A Visit to a Small Church in Rural Central Illinois

When most Christians in America think about the church they rarely consider local churches of less than 100 people, especially small churches situated in small towns all across the United States. In fact, in most small towns a local church is quite large if it has more than 40 people on a Sunday. There are so many big churches in America that it is easy to forget about these small churches in small towns. We often concentrate only on churches in terms of the urban and suburban context, where the churches exist that get the primary attention in our American culture.

As I drove home today from Waverly, Illinois, where I preached at First Baptist Church (ABC) this morning, I reflected on the values and make-up of healthy churches in small towns. Waverly is a town of less than 1,700 people about twenty-five miles south of Springfield, the state capitol. The town goes back to the 1830s and the original settlers included New England Congregationalists who moved there to begin a church and seminary. (The seminary never made it. The town remained small.) The region is flat, Midwestern, farm land where the rich black dirt is now being prepared for sowing and planting. Most of the people of Waverly no longer farm but commute to work in Springfield and to a college town, Jacksonville, located just west of Waverly. The town has a grassy green center surrounded by small shops and homes. The church has been there, on the town square, since before the Civil War, thus back to the time when Lincoln lived in nearby Sangamon County.

I was in Waverly last night and today to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the ordination of the pastor, Rev. Brian Hodge. I helped to ordain Brian when he served as an assistant pastor in a UCC church here in the Chicago suburbs a decade ago. The congregation in Waverly gave warm and open tribute to their pastor for his faithful ministry of seven and a half years there. The people were genuine in their enthusiasm for their pastor and his wife Cheryl, something all too rare in larger churches in the cities and suburbs. They spoke of his love for them as demonstrated through regular visitation, care for their families in crisis and death, and his excellent teaching and preaching ministry. One young woman spoke of having three children as an unwed mother and of how Brian and Cheryl accepted her and then of how the church welcomed her without causing her to feel rejected. She spoke of putting her life back together with the help of God’s people! Several others gave clear witness to the grace of God in reaching them as lost souls because Brian had touched their lives. The whole event was a very happy time for me.

Brian Hodge is exercising a genuine pastoral ministry, something all too uncommon these days. His people respect him and thus treasure his work very deeply. This church is enjoying unity and peace. Yes, there have been bumps in the road but every church and pastor has a few. The key, to my mind, lies in both the pastor and the people. The pastor loves Christ and his church deeply and is genuinely fulfilled in being there without any apparent need to go somewhere bigger or more important. And the people are pleased to be fed and thus value the ministry that Brian gives them. They do not appear to be a critical church that continually compares Brian to the "big name" preachers from afar.

I was reminded again today that our Lord came from a small town and ministered, most often, in small places. His own family questioned him but the weak and the poor listened gladly as he went from place to place. There is something about an excellent ministry in a small town that is very appealing in this day of mega-churches and super star speakers. Driving 450 miles to see it again for myself was well worth my trip to Waverly. 

By the way, First Baptist Church has grown from a church of about 65 on Sunday morning to a church of about 95. This is not a huge number but it is an increase of nearly 50%. It clearly reflects a successful and extremely fruitful ministry. The church has developed a reputation in the town as a "go-to-place" for love and real help. You can’t fool small town folks easily with smoke and mirrors. They see through a sham a mile away. I could see why this church is growing and believe that it will continue to have a fruitful ministry as the pastor and people trust God and serve him in the unity of his Holy Spirit in the years to come.

Next time you think about the church in America don’t forget the thousands and thousands of towns like Waverly and the churches like First Baptist. There are wonderful Christian people to be found everywhere and excellent churches doing faithful work in many places you will never know about. There are also some of the best pastors I know, like Brian Hodge, serving in these small towns. God bless them all. We do do for more genuine ministry and less glitz and glitter.

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