Free to Journey Towards Home

By Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.”  “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church.  I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times.  But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work.  Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole.  For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years.  I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia.  The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today.  We are not in exile in Babylon any more.  We left years ago and didn’t notice.  And we’re unsure about how to make our way home.  Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture.  And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story.  The post World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church.  Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure.  Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom.  We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news.  Right?  Well, yes it is.  But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing.  The dominant American culture has let us go.  Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore.  The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be.  The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture.  But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home.  My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church travelling light.  Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church.  You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry.  We could go on.  Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light.  The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.

Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

From Generation to Generation

by Steve Willis

My sister works in a high rise building overlooking Rockefeller Square in New York City and her husband works in the city as well.  They live north of the city among the posh suburbs in a beautiful home that my family enjoys visiting and having the opportunity to drive into the city and see the sights as complete tourists.  But my family lives in a small town at the base of the Appalachian Mountains looking up to the Peaks of Otter in southwestern Virginia.  It is a bewildering, wonderful, often confusing mix of cultures when my family visits their aunt and uncle in the big city.

worship 280x100My sister and brother-in-law  do not have children of their own, but often talk about their employees as the unruly, sometimes exasperating, sometimes gifted next generation.  When they speak of their work companions it is always in the language of generational battles – Boomers, X’ers and Millenials.  They are the last edge of the Boomer generation, but it is clear that they are caught up in the latest cultural battle fad – not ideological this time but generational.

I can’t tell you in a short piece like this how different a way this is of talking about older and younger generations than the rural intergenerational culture in which I live and pastor.  In the mountains of Virginia, I never hear the older or younger generations talk about Boomers, Xers and Millenials.  Oh, they do talk about younger and older folks in the church, but they talk as people who share the same joys and struggles that younger and older people have always experienced from generation to generation.  They roll their eyes when the other generation presses its claims too hard, but they also show great empathy for the struggles that the other generation is experiencing.  I think this is because they are so closely and intimately a part of the life of all the generations including the disappearing Builder generation.  These relationships are too up close and personal to fit into battle categories.  These are people we are talking about; people from family, church family and neighbors.  Why label them Builders, Boomers, Xers or Millenials?  They are simply Mabel, Margaret, Mandy and Madison.

More and more these are the latest dividing lines that I hear people in the larger church articulating.  Isn’t this a cultural battle that the church should take a pass on?  How well did conservative, moderate, liberal do for us?  There is simply too much work to do during this era of church marginalization to divert ourselves with yet another battle created by a bored, stimulate-seeking American culture.

Can we simply see people?  Can we call them by name like the Gospels do?  Anna, Simeon, Zebedee, Mary, Joseph, Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha.  When the risen Christ appeared at the empty tomb and saw a grief stricken disciple, what did he call her?  Boomer?  Xer?  Conservative?  Liberal?  I believe he just said, “Mary!”

Steve Willis is pastor of the Virginia Presbyterian Church in the Appalachian Mountains and author of Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

by Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.