Having recently purchased a house, we decided to try a church that was less than a mile from our new digs. Church is about far more than just a short convenient drive. I get that.  But its close proximity, well known denominational name, and size of its building seemed like a possible win-win for us. Maybe it might even cut down the chances of us walking in a few minutes late which it seems on Sundays had become our norm.
I was totally wrong on the not getting there late part.  It was 3 minutes past 9 a.m. when we rolled into the parking lot. Odd though that there were only 3 cars in the parking lot after the service was supposed to have started. We had done a drive by the night before to read the service time on the sign.  I cannot be trusted to read much of anything past 15-20 feet so Doug read out loud, "9:00 a.m."   Case closed.  End of story.  We would be there at 9:00 ish.  And here it was 9:03.  It appeared we were not only late, but our presence now made up one-quarter of the congregation.  I started to squirm inwardly.
Something inside me wanted to turn the car around and leave. Call it a hunch, an intuition, but no one wants to be late for a church service where there are only 3 other cars in the parking lot.  I felt like guppy food in a guppy tank!  We though had made a commitment to church that morning, and come hell or high water we were going.  There was no turning back now.
As we walked through the door we were greeted by a lady in her late 50's, the Pastor's wife.  She was sweet, gracious and explained that worship didn't start till 10, but there was prayer in the pastor's office at 9 and coffee.  She, either in nervousness or pride, wanted to show us the building.  And by the building I mean every square inch, including closets.  It was an older pole building that showed signs of lack of funds, the need for some sprucing up and an empty without enough people in it feel.
She seemed proud of the facilities but felt the need to blurt out, "We had a mass exodus recently where about 100 of our 200 people left.  Those things happen and have happened before in the 25 years since my husband and I started this church." [As she spoke my heart took a ride down memory lane of 25 years in the church pastorate myself.  I knew the hard road church ministry could be at times - how disappointing and exhausting it was.]  I sensed a bit of tiredness in her. "I understand exactly what you are saying.  I was a pastor's wife for 25 years. How are you doing after that type of situation?" She let down a bit more, "I am tired but know God will bring more people."  As she shared and chatted I found myself drifting off a bit. I wondered how, after 25 years of this church, she found herself still in the game, still believing and hoping that this little church would grow. I asked God to give her what she needed to be encouraged. 
She took us to meet Harry, her husband.  He shared the church's struggle and his philosophy, "I do what I can with who I can.  I try to meet a need when there is one.  I minister to those that have a hurt.  That's what I can do."  I thought about what Harry said.  Pastoring small churches could be brutal.  There were usually lots of not so healthy people  [which is what church really is for!] and only a few healthy folk who bore the brunt of the work load of the church. That seemed like a similar pattern at this church too. Partly Harry had to adopt that philosophy or he would probably lose his mind, grow too discouraged and quit.  I saw that no one had shown up to pray with him at 9:00 a.m.  No one.

Pastor Harry and his wife ushered us into the fellowship hall to a table of four retired couples who sat drinking coffee and eating breakfast. They were nice people who we passed the next half hour with until 10 a.m. rolled around and the worship service started.  As we exited the fellowship hall Harry asked, "Do you want more coffee?  You can always get another cup when we stop for a break half-way through the service."  I sure hope my face didn't give me away right then.  I felt panic well up.  [If there is an intermission, a break, that means this is a LONG LONG service!   We are in trouble!  Get me out of here!] I took a side-ways look at Doug, he appeared to have that same trying-to-cover-up-what-you're-really- thinking look on his face. 
We both thanked Harry for the coffee offer and went to the sanctuary for worship.  It was there that our intuitions were confirmed.  There were not 100 people there.  There were not 80 people there.  Nope.  Not even 50 people filled the sanctuary.  Counting Doug and I there were approximately 35 people.  
I felt like shark bait in an ocean of hungry sharks.  Every eye peered at us constantly.  They were checking out the new couple like they had never seen an outsider before.  I briefly thought I heard the music to the movie "Deliverance" playing softly.  Their looks went on through the entire service.  When I caught them staring I tried to casually smile back but it didn't seem to avert their gazes at all.  At four different times in the middle of service someone got up to bring us something; a bulletin, a pen, a worship cd, their first born:)

We stood and sang for 50 minutes solid as the small band led us through repeats of 5 songs.  If you do the math on minutes per song we were at about 10 minutes per song.  At the 30 minute mark I couldn't feel my right hip from standing in the same spot for so long.  I also couldn't sing one more repeat of a song.  Though I had long since checked out [actually that occurred as we walked through the doors at 9:03 realizing church didn't start for another hour], I was now starting down a slippery slope of disgust, diving fully into my never ending irrelevance dialogue issue and quickly succumbing to boredom.  I claimed a higher power - God Himself -
but I was sinking!

After 50 minutes of the poorly done repeated 5 song repertoire, Pastor Harry stopped the service for a 5 minute refreshment/bathroom break.  I began to search for a paper bag to breathe in to.  [Intermission in church!  Oh this was not good.]  Intermission comes at the half-way mark.  We were only half-way done!  I wanted to run again but there was no way to exit with 35 people staring.

Pastor Harry reconvened the service with the words, "I am only going to preach 30 minutes."  Something deep inside of me knew those would be unmet words.  One hour later, as we bowed our heads for the closing prayer, I felt angry, a bit confused, sorrowful, disillusioned again with organized modern day church and ready to make a bee-line for the door. 

To be a bit ornery, I put Doug's cell phone number and email address on the visitor card as punishment for mis-reading what time the church service actually started.    

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