by Steve Willis
Alban, 2012. 101 pages
reviewed by Mary Harris Todd
Small-church pastor Steve Willis believes that the old Shaker hymn is right: It truly is a gift to be simple and a gift to be free. With deep respect, he shows how healthy small churches simply and lovingly embody God’s upside-down wisdom. Small churches have much to teach the church at large that is now getting smaller in numbers, material resources, status and influence. They know that it does not always take professional personnel, big buildings and large amounts of resources to answer the call of God.
Willis describes Wendell Berry’s dichotomy between peripheral culture and central culture, and shows how many small churches live in a peripheral culture. The two cultures are interdependent. A commercial center and an agricultural periphery are one example of this dichotomy. There is a tendency for the center to have little understanding of the periphery and to presume that the way things work in the center is the way they should work everywhere. Central-culture ways of doing ministry are assumed to be the norm as well as the ideal. Central-culture churches and judicatories tend to apply center expectations to peripheral churches, concluding that they don’t measure up. This damages the whole church as well as small congregations. Mainline denominations finding themselves pushed toward the periphery should use their imagination and draw inspiration and wisdom from congregations who have long been at home there.
By center standards, the focus on relationships in the small church may appear to be narrow and self-centered. The imaginative eye, however, sees that they are sacred, blessed, covenantal relationships spanning the generations. Thus, living and learning intergenerationally is not a second-rate strategy because the church can’t afford something better. It is the strategy for passing on and nurturing faith. Throughout the book, Willis shares stories of people whose lives have been changed through the welcoming acceptance they received through a small congregation. The good news is passed on through close relationships and hospitality.
Willis shows how the small church embodies many Gospel values, including this one: life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Simplicity is an attribute and a discipline. Moreover, people in small churches often live in close connection to the creation around them and to the cycle of life. They model sustainable ways of caring for a community and for the place where the community lives. Willis calls judicatory leaders to take note and rethink their definitions of sustainability and viability.
The aim of imagination is to see more as God sees. Therefore, Willis cautions us to feed our imaginations more on Scripture and less on images like entrepreneurship that come from the business world. Imagination is prayerful work that allows us to see both the wonder of what is and the wonder of what could be. “Imagining the Small Church” truly is a gift to all who seek to serve with imagination as well as energy, intelligence and love. It is a gift to the church at large.
MARY HARRIS TODD is pastor of the Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, N.C. Visit with her at The Mustard Seed Journal.