JOLIET – The Rev. Micah Snodgrass has a bone to pick with the Chicago Tribune.
The newspaper ran, and The Billings Gazette reprinted, a travel story that featured points of interest in Georgia. Among them is, as the Tribune calls it, “the (supposedly) Smallest Church in America.”
According to the Tribune, the church “hosts just one service a month but is always open.” It is only 10 by 15 feet.
Snodgrass felt compelled to send a letter to Josh Noel, author of the piece, to inform him of the inaccuracy in his article.
“I am writing to claim that I have, what my wife calls, the dubious honor of pastoring the real smallest church in America. I am enclosing pictures.”
Snodgrass serves as senior pastor of Lighthouse Bible Church in Joliet in a building that is 8 feet by 12 feet. The church has a membership of 10 and an average attendance of five.
Affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the church holds a worship service every Sunday at 11 a.m. and a prayer service on Tuesday nights. It even boasts two pastors: Snodgrass, who is presently on sabbatical, leads the Tuesday group, and David Jiles, pastor of the Roberts Family Bible Church in Roberts, preaches on Sundays.
The blue-and-white structure sits behind the Snodgrass house, and if it looks about the size of a shed, that’s no coincidence.
When Snodgrass, his wife, Harriet, and their children moved into the house 15 years ago, the small structure behind it was used as a shed. Snodgrass remodeled it into a guest cottage, and then a few years later converted it to a church.
A peek inside reveals a small rectangular room painted white with a single bulb in the center of the ceiling. A podium stands at the front of the room, next to a keyboard upon which a Baptist hymnal is perched.
The songbook is opened to “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.” That’s not hard to do when the brown wooden cross on the front wall is only 12 feet from the back wall.
In between, eight folding chairs decorated with floral cushions are neatly arranged.
“We could probably squeeze another three or four more if we had to,” Snodgrass said, standing at the podium.
Flannel banners decorate the walls with words like “joy” and “peace.” There’s a framed print of Jesus surrounded by children, and one next to it with the well-known New Testament verse John 3:16.
Snodgrass has been in the ministry for 40 years. He’s always been bi-vocational, splitting his time between jobs and ministry.
He and his family moved to Montana in 1995 so he could teach at Yellowstone Baptist College in Billings and start a ministry in Joliet. Previously he was pastor of a church in Brodhead, Wis., where he completed his doctoral studies in pastoral ministries.
He taught at the Billings college for several years, on subjects including the Bible, communications, and health and fitness. He also served as the cross-country coach for a couple of years.
Harriet still teaches math and science at the college. She also manages the school’s bookstore.
Trying to start a ministry outreach in Joliet, however, went in fits and starts. In 1997, Snodgrass rented a storefront in town where he held services and opened a youth center. Five nights a week kids would come by after school to play basketball and foosball and just hang out.
A budding congregation of about three dozen people came to church on weekends. There were new converts, and the church was recognized by the Southern Baptist Convention.
“We were getting ready to buy some land and we had a house donated in Boyd we were going to move for a church,” he said.
But an affair between two members of the church tore the fledgling congregation apart, and things just sort of fizzled out.
That didn’t stop Snodgrass, though. He and his two sons, Joshua and Caleb, started a musical group, the Smoothgrass Boys, using some traditional musical instruments and many unique ones created by Snodgrass. They played together and shared the Gospel with audiences for 18 months locally and outside the area, until the two boys went on to new endeavors.
The band later included students from Yellowstone Baptist College, and that went on for another 3½ years.
Snodgrass did some work as a supply pastor, where he would fill in for other ministers when the need arose.
Then five years ago, his father-in-law died and his mother-in-law moved to Joliet. Snodgrass suggested she attend one of the churches in Joliet, but she rejected the idea.
“She said ‘I want to go to your church,'” Snodgrass said.
So he turned the guest cottage into a church where he, his wife and her mother met for Sunday services.
“The first year, once in a while, somebody’d hear about it or see the sign in the front yard and come in,” Snodgrass said. “We were inviting a lot of people, but it just didn’t happen.”
He looked for a bigger space in town, to draw more people, and eventually settled on the unused former post office. Lighthouse Bible Church started meeting there in October 2007.
Eventually he opened up a thrift shop in Joliet, and then he moved it to the same building where he was holding services. It was a way to do outreach to people who came to buy used items, and he could invite them to come back for church.
But the thrift shop lost money, and he didn’t have many people coming to church. So he shut down the store and reopened his small backyard chapel.
Snodgrass still looks for opportunities to do outreach when he’s out and about. He and Harriet attended the Red Lodge Mountain Man Rendezvous in costume this summer, and that led to an opportunity to preach at an old-timey service.
He still occasionally has people ask about coming to his church. But they hesitate when he tells them there’s no Sunday school or nursery care.
“I say you can get involved and we’ll get a bigger church,” he said.
For now, Snodgrass will continue to lead his small flock in what’s perhaps the smallest church in America. In his letter to Noel, he told the writer he’d be interested to know if a smaller church actually exists.
“There might be a church or fellowship that would claim a smaller membership, but I want to see a smaller building,” Snodgrass wrote. “It would have to be a doghouse.”
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