Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gifts of the Small Church: A Review

A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.

But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray to God for understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God. . .

What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Ever wished that more pastors heeded the wisdom that Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered in Life Together? I sure have. As a matter of fact, I wish that I paid more attention to Bonhoeffer's warnings myself. How many of us United Methodist clergy have ever been to a district clergy meeting when we did not hear a pastor complaining about his/her congregation? It almost seems like a favorite pastime. If we do not hear other clergy grumbling about their congregations, we may hear the opposite extreme: clergy praising their congregations as if they were First Church Philippi. This can of course be merely a subtle way of bragging about ourselves. So we hear complaints about unfaithfulness or undue praise for accomplishments and growth. But what is often missing is a realistic presentation of our churches for all their gifts, graces, and foibles. That's exactly what Byassee offers us in his latest book, The Gifts of the Small Church. It's almost as if Byassee wrote this book with the above quotation from Bonhoeffer hanging over his desk.

Byassee's book is a good example of what Bonhoeffer is asking for: not a complaint about our churches, but rather a thanksgiving. I don't mean to suggest that Byassee doesn't tell the stories of how weird his local church was; he does. And they are often funny, sometimes sad, and usually provocative. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many weird experiences Byassee had that were common to my experience as a pastor of a small church. I frequently found myself thinking, "ok, good, I'm glad I'm not the only pastor that this happened to." He doesn't hide any of the church's idiosyncrasies or down-right weirdness.

But what he does do is to tell them as a member of their community, not as an outsider. He tells the stories not from the academic distance of an impartial observer laughing at these backwards people. Rather, he tells them from the point of view of someone who is actually genuinely in love with his people. They are weird people, but they are his weird people. As such, he always describes them not only with honesty, but also with the tenderness and even admiration that only a loving pastor could possess.

Byassee will occasionally indulge in some holy laughter, but it is never cruel. It is always the kind of laughter that goes on in a loving, healthy (even if somewhat dysfunctional) family. Byassee is genuinely grateful to God for the people in his church, and the reader cannot help but be endeared to him for it.

I especially enjoyed Byassee's description of what it means to be a pastor's husband, probably because I am also one. It is understandable when pastor's wives resist the stereotypes of what it means to be the pastor's wife. There's just so much baggage that goes with that. But as Byassee points out, folks haven't figured out yet quite what to expect from us pastor's husbands, so we just get to enjoy the ride. It is so much fun!

Another aspect of this memoir that I appreciated was the theological reflection almost seamlessly woven into this tale. A few trinitarian reflections never hurt anybody, especially when they come so naturally out of pastoral experience. The overarching theological concept that kept surfacing in my mind was Incarnation. God does not wish to be known in the general or abstract, but in the particular and specific: flesh and blood. And so it is in the flesh and blood of these particular people that Byassee encounters God. And it is especially in the flesh and blood of people that we might rather avoid, too! The great advantage of a small church is that you can't be anonymous, and you can't avoid your enemies. Thus, small churches tend to be more incarnational churches than large, anonymous mega-churches. But Byassee does not blast the mega-churches either, as a mater of fact he points out that they are at their best when they adopt the Wesleyan strategy of meeting in small groups - like small churches within large churches. So don't let Byassee's informal style fool you: underneath it all, there is a theologian's mind at work.

This book reminded me somewhat of Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, but it did not include Taylor's increasingly skeptical views of historic church teaching or her sense of alienation from the institutional church. Indeed, Byassee's pastoral experiences tended to confirm orthodox Christian teaching and root him more deeply in the Christian community. In this respect, it is more like Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: a kaleidoscopic view of different glimpses of the church, each one conveying surprising layers of grace.

Genuine, honest stories about the small local church, set within a theological narrative of Incarnation and Trinity. What more could you ask for? Maybe just a tad bit more on race, but not everyone can be Tim Tyson. Byassee allows Bishop Willimon to offer a different perspective on the small church in the afterword, but one that I think is not ultimately incompatible with Byassee's basic premise: that God's primary way of saving people is through the small church.


Steve Finnell said...

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Terry Reed said...

One of God's greatest gifts to this world is the small church. So much good for the Lord is done there. We can always find something to complain about but we need to look beyond the petty and enjoy what God has given us.

Terry Reed