I suppose I ought to post a flagrantly uplifting piece once in a while, just so y'all know I'm not opposed to such a thing. Consulting the April Ensign (I do subscribe), I stumbled on a story by Elder Charles Didier, "The Church: A Community of Saints." He contrasts his family's experience, in the 1950s, in a large Christian congregation with many worshippers ("[W]e didn't say a word to each other during the services, and the priest did everything. My church involvement was less than an hour only once each week.") with what his family found when, as visitors, they first attended their local Mormon congregation:
The meetings were held in a rented house, where the dining room had been transformed into a meeting hall. Before the meeting, the adults chatted amiably and seemed to enjoy being together. The attendance at our first meeting was only 12 to 15, including the five members of our family!
Does that experience sound familiar? I think most of us have been part of a small or very small congregation a time or two, whether as regular participants or just as visitors on vacation or during job travel. While services I have attended in various suburban LDS congregations sort of blur together in an unremarkable trail of spotty memories, I think some of my most memorable Sundays have been attending church in the overseas equivalents of Smallville branches, something like the branch described by Elder Didier.
Once while overweekending in the islands during a two-week job assignment, I took a taxi over to the local LDS branch on Sunday. Nice little LDS building with outdoor basketball courts that attracted youth from all over town on weekday evenings. At the Sunday meeting, a young lady who spoke got about three minutes into her talk, then flat out fainted and collapsed right there at the stand. That was it for about twenty minutes while people fussed over her. Just dehydration I think. Then they split up for quorums. The men and boys all met together as one group for the lesson. The leader of the meeting asked me to give the lesson. Huh? Quick tip on island life: The definition of an expert is anyone from off-island. So I played the hand I was dealt and gave a nice impromptu lesson, told them what a beautiful place it was to visit, called up smiling deacons in white shirts as props to illustrate the usual gospel points, etc. They loved it. In the islands, church just sort of happens.
In Sweden, the branch met in a small chapel with gorgeous natural pine woodwork adorning the chapel. I couldn't understand a word of the service -- it was wonderful. The hymns mean more when attending a foreign language congregation, being the only part of the service you can really connect with. Knowing the tune and the parts, you can even sing along in a completely unknown language as long as the lyrics are phonetic enough. And when Sacrament Meeting is over in that branch, no one gets up. They all just sit there, then begin chatting a bit, then one or two people get up, and about ten minutes later someone finally wheels in a chalkboard and maybe a lesson commences. Nothing at all like the impatient scurrying around that follows in the wake of "Amen" in your friendly local US ward.
So for all the small branches in distant places that sometimes struggle to hold things together month to month or even one meeting to the next, we salute you. And when we are in town, we'll come to church on Sunday and share a thought or a hymn or a talk or a lesson.