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.
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.