Small churches matter

10/24/2008

The Catesby church has begun a new century of witness for Christ.

The Catesby church has begun a new century of witness for Christ.

"For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20)

By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.

his column is written to honor the smallest churches within our annual conference. There is much to be said about the importance of each congregation that opens its doors to a handful of people Sunday after Sunday. These churches truly give heart and soul in living out the faith.

You should be aware that the smallest churches often provide the spiritual foundation for the biggest transformation in a person’s life, as they nurture that person for God.

You may be thinking, "Bishop, what do you mean when you say a small church?"

When only a few individuals are keeping a church alive, you have a small church. If only 15, 20, or 30 people show up for worship on your best Sunday, then you have a small church. It doesn’t matter if your building is located in a rural part of Oklahoma or in the middle of a sprawling city.

Wherever they are located, whatever their attendance, small houses of worship are of large importance in shaping the lives of children, youths, and adults.

I grew up in a small church. The choir was made up of four people. For more than 30 years, the pianist/song and worship leader played a piano in need of tuning.

I remember vividly that only a few adult men were at that church on any Sunday. For almost 40 years, we counted on one man to open the church, make the coffee, and turn on the lights and stove. (Yes, the stove.) If the Sunday school teacher didn’t show up, we children met with the adults in the same room. Like most churches, our numbers swelled on Christmas and Easter, but when the dust settled from those special Sundays, the same 20 people showed up.

What I didn’t know then was that those saints were preparing me for the spiritual journey beyond those walls. I didn’t realize the foundation they were building in me would stand strong in the storms of life surely to come.

Something special about that fellowship lingers with me today. One way I can express my appreciation to that faithful group and to the countless other small-membership churches that continue to influence lives is with these words: Jesus is there.

My recent travels have taken me to quite a few small churches in Oklahoma. The names Hollis, Gould, New Life (Moore), Shawnee-Bethel, Pocola, Fargo, Lost Creek, Bokoshe, Catesby, Capron, Otterbein, Allen, and Hulen may not be well known to you, but the people who keep these churches alive mean a lot to me.

In these places, I have come to better understand the Scripture that opens this column, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, for I have experienced the risen Christ in these settings, time and time again.

On a weekend visiting Capron and Catesby, I encountered people who have carried on the tradition of their ancestors for over a century. In Catesby, the United Methodist church has outlived the town. It is the only house of worship—and the only building—that remains of what was a western Oklahoma farming town, north of Shattuck and south of Slapout, on rolling plains near the Texas Panhandle.

The people in both places are genuine, and the love expressed by them is overwhelming.

When I drove up to the small, white-framed building in Catesby, my arrival was akin to going back to the small church that nurtured me when I was a child. The very first person I met gave me a hug, and then she introduced herself as Dorothy Hayes—the same name as my mother!

I knew from that moment the day would be a special one.

People who grew up in that tiny church came to the day’s celebration from as far away as Virginia, and some families whose grandparents and parents helped settle Oklahoma are still there! The sound of children playing was carried by the wind for miles, and the smell of the delicious home-cooked lunch we shared after worship crisscrossed the prairie.

The pastor, Bill Long, smiled broadly as he told me about his love for the church and the prized melons he grows. His talented wife, Laurie, gave a wonderful children’s sermon and played the piano for a special hymn.

Throughout the entire weekend, I had to fight back tears in order to preach, because in each and every face I saw a reflection of our Lord and Savior.

The next time you pray, thank God for the small churches of Oklahoma. Offer words of appreciation for those congregations with solid Christian foundations that launch many of us, including myself, into the world. The next time you drive past an unfamiliar small church, nod your head in honor of what takes place within those walls.

More importantly, go and visit a small church. Among the few who will be in attendance, you will find Christ as well.

 


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