Jason Byassee and I both published books on small-church ministry at the same time last year. We are now eternally linked on Amazon.com (“frequently bought together”). I had the privilege of reading and reviewing The Gifts of the Small Church for Leadership. The review is below.
Power in Small Packages
The cover art of Jason Byassee’s The Gifts of the Small Church may give the wrong impression. With its ceramic serving dish, quilted pot holders, and soft, sacred light, the cover may communicate that the book is a collection of sentimental reflections on the virtues of humble, homey country churches.
Don’t be deceived.
For the first couple years of their marriage, Byassee and his wife, both United Methodist ministers, pastored three churches at once. Jason served one, and his wife had a “two-point charge” (two churches that share a pastor). The book is a reflection on their experiences—experiences that convinced Byassee that the small church is “God’s primary way of saving the world.” Instead of talking about why the small church is a (or the) problem in American Christianity today, Byassee artfully demonstrates how it’s an important part of the solution.
But his purpose is not to promote a style or model for ministry. He doesn’t advocate for particular leadership qualities or principles. Byassee doesn’t try to tell pastors how to make their small churches larger. Instead, (and I think this is fantastic) Byassee’s approach is perfectly suited to the subject matter. In rural places (in the South at least), when you ask a question, you get a story in response. This is Byassee’s tactic.
To the question, “What do you mean that the small church is God’s solution?” he answers by telling stories and distilling their lessons.
Chief among these lessons is that the small church is a place where a pastor—if he or she is paying attention—can learn to be a Christian. The intimacy of the small church gives you opportunity to learn forgiveness, and not primarily by offering it to others but in receiving it from them. The locations of small churches put pastors in close proximity with people who earn enough of a living. These folks can teach the wise pastor what the apostle Paul knew: how to be content in lean years and grateful in fat ones. The pain in small churches forces pastors to be priests, in the proper biblical sense. He must beseech God on behalf of the people and speak His consolation to them. The small church can teach you to mourn and comfort, live fully and die well.
Perhaps most profoundly for people who reflect on the nature of leadership, the small church can teach the pastor that “Leadership positions aren’t resume builders or ego satisfiers.” The biblical call for Christian ministry, Byassee suggests, is to imitate the Good Shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name and who actively pursues the lonely one in danger.
In other words, couched subtly behind the docile cover and the beautiful prose is a call for pastors to take their vocations seriously and to recognize the small church not as a step-stone in one’s career path, but as a place where God may dispense a unique grace to the faithful pastor.
Byassee is not blind to the challenges of small church ministry. He speaks candidly about feuds and small mindedness. But he also challenges the assumption that small churches are full of primitive and uneducated people. Byassee’s experiences in small churches broadened his cultural horizons, much to his surprise.
The author explains in one chapter how serving along rural churchgoers, many of whom owned guns and lived to hunt, challenged his urban and liberal assumptions about gun-toting conservatives. In another he describes how he began his appointment bent on working for racial reconciliation, only to discover that it was harder than he expected—and that some of his congregants were a step ahead of him.
I grew up in the rural South, where the action of Byassee’s book takes place, and have served in small churches there. It was important for me, then, that the characters and circumstances ring true. They do. You will recognize the people in these pages, and that will make their stories all the more moving and hilarious. And that’s important, because it takes guts to write a book like this. Byassee has a subtle and serious point to make about the pastor’s soul and the state of Christianity in America. But he lets the stories speak for themselves. There is much wisdom here, for those with ears to hear.
At just over 100 pages long and beautifully written, The Gifts of the Small Church is a great day-off read. You can easily read it in a Monday morning. But the characters to whom Byassee introduces you, and the implications he draws from their stories, will linger with you. This is a book worth reflecting on, not just reading.