The beauty of small churches in West Texas inspires me to remember that the Sunday assembly is not about me. After arriving in Abilene in 1998, I was impressed by Bob Marcho’s ministry to small churches. He not only preached every Sunday at a congregation smaller than 25, he also coordinated student preachers serving small churches around Abilene. When Bob retired from ACU, I attempted to fill Bob’s shoes. In so doing, I became a witness to the beauty of the body of Christ. Let me recount a few scenarios that have encouraged my soul.
- I asked, “Why don’t they stand during some of the songs?” My student responded, “They do not stand because one of the sisters is in a wheelchair. If we stood, we would leave her out. And did you notice, we do not skip any verses in songs. That is because there is a brother who cannot follow well when verses are skipped. Not standing and not skipping verses is a sign of our love.”
- “Tim, can you please slow down?” While I do not lead singing often, I take pride in that I can keep the pace. Churches so often slow the songs down so much that we muddle through Standing on the Promises and bog down while Walking in Sunlight. But when the sister raised her hand and asked, “Tim, can you please slow down?” another brother quickly added, “Yes, we sing songs slower here because some of us cannot keep up.” Before the next Sunday I encouraged the brother that quicker songs will encourage others. He breathed in deeply saying, “No, no. We have intentionally slowed down young ACU students for years because of our dear sister. When you and the students are gone, she will still be here. This is our church. This is her church. And through these slower songs, we meet God.”
- “No we don’t sing any new songs here. We only sing the songs on this list. It is not that we are against new songs, or some of the old ones, but these are the songs that Bill knows.” You see, Bill suffers from macular degeneration. He couldn’t see the words on the page even if the songs were distributed. Over the years I’ve been the keeper of the list. Even though Bill has passed away, somehow the list continues to honor his memory.
- During an afternoon congregational meeting the question was raised, “What can we do in our community that would not only serve others, but no one else is doing?” The Meals on Wheels program in a small West Texas town south of Abilene does not deliver meals on Sundays. So, the small congregation gathers after services every week to not only fix meals but to run the routes.
- And while the two churches are over 50 miles apart, both have written communion prayers. The one gentleman grew up in a liturgical church. The written prayers give him a formality and confidence that he can stand before the congregation and lead. At the other congregation, the young men who stand week after week to serve their brothers and sisters are not able to remember what should be said for the bread or the cup. They read the same short prayers every week. Yet gathering around the table with the inclusion of those less able is a full display of kingdom ethics.
More stories abound. Space does not allow the recounting of places where Wednesday night programs serving teens or neighbor kids more than triples Sunday’s attendance. Congregants who annually join international mission trips. Places where Sunday lunches are provided to every visitor. Classrooms that, while rarely used, are still set up and ready in case young children visit. Cleaning up a neighbor’s yard after a wildfire, taking meals to out-of-town guests arriving for a funeral, and transporting folks to Abilene doctors are also on the list of basics churches often attend but now reside in the domain of just a few families who carry forth tasks once distributed among more.
These churches understand their mission in various ways. Some emphasize being the light set on a hill in a declining community. Others recognize they are close to the time where they will need to close their doors but continue to offer services so that some in the community will have a place to attend. They all have embraced being a “teaching church.” They provide finances and opportunities for young preachers to develop their skills. Graduates of these small churches are currently serving the kingdom elsewhere. Yet through Facebook, cards, emails, and phone calls, these small churches track how the kingdom is blessed. Some of these churches can name preachers that they helped over forty years ago.
Sacred ground. Each time one of ACU’s students travels to one of these churches they are crossing the thresholds of sacred ground. While no one advocates that people’s preferences should dictate how churches function, small churches know one another so well they can provide accommodations and inclusions that often are not possible in larger and more diverse places. The matzos might be stale. The books are invariably worn. But these small buildings are all outposts of sacred ground.
Editor’s Note: Tim Sensing will be participating in the Ministering in the Small Church track at ACU Summit, Sept. 17-20, 2017.
Tim Sensing is the Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. Prior to coming to ACU in 1998, Tim preached seventeen years for small churches in NJ, IN, NC, and SC.