Paul Hahn… I’m sorry.

I like church-planting.  At least I like the idea of church-planting.  I liked the idea so much that I tried to get me and church-planting together.  But, as it turns out, church-planting doesn’t like me.  Oh well.  Church-planting is probably right.  It probably would’ve never worked out between us.  I’m glad church-planting gave it to me straight.

I love small towns.  I grew up in one.  I can close my eyes and envision the precise places where they keep their suspicion of new things.  I can walk you down the street and show you all the places where resistance to change lives.  You can try to pull a fast one on small towns but you better look out.  They have long memories.  You can try to dazzle small towns with slick new ideas, but small towns will just rock back in their rocking chairs, listen closely to you, and then quietly go on about their business as if you didn’t say a word.  But this is part of why I love them.

I also love small churches.  I grew up in one of those, too.  Small churches can be a lot like small towns.  Long memories. Resistant to change.  Suspicious of new things.  These things, of course, aren’t necessarily vices.  Not all changes are for the better.  So resistance to change can, for a small church, be almost like having an immune system.  But just as an over-active immune system can be very dangerous to the human body, so an over-active resistance to change can have a heart-hardening effect on a small church.

Here is where my dilemma presented itself.  If I’m a small-town boy at heart, and a small town already has a small church from my denomination in it, how do I both become a new part of a small town/small church and become an effective leader toward healthy change?  According to the small town/small church doctrine, if I’m the new kid on the block, I’m automatically suspicious.  And if I try to lead folks toward something new, there’s resistance to the change.  And, if you’ve ever been in a small church and asked some of your leaders questions about possibly changing a particular aspect of ministry, you know you’ll get a rehearsal of church history.  The re-telling of small church history most often sounds a little like, “Well, the reason we do this in this way is because, you see, when Pastor McGillicuddy was here back in the mid-80’s and was busing kids in from the county…”

In God’s providence, he placed me in a small church in a small town.  So… what do I do now?  It’s like I was asking myself, “Well, now that I’m here, now what?”  Being unafraid of declaring my own incompetence, I started asking questions.  I started asking questions of other small town pastors (even from other denominations{gasp}), started listening to what they are doing, and where they see Jesus moving in their own spheres of ministry.  I picked up a book that seemed to be getting some good press from not a few of them.  (It’s really good so far.)  But most recently, I got invited to a regional conference put on by my denomination’s home missions agency, Mission to North America (MNA).  And, like the good small town boy I am, I was immediately suspicious of this new thing.  After all, the conference was about more than just church-planting.  It was a conference for both church-planting AND church renewal, and MNA has been all about some church-planting for as long as I have been a minister.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that MNA has been a champion of church-planting and been the connector of so many other missional partnerships for things like prison ministry, ministering to families with special needs children, ESL ministry, Disaster Response, etc.  But what about the small church?  Where do we turn to find assessments and resources for church renewal in our small town setting?  How do they help me answer the question, “Now what?”

This conference was that.  But it was more than that.  The conference was wiser than just delivering a list of professional church renewal tactics.  It understood that church renewal needs to get at even more basic things like, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.”  So one of its focuses was on renewing the pastor.  The leaders of the breakout sessions didn’t assume that they knew all the concerns and questions we small town pastors were dragging into the sessions, so they asked good questions to START the sessions.

There is still lots of room for improvement, but at the end of the weekend, I felt obligated to approach Paul Hahn, national coordinator for MNA, and apologize for my suspicion, which I did.  But I’ll double-down on my apology here.  Paul, if you’re reading this, thank you for your committee’s work to come alongside small town pastors like me.  Please forgive our suspicion of the new.  It’s in the air we breathe around here.  We may feel like we’re just running around in circles.  But y’all are doing good work and it feels like there’s someone out there now hollering, “This way!”