Every year our neighborhood holds a massive Fourth of July celebration — it’s got a theme, at least three days of events and a lot of community spirit. This year our theme was summer camp, and we had an afternoon with a whole bunch of camp activities: tie-dye, crafts, archery and aerial acrobatics. That last one was led by our congregation. Yup, you read that right. We’ve had an aerial arts troupe (known as RAPT) for the last few years, started by a professional trapeze artist. Yes, we bring it into worship – think amateur Cirque du Soleil interpreting song and Scripture. (Read my Outlook blog about it here.)
An important note here: We’ve shared our aerial arts ministry with the community on numerous occasions. We did a Fourth of July showcase one year. We’ve held workshops. We’ve invited them to see it in worship.
So, it was something of a shock to me when one of our long-time neighbors came up to me later in the day and said: “I wish I could have been there. I didn’t know that your church was doing that.” My snarky inner monologue wondered where he’d been for the last few years, but I nodded politely. And then he continued, “I guess this will be your legacy here in the neighborhood, huh?”
I didn’t quite hold my tongue that time. I said, “Well, actually, I hope that our after school program is more my legacy here than the aerial stuff.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a shock when he said, “You run an after school program?!”
Why, yes. We do. We run an after school program once a week during the year, a Sunday program once a month for the same kids and two weeks of summer camp. We’d like to expand all of that, but this is what our church that worships between 20 and 40 can handle.
I said none of this. Again, I just nodded politely. But when we were out of earshot, my wife turned to me and said, “The church needs to learn how to brag more.” When I gave her a skeptical look, she went on: “Most people in church don’t know how to talk about how awesome we are. Most people in church seem afraid to do it.”
She’s right. We are hesitant. And yet, we areawesome. We have members who cook 8,500 meals a year for an organization called Paul’s Place – they’ve had this partnership for 30 years. We have a thriving LGBTQ ministry that gathers for dinner and Scripture study and that is now considering how to minister to youth in our area. We started a relaxed evening worship service that revolves around storytelling and art. We have a mindfulness meditation group led by our resident Buddhist-Presbyterian. (I’m not kidding. He’s in the Buddhist ordination process, and he’s an elder at church. It’s pretty cool). We organize in our neighborhood to reduce violence, increase involvement in the school and generally know our neighbors better. For example, we played a crucial role in organizing to shut down a local drug corner where two people were murdered within months of each other. We helped parents at the school organize around the sewer smell that was permeating the building and put tension on the city until they fixed it. But perhaps even more important than all of that, we’re family in a way that I’ve never experienced in church before. We have multiple members who live with mental illness, and other congregants who reach out to be in relationship with them and support them on days when they’re struggling. People give rides to each other. They take the time to get to know one another. They pray for each other and are vulnerable with each other. And I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of this community.
The thing is, we don’t necessarily tell people that. Any of that — as evidenced by my neighbor. I mean, honestly, I was uncomfortable even writing it.
And I don’t think we’re alone. In fact, I know we’re not. I’ve had the privilege of talking to other small church pastors who find themselves in the same boat. Their congregations are doing awesome things, but no one knows because they (in my wife’s words) aren’t good at bragging about it. (I want to give a big shout out to all of the small churches that are! You rock!) And the simple truth is that while big churches might have name recognition so people tend to know more about what they’re doing, we smaller churches do not usually have that luxury. Further, within our denominational conversations (at least the ones that I’ve been a part of), “small” is often synonymous with “dying.”
I want to have a different conversation. I want to hear the stories of small churches doing amazing things. I want to hear the stories of how your itty, bitty, teeny, tiny rural/city/suburban/somewhere on planet earth church is thriving (and if your church isn’t on planet earth, I definitely want to hear about that too). I’m longing for the stories that too many of us never get to hear — and for the ones that too many of us are a little afraid to share (because, you know, we’re good Christians who don’t toot our own horn). I want to hear the small church story in the PC(USA). And the Outlook wants to hear those stories – and publish them! – too.
Here’s how: Send your “What’s right about my church?” story to firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions should be 150 words and include 3 or 4 photos. The Outlook will feature as many small church stories as possible in future issues!
JENNIFER BARCHI is serving as the solo pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.