This Christmas my wife, three kids, and I travelled to Southern Manitoba. In fact, all of my family travelled to my sister’s home in Morden. My parents, siblings, and all the kids. Sixteen of us in all. While the “City” of Morden may boast many things, tropical weather over Christmas is not one of them. There were a couple of days that registered at -40c with the windchill. Over the radio on New Year’s Eve came the words, “Happy New Year! Don’t leave your house if you don’t have to; you may freeze to death.” You might think the voice was joking. I did not.
The extreme temperatures had one benefit, however. They kept us all close together in the house. I love my family and we have a good time together. It’s a bit chaotic at times with kids running everywhere and me acting like I’m 13 again, but there are lots of laughs, games, and priceless times with great conversation around great food. We value these times together, especially because they don’t happen too often as we’re spread out around the country.
My family is not perfect. We bump heads now and again (Lord knows I’ve caused my fair share of tears). But they’re my favourite people. I’m proud of them. We can get deep and we can also get the giggles over the stupidest things. We support each other as best we can, and without a doubt we know we can lean on each other.
Yesterday, now back home and back in my office, I came across a quote from the late Eugene Peterson, a pastor hero of mine. I’ve seen it many times before and you may have seen it, too. Several years ago, at the age of 81, Peterson was asked what advice he would give to young Christians looking to grow in their faith. He responded:
“Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for six months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place… the smallest church; the closest church; and commit to staying there 6 months.”
Peterson lived his advice. He was a part of a small community church, despite his worldwide fame. He would often speak of the beauty and opportunities found within such an “insignificant” and imperfect place.
Almost a decade ago my wife, kids, and I moved from the West Coast to Hamilton. We landed in a beautiful little area of the city called Locke Street which was within biking distance of McMaster Divinity College, the reason for our big move. Very intentionally we wanted to invest and participate in a church that was local, small, and different. Having grown up and worked in evangelical churches of decent size, my wife and I were looking for something a bit different. That’s when we stumbled into St John’s Anglican Church: “The Rock on Locke.” While our time living in the area and attending St John’s was only two semesters long (8 months), that experience forever shaped our understanding of church and my ministry.
At “The Rock” we found a small church of kids, adults, and seniors who immediately welcomed us. Inside that beautiful old building was a family of people who genuinely cared for each other and worshipped Jesus together. While they deeply cared about their neighbourhood and were always thinking about ways to demonstrate service and love to the community, people were not flooding through their doors asking to be baptized. The sound system made funny noises. Polished, entertainment, and performance were not words I would use to describe the gatherings. It was not a perfect church. It was not a “full-serve” kind of place. And while my family didn’t experience any drama during our short time there, I think it’s safe to assume that doesn’t mean it didn’t or hasn’t existed. But what it was, was beautiful. The priest, David, was a warm, intelligent, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who was influencing the church to become those same characteristics simply by being himself. He was a gift.
We went on Sundays. We went to the potlucks. We helped where we could. We had a great time at the winter retreat watching everyone perform in the talent show. My one year-old daughter was baby Jesus in the Epiphany pageant. It was family. And I am so grateful for how that church cared for my family, let us serve, and shaped us.
For whatever reason, seeing that Peterson quote took my mind to our experience at St John’s and my experience over Christmas. The unifying image being a small and intimate family. And that makes me smile. Here I am now, seven years into starting a new church and honoured to be its pastor. And as I think about Peterson’s quote, Christmas with fifteen other family members in the house, and my experience at St John’s all those years ago, I realize how blessed I am to be a part of a church that reminds me of all those things.
My church is not glamourous. We’re small. We’re chaotic. We’re not polished. We’re “insignificant” by a lot of metrics some might use. But I love us. I always look forward to us. In our diversity, relationships, conversations, eating together, laughing together, crying together, working through tensions together, we’re experiencing the church in all her beauty. I count everyday I get to serve this church as a gift.
So cheers to all the little churches out there. You are extremely significant.
And cheers to families that get the giggles together. And all the younger sisters that put up with older brothers. 😉