A Thriving “little” church in Oregon
that doesn’t know any Better
by Keith Drury
Last Sunday, while stuck on the coast of Oregon, I attended a wonderful Presbyterian church. If the main line church is dead, then somebody forgot to tell these people. It was a thriving congregation and I marveled at the service.
As I arrived the parking lot was full, with cars jammed in all sorts of ways. I parked on the grass. Organized 149 years ago, this historic church gave off the aroma of ‘permanence’ as if to say, ‘We’ve been through the civil war, both world wars, the depression, Viet Nam, and Watergate, — we’ll survive anything else coming our way. Evangelical churches seldom possess this sense of permanence. The worship atmosphere was charged with expectation and meaning. I worshipped.
I wasn’t sure where this was going when the music started. Singing was led by a thirty-fiveish woman sprouting spiked jet black hair leaping from her head like an erupting volcano. I figured she probably belonged to the Sierra club, ate granola and her Volvo displayed a ‘Save the Whales” bumper sticker. I groaned. But, she got the people singing. It sounded like a thousand voices filling the church. She scolded the people a bit for ‘wanting only familiar Christmas songs,’ warning that they’d be singing mostly old songs, not ‘the popular songs of the last 100 years.’ (?!)
Speaking of hymns, we sang five full hymns, two before preaching and three afterward, none of them back to back. People sang heartily, accompanied by what looked like a 100 year old organ (played by a lady only a bit younger). The music ‘filled’ the room encouraging me to sing louder myself.
The boomerish pastor was shinny bald on top, but compensated with a bonus crop of hair around the edges and over his ears. He had earned a doctorate from some university in Germany I can neither pronounce nor spell. His message was about the only source of hope for today: the Word of God and they acted like it. The order of service featured a long Old Testament reading, a responsive Psalm, a New Testament reading plus a lengthy Gospel reading. (I wonder why evangelical churches who prattle the most about the authority of Scripture act the least like it really is important to a worship service?)
Right before the offering, the pastor came down among the people and asked for prayer requests, which turned out to be sort of like ‘testimonies’ covering the physical needs of the people plus the homeless shelter the church sponsored ‘in town.’ He then prayed at a leisurely pace — for several minutes — with great pauses between sentences as if he expected us to fill in the dead space with our own prayers. The sacrament of holy communion was served with four women distributing the elements.
The service lasted exactly one hour, which amazed me — they seemed to do so much in an hour, yet were not rushed. Following the service we were all invited to the back of the sanctuary for coffee and heaps of home made cookies and tiny little sandwiches.
I liked the service. I liked the people. There was a *thriving* atmosphere, as if they knew what they were about and where they were going. If I were moving into the community and didn’t have a church, I’d sure consider this one.
But what is most shocking about my visit is their size. About half way through the service I counted (I confess, I’m a recovering Boomer!). How many were there? Fifty-two. I counted again. Sure enough, fifty-two. The actual church building only measured 24′ X 24′ with an ‘addition’ of about the same size (I checked the drywall seams). They had only twelve pews. Each looked crammed if it boasted five people. More than twenty people sat in chairs set up along the edges, which gave an ‘overflow crowd’ feel to the service. The cream painted walls were set off with sparkling white wood trim. There was a single window facing South — a simple stained glass one.
What haunted me as I left… no, it outright *irritated* me.. is how this little church of 52 seemed so successful… so thriving. Didn’t they know they were considered a failure among the church growth gurus? What right did they have to act so happy, so joyful, so satisfied with their little dinky church of 52? A church of 52 isn’t viable — haven’t they read the same books I have? And another thing, why would a guy with an earned doctorate from a prestigious German university act so happy pastoring 52 people? Where’d he get his notions of success from? Doesn’t he know that he’ll never be invited to speak at a ministers’ conference to tell others how he did it? Why waste his life away in a church of 52? What was going on here?
I left church last Sunday wondering what these people had that most evangelical churches have lost. Evangelicals are always reaching forward for success. Always striving, never thriving. This sense of *thriving* always seems just around the corner… when we reach 100, or 300, or 1,000, or after we get our new building. But it is seldom a present-tense experience. Like drinking seawater, we can’t get enough, and the more we drink, the thirstier we get. Yet, this little Presbyterian church of fifty-two seemed to focus more on *being* the church, than *growing* the church. I can’t get that little congregation out of my mind. The have something to teach us all.
What do you think? What gives this sense of *thriving* to a church? What can we learn from them?
By Keith Drury, You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.