The Popcorn Reminder: Your Small Congregation’s Superpower of Lay Ministry
By Teresa Stewart
The pastor began calling a group of lay leaders. More COVID uncertainty. They needed to make decisions, make plans, and make do. Masks? Virtual, hybrid? Among the calls, the pastor heard two consistent concerns. First, what plan could possibly address all the uncertainties that people in their small congregation were feeling? What about Sunday school for the seven children, who are ages six through twelve? What about the dozen homebound folks? And how would the congregation address the uncertainties plaguing the usual members, occasional attenders, and anxious neighbors?
Then came the second concern. Even in the lingering summer heat, people worried about what the lingering pandemic might mean for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Again. They remembered last year’s disrupted homecomings of families, students, and children. Would this be another year without canned cranberries at a shared community meal? Would there be another Christmas without terrycloth shepherds and glitter-winged angels?
So much uncertainty. So many needs. So few resources. What should a small congregation do?
Pause. Because this question usually summons a particular response: program thinking. Overwhelmed by all the “but-what-abouts,” folks begin to seek a right answer, an established solution. They want the best adaptation, something official and efficient. They want something singular to coordinate and tidy up the uncertainties for as many people as possible. They want a program like a Zoom curriculum for all the kids, or matching home-worship packets for everyone’s front door, or a streamed devotional series already produced and ready to send out.
The problem with program thinking? It assumes a one-size-fits-most mission. Large settings with lots of people have to start there. But small congregations don’t. And program thinking overlooks the superpower of lay leaders in these settings.
The problem with program thinking? It assumes a one-size-fits-most mission.
So what is this superpower?
It’s simple, really. The work of lay leaders is not limited to whatever is tidy, coordinated, efficient, and officially proven. Their ministries can be—should be—wildly messy and creatively experimental. Their ministries are not merely flock management, but instead are lone lamb chasing. Just as the work of our Lord was for each person, the work of the lay leader can be for each individual—every last one (not just most). The work is even for the ones who don’t quite fit or follow reasonable program expectations. It is especially for them.
The work is for people like Charles.
Charles was a fourth grader who looked more like a second grader. He saw no point in quietly coloring at the Sunday school table and listening to sweet Bible stories. Charles liked projectiles and questions and unusual not-in-the-Bible things. He liked the concession stand that had fluffy popcorn that he had freshly made.
His concession-stand dream came up in most (okay, all) conversations. He had been saving up for it through his birthday and Christmas. He counted down the amount he needed for the perfect popping machine and all the necessary supplies. He counted down the days until he could order the machine. He counted down the days it took to ship. He counted down the number of delivery stops before the popcorn machine arrived at his house (fourteen, if you wondered). He counted down customers who might want to place orders from his parents’ Facebook page. And he announced all these counts. Often. Enthusiastically. Often. And with an eagerness that Sunday school Zooms or coloring around a table could not touch.
Frankly, it could be exhausting. And it had nothing to do with the official curriculum or another disruption in a year of disruptions.
The reasonable thing for Charles’s Sunday school teacher to have done would have been to smile compassionately at his parents, then continue planning that children’s Zoom call for all the children (or most, anyway).
Fortunately, Donna didn’t care about efficiency and official plans. So, she began a conversation about popcorn with Charles. Together, they came up with a plan to record the marvels of what happens when kernels are steamed open in a chaotic symphony.
They made a phone video of the process, passionately narrated by Charles. And they offered it in place of the usual Zoom call to explain the chaotic symphony of Pentecost!
Charles beamed. Church was big enough for his passion and for him. The other children caught on. It was big enough for each of them, too.
Donna understood her Spirit-fueled, small congregation’s lay superpower. She didn’t have to wait for a published popcorn curriculum. She needed only to recognize this transforming truth: that divine love is wildly, foolishly inefficient. It dives into our mess. It lives with us in uncertainty. And grace goes after every last one of us—not just the ones who fit the planned programs and typical patterns. Each one. In any way it can. Making do. Whenever, wherever, however it takes.
Recognize this transforming truth: that divine love is wildly, foolishly inefficient. It dives into our mess. It lives with us in uncertainty. And grace goes after every last one of us.
Like popcorn for Charles. Or a special box of activities and treats for another neighborhood kid who didn’t have Wi-Fi. Or a driveway hymn serenade with a set of the congregation’s finest altar cloths delivered weekly to a woman who couldn’t leave home to worship.
The Spirit does some of its best work in unconventional, unproven, unreasonable MacGyver moments.
And the instruction manual to your superpower is hiding right there in that terrycloth and glitter story. For the rescue of the world, God didn’t wait for all the right resources and ready experts. Instead, God creatively, wildly made do with a teenage mother, some field hands, and a few immigrants bearing impractical gifts.
And it wasn’t a top-down, fits-most program. It started in a backwater nowhere. In fields. And a shed. With folks away from home. The last place anyone expected. Right here?
Yes. And because it started in the unlikely right-here, all creation caught on. It was big enough for each of them, too.
So before your pastor calls again, with questions again, read that sacred story again. The one that starts in dark uncertainty—In those days, a tax decree went out from the Emperor . . . The same one that ends with an angel chorus, glitter hopelessly stuck in the carpet, and a whole-creation Wahoo!
Then, set aside fear. Forget what is tidy, coordinated, efficient, officially proven. Pick up your superpower. Pass the holy duct tape. Love the mess. Each mess. Make do. For each unlikely one. Go lamb looking. Start conversations with unconventional neighbors. Scan for popcorn passions. Listen for driveways that need a song of hope. Pack up just-for-you deliveries filled with real cranberries and overflowing with good news of great joy.
Right here! Especially for them!
Teresa J Stewart is an author, teacher, speaker, and creator whose passion is small congregations. She writes a weekly blog at smallchurch.org. You may reach her at [email protected].
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