Back when I was a member of a local church and not a pastor, I can recall the preacher standing before the congregation on a Sunday morning. We worshipped in the cafeteria of a school then. The church had been a church plant that started two years before my family stumbled through the doors. There in the cafeteria, sitting on old plastic chairs, 30-40 of us gathered to hear a message and worship God. When the preacher began to speak, the microphone squeaked. He smiled and said, “give us just a moment and we will tweak this.”
Being a church plant, the congregation didn’t have a lot of money, human resources, or staff. In fact, the church had a pastor, the pastors family, and volunteers. Behind the chairs was a small table with tech and sound equipment. There were two volunteers perched in the back doing the best they could to work equipment they were never trained for. The pastor was patient and kind, trusting in his volunteers and relying on his team.
Across from the cafeteria in a small classroom, were the pastors wife and the pastors mother. These two women served as the nursery. Behind the pastor were three volunteer musicians who served as the worship band. The pastor printed the bulletins from his home printer. There was not a newsletter, or a website, or social media. There was a vinyl banner outside of the school that gave the name of the congregation and their worship time. There wasn’t a children’s moment, a youth program, a VBS, a fellowship hall, a choir room, a mission team, or a piano.
At first, growing up in large churches, I resisted attending here. What kind of church meets in a school cafeteria anyway? Where’s the steeple and the stained glass? I had so much to learn. What seemed odd and non-traditional, has become one of my most cherished church experiences. It wasn’t the preacher or the programs or the staff that made it special to me. It was the people. Period.
There in that unpolished cafeteria with squeaky mics and volunteer leaders, we worshipped. I mean really worshipped. The stripped down, no pretense, selfless worship. We weren’t worshipping a building, a person, an ideology. We were taking our broken humanity and throwing it at the foot of the cross and coming authentically as we were. It was raw, real, and refreshing. The people who showed up every Sunday were there because they wanted to be. They weren’t drug there, pressured, or enticed by social mores. They served and volunteered and gave selflessly of their time because they loved God first. They were worshipping in a cafeteria! No one was going to be talking about the beauty of their sanctuary, the size of their building, the wealth of their ministry’s. For this congregation to fellowship together, they had to intentionally gather at a park as they had no fellowship hall. These people woke up early to worship because they wanted to be with each other and come before God. It was the most powerful witness of a congregation that I can recall.
Without the laity, there would not have been a worship service. Without the pastors family, there would not have been a nursery. Without inexperienced but willing volunteers, there would not have been music or sound or screens. The pastor could prepare the best homily or sermon ever written, but without the laity, it was the best sermon never heard. The pastor could vision for the future of this church, for the children and families and individuals that would one day join the movement, but without the ones who signed on before the glamour, none of it would have ever happened.
Without the laity, who puts the food in the oven to keep it warm on a potluck Sunday? Without the laity, who goes to the streets to bring warmth and love to those in need? Without the laity, who visits all the sick and shut in of the congregation? Without the laity, who teaches every Sunday school class or small group? Without the laity, who makes up the prayer group? Without the laity, who knits the prayer shawls? What is the church without the laity?
As a child, my children’s choir director taught us the song that went with special hand motions. Maybe you know it. “Here is the church, here is the steeple, look inside, here are all the people.” The truth is, the church is all the people. Who we are as a church is as strong as the people. The pastor and ministry staff will never be able to single handedly achieve the mission of the church. The mission was given from God to the people. Look inside, look outside, the church is the people. The challenge we face is when the people no longer commit to the mission; when we come to be served rather than to serve.
I reluctantly chose the church in the school cafeteria and that congregation, that body of believers and doers, chose graciously and unanimously to support me in my call to ministry. As a pastor, my heart remains with the laity. It is you, church, who make the mission of God a reality. It is you, who choose to selflessly serve God because you believe in the mission of God to change the lives of others. It is you, who feeds the homeless and hungry on Monday nights. It is you, who must teach and lead and nurture our children.
Ministry staff, Methodist clergy, we come and go. We are itinerant by nature and calling. But you, the laity, the people that are the church, you are what will move this congregation in the direction you wish to see it go. That little church in a cafeteria is about to celebrate its 20th birthday. It has hundreds of members now, lot’s of property, and an abundant staff. But they started with a cafeteria of people who shared a passion for a mission.
People of the Church, God is far from done with you. In fact, God continues to do marvelous and life changing work through you. You are strong and capable of carrying out God’s mission because God put the heart for the mission in your soul. You are the church! Be the church. Reach the community. Grow in your faith and love of God. Believe you can and that together, we can do great things for the kingdom.
A squeaky microphone doesn’t define a congregation. The way the congregation responds to the call of God defines the congregation. Never underestimate what God can do with a small group of deeply committed believers. Follow the call.