The First Benefit Of A Smaller Congregation

When there are fewer people in a place, it’s much harder to hide. The first Sunday Abby and I attended the church (we’re members now), we sat in the back. Our intent was to bolt as soon as the benediction was pronounced so we could convene in the car and decide if it was worth returning. This was our traditional practice, and it had worked so far in the churches we’d visited. But after the service at this church we were—literally—chased down.

Our pastor’s wife said, “Wow, you guys are fast!” and when someone acknowledges that you are running away, it’s impolite to keep running. Before we could reach the door, we were introduced to the rest of the church. The next week we came early for Sunday school and stayed late for choir practice. As much as we craved anonymity, and as much as I would sometimes like to slink into it now, it was (and is) good for us to be known.

—Jonathan Schindler, “Four Unexpected Benefits of a Small Church” (via The Aquila Report)

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  1. Sounds wonderful. However, we are already part of a small PCA congregation and friendliness and chasing folks down is not part of our DNA as a congregation. To be frank, we have been downright embarrassed in the lack of congregational friendliness when we have brought guests.

    • This is common. Many NAPARC congregants are reactionary and introverted. Everyone is obligated to be hospitable and warm. Frankly, many NAPARC members need to be coached on friendliness. The lack of friendliness keeps congregations from growing and is a huge burden on the minority who want more human interaction.

  2. I must say, as one with a family who is presently seeking a new church, I have enjoyed meeting the pastor, some of the elders, and some others in churches we’ve visited. Having visited a smaller NAPARC church among these, and having had some good conversations with church officers, my heart is heavy as I ponder choosing another church for my family. While I’m in agreement with the doctrine as it’s expressed “on paper”, most aspects of the worship services seem too “seeker oriented”- sermon content is of limited depth and most of the music is praise songs. The very difficult part of visiting a church like this is having to inform people who’ve been kind to us, and who’ve spent time answering questions, that we need to move on. That is when it is very difficult not to be able to hide!

    • feraldoc, you may not be aware but you likely do have my problem! Regardless of where we are and whether there is a NAPARC church nearby, we still have to look out for our families and find a body of believers among whom we are best suited to mature in Christ.

      What I am finding is that no fellowship of churches or denominations has a monopoly on that; and secondly that a local church’s denomination does not guarantee uniformity of ministry philosophy as a church can also be variably influenced by its context.

    • Dan,

      This is very common. Many NAPARC congregants drive 45 minutes to an hour past other NAPARC churches to find a confessional one. We have a Kellerite PCA down the street but drive 45 minutes to a confessional OPC. The PCA was kind but not confessional and we didn’t feel doctrinally safe there.

    • Walt, in our situation there’s another NAPARC church within reasonable driving range, but not so much for two services in a day. It’d be worth a visit, though as a matter of principle I would dislike bypassing a church of the same denomination to get to a more distant one that holds more closely to the denom’s standards. It does seem that adherence to standards and commitment to excellence in preaching is related to the median income of a church’s surrounding area!

  3. Dan, I would encourage you to be straight forward with folks about concerns over seeker oriented issues, etc. Too many folks quietly move on and the ‘big tent’ agenda of a few seems to rule the day. Perhaps if leaders were challenged on what they allow to happen in worship services our Reformed Confessions might be recovered in the long run.

    • Brad, I certainly will do that. We did by the way visit another NAPARC church I’d had my eyes on for quite a while; its ministry approach is much more faithful to the confessions (and to Scripture), and I’d gotten to like the pastor as a person based on prior visits by myself, but my wife disliked it, and admittedly it seemed overly formal and a tad frigid as well as being 100% Caucasian. And try explaining to your spouse why they wouldn’t allow us to participate in the Lord’s Supper; I comprehend the idea of fencing the Table, but I couldn’t win that one (n contrast the other NAPARC church admitted us to the Lord’s Table-as members of a non-NAPARC church). Actually I believe the two churches could learn quite a bit from each other’s strengths, though their contexts are quite different. These visits are the first time I’d deeply thought about context, and persuades me to consider some things Leon Brown has recently written over at Ref21.

    • Dan,

      See my comments to Brad above. You’re never going to find a perfect church. People take time to get used to you and it’s not just because you’re of a different ethnicity, though that may be part of the reason. People in confessional NAPARC churches have a hard time being welcoming, even to people of their own ethnicity.

      I have been denied access to the Lord’ Supper while attending other NAPARC churches because the other churches required me to meet beforehand with the elders to partake and I hadn’t done so. Others require you to carry a letter or proof of membership in another Reformed church before you can partake. The latter was common for a long time in this country, so your scruple with the way this church fences the table is probably nitpicking. I’ve also been a member of one NAPARC denomination and switched to another when I moved. When I switched to another, they re-examined me. When I moved again and switched back, they re-examined me. I was slightly annoyed but realized the elders were just doing due diligence and I was being sinful by resenting re-examination.

      We must all consider whether our scruples our Biblical and whether our problem is with us or the other party. Usually it’s both.

    • Totally agree with you on care for the Lord’s Table, Walt. My wife was blindsided by this however, and I was unable to convince her that the elders’ protecting it could be a good thing. But in fairness to her, it’s an awfully awkward way to set foot in a Reformed church for the first time, to be greeted at the door before anything else is said, with inquiries pertinent to the Lord’s Table. Visiting a Reformed church can be like going to a faraway country where a person must educate himself about the culture ahead of time. I’d done some briefing for my wife as to what it might be like, having visited before, but the scenario that played out was not one of them. Sadly for me, as it was my #1 church choice, and likely still would be, our family won’t be revisiting.

      Individualism runs deep within the mindset of our evangelical culture, and while I don’t expect Reformed churches to change how they do things, this clash of cultures I witnessed resulted in our family likely never joining a Reformed church. I feel the loss, but realistically, God works in other churches where such roadblocks will not be an issue, even if the ecclesiology is weaker.

  4. Maybe some of those small churches aren’t that friendly or chase down people because they don’t regularly have visitors? I wonder if this could also be a sign of a lack of evangelistic zeal in some churches?

    It’s funny, I could have walked (not run) out of some Presbyterian services without having met anyone personally. I’ve made it a point to uncomfortably linger and look down at my Bible or something else just waiting to be approached by someone. The exception was Christ Reformed in Anaheim when I once visited for a Friday Night Academy class; I think Kim Riddlebarger was right behind within a minute after the meeting, if not immediately.

  5. I agree that some NAPARC churches can be (or at least come across as) introverted, insulated and unwelcoming. On the other hand, because our churches tend to be smaller, I have seen the opposite extreme, where the rare visitor is practically surrounded and smothered by excited, welcoming congregants. Both extremes can turn visitors off. It takes wisdom and care to help visitors feel genuinely welcomed (on the one hand), while also giving them space to breath (on the other hand).

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