Grace Notes: Small churches, big hearts

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By The Staff

As I write this, it's Elizabeth Weimer's birthday. I've never met her and don't know who she is, but I know July 1 is her birthday because I visited her church last Sunday night and it was in the bulletin.

My husband and I had visited Yankeetown Community Church as guests of Barbara Arnold, whom I had never met either. She has been e-mailing me for about a year or more, inviting me to visit their church one Sunday night.

Finally, I marked my calendar for Sunday, June 29, the night of their church's "singspiration" program, and gave Barbara my word that I'd come.

As part of my job as religion reporter, I visit a lot of churches.

Truthfully, I prefer big churches. I'm inspired by a crowd of fellow worshipers. I also like knowing I can be somewhat anonymous in a big church if I want to.

That's not possible in a small church like the one in Yankeetown. The pastor's wife, Tracy Hamill, said the church reminds her of the church on "Little House on the Prairie." She said, "We may be small, but we have big hearts."

The church is so small that folks leave their own cushions for sore backs at "their" spot in the pews. It's so small that the choir - eight women and three men, which included Pastor Dennis Hamill - made up a third of the congregation present that night, and that included at least a half-dozen guests.

It's so small that Pastor Dennis greeted every person present by name. He has a rule: If he gets your name wrong, he'll give you a dollar.

My husband got a buck that night. Pastor Dennis remembered Kennedy, but he thought Barry's name was Randy. In a big church like mine, the pastor would go broke.

Jackie Hartley, part of the choir, said, "We're little, but we love the Lord."

My husband loves small churches. He still remembers a tiny white wooden church in Yorba Linda, Calif. that we went to once or twice. He likes the family-ness of small churches. He says big churches remind him of big business. Impersonal, plastic.

Barbara Arnold, the woman who invited me, said, "If you ask anybody here they'll say the same thing - it's a family here. It's like coming home."

In every small church I visit, I hear that same thing.

Usually as I walk in, I take a seat in the back where I can observe and note the day's hymn numbers on a wooden board on the wall, almost always to the right of the pulpit area.

Most often an American flag and a Christian flag flank the pulpit. There's usually a silk flower arrangement on a low table down front and people scurrying about, hugging each other and chatting up a storm, although that happens in big churches, too.

In a small church, everyone has a job or a part. Everyone works to create the worship service, pooling their gifts and talents. Working together like that breeds familiarity. People know one another, are comfortable in each other's presence.

When the music doesn't start on cue, the soloist jokes with the people in the pews. It's informal and family. It's not a show or a performance. I've visited huge churches that conduct their worship services with the precision of a Hollywood production. You almost expect a director to call out, "Lights! Camera! Action!"

Sometimes when visiting small churches I get cynical, which is a self-deceptive way of saying self-righteous, and feel smug. To me, small churches can be hokey and old-fashioned. I (wrongly) tend to equate modern with better. I'd like not to feel that way, but I do.

However, whenever I go, afterward I almost always walk out sensing they've got something so appealing. They've got a group of people who not only know each other's names and birthdays, but they know and share each other's hurts and sorrows and also their joys. If someone isn't there, there's an obvious hole.

After last Sunday's service, I insensitively (some might say rudely) told Pastor Dennis, "This church will most likely never be big," but I was wrong.

True, they might never draw a crowd of hundreds, but they already have a huge amount of love. That makes them a big church - and I love big churches.