It seems to me significant that one of the distinct downturns in our churches from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier of the local church came to an end, in the 80s and 90s, when the way of the American church had begun to turn more global and less local. The more relevant it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our faith, and I believe, our people, have become. For myself, I grew up in the small, local Baptist churches of the South, and I put a very high valuation on what those places gave me. And if I had not been able to periodically renew myself on those hard-edged pews and in the Vacation Bible schools of southern summers, I would be very nearly bereft. Even as I am far from those places today, the voices of Wednesday night prayer meetings or the reassurance of deacons taking up the offering are a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me. But as these small, local churches are progressively exploited or “improved,” as the beautiful distinctives of local give way to the deadening sameness of the world is flat theory, every such loss is a little death in me. In us.
I do not expect that the preservation of our small, local churches is going to cure our condition. But the mere example that we as the people of God could apply some other criteria than relevancy or exploitive considerations would be heartening to many Americans, and even those abroad. We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the local, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being local can produce. And one of the best places for us to get that is in the local, weekly gathering of the saints, where there are no satellite feeds from mother churches and the commute to worship is measured in blocks, not miles.
For all the usual evaluative purposes, the large and global churches are obviously the most important. But for deep spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, the small, local church serves every bit as well. Perhaps, they serve even better. In my history of small, local gatherings, the rooms were full of characters – divorced bankers, cantankerous physicians, drama queen choir members, faithful janitors. Characters. I have never been able to look upon people in any other way since. I hope I learned something from praying with the same lady who taught me English, from singing with the same man who bagged our groceries, from listening to the same preacher who also tucked me in at night. A small church like that, one big enough to house the people that you meet each day, can be both lonely and grand and simple. It is as good a place as any for the experience of learning to be content in any and every circumstance. Save a piece of locality like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a couple of hundred people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value; a theography of hope.
*(letter based on Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969).