I was a stranger and you welcomed me. – Matthew 25:35
Welcome to St. Mary Magdalene. We are a small church.
There are a growing number of small churches all throughout The Episcopal Church and there are several in The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee. St. Mary Magdalene in Fayetteville is one of them. Often, small churches are identified as “family” size churches. And there is more to that identifier than just size, there is also a “family” dynamic. In form and function many churches are a family. Moreover, this moniker comes with many of the joys of family relationship – closeness, familiarity, being well known, and the leadership of forebears; and the challenging dynamics of family closeness are often present as well.
Ultimately, there is great joy to be found in the “family” size church as we continue to learn to be the Church, together. In our Episcopal tradition, the focus of worship binds our community as we gather with all our similarities and our differences. Thankfully, we have this bond in all else that we undertake.
It is the “all else that we undertake” that requires the most effort. As a Church community we have decisions about what we will do next, who will lead each of the things we hope to do, who will lead those things that we need to do, and how will we fund it.
As the average age of parishioners increases, many churches face challenges around being sustainable and even how to grow. At St. Mary Magdalene our attendance is up, but we still face the challenges of sustaining our ministries as well. While the conversations around sustainability and growth are important, there may be a temptation to put our focus, our energy, even our hearts into these instead of our calling to worship and disciple.
Our worship is one of the essential things that disciples meet together to do as a Christian community. And discipleship is a culmination of all that we, as worshiping communities, do together. The culmination of our worship as a church family must be the calling that we share collectively – Go and make disciples. All the other work that we do in caring for our building and preparing for classes and even potluck luncheon is about having a place where those who have become disciples of Jesus Christ can worship and be the family that God has called us to be. We are called to provide a place and community where we can be one in Christ.
When those who worship on Sunday disciple in the community throughout the week, church growth happens. As a part of our call we may serve on boards, distribute food, visit folks in the hospitals and jails, or we may simply help a mother or a father who is trying to keep the peace with their several children at their booth in the local pizza parlor. But, we must always be aware that we are called to go and make disciples and to live as people who have heard and believed the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And this is good news for us, because it means that we can go from being friendly to being welcoming. A mentor of mine reminded me that there is a big difference. And as I have thought about it, being friendly usually means that we want to be liked – and being welcoming means that we want others to know that we love them. This is easy to miss and yet it seems to be so important to so much that we hope and try to do as the Church. Beyond being friendly, we welcome the stranger when we seek to show the world that we love them because Christ loves them.
As a Church, when we have focused on developing our congregation and equipping ourselves for the ministry and calling of Jesus Christ we see that people are interested in being a part of what we are doing as a church family. In short, they feel truly welcomed as we treat them as people made in the image of God.
And it takes purpose, prayer, and effort to keep this laudable goal before us. Moreover, we tend to struggle and feel paralyzed when we lose sight of this goal and we focus on the numbers. When we focus on seats and dollars it is easy to lose perspective. In his book, How to Hit the Ground Running, Neil Michell points out in that, “Most churches that aim for growth generally miss it.“ As I recall that book, I am reminded that growth is most likely to come from congregational development which in turn develops people who desire to make disciples and learn to welcome the stranger.
By all means, we are called to be good stewards of all that has been put in our charge, but we must consider all these things in light of our mission and ministry and welcoming other disciples to be a part of our call as Christians. We want people to come into our church and proclaim, “These folks must really love Jesus.”
At St. Mary Magdalene we are a small church, but we are part of the larger Church. We are part of the body of Christ that is called to gather and to worship. We are called with the rest of the Church to work through the challenges that come along with learning how to love each other and love the world. And it seems clear that many of these same challenges that are true for the “family” size parish are true for the “resource” size parish as well. Truly, we are one body in Christ. We are all called to make the stranger welcome.
Pray for our “family” size church. Pray for us to desire to be a church that blesses others by making disciples. Pray for us to experience the growth that comes from the work of discipleship. Pray for us to be the family that God is calling us to be. Pray that we are a part of the greater Church that seeks to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and welcome all those who believe.
In fact, pray for the whole Church, because the more I read, write, think, work, and pray, the more I realize that big or small, our churches are each given this same great call and responsibility – to go and make disciples.
Please pray that each of our churches are a place of welcome as we see every person as indelibly marked as one who is made in the image of God. May we know no stranger.
Peace from St. Mary Magdalene in Fayetteville,
The Rev. Jason S. Terhune – Priest in Charge