Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A "Well-Done" Legacy for the Left-behind Church

A low self-image easily zaps the energy right out of the little church that stands in the shadow of the megachurch. And the megachurch casts a long shadow, whether it is down the street or at the other end of a vast mailing list.


Here is my most recent book. The idea came from a seminary course I was teaching on Revitalization of the Local Church. Some might question my qualifications to write such a book, but I have served as a pastor's wife in 2 left-behind churches, and I studied hard in preparing to teach the course--not just book study but a lot of travel and interviews. This is not a church-growth book. Here stories come before statistics, and we see God working even when the number don't add up. I read lots of biographies and fiction, including a wonderful short story by William Faulkner, "Shingles for the Lord," that is retold in a way that will push the reader to the library in search of the full text.

To purchase book go to Ruth Tucker's Books. See Also full CHRISTIANITY TODAY review.


Here is a photo of the long-ago closed Green Grove Christian and Missionary Alliance Church where I grew in the faith as a child and young adult. I write about that little church in the first chapter of the book:

I was born into a left-behind church. From infancy until high school graduation I rarely missed Sunday services. I was not, however, a child of the covenant. No baptism. No dedication. No confirmation. I was a step-child of the faith. My folks attended regularly but remained all their lives on the fringe. They had never gotten properly saved—and that made all the difference. I did get saved. It is a story I have told in various settings, including my book Walking Away from Faith.

I went back to that little country church a year ago. Grass was growing through the cracks in the sidewalk and the weeds sprouting everywhere were tell-tale signs of abandonment. The church is now closed. Many seasons had passed since I walked through those weathered wooden doors. I had expected it to be locked. But the door creaked open—barred only by spider webs and boxes partially blocking the inner hallway leading to the sanctuary. I call it a sanctuary, but that’s a fancy word that was never used when I was growing up. This once-filled rectangular room had been shorn of its pews and pulpit. Around the walls were assorted pieces of furniture and boxes and bags that had been left by generous neighbors following a devastating tornado.

I have fond memories of that little church—a church that never amounted to much at all, certainly not by mega-church standards. A Church-growth expert would have taken its pulse and pronounced it dead long before it actually expired. By all standards, it was a loser. The numbers just didn’t add up, and every pastor we ever had was forced to get work on the side to make a living.

But, it would be difficult for me to exaggerate the formative influence that church has had on my life—not only my spiritual pilgrimage but also my vocational ministry.


Here's a short article from my friend Mark O. Wilson, pastor of the Hayward Wesleyan Church in Hayward, Wisconsin. Had a wonderful visit with him recently. If you're ever in Northern Wisconsin, stop by Hayward Wesleyan.

Jesus was a Small Town Preacher

The majority of protestant churches are in small towns and rural communities. Many pastors, upon graduation from seminary, find themselves in one of these "ends of the earth" assignments.

The attitude is "I'm stuck here in this one horse town for a while but after I learn the ropes, I'll move on and do something more important."

Today, as Christmas approaches, I'd like to challenge the assumption that small places are insignificant.

Jesus, God in human flesh, came to the earth on a mission from heaven to transform humanity. He looked the whole world over and picked the perfect place to launch his global and eternal enterprise.

Where did he go? What was his strategic missional selection? A small town!!

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)

You won't get any Christmas cards with pictures of Rome, Athens, or Jerusalem on them -- It's the little village of Bethlehem that takes center stage each December.

Of course, if you want to go further -- Jesus also grew up in a small town (Nazazreth), spent most of his ministry in Galilean hamlets, and headquartered in rural Capernaum.

He literally changed the world from end of it!

If you have been chosen to serve in a small place, take heart! Be encouraged! You're in excellent company. Jesus was a small town preacher too!

I pray that in days to come, small town and rural churches will rise up, reclaim their heritage, and play a significant role in the coming worldwide revival.

Dec 21, 2006

Left Behind with a Woman's Touch

This is the title of Chapter 8. Here are some excerpts:

Did you hear the joke about the woman preacher . . . There are a lot of woman preacher jokes going around. My favorite is about the woman who accepts a call to a small town church. . . . [See page 109.]

“I once attended a church service in a small Midwestern town,” writes Anne Wilson Schaef. “Afterward, I told the minister how pleased I had been with the prayer and sermon meditation. He nodded and immediately launched into a discussion of church attendance and how few people were there on communion Sundays during summer. I had commented on the quality and content of the service—and he had responded with numbers! [Anne Wilson Schaef, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 19.]

I am surely not the first woman to notice that the vast majority of church growth literature is written by men. Women are, likewise, rarely featured at church-growth conferences—and no doubt with good reason. Many of the featured speakers are ministers whose own churches have mushroomed to megachurch size, and such women ministers are rare. That is true of the Emergent (or postmodern) Church movement as well. . . .


There's a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier spot in the dale;
No place is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.

Those words are ones I sang decades ago in a little white clapboard church that was dear to my childhood.

Write a song; revitalize a church. This is one slogan that has not been suggested in any of the books that I have read on church revitalization. But it worked for William Pitts who penned lyrics about a little brown church in Bradford, Iowa. The song was sung at the church dedication, and a year later in 1865, he sold it for $25 and used the money to enroll in medical school.

But by the turn of the century, Bradford was little more than a ghost town, having been bypassed by the railroad, and the dilapidated brown church was closed. But the song lived on, and was made popular by a traveling team of Canadian musicians. In the years that followed as the song became more popular, people began making pilgrimages to see the little church. It was reopened and became a favorite church for weddings—more than 70,000 performed in the remaining years of the twentieth century.

I told that story to one of my classes and Jeff in the back of the room howled out, “That’s the church where my mom and dad were married!” Today that student serves as a pastor in a little Midwestern town himself. The ripple effect of the little churches that dot the North American landscape is impossible to calculate. How many of us would not be where we are today if it were not for a left-behind church somewhere in our background? And many of us look back to these places of worship with more than nostalgia. These churches laid many a foundation for a lifetime of spiritual formation.


There are many wonderful fictional accounts of the left-behind church. Some feature the nostalgic little brown church in the vale but most capture both the good and the bad. Here is one I include in the book:

In The Cunning Man, Robertson Davies introduces Father Hobbs who serves in the church of St. Aidan in Toronto. He is “a very good old man,” who despite his shortcomings, was the most beloved priest in this neighborhood Anglican parish. When a reporter came to write a piece on the “village” that surrounded the church, she was looking particularly for something “picturesque.” She had heard about the “saint” of the parish, and asked a long-time parishioner to elucidate. His response explains one way a left-behind parish and pastor confronts culture:

“Didn’t heat the rectory properly. Didn’t dress himself in anything but ancient clothes. . . . Ate awful food. . . . Gave every penny he had to the poor. . . . He used to roam around the parish on winter nights, up and down all the alleys, looking for bums who might have dropped down drunk, and who might freeze. Time and again he brought one of them home and put him in his own bed, while he slept on a sofa. . . . He was very generous to whores who were down on their luck. He made their more prosperous sisters stump up to help them in bad times. Got the whores to come to Confession and be scrubbed up, spiritually. . . . You should have seen the whores at his funeral. Got into trouble because he let the church fabric run down, giving away money that should have gone for heating. . . . Of course with an example like that, money rolled in. St. Aidan’s wasn’t a rich parish by any means, but people stumped up astonishingly to help Father Hobbes, because he never spared himself. . . . There was an extraordinary atmosphere about the place.
[Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man (NY: Viking, 1994), 17-18.]

Excerpts from the book Introduction

This book in many ways traces a personal pilgrimage from a childhood nurtured in a left-behind country church to a young adult who served as pastor’s wife in two tiny churches and to my current membership in a relatively large church, though one that is purposely and self-consciously left behind by the mega-church movement. In these pages I refer to the “messy spirituality” that is found in left-behind churches (and often more hidden and disguised in megachurches), as well as the desire to find God in the midst of our fallenness and proclivity to sin. There are no secret sins in the left-behind church.

These pages will serve as a forum for the pain, the disillusionment and doubts, and the burnout of ministers caught in the rat-race of the church growth movement in all its contemporary guises. And it will focus on that very success syndrome with its emphasis on pastoral leadership and healthy churches with its infinite number of publications and seminars and power-point presentations and principles. All of this supposedly drawn from Gospels and Epistles, those inspired writings that in reality set forth a theology of failure and suffering: a theology of the cross.

But this book is not stuck in failure, at least as we contemplate the truly negative aspects of that term. The left-behind church is—for good and for ill—left behind in community. To its good fortune, it is sometimes left behind with a woman’s touch—a woman minister whose only call comes from a left-behind church. And, if this church does not take itself too seriously and has been so gifted by God, it is left behind with a sense of humor.

There are many positive aspects of the left-behind church—in the memories that spur many of us on during tough times. And there are examples of left-behind churches that have served and sacrificed far beyond their size—these Little Churches that Could. There are other left-behind churches that are in the valley of the shadow of death, and the life supports are shut down, perhaps with good reason.

These are the opportunities of the left-behind church—a church that not only is a community but also one that exists in the midst of a larger community. By its very nature it ministers to those both inside and outside its doors. It is not on the cutting edge. Indeed, it is probably very old fashioned. All the good deeds and kind words have been done and said before—beginning in biblical times and continuing down through the centuries. There is truly nothing new under the sun. But sometimes our candles are hid under a bushel. The lights of the left-behind church must burn brightly again.

This then is not a sentimental book about the joys of a little church. I’ve been part of little left behind churches, and I know all too well that the devil is just as active there—maybe more so—than in the largest mega church.

The stories in this book—drawn from travels and personal interviews and biographies and fiction and “how-to” volumes of all stripes—do not present new ideas or new trends. Rather, they are little stories that are carried along in the streams and tributaries that began as a trickle in a Garden only to one day join together as one mighty river flowing into New Jerusalem. It is true that small has gotten a bad press in religious journalism in recent years and that left-behind churches have a reputation for drowning in low self-esteem. But vast numbers of them are healthy and happy and are effectively carrying out the work of the Lord. So, in these pages I offer a challenge to those who are feeling the sting of being left behind even as I celebrate the ministry going on in these one-of-a-kind places of worship and ministry.


The preacher in the left-behind church is continually compared to the preacher in the megachurch. It may be a self inflicted comparison, or it many come from people in the congregation, but whatever its source, the lowly preacher never quite makes the cut. He is a second-string preacher on the “B” team. He will never be a star. But the stars are larger than life and as close to home as the TV screen in the living room. Garrison Keillor humorously portrays this struggle for a small-town preacher in Lake Wobegon.

Church was half full and restless. Pastor Ingqvist’s Lenten sermons have gotten longer. Val Tollefson has been after him to liven up his preaching. Sunday morning before church, Val tunes into “Power for Tomorrow” on TV from the Turquoise Temple in Anaheim, and there is a gleam in Reverend La Coste’s eye that Val wishes Pastor Ingqvist would emulate and also use more dramatic inflection, rising, falling inflection, cry out sometimes, use long pauses to give solemnity to the sermon.
[Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home (NY: Penguin, 1987), 90.]

FROM CHAPTER 5 (pp. 75-76)

Here is an excerpt from the book that includes the last two paragraphs of my own story and then goes on to a fictional account:

Where does a pastor’s wife go for help, in the 1970s or even today? Her story if it gets out will end her husband’s profession. It will result in public embarrassment. And most dreaded of all, it will bring disgrace to the cause of Christ. It will disgrace the cause of Christ. How often those words rang in my subconscious, as I sobbed in secrecy. Is there any way to resolve this terrible mess I’m in? Is there anyone I can trust with my story? Fear gripped me. My story remained secret for several years until my teenage son, who often witnessed domestic violence, insisted otherwise.

Leaving Ruin

Sometimes the secrets behind the parsonage doors are very different. If fact, there is sometimes a siege mentality with pastor and family holed up in the house with the big bad world on the outside, a world represented by the enemies in the congregation. One of the best books detailing this situation is a novel, Leaving Ruin. I learned of the book through Dick Staub, whose radio program is heard by millions. His words whet my appetite:

This weekend I finally read Jeff Berryman’s “Leaving Ruin” and I am urging everybody to read it. In my dark distant past I pastored a church straight out of seminary. It was the most enriching, rewarding and life-threatening experience of my life. Berryman captures all that and more in this tale of a pastor with a rich inner life and a tad too much honestly, who is about to be voted out of his church. Read it and weep.
[JollyBlogger, June 14, 2004]

The story is about the Reverend Cyrus Manning, his wife Sara, and their two sons who have been living in the parsonage in Ruin, Texas for eleven years and are on the verge of being kicked out. The process of going through this ordeal spans from August 17 to November 23, though there are many flashbacks to fill in the gaps of time gone by. This is not the first time that Cyrus has been in this predicament: “Once back in my former congregation in East Texas, I stood up on a Sunday morning and tried to preach on the comedy of the cross,” he confesses, “because . . . Frederick Buechner does it beautifully, but he’s Presbyterian, and I’m not. That afternoon, the elders called me into their office and said there was nothing funny about it. I lost my job then and there.” [Jeff Berryman, Leaving Ruin (Orange, CA: New Leaf Books, 2002), 17.]