At the risk of sounding too cynical or even too pompous, I must admit that Byassee’s book showed a very arrogant young pastor who was more flippant than reverent, more concerned with his future than the real future of the church, and one who is readily able to know it all. I found his characterizations of Southerners deep as anything from Neil Young’s songs. Further, I question his purpose of being a pastor, his ‘calling’, and whether or not he can actually teach us anything about the small church. Further, I see a failed pastorate which left people where they were in bad theology without real leadership except in political causes and even that was poorly done. YET (and while I know that it is not exactly academic to capitalize all the letters in a word for emphasize sake, I will any way) I found in this book someone who appreciated the practical theology of the small church and found himself well grounded in humiliation and a deep respect for the things he had only previously, erroneously, assumed. In Byassee’s book there is the rich beauty of the local, Southern Church, much like a quilt added to by generations of quilters, which calls us to a better, simpler theology. In this, Byassee accomplishes a great deal and gives us a real gift.
The book serves more as a self-actualizing biography about a know-it-all pastor, theologian, and seminarian who is depressed, needs more money and seeks a calling (p47, although I’m unsure if this is not just a Methodist term that I am unfamiliar with) but meets the gifts that he needs to grow in a small congregation (although admittedly, his numbers were not what I would call small). He is convinced of his own knowledge, and yet, he meets people that would forget him the moment he opened his mouth to express such knowledge. They wanted the Christ of faith more than the historical Jesus (or Moses and such). Or, his lack of understanding about the Southerner and his gun. His left-leaning, liberal ways were challenged because he left the ivory tower where he studied the people and began to serve them. He met the crises that he had read about and didn’t do it as well as books might have suggested. The gift of the small church to him – and thus to us – is that it informed him more of ministry than any seminary could have. Yes, he is a Phd and well accomplished. Yet, this rarely helped him out. He had to rely on people, on traditions, on other things.
The small church, especially in the United Methodist Church it seems, is not going away anytime soon. It is in these small churches where we find the difficulty of strange theologies, more conservative ideologies, and heterodoxies which prohibit a more ecumenical Body of Christ as well as serves to disrupt soundness of theological advancement. Granted, it might have served to distract from his overall purpose, but several times, he comments about the difference between seminary education and the education received at the small church. I have to wonder if he might have developed this line of reasoning more succinctly in such a way as to call attention first to the fact that it is seminary students usually thrown into these small churches and that very little, theologically, happens because these students are just getting their feet wet, so to speak. Frankly, it bothers me some of the –isms which Byassee wrote about (notably, racism (which, frankly, he didn’t present a good case for) and conservatism, which he seemingly chalked up to simply being in the South) was really never even attempted to be corrected. A pastor, at least as I understand pastors, are not merely program directors or family counselors, but theological leaders who must move even the most theologically backward congregations forward.
This is an excellent book for any mid-sized to small church in any part of the country, really. There are regional prejudices, more than just what is expected in the South, as well as differing ideologies, more so than just the conservatives. In reading Byassee, I found that he conservatively clung to his theological and ideological liberalism. At least in some portions of it, he found that it simply didn’t work – or worked opposite than what idealism would intend. There is something to be said about these small churches, and Byassee says it well. He shows that there is a life there not commonly understood by those who are in the larger congregations. There is a theological life, a communal life, and very much a Eucharistic sharing of the body of Christ (which Byassee pointedly shows as he writes about the deaths which encapsulates first his wife’s pastorate and then his) in these small churches which is lost, many times, in larger congregations where only small groups such as Sunday School classes really know if you are missing for a time. His auto-biographical journey is not really, or merely, about himself, but about the people who live daily, known only to each other and to God (and sometimes, it feels like it is in that order), in these small churches.
- What that study really said about religion, happiness, and belonging (insightscoop.typepad.com)
- Faith in Memphis: Clergy seeking common ground (commercialappeal.com)
- Guest Column: Respect church’s history of spiritual work (commercialappeal.com)