Gary Portnoy’s chorus to the theme song of the great television sitcom Cheers reads, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.” Although these lyrics describe the friendly atmosphere of a small pub in Boston, the words also describe the intimate communal ambiance of small churches. Small churches are places of deep intimacy, probably the single greatest aspect of small churches.
Has someone ever described to you the character and demeanor of a person you’ve never met and, as they continue to reveal details about this individual, you feel as though you’ve known them your entire life? Calvin Lynch, Shorty Davis, Jim Trowbridge, Helen Akins, Wes and Priscilla Acklin, Phil and Carolyn Williams, Merv and Cathy Warrick, Bill Crow, Nell and Arnold LeFevere, Jack Cunningham, Brenda Doshier – these couples and individuals are strangers to you. Yet, if you’ve grown up in small churches, they are strikingly familiar. These names represent a small subsection of couples and individuals in the churches where I’ve grown up and worked, who engaged in authentic intergenerational ministry. They created indispensable relationships and became spiritual grandparents, parents, and friends to the children and teenagers in their home congregation.
One of the great organic ministries in small churches is intergenerational ministry. A perceived limitation in small churches is their professional limitation. Lower populated congregations do not have the financial capacity to hire multiple professional ministers. However, their great “limitation” is an area God makes into one of their greatest strengths. An inability to create more professional positions creates the organic platform for small congregations to live out the biblical identity of a priesthood of all believers. In small churches, God drafts members into the service of the kingdom, calling the ordinary person to become the ordained minister. One of the most fruitful ministries, resulting from the Kingdom Draft, is intergenerational ministry.
This organic intergenerational ministry blessed me richly as a child and continues to bless me as I witness it taking shape in Nocona, where I serve now. Aside from the influence of my family, if I can claim anything good or spiritual about myself, it would be a direct result of God’s grace having been administered to me through the adults from the Clyde Church of Christ, where I grew up. They embodied the instructions of Deut. 6:6-8. God’s commands created an impression on their hearts. They discussed God’s commandments with me in their homes as we sat in their living rooms or dinner tables. I watched God’s word become incarnate in their daily lives as they coached my little league teams or sat as spectators at my high school activities. Their encouragement deepened my self-identity as a precious child of God and motivated me to become a steward of God’s word and care for the world. In some of the most difficult times of my life, it was the adults at the Clyde Church of Christ who gave me stability, prayed with and over me, and taught me about faith, hope, and love.
As a minister of a small congregation, one of the greatest blessings for me is witnessing this intergenerational ministry continue to take root in the church in organic ways. I love our “Souper Sunday & Dessert Auction” Sundays. On those glorious Sundays I get to see adults open up their pocket books and their hearts as they battle one another for baked goods to support the youth ministry. Some of those baked items go for hundreds of dollars. Watching a group of young men sitting in the little nursery 30 minutes before church on Wednesday night with an adult male telling stories and engaging in relationship reminds me that the Lord is present where two or three are gathered. Sitting next to a math teacher tutoring students before Bible class reminds me how adult Christian influence is rooted in daily relationship with these children, which makes me thankful. Seeing teenagers and children embrace a widow lady with hugs and joining her in grief when she lost her husband warms my heart. Secretly enjoying the resident diabetic/candy man show generosity by handing children gobs of candy makes me laugh every Sunday. I am immensely blessed by the authentic intergenerational ministry that takes place in small churches. I am thankful that the same ministry which made me into the person I am today still exists in these churches.
There are many dire circumstances facing small congregations: rising budgets and diminishing weekly contributions, an ever-aging congregation, a culture that seems totally calloused to the good news of the gospel, as well as many other issues. Dire circumstances concerning today’s youth also grow. The greatest concern I continue to observe, causing a variety of other issues, is a systematic abandonment of adults from the lives of children, creating peer clusters which now replace the traditional family unit. Sadly, kids are raising kids. The culture is just now beginning to feel the variety of effects caused by a generation of children being raised outside the influence of adults. I believe the answer to both dire circumstances is an intentionally missional intergenerational ministry. I encourage every small church to become intentional with the intergenerational ministry already happening organically in their churches.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-9)
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, and click here for more CHARIS posts about small church ministry.
Austin Wright is the pulpit minister at the Nocona Church of Christ in Nocona, TX. Austin earned his BA and MA degrees in Christian Ministry at Abilene Christian University. Currently, Austin is pursuing his DMin at Fuller University. Austin presides as chair over the Montague County Child Welfare Board and actively helps providing for the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of abused and neglected children in his community.