place--opening ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may recognize God’s many blessings. We strive to live joyful lives in service to the one who created us. THAT is God’s will for us.
Joyfulness. We are all in all, a joyful group. The thing that makes us joyful today is that you Duane and Valerie are joining our membership! You will hear few dirges in this place. And if we don’t skip into the sanctuary on Sundays, at least we don’t trudge. There is accountability for sure. And folks ready to forge friendships. You are joining a membership living out God’s will in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let everyone say, Amen