Well the smaller towns of New York State at least. While traveling through the State I enjoy the majestic trees and stately old houses. Often there are American flags hung out that remind me I am not in Canada. I respect the patriotism.
Small Town Church
I know that while the north east side of the United States is not known as a Bible belt there are proportionately at least 50% more evangelicals than in Canada as a whole with an even greater disparity to the cities of Ontario where I have lived most of my life. Therefore, there are more churches per capita as well. While the bigger churches are well known, the churches with fewer than a hundred participants on a typical Sunday are the life blood of American Christianity even in New York State.
Today we attended a church in one such small town. And Wendy and I were blessed. The town isn’t important nor the specific church. But it was a church in a familiar tribe of like faith to our own.
We got there late. Well actually not according to their web site. But we knew they had started before our arrival because the correct time was on the sign. Actually we were only about five minutes late. That would be almost normal arrival time for many churches I know in Canada but in this case we were the last to sneak in.
More Than a Building
The building was very old but relatively well kept. The church website claimed its design was by a well-known architect in the area. The church started in the early 1800s with a baptismal service in February when they had to cut a hole through the ice in a lake. This particular building was constructed many decades later as the church evolved. I wondered about the heat bill with all the heat escaping through the large and beautiful stained glass windows. It is hard to imagine a church of today with such expensive glazing. It was nice.
But of course the church isn’t the building. And in this case we were pleasantly surprised by the youthfulness of the congregation. We were simply left to guess about the current state of the church. But I could imagine that the current pastor had something to do with the youthfulness of the group. There were younger families and plenty of teens. The technology was up to date. The music was middle of the road Christian so often called contemporary. Nothing shocking one way or another about that. The congregation seemed warm enough but perhaps more than a little guarded as if someone might object if things got out of the range of normal. But again I’m guessing. These people seemed to be good caring friends with each other.
As you can guess we didn’t know the pastor. And I still only know his first name because we didn’t get what they called the bulletin. We were late and we just snuck in to find a seat after ducking under a video camera. But at least nobody turned around to stare. I estimated there were between 50 and 70 people in the house. They think of that as small but it actually is about the average (mode average) size for a church in America. They are plenty big enough to make a significant impact but I am guessing the pastor hasn’t ever had a new car and probably struggles to make ends meet.
About all we got to know about the church was through the lens provided for us. The main voice was this warm pastor I would guess to be in his 30s. He certainly seemed genuine and humble with a quiet but notable passion. The message was a good one on prayer. It was very practical. I thought the best part was that with some reluctance the pastor decided to model the way he prays in private before his people today. He poured out his heart to God as he simply sought to demonstrate to others how to pray. It was a very fine lesson. Many of the people were moved to tears as he prayed. They were very warmed to be sure.
Now the predictable tough part. After the closing prayer, Wendy and I put our coats on and played the part of the newcomer. If you have followed me through other parts of the journey you know what I am going to say. Nobody talked to us. Not even a smile, nod or a one word greeting. When we got to the door we shook the pastor’s hand and he greeted us pleasantly and easily. He seems like a really nice guy. With the explanation that we were just vacationing in the area and not local, we moved on.
There is a sense in which it doesn’t matter that they weren’t friendly because we weren’t local fish to catch anyway. But if you believe that you simply don’t get what a friendly church is all about. We didn’t rush off, but there was no reason for us to do anything other than slowly walk to our car parked on the street. Even under the premise that we were just visiting, they don’t know if we have intentions to move to town, if we have children in the area or if we know anyone in the area their church could minister to. They didn’t have systems in place to find out. If the pastor had caused a traffic jam at the door I suppose he could have gained such information but it would have been awkward for the others who passed by for him to extend our conversation. I’m guessing again that more than one person asked after we left, “Who was that old couple?” As if he should know everything?
Apparently the church relies on a “Connect Card” in the pew rack. The pastor mentioned, and this was kinda cool, that the only contribution he asked of newcomers (like there might have been a boatload of us there) was that we fill out the card and put it on the offering plate. The card had all the options on it for us. It was as if they were collecting information for the census. That is normal in churches. But look, if you have my first name and my phone number you can call me and have a real conversation about all the other stuff. You really don’t need me to check off all the boxes as if I am applying for a mortgage.
Again I have to guess. But I’m thinking that if we had just moved to the area and were looking for a church we would definitely keep this one in mind but we would probably cycle through all the others to see if there was a more friendly option. Chances are there isn’t an option. Chances are we would give up after about three churches and just opt out of church altogether. It takes way too much psychic fuel to visit once let alone twice unless one finds a personal reason to do so.
I didn’t tell the whole truth about why we are in the area. It isn’t exactly vacation even though we are in a vacation spot. Tomorrow I start the arduous journey of writing another book on the exact way one can pack a church with new people. This is actually a series of four books. The first one is one this church really, really needs. See You Next Week. The one I am about to write has the working title Drop By Sometime and I vowed to myself it will be completed by the beginning of January 2015. I’m not entirely sure I can get it all done by then but I’m gonna give it my best shot because it is so important. I believe with a high degree of confidence that this church that was about half full this morning would have about double the number of people if they put into action the simple steps in these two books.
In his sermon today the pastor confessed that he doesn’t recall one class in his education (Bible College or Seminary? Who really cares?) to teach him about prayer. That is really sad, isn’t it? I can tell you for sure that if he had one class on how to fill a church with new people he might have slept through it. But he isn’t that kind of guy. He didn’t sleep through it; I’m sure of that. The other sad thing for me is that while he might have read a hundred books on church growth or Googled “increasing church attendance” he is probably too stressed with the cares of the church as it is to take on the rather simple challenge of growing the church in this lovely New York town. The old Sinatra song about New York City says, “If I can make it here I can make it anywhere.” I don’t know about New York City because I haven’t visited there but in this town I am totally confident that these good people are going to make it big time! All they need is a few small tweaks!