It was a typical July morning in Oklahoma, with the sun and clouds playing a game of keep away as thunderstorms threatened the horizon. The small clapboard church sat just off the highway that took most of the town’s residents to their jobs in the sprawling city nearby. Not much had changed since the church found its home on the corner near some railroad tracks. There was a narthex, the wooden panel walls held paintings of Jesus tending to His own, and the painted pews creaked a little. The fragrance in the building brought back memories of flannelgraphs and days when suits and ties were prerequisite for worship. On this day, the people gathered wore whatever felt best for a summer morning. Dresses and heels sat alongside jeans and t-shirts. For some, Sunday service would be the beginning of a day of rest. For others, it was quiet respite before the demands of work crowded in tightly.
The youngest in the pews was a 7-year old boy, sitting politely next to his mom and dad and sister. The oldest was a group of women sure to be in their 80s, eager to welcome every new face. There were more of them these days—the new faces. The wooden message board on the back wall told the story. Attendance last week was up from the week before, and this week would likely tell the same story.
For most churches, those numbers would signal success. In fact, Amazon offers more than 25,000 books and articles on church growth alone, and annual lists are published with power-packed words like “biggest” or “fastest growing.” On any given weekend, someone is in the back of a sanctuary estimating attendance. That, coupled with giving, are the two most common success measures for a weekend service. Certainly, both have their place. It’s good to have lots of seats filled, and money is needed for both the purposeful and the pragmatic. But are there other success measures we as leaders should be noting—and celebrating? Perhaps the little church by the railroad tracks has some things to remind us.
IT’S ABOUT PEOPLE. ALL PEOPLE.
On the prayer rail at the front of the sanctuary, an old mayonnaise jar had been painted and transformed into a piggy bank. “For the fall picnic” was written on a piece of paper taped to the side of the jar. “Remember, friends, we’re gonna have a picnic at the public park,” said one of the pastors. “We want everyone to feel welcome there, we want everyone to feel loved. And we want to help our veterans. We’ve got folks with some big needs. And all the jar money we collect goes to them. Whatever you can give, give. We know God will use every penny well.”
People in the pews nodded their approval, and the young boy smiled at his dad and mom. They were new to the church, and it was the welcome they felt that drew them to a place without extravagant ministry programs or state-of-the-art production. The dad commented, “We love this church—and we can’t wait for more people to love it too,” and the pastor laughed.
As the church, success isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about what we do with the numbers we’re given. In the book of Acts, “the Lord added to the numbers daily.” The church gathered often—feeding, and sharing, and tending, and caring. Church was a lifestyle rather than a location, a personality rather than a program. The little church by the railroad tracks reminds us that the success of a weekend service is truly measured in how our people welcome and love people—all people—throughout the week.
IT’S ABOUT PRAYER. BIG PRAYER.
The worship leader played his guitar, and the congregation raised their voices and their hands in response. And then he prayed that their songs would be a gift to the Lord’s ears. “That was a good prayer, friend,” said the pastor. “So what else do we need to pray for today?”
One by one, the requests were spoken. A woman in the back carefully typed each request into the computer so they could be displayed on the screen for all to see. There were prayers for healing, prayers for community, prayers for families to be restored and for jobs to be found. Answers to prayers were shouted out too. There was no countdown clock directing the service, no urge to edit the words. The time spent in prayer was second only to the message. And the prayers didn’t end. After the service, members lingered to pray for each other. There was no hurry to leave.
Now, it may be difficult to allow people to speak out every prayer request in a large congregation. But the little clapboard church knows where success begins. Throughout scripture, we are reminded that prayer is powerful and effectual. And we as leaders set the course for the place prayer takes in our weekend services and in the days that follow.
In his book Lasting Impact, Carey Nieuwhof shares, “Churches in decline often think in terms of what they can get from people—money, time, growth, etc. Churches that will make an impact on the future will be passionate about what they want for people—financial balance, generosity, the joy of serving, healthier families, and of course, Christ at the center of everyone’s life.” And in a small town near a sprawling city, a little church is praying for every church to do just that.