Over 60 years ago, Wendell Berry created Port William, a fictional town in rural Kentucky through which Berry fleshed out his poignant thoughts on work, belonging, technological change, and what it means to be human. The various themes of Berry’s novels found their backdrop in what Berry called the “Port William membership.” There was no formal membership roll in the town, but the community consisted in shared, tight-knit commitments between people in their particular place.
Many pastors would sell their library to see a Port William type of membership grow in their church. This isn’t surprising, because Berry took his idea from the Scriptures, specifically from Paul’s description of the church as one body with many members in Romans 12.
For the past three years, I’ve pastored Vine Street Baptist, a church of 45 people. In that time, I’ve begun to see that dynamics unique to small churches lend themselves to forming the kind of membership that would bring a tear to Wendell Berry’s eye. Specifically, there are three relational dynamics present in small churches that are crucial for developing a meaningful membership.
When I became pastor, I inherited a practice that I first resisted but have grown to love: an eight-minute meet-and-greet time in the middle of our Sunday service. I sense your jaw dropping. Mine did too. As someone who had only attended larger churches, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to extend the awkward pleasantries of the fellowship time beyond 15 seconds (maybe 30 if you’re particularly troubled).
The simple reality is that it’s impossible to be anonymous in a small church.
But in a small church, the members know one another. When I walk in on Sunday morning, I know every member. I’ve learned where he grew up, her vocation, his joys and sorrows, which of her kids has wandered from the Lord. So when we break for a time of fellowship, we’re actually having fellowship. Every Sunday, in the middle of our service, we’re reminding one another, through our love offered and received, that we’re a family.
The simple reality is that it’s impossible to be anonymous in a small church. This can make a small church more intimidating for visitors, but overall, this it’s a strength.
I love how Paul describes the church body as “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). When we’re members, we belong to the church, not just to a small group or Sunday School class but to the whole. As Wendell Berry wrote in Hannah Coulter,
This was our membership. . . . The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed, we would go.
In Berry’s Port William, there was built-in commitment. The members of the town were members “one of another.”
My first Sunday at Vine Street, I met a deacon who’d handed out bulletins on Sunday for 34 years. Another woman had served in the nursery for over 50. Three of our deacons had served for over 30 years, and our church treasurer had served over 20. None of these was a paid position. No, godly men and women freely serve where it’s needed because they’re Christians who belong to a sacred membership.
No One a Celebrity
Meaningful membership shouldn’t revolve around one charismatic individual. Instead, a membership revolves around a common purpose. In the New Testament, that purpose is the person of Jesus Christ.
Celebrity can destroy a genuine membership. It tears the fabric of a membership because it divides the body into classes. A green room in a church that keeps the pastor and worship team separate from the people can be antithetical to the ethos of the gospel.
Godly men and women freely serve where it’s needed because they’re Christians who belong to a sacred membership.
Though a small church isn’t immune to celebrity, it’s much more difficult to foster it when there are only 45 people. Celebrity feeds off relational distance. Distance allows someone to craft a personal brand, but proximity removes the blinders. When I finish preaching on Sunday mornings, I hope the congregation is encouraged, comforted, and even challenged. But no one will be impressed. It’s not because the people don’t love me or value my ministry. It’s because they know me, and though we may respect, value, and love those we know, we’re rarely impressed by them.
Large churches have a critical and Christ-exalting place in God’s kingdom, but there are relational dynamics that are hard to duplicate outside a small-church context. I once asked a friend in Germany what the major beers in his country are. His response surprised me: there are no major beers. My friend explained, “It’s a very American thing to always need to grow and franchise out.” Most German breweries are small, one-location establishments that don’t want to expand.
Have we brought an American bigger-is-better mindset into the church? Could it be that our pursuit of continual numerical growth has stunted our ability to function as one body?
My time as a small-church pastor has shown me the beauty and strength of remaining small. Bigger isn’t always better—nor is smaller always better, for that matter. Each size has its place in God’s kingdom. But I must confess I get excited about the thought of thousands more small churches like mine, embedded in their neighborhoods, quietly doing the work of ministry and living out meaningful membership in the name of the risen Jesus.