The Gifts of the Small Church is a rare book that is not about “fixing” small churches or “turning them (us) around.” Jason Byassee has glimpsed the presence and working of God in three small United Methodist congregations in rural North Carolina, and he tells the stories of the saints he met there with loving appreciation. Keenly tuned in to their culture and language, the author introduces us to people who put their faith into practice. These are folks who really mean it when they tell you that they’ll pray for you. Byassee’s description of his discovery of an ancient Easter egg during cleanup day at one of the churches was one of many passages that had me laughing out loud. He also drew many “amens” from me. He asserts that “the small church is just God’s primary way of saving people” (p. 4), and always has been. (Amen.) Why? Because you catch faith from a small group of people who know you by name and interact with you over an extended period of time. God doesn’t save people in general. God saves particular people by grace mediated through particular people.
Moreover, that small group of particular people serves as a school for Christian discipleship. Whether you are the pastor or a person in the pew, in the small church there’s no way to avoid the people you hate, or get on your nerves. You must learn Christian virtues like patience and practice the gospel gifts of grace and forgiveness. You must learn to love people as they are, not as you wish them to be. In other words, you have to want to be like Jesus in your heart.
While Byassee looks at the small church through loving eyes, he also looks through realistic eyes. Some churches are unhealthy, and no church is completely healthy. Every church, whatever its size, is beset by sin and the problems that result. As he puts it, “[Sinners are all God’s got to work with” (p. xii), and preachers certainly are in that number. (Amen again.)
United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon adds an afterword. He marvels at Byassee’s “gentle, loving, generous eloquence toward the small church” (p. 113). Willimon concludes, “To see our people as Christ sees them, to see the church as Christ sees it may be the one thing needful in all Christian ministry” (p. 114). (Another amen.)
Jason Byassee models that way of seeing, along with another essential gift for a faithful pastor: humility. Wistfully he wonders what it could mean for small congregations if more of their pastors could stay with them over the long haul. But most of all he dreams of a future where small congregations are part of God’s solution to what ails the church in general. (One more amen.) His Gifts of the Small Church is a gift to the small church and to us who serve there.
MARY HARRIS TODD is pastor of Morton Church in Rocky Mount, N. C. Talk to her about small church ministry and more at The Mustard Seed Journal (maryharristodd.wordpress.com).