Monday, October 24, 2011

How To Survive-Even Thrive- In a Growing (or Large) Church

Bear with me as I walk down my church-history lane... For all but 3 years of my life until I was 20, I attended the same church, where I was baptized, became a member, worked as an intern twice, and finally celebrated my wedding.  The church has always numbered about 350 people-- for the first half of my time there it was the same 350 folks; friends I'd grown up with, older kids I respected, younger kids I mentored; lots of people to look out for me.  Then people started leaving (both due to seasons of life and Southern Bible-Belt-itis), and we always had new people joining, so while the number of members stayed fairly constant, the faces changed.

Those three years that I was in France, my family attended a small (maybe 12 adults on a Sunday?) French-speaking Baptist church in a small town near ours.  The only other child my age became my best friend, and her mom, Annie, was our Sunday School teacher.  When my sisters & I showed up, the children's class quadrupled in size... though we did have some older kids and then another family with younger children joined fairly soon thereafter.  It was wonderful in some ways-- very close fellowship, the entire church over to one family's house (often ours), and no question of where we fit in.  We often joined up with a larger Baptist church in the nearby city to do Christmas or Easter events or to head to summer camp.

For the past 5 years, I've been at Immanuel in Louisville.  When I joined it was a bit smaller than the church I'd grown up attending, but the fellowship and the united vision of reaching the neighborhood for Jesus was incredibly refreshing to my rumpled spirit (I'd just gone through the most painful trials of my life).  There were (are) plenty of folks of my own age/station, the preaching is good, the music rocks, and there's never a shortage of ways to pitch in.  However, as the church has grown and people have moved on (mostly to do ministry elsewhere --this IS a college/seminary city), I've had stretches of intense loneliness among the crowd.  Our closest friends moved away or got too busy for us, the vision for reaching the neighborhood morphed into reaching the city, and the closeness of the small fellowship we'd joined was diluted by 2 services and many new members.  I distinctly remember sitting in my chair after one service, and looking around thinking "And I don't care about you, I don't care about you, and nope, don't care about you, either."  Pretty depressing.

So... how have I gone about making a big church seem less big?

Well, a big part of it is prayer.  Prayer for a willing, caring spirit.  When I looked around not caring, I knew it wasn't with eyes of faith-- it was with human eyes that didn't want to know the pain of separation or failure again.  When Jesus looked around, He saw needs and moved to meet them.  He didn't look for everyone to meet His needs.  So I had to pray that the Lord would give me eyes to See, and a heart to love, drawing on His Endless Love.  I had to repent of not caring, and asking Him to make me start caring.

Another huge piece has been THE overarching lesson of this stage of my life:  contentment.  A holy 'so what?' attitude.  "Keep your lives free from love of money, and be content with what you have." (how?) "For He has said:  I will never leave you, nor forsake you."  Contentment -that is, a deep inner joy & peace- doesn't come from having all your wants met, from your marriage bringing you endless romance, from your children sleeping through the night, from having all your best friends living nearby, from having the amount of children that you want, when you want them... no, it comes from being with Him.  That is to say, anywhere. The essence of Heaven will be His presence without any barriers, right?  And by His spirit, we have a taste of that now, through Immanuel, God with us.  His Spirit lives in us, teaching us, reminding us.  So long as He is with us (and, as above verse states... that's all the time for the believer), we have every reason to be happy.  "Think what Spirit dwells within thee, what a Father's smile is thine, what a Savior died to win thee!!-- Child of heaven, cans't thou repine?"  i.e.  "With God being as good as you have Him, do you have any room for pouting??" 

On the practical front, I've found two things helpful.  One, don't feel guilty making a few close friends (and/or maintaining close friendships that aren't local anymore).  As a wise SS teacher of mine once put it, "you can't be best friends with everybody."  So don't feel bad calling the same friend over and over, because you "click" so well.  Be intentional about those close friendships, though-- don't let them just be about common interests or kids of the same age-- bring up the Gospel.  Bring up Jesus and how you are dealing with Him.

Balanced with that, I've found it helpful to be as wide-spread in my fellowship as possible.  Our church really emphasizes small groups, and while that has its merits, it isn't the whole church.  If there's a baby shower or wedding shower and I know the person, I try to go.  If it's a real friend of mine, I'll try to send a gift & card if I can't make it. If there's any church function of any kind, I try to go.  No, I don't make it a law and feel guilty for not going, but if I can make it, I will.  If someone needs a meal, I sign up when I can.  If the nursery needs a sub, I do it.  If I find out a friend needs help, I volunteer.  Seriously-- I do NOT feel guilty not doing stuff when it would be too much, when Eowyn is sick or we are flying in the day before from London or we are just too tired.  But how hard is it, really, to head over to someone's house for 2 hours with a small gift in tow?  I get to talk to people, make new friends, occasionally play awesome games, and deepen acquaintances into friendships.  I usually leave encouraged.  (Ryan either watches Eowyn, or my next door neighbor comes over while she's asleep if it's in the evening, or if I get permission from the hosts, I bring her with me)  I've been amazed at how much this simple policy of staying involved has helped me.  You really start to care about the people you make cards or meals for, or those you work alongside (VBS, anyone!?).

My last help has been to seek and welcome laughter in all its forms.  If you're determined to hate something, you probably will... If you want to have fun, yep, you probably will do that, too.

How have you found or deepened fellowship in your own communities of faith?

1 comment:

ddavis said...

Oh, how I've struggled with this too! I was even resentful when we first started going to a larger church. Frustrated that I will never be able to know everyone, much less have close relationships with them. I finally just had to accept that and be thankful for the relationships God did give me. Getting as involved as possible and "owning the cause" has helped make the church seem smaller. Then finding a few people to develop deeper relationships with - through community group and then some others that we just enjoy being with, trying to make sure that we have relationships with people in various stages of life and not just the "married with young kids" category. Thanks for this post!