Scattered throughout any community are tiny, struggling churches.
Sometimes they’re invisible. If you blink while driving past them you’ll miss them. Or they’re eyesores — run down, weather worn.
In my 20 years covering local religion for the newspaper, I’ve gotten to know the people at some of these little churches.
I’ve attended their services and could count the people in the pews with two hands and not need a third.
Two things have run through my mind: Why don’t they admit defeat, close up shop and go somewhere else? And, why do they stay together?
I’ve always been part of churches that are so big that I don’t know half the people, and so I don’t understand a tiny church’s dynamic or mentality.
I remember talking to a pastor of one such little church. In his community, which maybe encompasses five square miles, his church is one of three of varying denominations, all three with only a handful of members.
Each church has a long, rich history. Each church has members who had been there since their birth — their mamas and grandmas, aunts and cousins had all been members.
The pastor was telling me about some needed repairs at his church and how the other two churches also needed some help. He also told me about their tradition of combining congregations and meeting together in each other’s churches on rotating Sundays.
That was a head scratcher.
“Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals — why don’t you just all form one church?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I had asked a really dumb and insensitive question. Which I had.
He said, “If you’re a Baptist, do you want to be Methodist? And if you’re a Methodist, do you want to be Pentecostal?”
He wasn’t saying that one was better than the other or that the people in the three churches didn’t all get along, because they do. He was saying that Christ’s church as a whole forms its own smaller family groups where the people worship the same Lord and Savior as the universal church, but in ways that are more comfortable amongst themselves.
I get that. I love being Presbyterian. It’s not that I have anything against Baptists or Methodists or Pentecostals, I just prefer being Presbyterian. It feels as if it’s in my DNA.
But I don’t want this to be a discussion of denominations or even styles of worship. Instead, I’m thinking today about churches in general: small, medium, large or jumbo, all colors, all flavors.
Recently, I visited another small church in the community. The pastor, a woman, has been in this church since before she was born. Her great-grandfather was its founding pastor. The church has gone from 400 people to just a faithful few, and hers is another church that I’ve wondered why it still exists.
It all comes back to what the church is.
If it’s just a place to wear your new clothes, to sing a few songs and learn a few principles to make your life run more smoothly — well, you can do that anywhere. Or not do it at all.
But if it’s a family reunion, if it’s the place where the people you count as your brothers and sisters come together each week to practice your common family traditions, to learn about and celebrate your common faith and your Father’s love, then whether you’re few or a few hundred or thousand in number, your church is a precious place.
The size of the membership doesn’t matter as much as the size of the love the people have for one another.
One of my most cherished parts of going to church each week is sitting in front of Harry and Charlotte Austin. At the end of the service, after all the songs and the offering, after the sermon and God coming and loving us, after the pastor’s final prayer and benediction, every week I turn around and say, “Good stuff, huh Harry?”
If he and Charlotte aren’t there, I miss them. I miss saying, “Good stuff.” If I’m not there, I miss it, too.
I think that’s the way church should be. I think it makes Jesus happy.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.