A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my home church in Northern Ireland. I had not been able to visit there for several years, and wanted to take the opportunity to stop by for worship while I was home on holiday.
Ballynahinch Methodist Church is a little church situated in my home town of Ballynahinch in Co. Down. I have no idea of the actual weekly worship attendance numbers, but if I was to guess, they would be anywhere between 65 and 90. When I was a child, I imagine the numbers were maybe slightly higher than this, but not much higher. For me, this place was always homely – warm and inviting, as well as deeply familiar. It also happens to be the place that took a chance on me in ministry. I had my first grown up job at Ballynahinch Methodist when they employed me part time as their youth leader in 1998/99. For the forty years of my life I have been coming and going here. I have seen the same faces and been welcomed in the same warm way here for my entire life. It really is a part of what I define as “home” in my life.
My visit two weeks ago affirmed all of the above. I walked into the building and was greeted by familiar faces again and again all the way until we got to our seat in one of the old pews. I looked up at the beautiful stained-glass windows that have been there for as long as I can remember, and breathing in their beauty, I quietly gave thanks for this little homecoming.
The Sunday we chose to attend was a special service – Children’s Sunday. I can remember these kinds of services when I was a boy. The Sunday School children would bring various pieces of drama and song throughout the duration of the service, a speaker other than the minister would bring a word, and at the end we would have the best part for any Sunday School attending child of that generation – the presentation of Sunday School prizes. The 21st century version of the Children’s service that day was quite similar except that the service was modeled as a communication of what happens in their Children’s Ministry every Sunday. They sang familiar children’s hymns and choruses, they shared in a time of prayer together, and they utterly stressed out their teachers and volunteer leaders who struggled to keep them from wandering anywhere and everywhere in that beautiful sanctuary.
The theme for the year in Kids Zone (as it’s called) was the Fruit of the Spirit (as found in Galatians 5). The front of the church had been decorated with a couple of reminders of the theme, including a church notice board that had the nine fruits of the spirit pinned to it – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The service went as smoothly as a children’s ministry service could have done. It was good to be home.
I was deeply encouraged in many ways as the morning progressed. Firstly, there was such a good number of children in the group. My home church has never been huge by any stretch of the imagination, and in an age in which many churches of similar size have no children at all in weekly worship, it was just so very good to see that Ballynahinch Methodist Church continues to have children running around it and experiencing it as their spiritual home. Secondly, as I scanned the area where the children were sitting for the duration of the service, I saw a lady who had been my own Sunday School teacher back in the days when I would have been sitting in those very same seats for that very same service. It’s over thirty years since she was my own Sunday School teacher. As I saw her sitting there I was staggered by the longevity of her faithful service to children in that little local church. Thirdly, as I engaged in the worship service and all that was going on in it, I began to notice all the leaders and volunteers who were working with the children and leading in other parts of the service. I knew and recognized almost every one of them as people who had come through my own children’s ministry years at the same time. I looked around the church congregation and saw the proud parents of the children who were at the front. Many of them were my peers growing up too. And then I noticed the parents of my peers, still there after all these years, showing up to worship week in and week out, and beaming a little with pride as they watched their grandchildren lead a congregation in worship.
I could not help but be blessed by the faithfulness of the whole picture that was before me. The faithfulness of a woman who is willing to serve in the local church week in and week out for the forty years of my life time and more. The faithful witness of a church family that creates a sense of home for its children like me, in which they can grow up in the faith, spread their wings and fly in the faith, hold on to the faith in their own lives in the face of life’s trials and difficulties, and then bring their own children so that they may experience something similar.
Ballynahinch Methodist Church is a church that embodies Christian community and witness quietly and faithfully in the place it has been planted. During my recent visit, I was deeply touched as I reflected on the faithful ministry of this church into my life and the lives of others over the years. I was also deeply challenged. In ministry I often find myself giving into the temptation of being overly obsessed with the idea that numerical growth is the primary indicator of health in the local church. While the numbers do indeed always tell part of the story of church health, there are also so many other indicators of health in the local church that are often difficult to quantify. How can I put any kind of number on the value of the faithful witness and ministry of this little local church in Ballynahinch, Northern Ireland, in my own life and in the lives of my peers? How can the relationships in that place, that span decades and generations, ever be given a quantifiable and fully measurable value? The answer is that they simply can’t. They are invaluable. Priceless. And their influence in the life of someone like me just can’t be underestimated.
In the church I now serve, I will continue to keep track of our numbers and report them each week so that minds greater than mine can count them and tell the story that they represent. I will continue to recognize the value of those numbers too. But I will also be looking out for the indicators of local church health and vitality that can’t be quantified – faithfulness in ministry over the long term, relationships and fellowship that span generations, the movement and noise of children in a local church. I will be encouraged by them. And I will give thanks to God, whose heart is blessed by the love and faithfulness of local churches like that found in Ballynahinch Methodist Church in Northern Ireland.
“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23)