I grew up on gospel preaching the same way some of my peers grew up on Star Wars and E.T. In North Carolina's tobacco country, the church house was our local theater and preachers were not only pastors -- they were our primary entertainment. In the Bible Belt in the 1980s, a small church was the center of my family's social life. I was a teenager before I realized that this wasn't the case for everyone.
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But as much as I love the people who raised me, I'm not nostalgic for an idealized small church. Like all people, we had the good and bad mixed up in us. Most of the people I grew up with would give the shirt off their back to someone in real need, and they knew a hot summer afternoon was for making homemade ice cream and enjoying it together in the shade of a picnic shelter. But they were also generally suspicious of outsiders, given to petty disagreements, and blindly racist. I don’t think the church that raised me was perfect. But I do know that it saved me.
Which is why I was glad to read Jason Byassee's The Gifts of the Small Church. Jason made a name for himself as a religious journalist after finishing a Ph.D. in theology. Unlike many academics, he has a knack for spinning a good tale. While working for the mainline magazine The Christian Century, Byassee frequently published in the evangelical Christianity Today, because beyond his gift of story-telling he also has a keen eye for what God is up to in every place. Unwilling to simply accept the assumptions of an ideological camp, he's good at inviting his reader into a place where she can be surprised.
As a product of the small church, I've learned people’s assumptions about the people I come from. At best, we're a dying lot to be pitied (or ignored). At worst, we're the dangerous backwaters of fundamentalism that need to be drained and paved over in the name of progress. Byassee knew this, too, when he was assigned to pastor a small church in rural North Carolina. But he wasn't willing to buy the standard assumptions. He showed up looking for God in a little country church, and he found more than a story to tell -- he found people who changed him.
Borrowing a set of terms from Wallace Stegner, Byassee confesses that he came to the small church a "boomer," like the pioneers who went West in America's history to make a quick buck and move on to something better. But he was surprised by what he found. Here was a place where people belonged, even amidst neighbors they struggled to get along with. When Byassee and his wife had a son, these people loved the child and held him on their laps. After two years, when Byassee realized he would have to leave, he didn't want to. He had become, to use Stegner's other term, a "sticker" -- someone whose default is to stay.
"The church is where Jesus saves his people," Byassee writes. "It's beautiful. It's worth living in and dying in and being buried out back of." Byassee is good at conveying that beauty in story after story. But is beauty enough? Given the challenges of global poverty and an environmental crisis, can the small church really be our hope for the world?
"The sort of churches I wrote about are gossip hubs," Byassee told me. "They know each other and each other's business. That can be a better place to start thinking about social justice than some vision brought in from afar." Given that most big ideas for global change boil down to the "power of one," it may be that the small church offers us more community than big churches or large scale movements. But isn't that messy? Well, yes. But I think Byassee is right: Small gatherings of people who know one another is the main way God chooses to save us -- as individuals and as a society.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (www.jonathanwilsonhart grove.com).