The History of a Small Church

John Constable
The Church Porch, 1810
Oil on canvas

By the side of the door to our small church here in Hillsboro, IL is a little walking path. On the sides of that path are engraved names of members of the congregation, leading to a list of past preachers and a poem written by one of our congregants. And I feel in awe of these bricks and this path.

I am reminded of something that Wendell Berry wrote, speaking of farms and agriculture but relevant for this small church:

“To perceive the world and our life in it as gifts originating in sanctity is to see our human economy as a continuing moral crisis. Our life of need and work forces us inescapably to use in time things belonging to eternity, and to assign finite values to things already recognized as infinitely valuable. This is a fearful predicament. It calls for prudence, humility, good work, propriety of scale. It calls for the complex responsibilities of caretaking and giving-back that we mean by ‘stewardship.’ To all this the immeasurable value of the resource is central.” (Wendell Berry, “The Agrarian Standard,” from Citizenship Papers)

In short, the world and all that is within it has been “graced” to us, so-to-speak. From a Christian perspective, all that is here is a Gift and from the Giver. So the question of economics and the question of healthy communities and the question of flourishing churches are all one and the same question: how can we steward the eternal gifts given to us?

For the farmer (in Berry’s writing), the eternal gift given is the land and the creatures, all of which demand a moral accounting to their good care and good stewardship. But for me as a pastor, I am discovering, the eternal gift is the people of this congregation, both those present and those past and those yet to come. These people — the parents and grandparents of my current parishioners, alongside my parishioners themselves, and the children and grandchildren of my parishioners — they are who the pastor stewards, alongside all the lost souls of our community who we are and will be evangelizing.

And that is a daunting task.

 

What is powerful about this is the way the History of a small church is such a deep well. These people whose names are immortalized in stones and bricks and plaques are people who served as Sunday School teachers, who served as pastors and deacons and deaconesses, who invested financially into the church, who raised their children in this church. These are the people who literally, physically, built this church, as I was told this afternoon.

And who am I, little as I am, to hold these keys in my hand? Far too often, I think, pastors in our individualistic culture think of a church as “their church,” and forget the congregation (or the elders or the bishops) who have hired them. But the church’s very History speaks out against such selfishness; a pastor is just the steward of that flock, those people, and their history.

Here we see, once again, the dangers of certain brands of independent churches and when a congregation is built around the pastor instead of vice-versa. How can such a pastor seem himself or herself as the steward of a thing bigger than himself or herself, a thing gifted and graced to him or her?

If we are to avoid the spiritual explosions of divisiveness that have engulfed our churches in this post-modern era, then I suggest we pastors learn what stewardship means for our churches. We are not given finite, unimportant, resources to do this Kingdom-building work; instead, we have been given infinite, and highly valued, resources: people’s lives. We are stewarding both the lives of the people in our church today, and the lives of all those who went before them, and the lives of all those who go after.

May we tremble at the heaviness of standing before such a cloud of witnesses! May we be moved to serve them and honor them well, rather than, as so often happens, tout our own lapels. May we “use in time things belonging to eternity,” and treasure them as the treasures of eternity that they are.

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