How to Make a Big Church Seem Small
BY JAMES TEYLER
My church is an introvert’s worst nightmare.
The parking lot is packed — good luck finding a spot! Trying to sneak through the doors without talking to someone? Nice try. Greeters are stationed at every entrance armed with smiles and “good mornings.” The line at the cafe is perpetually never-ending, it’s a game of musical chairs trying to find a seat to enjoy your drink, and the sound of a hundred different conversations fills the lobby. Kids are playing; kids are screaming. Don’t be surprised if a kid runs between your legs as they are rushed to Sunday school by their parent.
And you haven’t even walked into a church service yet.
The music is loud, the crowd is big, and if you arrive late, have fun climbing over strangers to get to an open seat in the middle of a row.
We are one big crazy family.
Two years ago I stepped into the creative director role at my church. I’ve been attending this church since I was in my mom’s tummy. It is home for me; this is my family. But as I stepped into my new role and began to really listen to our members, the problem of disconnectedness kept coming up.
“I feel lost in the crowd.”
“It feels too big.”
“It is hard to really get to know people here.”
“People are nice and say hello, but it never goes much deeper than that.”
God calls us one body in Christ (Romans 12:5), members of his household (Ephesians 2:19), and His sons and daughters (II Corinthians 6:18). How amazing that God has adopted us into his family (Ephesians 1:5)?
We are bonded together as brothers and sisters by the blood of our Savior. Praise the Lord!
Every Sunday morning, our pastors use these family terms to describe our church. But it doesn’t matter how many times we say it (even though it is true), many people still don’t feel a part of the family. As I walk around on a Sunday morning, not recognizing most of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I desperately want to help foster this tight-knit family community that our Heavenly Father has made possible.
Yes ... we have our time in the service to meet & greet those around you.
Yes ... we are always encouraging everyone to join a community group.
Yes ... we built a coffee shop to provide a comfortable place to connect with each other.
But fostering TRUE community in a big church — knowing, caring for, accepting, providing for one another — doesn’t magically happen because of a coffee shop.
In November I went to a Thanksgiving meal our church hosts for those in the surrounding neighborhoods who don’t have anywhere else to go. When I showed up, I didn’t recognize half the volunteers from our church who were serving nor anyone being served, and that didn’t surprise me.
At one of the tables, I noticed this couple with a 10-week-old, beautiful, baby girl. They looked like they may have been the grandparents of this precious little one. I sat down next to them, introduced myself, and asked about this child.
Brian and Rebecca smiled at each other, then at me, and began to share their story.
With the biggest smiles on their faces, they spilled out their life stories which included painful parts — addictions, homelessness, incarceration — and beautiful parts — recovery, reuniting with family, trusting in Jesus. They were so open, honest, and real about who they were and what God was doing in their lives.
Rebecca shared about her struggle with an eating disorder in college and, as a result, how she lost her period, never expecting to experience motherhood. I felt honored to be the recipient of these sensitive details.
Brian shared about mending relationships with his family as he recovered from a drug addiction. As he shared, I was reminded of how important family is to God as he reunites broken relationships.
They shared about a health scare last year when Rebecca seemed to have a tumor in her abdomen and how they trusted God in the face of uncertainty. And we all three rejoiced in God’s goodness when they told me that it was not a tumor but, to their surprise, a gift from God — Rebecca was seven months pregnant with a little girl!
I held back tears the whole time; we laughed uncontrollably; we were all smiling ear-to-ear as they told how God showed his faithful handiwork throughout their journey.
Their honesty was so contagious that I found myself easily opening up about my own life. I had found out the night before that my wife was pregnant with our first child. I was so excited to tell Brian and Rebecca the news — I hadn’t even told my own family yet — and it was their turn to encourage and rejoice with me.
The special time I shared with Brian and Rebecca impacted me deeply during the next few days. I wanted the whole church to meet them and hear their story. It was raw, real, and messy and God shined so brightly through it. I knew it was a big ask, but I thought it was worth a try to see if they would be willing to tell me their story on video and share it with our entire church. It is a scary thing to be vulnerable and open to anyone, let alone a few thousand strangers, but they agreed!
We shared the video during our Christmas Eve service and then brought Brain and Rebecca on stage before our whole church family and dedicated Emery, their adorable baby girl, to the Lord.
The same emotions I felt during that Thanksgiving conversation echoed throughout our whole church. In the same way, Brian and Rebecca wanted to encourage our church family through their story, they received it back tenfold. Their vulnerability was contagious. It gave courage to many others that day to open up about their own stories as they spilled out into our coffee shop, the church parking lot, and off to their Christmas Eve festivities.
It was a precious morning.
I realized that day how powerful it is when someone steps forward from the crowd and courageously shares their story. It encourages us. It challenges us. It unifies us.
Brian, Rebecca and I met up on the following Sunday morning in our church’s cafe to catch up. After some small talk, they excitedly asked about how my wife’s pregnancy was going. Little did they know I had been dreading this moment for days — my wife and I had miscarried our child earlier that week. I broke the news to Brian and Rebecca. I could tell it hurt them and it was like ripping off the band-aid on all those painful emotions I was trying to hide deep in my heart. But to my surprise, I was soon very glad I opened up to them.
Their encouragement was deep and rich because I knew it was drawn from their own stories. I welcomed what they had to say because they weren’t just talking heads spitting out Bible verses at me; they were my brother and sister in Christ who listened, knew, prayed and cared for me. I could feel their empathy. I leaned on them. I couldn’t tell you a word they said that morning, but knowing they were there for me and my wife spoke louder than anything else. I was a freer man walking away from that time with Brian and Rebecca because they took my burden upon themselves. That is what families do. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, (Romans 12:15).
I am so thankful God placed Brian and Rebecca in my life. I am so thankful they are a part of our church family. They have helped us all take another step in the direction of fostering true community at our church where we open up to each other about our stories and love each other despite and through everything.
Our problem was not magically fixed Christmas Eve 2017. I still hear comments from people on Sunday mornings about the difficulties of our big family. But one of my favorite compliments I’ve been hearing lately is that we are a big church that feels small.
Brian and Rebecca’s story: https://vimeo.com/248494045