Healthy Small Church Looks Inward and Outward for Purpose
As you leave the Texas Panhandle and cross the state line into Oklahoma, there is a quiet and almost extinct community. As you travel down the highway, you take a turn at an old, rundown gas station, which is not open on Sundays, and travel a few miles on the county road before reaching what is left of the town. The town was most likely a thriving community in its day, but today all you will find are fewer than a dozen homes, a rock gym built as part of FDR’s New Deal public works program, a Baptist church, and a Church of Christ.
Tucked away behind some homes, on a road that has disintegrated to nothing more than gravel and chunks of asphalt, the Church of Christ building continues to welcome its members for worship and activities. A friend first introduced me to this congregation almost a decade ago as I was traveling in Texas to raise support for our ministry in Ukraine. I still remember entering the auditorium and feeling transported back in time to possibly the 1960s, thanks to the paneled wood walls, rusty brown carpet, and old worn pews. The interior of the building was almost as old as its members, almost 90 percent of whom are in their 70s or 80s.
But do not let the fading community, aging interior of the building, or the members’ ages deceive you. This little congregation of roughly 25 members has a passion to share Christ’s love with their community and around the world. In a time when most rural congregations of this size would be shuttering their windows and locking their doors, this group of faithful believers continues to gather to worship each week.
What keeps this small congregation going is two-fold: its inward focus and its outward focus. In a time when many midsize to larger churches are becoming more inwardly focused in an effort to remake themselves into what they believe those around them want to be, this small congregation’s inward focus centers around building and strengthening a sense of community. It is this inward focus which sustains them not only as a community of friends, but also sustains them spiritually. Their focus is not on their building or how a particular committee can help facilitate greater ministry. Their focus is on each other and the building up and strengthening of the body of Christ through fellowship.
For this small congregation, koinonia (fellowship) helps keep the church alive and fuels their desire to keep pressing forward rather than quietly fading into history. The congregation holds regular potluck meals, and there is always room for another chair at the table. Having worshipped with this church on a potluck Sunday, I have experienced firsthand the hospitality and sincerity of these faithful Christians. Guests are always ushered to the front of the line, members are quick to ask to sit next to you at the table, and by the time you are halfway through your meal, several of the ladies are asking if they can bring you seconds of anything. When you have eaten your fill, the tables are cleared and conversations continue, often well into the afternoon or early evening. It is fellowship like this that keep this small church coming back together and continuing to experience being a part of God’s family.
In a time when many small congregations are no longer supporting an outward reaching focus on community evangelism or missions, this small congregation’s outward reaching focus remains a central pillar of why they exist: to share Christ’s love with the world. It is not merely the financial support that this small church so diligently sacrifices to support missions, which shows their heart for the lost in the world, but it is also their active participation that proclaims their commitment to spreading the love of Christ. This active participation is best seen when the women, who account for nearly 70 percent of the congregation, gather frequently to quilt.
On any given morning around 9:00, in the back fellowship room just past the baptistery, you will find a group of women talking, praying, singing, and piecing together quilts. Most of these ladies are in their golden years, yet together, they are actively using their talents to reach out to the lost. For decades these ladies, along with several from the Baptist church just down the block, have gathered to cut fabric, piece together a pattern, sew the pieces together, add the batting to give a layer of warmth, add a backing, and finally affix a small label saying that the quilt was made with love by the ladies of the church.
I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of quilts these ladies have pieced together over the years, but I do know that our ministry has been blessed with over 200 of the quilts. Each bed at our Christian camp, rescue shelter, and foster homes in Ukraine, is covered with a quilt made by these faithful servants. As I minister in Ukraine, I am reminded daily of this small congregation of 20 or so members who live with a passion and zeal of proclaiming Christ’s love!
When you visit this congregation and get to know the people there, you quickly understand that their inward and outward focus is one. In addition to being translated as fellowship, the Greek word koinonia is also translated in the New Testament as participation. Their desire to be in fellowship with each other facilitates their participation in proclaiming the good news to the world, beginning with the individual in the seat next to them and continuing to reach the orphan more than 5,000 miles away in Ukraine. Whether it’s a warm welcome, a potluck dish, or a handmade quilt, this small church does everything with love—both building up their own community and reaching out to others. They are a perfect example of how a healthy small church has found renewed purpose by looking inward and reaching outward.
Editor’s Note: This post was developed in partnership with the Small Church Wholeness Pathway at ACU Summit 2018. Join us Sept. 16-19 on ACU’s campus. Find more Mosaic articles about small church ministry.