Whose Story? What Script? The Dramas of Small-Church Life

Lew Parks

We had 39 people in worship last Sunday at Arnold’s United Methodist Church of Dillsburg. None of our regulars were deterred by a late summer downpour, including Bruce (now in his late seventies) who brought his wife, Esther, in her wheelchair so they could hand-deliver a plate of applesauce raisin cookies that Esther baked for any first-time visitors. It was an unusual Sunday; they gave away two plates of cookies. Most weeks they take home what they bring.

I have been supplying the pulpit of this small church in south central Pennsylvania for a little over a year while they recover from a failed dream of significant growth, a dream stirred by a $300,000 gift. I have grown to admire the cast of characters like Bruce and Esther. I’ve made peace with our no-frills budget. But this I know: if I am to remain invested in this congregation, I must sense the drama of who we are and what we are about.

The Drama of Endurance

One thing is very clear to me and our church: it is not likely the membership will grow by leaps and bounds any time soon. Biological growth won’t do it. We only have three or four childbearing women at Arnold’s and none of them are inclined to take church growth that personally! Transfer growth won’t do it. The church-shoppers try us on their way to the 24/7 full-service churches. I have become the infinitely courteous clerk smiling at the casual, one-time customer who has no intention of buying my product. And confession of faith won’t do it. We get the seekers, but only one or two at a time, mostly through the slow deliberate networking of a member who is a realtor and another who works in personnel at the local pharmacy company.

Bigger is better to most of us, most of the time. I am a consumer trained for shopping in big-box stores. I drive eight-lane interstates. I appreciate the cornucopia of channels on the TV remote. Who can blame us for extending this logic to the churches we attend? I have served in mid-sized churches that get bigger and in large-sized churches that grow even larger. But Arnold’s and roughly 75 percent of the churches in this country are the losers according to this logic. End of story. Or is it?

I have made up my own word for the small- church alternative to exponential growth. I use the term “dynamic equilibrium” to describe a congregation that is multigenerational, strives to live up to its core values, adapts to changes in its environment, and stays one step ahead of its losses. For a small church to sustain slow, steady growth in spite of the changes in the economy, public taste, and hurried denominational management is impressive enough. When this dynamic equilibrium, this creative dance, is measured in decades or even centuries, the achievement is truly remarkable.

I do not know if we will be able to keep up with our oversized Neo-Hodgepodge building or if we will have to abandon it. I do not know if we can outrun the loss of members to the megachurch that opened three miles down the road with its 80- acre sports complex and parade of famous gospel- singing guest artists. I do not know if we can keep up with our connectional church responsibilities: to fail there would be to wave a red flag in front of the judicatory, inviting closing from above. We are not the successful investor in an expanding economy but the everyday victim in a recession, juggling ac- counts and trying to make ends meet. Our median age is 68. We might finally achieve dynamic equilibrium one of these days, but it is far from certain. Now that is drama.

The Drama of Congregational Identity

I found a condition of narrative collapse at Arnold’s when I arrived, the same condition facing hundreds of small churches. They were so saturated with the problems of their continued existence that they could not stand back from them to gain perspective. They had lost any hunger for reading Providence in the unfolding events of their life together. They were tempted to buy into others’ demeaning stories and scripts about them.

Always available, for instance, is the narrative of nostalgia. Once upon a time, 100-plus people gathered for worship at Arnold’s. There was a choir of twelve with powder blue robes, a full-time ordained minister vested according to the liturgical seasons. And money was no object. Glory days are a bitter- sweet memory, a spell that comes over them and threatens to paralyze them. I confess that some days the spell is contagious. I feel a tinge of survivor’s guilt. The best and the brightest are gone, and we alone are left to tell the story.

I have found that scolding has limited impact on such nostalgia. The best antidote to nostalgia that I know is firm, measured doses of the congregation’s own story. I make sure we look back to the founder, Micah Arnold, who gave the first building in 1856 (called the Dogwood Springs Meeting House). He was a middle-age convert to the faith under the influence of his adult children. At 58 he sold his milling business and followed a lay itinerant calling, then donated the first sanctuary.

We look for stories or scripts that counter the restricted images we have of small congregations today. We discover episodes of entrepreneurial spirit that defy resigned passivity. We recover hospitable and open family values to place beside the moments of failure and dysfunction. We remember the contributions to our corporate spirit of the occasional charismatic sojourner or high churchman who worshipped with us for a season. By recalling a rich past, we can meet the challenges of the present head-on and change an inherited plot of pessimism.

The Drama of Election

The burden and grandeur of God’s election are clearer in a small church. Long ago in the little village of Dillsburg, PA, there were only assorted Christian believers meeting in one another’s houses after work for prayer meetings where they sang pietist hymns, read Scripture, and “prayed through” at makeshift mourner’s benches. Then Micah Arnold built a church and these individuals began to gather on a regular basis to “maintain worship,” encourage one another’s growth in faith, and plot their corporate witness, as Scripture would have it, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The “not a people” became a “God’s people.” A small and inauspicious sociological unit became “the elect” (1 Peter 2:10).

The church members were called out to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3). They projected themselves into scenarios of exodus, covenant, and exile. They rehearsed the plentitude of their spiritual gifts for ministry (1 Cor 1:7) and lived out all those New Testament “one another’s” (love … , do not judge … , confess to …) that make the most sense in a small-church setting. They concentrated on being built up (Eph 4:12). And they periodically paused to remember that their selection for this stellar part had nothing to do with their credits: “not because you were more numerous than any other people … for you were the fewest of all people. … It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors. …” (Deut 7:7-8). Through it all, Scripture provides counterscripts to discouragement and decline.

Also strengthening the Dillsburg congregation were counterscripts provided by the church universal’s own metrics of authenticity, a rich language for measuring progress on the journey of a people of God. Could they live up to the true church’s standard of unity in diversity (“you are all one in Christ”)? They failed at least twice, with a church split in the ’60s and another in the ’80s. Would they practice the accountability and forgiveness of a community of moral formation (“holy”)? There have been many tests. Would the faith of the apostles be passed along to the next generation in canon, creed, and hymns?

Here at Arnold’s Church we are trying to become more discerning about the scripts we accept and en- act. Place before us a script like Semper Reformanda, the vision of “always reforming,” and we’ll probably bite: we understand that small churches are not exempt from the call to excellence, and excellence requires us to question our behavior, practices, and structure in the light of the Word of God. But dangle before us scripts like Shame On You for Not Being Bigger or Look Who’s to Blame for Mainline Decline, and we will pass, thank you very much. There are limits to what even a great actor can do with a bad script.

We had 39 people in worship last Sunday at Arnold’s of Dillsburg. Drama was in the air with scripts provided by the Bible and the church universal. The God who elects a people as unpromising as we may appear to be was in attendance. It was a pretty good day.

Lew Parks is Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Congregational Development at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., where he also directs the seminary’s doctor of ministry program. An ordained United Methodist pastor in the Central Pennsylvania Conference, he is the author of Preaching in the Small Membership Church (Abingdon, 2009) and co-author of Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly: A Biblical Model of Church Leadership (Abingdon, 2004).