When I married ivan and moved from Wisconsin to Maryland two and a half years ago, I left not only my home community but also the little church I had attended all my life. My new church, Mountain View Mennonite, has 300 people in regular attendance, seven times as many as my childhood church. And though I love many things about Mountain View, it’s been hard for me to adjust to its bigness.
I entered with the spirit of a small church girl, talking enthusiastically to everyone I met every Sunday (except for the moments I felt too shy), excited to get to know each person. I spent time poring over the church calendar with Ivan, learning the names of the adults at least, and most of the children (he didn’t know quite everyone). I worked at figuring out the gaps and made lists in my notebook of who belonged to which family.
Learning the names of everyone in my large church family still feels important to me. But after a while, I realized I could never get to know everyone and feel a part of everything, no matter how hard I tried.
It seemed Ivan and I were about as far at the edge of the loop as the outer peel of an orange or an onion. If there was any news, we were the last to hear about it.
As a preacher’s daughter from one of the core families in the church of my birth, this was hard to accept. I’d always heard all the news first.
But a big church isn’t like a small church. There are no concentric circles. There are many pools widening, and you can’t be in them all.
Ivan and I weren’t a part of the core of the church, but maybe nobody was. After our marriage, people still sometimes asked Ivan what he was doing now for a job and had him placed back 10 years, when he was custom chopping, or 20 years, when he was milking cows with his dad.
That would never happen in a small church, where everyone knows what everyone does for a job and very possibly their financial situation and dreams for the future.
My small-church spirit withered and died as I sat on a bench or in a back corner, wishing some one of the many people hurrying past really cared about me and didn’t have that “Hi how are you doing I’m in a hurry to get home to Sunday lunch with my really great family” look in their eye.
That isn’t to say that many people haven’t cared and reached out to me, because many have. The people here are warm and accepting. And it isn’t to say I don’t appreciate many things about my new congregation, because I do.
A big church has good things that a small church doesn’t: Multiple funds to support multiple missionaries. Rich spiritual food from a variety of ministers. The opportunity to serve when you feel able in the capacities you are able, not just because somebody has to (although I believe there are strengths in that model as well).
But people get worn out in a small church. They get stuck in a rut of sameness and familiarity. A large church has a wider range of ministry possibilities, a bubbling stockpot of new ideas and always fresh people to serve.
And, separate from Mountain View’s bigness, I love this congregation for its openness, its acceptance of differences, its atmosphere that feels safe and open and free of critical judgment.
It’s just that I miss the comfortable familiarity of a small church, where everyone talks to everyone every Sunday and misses them when they’re gone.
One Sunday evening when I was feeling particularly lonely, I heard a fervent young missionary give a presentation on friendship evangelism. He said it might be scary to make friends and strike up conversations. But it’s not hard. It always starts the same. “You stick out your hand, and you say hello.”
And I realized he was right. A friendship always starts the same. Even here, in this big church, people are still people, and they still have the same problems and needs and interests of the people in the church I left.
For everyone, in every place, this is true. I have remembered it often since. Finding a friend always starts the same. You stick out your hand, and you say hello.