Imagining Homecoming: The ‘And Yet’ Importance of Lay Ministries in Smaller Churches
By Teresa Stewart
Locations have scattered. Schedules have changed. The usual tasks have been disrupted. It’s hard to imagine coming home and gathering together again in one room.
But in these “for now” times, your lay ministry has never been more important. And if you serve a small congregation, you have a surprising advantage in this work.
In these “for now” times, your lay ministry has never been more important. And if you serve a small congregation, you have a surprising advantage in this work.
It’s called the participation aesthetic: that full sensory experience created when each person can contribute to and affect an event, not just observe it. Something is up for grabs. Unscripted. And the possibility of participation heightens the belonging and meaning making. It’s a powerful ministry tool. And it’s available only in small settings.
Remember gathering with friends for a potluck party? The conversation shifts as each guest enters. Stories are told or retold. The table changes with each dish added. At some point, a cake appears and the whole group belts out “Happy Birthday” with no rehearsal. The event ends with thanks so much. Afterward, no one thinks, “We should have hired a professional choir.” No, you experienced it differently because you created it together.
By contrast, large settings have to use a performance aesthetic. Big groups get anxious without a detailed script. Guests passively observe. And without the heightened impact of creating something together, the focus usually shifts to excellence in performance and production. Big settings have to replace participation with design teams, experts, scripts, and plenty of resources.
Lay ministries are the secret to unleashing a powerful, healthy participation aesthetic.
That’s a big lesson for small congregations. And lay ministries are the secret to unleashing a powerful, healthy participation aesthetic. Small-setting pastors can’t do this on their own.
So how can you help?
Scan your congregation and community for every possible way to get things into the hands and homes of people. With your pastor’s blessing, pack up every altar cloth, candleholder, cross, and local symbol (big and small) in your building. Put them in kits.* Throw in the signs of your ministries: pots, bags of nursery toys, brooms, the church dishes. And deliver these kits to every possible worshiper, so they can participate and experience how easily the holy resides among us.
Take a porch picture of each delivery and post it on social media sites. (Identify a place online – like your church’s Facebook or Instagram page. Connect with your pastor and offer to create one if it doesn’t exist.) Encourage worshipers to take pictures of setting up for worship on kitchen tables or foot stools. Invite them to include pictures of your local hospital, school, downtown, shelter, diner, and grocery store. Include surprising pictures of hope. Invite (and help) others to do the same.
When people post the photos, allow the photos to create an unscripted conversation as would happen when new guests join a party.
Your pastor may use these kits and pictures to guide online worship. The signs and symbols keep working wherever they show up. The distance among households closes with each glimpse of intimate settings and familiar things. The divine is always leaving the building to be with people anyway. You’re just helping folks participate in the good news.
For Christians, “for now” times always come with an “and-yet” promise. Hurt, fear, and uncertainty are never the final words. Our story anticipates healing, perfect love, hope, and homecoming. Part of your care as laity is planning the homecoming.
For Christians, “for now” times always come with an “and-yet” promise.
So, imagine gathering for a party. Imagine calling all those people and kits back together. Ah, Easter is every Sunday! Imagine unpacking the kits all over the chancel during worship. “I didn’t know we had so many altar cloths!” Imagine seeing the table grow with each addition. Look at the history . . . the possibilities. Imagine telling (or retelling) the stories and belting out a song, unrehearsed. Great is Thy Faithfulness! Imagine dishes brought back and filled for a feast. We are enough. We have an abundance. For all the people. Wow! Alleluia!
Is there a risk that some of the kits won’t come back. Sure. But it’s less than the risk of people and ministry tools being kept untouched and silent. And the kits might just come home with new stories and meanings, whispering, “Did you notice . . .?” or “Can you imagine what’s next . . .?”
Your ministry doesn’t necessarily come with design teams, experts, and detailed scripts.
*In the current cultural climate of sheltering at home and anxiety about COVID-19, use hand sanitizer when packing and assure recipients of each kit that the kits are safe and contagion free.
Teresa Stewart is the creative director of Paper Bag Cathedrals, devoted to resourcing small congregations. A lifelong United Methodist, she starts with this question: “What could we craft from the interests of each community and the advantages of small settings?” Most recently, Teresa has explored this question in curating worship for the Saint Paul School of Theology seminary, writing children’s worship resources and developing intensive workshops for clergy and laity ready to ask this question together.
She lives with her family in the Kansas City area, where she worships with Kuomba Pamoja, a United Methodist congregation of Congolese refugees, who continue to teach her about the mysteries of ministry.