As I do most days I went for a walk this morning on the track that surrounds the ice surface at the local community center. It was a little busier than usual this morning with about twenty people walking.
What struck me this morning was the diversity on the track. There were three new mothers pushing their babies in strollers. There was an older man using a walker to get around. There was a man who had developmental issues but was enjoying being part of the crowd. There were some people walking by themselves and others that were grouped together so that they could visit as they walked. There were some who were a little on the older side and others who were quite young. There were people who walked slowly and others that ran around the outside of the track. There were men and there were women.
What struck me as I walked was that this was exactly what a community track should be like. It should accommodate everyone. What was impressive about these twenty people was that they all seemed to be accommodating everyone else. No one seemed to be in such a hurry that she couldn’t slow down for a moment to let someone else pass.
The track this morning seemed to display the very best qualities of true community: a place in which everyone fits.
The small church as community
As I watched the kalaedoscope of walkers, I thought that it was a beautiful picture of what the church should be, a place in which everyone fits.
This should especially be true of small churches because in a small church everyone knows the other people who make up the church community. They know each others’ quirks and eccentricities but the church should be the place where those things don’t matter. People can be different and still be accepted.
Large churches can develop programs for special needs people. In fact there are some needs within the church community that may require a large church to run them. For example most twelve-step programs are better run within a large church setting because they require a certain number of people with a particular issue in order to have a critical mass for a program to run. This is often one of the things that a large church does well.
The thing that a small church should be able to do well though is provide a church family for the person with special needs. My wife met a woman who had just recently gone through a divorce. She was part of a divorce recovery group in the large church that we were attending at that time.
One Sunday morning as my wife was leaving after the service, this person grabbed hold of my wife’s arm and explained that she just needed to talk with someone. She was actually on her way to the divorce recovery meeting but felt that she needed some community before she went there.
What she needed was family. I have no doubt that the program was well run and that it met a need in that woman’s life but it wasn’t family. In this particular large church, she was having trouble finding the family that she needed at that point in her life.
Community at work in small churches
More than three decades ago, Christian Horizons opened a home for developmentally challenged adults in the small town in which I grew up. Some of those residents started to attend the small Baptist church in which I spent my teenage years. I was an adult at the time but I was invited back to preach one Sunday. No one told me about the new additions to the church family. When I got up to speak they responded in ways that I wasn’t expecting. I remember it being a little disconcerting at the time.
Those folks, who were new back then, became valued and valuable members of the church. They brought a different dynamic to the church. What I appreciated most was the fact that they weren’t just part of a program separate from the main service. They were part of the church family with all the love that that involved.
In another small church a family with two autistic sons started to attend the church. These two boys were certainly different from the average child in Sunday school. This church developed a system of caring for these two valued members of the church family which enabled the parents to participate in the service on Sunday morning.
I was talking with a woman after the service one Sunday morning when one of these young men came up to us. He looked at the person with whom I was talking and asked her if he was still her special friend. She replied by assuring him that he would always be her special friend. He went away with a smile on his face and I realized that the secret wasn’t the program that was set up. The secret was the love that church had for family members who just happened to be a little bit different.
Each of you could probably provide me with examples of community either in your church or in another small church that you’ve experienced. Remember that community occurs when we don’t insist that everyone has to be the same in order to fit in.
Room for diversity
When I was in seminary, I took a course on the arts in worship. I was the person who didn’t fit in that course because I was the only person without a shred of artistic ability. There was a room full of talented people and then there was me.
It was a good experience for me in that it gave me a bit of a feeling of what it is like to be different. The other members of the class accepted me but I knew that I didn’t really belong.
What was interesting was that while I was the odd person out in the class, when we left the class and entered our churches I was the one who fit in. There was a lot of anger and hurt in the class because the other people with the artistic talent felt that they didn’t fit into their churches. They were the odd person out when they tried to fit into a normal church culture.
They complained about the fact that no one listened to their ideas. No one appreciated what they could bring to a service. They talked about how hard it was to be part of a church that didn’t appreciate beauty. Their experience in a church setting had not been good.
Diversity takes many different forms. Diversity means that someone else’s ideas are going to be different from yours. Diversity means accepting not only people who have physical or developmental challenges but people with different personalities, different talents, different hopes and maybe even a somewhat different vision for what the church should be.
Community can’t happen unless we value diversity.
I love my walking track because it allows me on a regular basis to experience community. I love the fact that some people walk slower than I do and I have to slow down some times and wait for the right opportunity to pass them. Other people walk faster than I do and they have to wait for the right time to pass me.
If someone decided that only people who walk at a certain speed could use the track there would be a small group of people who might be happy but it would completely destroy any sense of community. What makes it enjoyable is that everyone fits in and is accepted.
If I can experience it on a walking track, how much more should I experience it in a church family.