“You are so lucky, man!”
It was just after my 21st birthday and I was sitting on my parents’ brown corner lounge, hanging out with a long-time friend of mine. We were talking about church.
He was from a big city where there were churches everywhere, replete with large youth groups and seemingly endless options for fellowship. To my mind, as someone who had always grown up attending regional churches with very few peers and primarily populated by lovely people who were usually more than 50 years my senior, his idea of “normal” church life seemed to me like some kind of promised land. The simple suggestion that I was actually the lucky one almost stripped a gear in my 21-year-old brain. I had to probe further.
“How can you say that? I have been to your church, it’s great!”
His response is one that has always stayed with me. He said something to the effect: “Up here you have to have a better relationship with the Lord; you can’t just go to church for your friends.”
Regardless of the truth of his statement, that was the first time I ever considered that there may be blessings I was receiving in my little regional church that I never knew existed. You see, in my mind, I was the one with the handicap. I was the one in a “dead” church that had no prospect of growth and where I had only a couple of friends. We didn’t have well-attended, vibrant events or enough numbers to do the amazing things I considered that church should be all about. I thought it was my spirituality that was on the line, not his.
On the flip-side of that coin, his church was brimming with youth who were always hanging out together and had all kinds of opportunities afforded to them by virtue of their location. Conference events, youth rallies, camps and more. I thought this would bring all the fulfilment that anyone could want in a church, but apparently not.
This conversation was the beginning of a paradigm shift that has taken years for me to be able to understand and articulate.
Fast forward to today, many experiences and church positions later, I am at yet another regional church and starting a family of my own. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the blessings that have come from growing up in a regional church. Here are some of the greatest that I have identified.
Patience and humility
When you live in a regional area, there are often only one or two churches you can attend for practical reasons. This means that if something occurs that makes church life difficult, you can’t “church hop” or drift around congregations; you have to humbly work on the issues (as much as is in your power) and apply a lot of patience until those relationships are functioning again.
"I have heard different people over the years call my churches 'boring' or tell me that there is no outlet for ministry, but I disagree."
I remember when I was baptised at the age of 20, I didn’t know exactly what God wanted me to do for Him but I knew I was willing. I remember telling God, “Now I’m baptised, seeing I don’t know what to do, I am simply going to accept whatever the church asks me to do this year. So please impress them with what You want me to do.”
What a firecracker of a prayer that was! I was not aware that the nominating committee was due to meet that week. Within two weeks of that prayer I had three church offices. That experience has set the tone for my life ever since.
I sometimes wonder what my church experience would be like if I was in a large church with a slew of highly qualified people holding all the positions. I would probably be barely getting off the bench now. My point is, due to their size and low numbers of willing, capable members, regional churches are usually on the look-out for willing workers to serve in all kinds of roles, thus making them excellent training grounds.
Sticking with one congregation for years on end can be tough, but over time you stop seeing it as the elder’s church or the board’s church or anybody else’s church. You start seeing it as your church. Almost in the same way you consider your home to be yours.
This sense of ownership can help you work more selflessly, welcome more warmly and forgive more quickly because you know you are totally committed to the congregation. It’s not about that one person or that one experience; in regional churches you learn to play the long game.
What about the complaints?
There will always be naysayers. I have heard different people over the years call my churches “boring” or tell me that there is no outlet for ministry, but I disagree. Where there are people there is an opportunity for ministry, and if you think the church is boring try investing in the people. If you love them without limits and seek to serve those around you, a boring church can become a vibrant place where love is exchanged.
That’s nice, but let’s have a reality check . . .
If you read all of this so far and have been thinking, “Well, he didn’t grow up in my church!” I want you to know that I am fully aware that I am looking through a positive lens. Like you, I have had many thorny experiences in churches over the years but have tried to look through the lens of Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
I see a brighter history, one in which God has blessed me and allowed me to navigate through by His grace. No matter which church we attend, if this is the lens we look through, we see the potential that God sees and if we see it, we can work toward His goals together.