Last week I met a pastor named Mike who gave me permission to share this story. We were in a small group at a preaching conference and he began to tell us about his two churches. (Yes, he pastors two churches at once. He rotates between them and apparently this is not as rare as I had previously thought. Please pray for Mike…) Mike and I shared a meal later that day and he began to unfold for me the incredible differences between the two.
Mike happens to live right between the two churches, which is the height of convenience and a gift from God. One church is 35 miles in one direction and the other is 35 miles in the opposite direction.
I will call them East and West as we proceed, but please know Mike didn’t share any identifying information at all. These labels are completely arbitrary and used solely to distinguish between the two.
If you drive East from Mike’s house, you’ll come to a bigger town and a bigger church. It’s a tall building, made even more so by the stark white, sharp steeple topped by a small white cross. The steeple can be seen from almost anywhere in town and the church is fairly well known.
If you drive West, you’ll find a very small town. In fact, town might be too generous of a word, but anything else just doesn’t seem to be as friendly. Situated in this small town is a squat brick building with an old blah-brown roof. There is no steeple, just a busted chimney. An old and barely used town rec center stands behind it, a story and a half taller, so that the church spends a lot of time in its old and barely used shadow. You can actually only see the church building from two directions, from directly across the street and from the overgrown fenced-in field next door. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d probably miss it save for the matching short, squat blah-brown sign that’s missing a few letters.
If you walked into the East church on a Sunday morning, you’d see the very definition of Sunday Best. Most of the men wear three-piece suits and the women are in their Sunday dresses. Even the kids wear shined shoes and have the top button buttoned behind little ties that match little vests. The fresh V-shaped lines are still visible in the clean red carpets from being thoroughly vacuumed the night before. The ends and backs of the pews shine and the sunlight comes in clean through the stained glass windows.
If you walked into the West church, you’d find things a bit different. You’d see old wool ties, poorly tied and mismatched over flannel shirts. During the busiest seasons, many of the farmers go from tractor to truck and don’t even bother to shave. You’d see dresses, crisp and clean, but they’d never be mistaken as new. The kids have patches on their knees and scuffs on their shoes. You might see a matching tie and vest, but they would be split between two brothers. Many of the boys’ hand-me-down shirts have been to that little church more often than the boys who are wearing them and in a few cases, I’m sure the parents hope the blessings and lessons would carry over as well as the clothes did. There is no stained glass in the West church but you can see the light drifting in through the windows and with it the dust drifting down from the rafters.
The East church begins each Sunday’s service with the rich organ intoning an ancient hymn and the floors shake with the sound.
The West church has two piano players that alternate. One of them is deaf.
The East church follows their printed program on a tight schedule, always falling faithfully between the chimes of eleven-o’clock and twelve-o’clock.
The West church has a small chalkboard hanging on the wall near the podium. Scrawled on it for the last 9 years are “387” and Isaiah 71. The chalk seems to have disappeared sometime in 2008.
Every few years, the East church buys a couple of pallets of brand-new KJV Bibles and puts them in every pew, between two copies of the newest hymnal. They are rarely used because each member of the congregation each has their own matching copy.
Almost twenty years ago, the local motel closed its doors and gave the West church a few dozen copies of the Gideon Bible. They are in cardboard boxes along the back wall along with a dozen or two other Bibles. They have all been donated by members or periodically found after church, perhaps left in ignorance, generosity or both. If you dig down deep enough you can find just about any translation and they’re in those boxes because the built-in shelves on the pews can no longer hold them. Stacked near the boxes are approximately 20 hymnals, a mix of the last three editions covering nearly four decades.
The East church is painted white, inside and out. The lines are clean and the walls smooth. Those red carpets were professionally installed and are deep-cleaned twice annually, right before Advent and again before Lent. The kitchen in the basement has professional appliances and the fellowship hall holds and feeds all 200 church members easily and often.
The West church is blah-brown outside and the wood paneling inside isn’t much better. The corners are awkward and the seams show. Where the walls are painted, blistering and peeling paint betrays the location of hot water pipes behind them. The entryway sports original green, or perhaps blue, carpet that has grown thin and threadbare over time and under traffic. The sanctuary floor is a scuffed and cracked laminate tile imitation. Around the edges you’ll find the ancient initials of once-unruly teenagers. If you’re lucky, the church treasurer will show you were he inscribed his own many years ago.
When the town to the East needed money, the East church held a fundraiser dinner and wrote the check. When the local high school football team needed a bit extra to go to the state championship, the East church hosted several events and wrote the check. When the library asked for a donation, the East church wrote the check. It was always enough.
When the town to the West needed money, the West church didn’t write a check. They couldn’t. In fact, the boiler went one year in the basement and it was the town that bailed out the church. The mayor found the funds and a local plumber worked with the pastor and installed it late one cold Friday night. The offerings come in, but they barely cover the bills.
When the town to the East wanted to talk about the rough areas of town that needed some help and good influence, the church to the East wriggled a bit. One elder referred to the new wing of the library with a chuckle. The town representative had come for help but he walked away with a check. Twelve years later, that rough area of town still hasn’t changed.
When the town to the West got hit by a tornado, a phone call was made. The following morning, all 23 men of the church in the West showed up with tools and lumber in the neighborhood that was hit the hardest. The church in the West couldn’t write a check, but the ladies cooked up every casserole they could think of and brought them out for the families that needed them. They even opened up the church and unbolted the pews from the floor so three local families would have a place to sleep until something else opened up for them. The men and the town rebuilt 6 houses that year.
Mike told me story after story about these two churches. They both had the same senior pastor and he preached the same sermons in both places. I was surprised to learn that both churches were supposed to provide him the same stipend. We continued to talk and he got quiet. After a long silence, he shared with me that he tithed his entire stipend check from the West church back to the West church. A tear slipped quickly down his cheek then and he caught it just as quickly, but not before I realized just how much that blah-brown, squat and run-down, thin-and-threadbare-in-every-way church meant to him.
Our conversation ended and we finished eating in a rugged and sacred silence. As we rose to leave, I reached out to shake his hand and he gave me the biggest hug. He said “thank you” and I said, “No, thank you!” I promised to pray for his two churches and he walked away.
There are many lessons in this real-life parable of the two churches. But for now, I’m going to continue to sit in the story and I’m going to continue to pray for Mike and his two ministries. Scratch that… the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s just one ministry in two very different places.