We are shaped by a river of small churches

The abandoned locks of the Middle Brazos River weren’t always so forlorn. Once proud engineering feats standing as the economic hope of a region, today they are reduced to lonely piles of masonry and metal crumbling back into the earth. Some, like the site near Hearne, spend their afterlife silently watching the river. One near Waco has been afforded no such dignity. Instead the Brazos changed its course until Lock and Dam No. 8 was exiled to a pasture south of town, forgotten by both the river and those who tried bending it to their will.

The Brazos River in Central Texas

Central Texans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a complicated relationship with the Brazos. They depended on it for natural resources but cursed its floods and lack of reliable navigation, while lashing out at the prehistoric alligator gar patrolling its waters.

This portion of the river is plagued by shoals and inconsistent water levels. At times, a packed canoe could struggle to find enough water for passage, let alone the mighty steamboats laden with cotton seen elsewhere.

That didn’t stop decades of river surveying and snag clearing by those who believed the longest river fully within Texas’ borders could rival the industrial rivers of the East and compete with new railways spidering across the country. These aspirations crested with the implementation of locks designed to flood hazards until boats could safely pass.

The Brazos, for its part, was utterly uncooperative in this grand design, alternating between granting too little water for the locks to function and blasting them out of the way with historic deluges.

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When the first World War called upon the nation’s engineering forces, the plan to build Waco into a great port city was carried away by Rio de los Brazos de Dios, the Arms of God.

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Small churches in Central Texas

I’ve spent the last decade in Waco as a student, educator and preacher, catching a glimpse of that cantankerous river almost every day. During my residency along the Brazos, I’ve been around small churches far more than I ever expected, both pastoring a small church for a few years and filling empty pulpits across Central Texas.

Sometimes a pastor simply is out for the day. Other times, a church has been unable to retain a shepherd for months or years. They hope someone can pass through with a word from the Lord one Sunday at a time.

These little churches scatter across ideological and cultural spectrums. They can be wasting away from spiritual illness or bursting with a vitality for which larger churches cry out in their cavernous sanctuaries. Yet they all have something in common. Each small church is attended exclusively by people whom God loves.

Misunderstanding small churches

I must confess: I’m not sure some of us have done our best job loving these churches and their people, and I number among the errant. I’ve come to realize smaller churches are like the Brazos River.

Those of us accustomed to medium and large churches are prone to rush in with glorious visions of contorting a church into something it is not, forcing it to flow our way until the whole thing collapses around us. If you know how to see the damage, finding churches where that has happened is easier than finding the ruined Brazos locks.

When our plans fail, we like to run to other ventures, leaving our ruined machinations high and dry. Those who pass by later judge the churches and the river based on the forlorn piles of our aspirations.

We miscalculate and dismiss these churches as something lesser than, or we simply don’t bother to darken their doors. We deem them muddy rivulets where we toss young ministers to see if they’ll get big enough for our needs.

Real rivers, we think, support mighty ships, flow reliably and teem with noble gamefish. Likewise, we think real churches have a multipurpose recreation space, a bustling calendar and the kind of “who’s who members” who look good in brochures.

According to these standards, the Brazos is a failure of a river, and over half of America’s churches don’t count in the kingdom. Yet, God made no mistakes when etching the Brazos, and the Spirit doesn’t need surround sound to show up.

It’s bittersweet to leave Texas and return to my native side of the Mississippi, but I’m not leaving without a great reservoir of memories and a lasting lesson in God’s sense of importance.

I hope we can silence our assumptions and let these churches keep teaching us wherever we are.

The Brazos River and God’s grace will keep flowing as designed; God is honored when we cherish both.

Geoff Davidson, an alumnus of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, is a minister and writer leaving Waco to minister in the Jackson, Miss., area.

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