By Mr. John Shirley, M.Th., parishioner, St. Paul’s, Bloomsburg
A little over a year ago, in 2011, our diocesan convention theme was “Small Churches Reaching Out: Challenge and Promise,” and we had the opportunity to have Jason Byasee speak to us about the value and grace that such communities provide. Naturally, being a diocese largely constituted by small churches, it was encouraging to hear, read, and discuss the Kingdom of God clearly at work in such places.
The theme of that convention began to pervade my thoughts, and it still often does. So, since June of 2011 I have been searching for books and documents about small churches. Through that search I stumbled across what I perceive to be a gem. Richard Lischer, like Jason Byasee is currently on faculty at Duke Divinity; however, he began his ministry in a small Midwestern, Lutheran parish, and it is his memoir, of this particular experience, that I would like to review.
Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church, published in 2001, begins by Lischer bemoaning the isolation of his new parish. Likewise, he is less than thrilled with the church building and the housing offered him. However, this young Ph.D. of Theology plunges into his ministry, and it is here that he, through trial and error, ultimately discovers how much his flock, despite their idiosyncrasies, gossip, and stubbornness, truly are the Body of Christ at work in the world: “. . . I was looking at the church as God sees it, not as a series of individual quirks and opinions, but as a single heart of love and sorrow” (p. 232). But, Lischer’s realization of this was gradual.
This man of many academic degrees was truly experiencing Incarnational Theology in a parish made up of farmers, housewives, mechanics, mill workers, and the unemployed. He learned to walk and talk with his parishioners on their level, and, in the process, discovered that this community truly lived its faith, its call to minister to each other. There was a true sense of charity, beyond the giving of material goods, which embodied the same sense of devotion that Christ had shown, and still shows, individually and communally to a struggling world.
According to Lischer, and I strongly agree, one of greatest strengths of a small church is the necessity of each individual within the greater community. That necessity means working and worshipping side-by-side with persons with whom you disagree. Since, there is little or no anonymity, in small, rural churches, each person is relied upon, despite perceived oddities and absurdities. However, the general community, within the book, still needs to process and work through theses tensions, and this usually accomplished by the dread means of gossip.
Lischer dedicated a whole chapter to the role of gossip in his particular flock. He explains that even gossip can, ultimately, serve the gospel: “Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses” (p. 96). He also discovers that, despite scriptural admonitions against gossip, it enables him to reach many people pastorally. Lischer is aware that he walking a fine line, morally and ethically, with this topic, but he also acknowledges the powerful role it has in his community, and, because of that role, the necessity of working with it.
The text is replete with reflections upon individual and communal interactions that involve conflict, whether over moving the altar from the wall or his desire to instruct at a local seminary that is deemed heretical, by the parish council president, but it also shows how this community, as individuals and as a whole, is able to reach beyond these conflicts and genuinely live into the Kingdom of God -not in spite of its size, but because of it.
In the middle of book, Lischer puts into words a powerful image that, though not repeated throughout the text, applies to overarching call to ministry of churches large and small:
If pastoral care yielded mixed results at best, presiding at worship offered the satisfaction I craved. When I opened my arms and said, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation would chorus back, “And with thy spirit,” which never failed to feed my spirit. When the service ended, the ushers would throw open the back doors to reveal greens and golds of corn in tassel and the faded reds of distant barns. Our little church opened onto the whole world (p. 118-119).
To me, these words were a pivotal point, and their theme continued to be carried through to the end of book. As Lischer closes his memoir, by leaving for a suburban parish, in Virginia, the sense of hope and mission those words evoke left the same sense of hope and mission for our own small parishes.
I began to wonder our own diocese, our own small churches; how many times, in our own diocese, on any given Sunday, do many of our church doors open onto small town streets? How many times, through our open doors, can we see wooded hills or mountains, seeded fields or the swift waters of a river, even if off in the distance? There is a greater symbolism, a deeper meaning, than just small town streets and a variety of nature - we have been gifted, through the location and the vastness of our diocese, with the ability to see the spectrum of creation, in its fullness and wholeness, and our purpose is to minister and be stewards of that creation in all of its forms. Let us not bemoan the size of our parishes; rather, let us use our size as a grace - a place where individuals can be known for their gifts, valued in their weakness, and truly recognized as a Child of God – for the greater good of Christ’s Body.