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'Retired teacher with grandchild / Insegnante in pensione con nipotina' photo (c) 2013, Matteo Bagnoli - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/One of my missions is to challenge the assumption that small congregations have little or nothing to offer children.  Here are some more thoughts about how a healthy, loving small church can be a great blessing to families with children. There are good reasons for choosing a small church for your children’s sake. If you become involved with this kind of congregation,

•    Your children will have a nurturing extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who will truly be interested in them, encourage them, attend their sports events and performances, and celebrate their milestones. My daughter describes the senior generation at our church as her “grandfriends.”
•    Your children will learn how to follow Jesus from observing adult disciples of Jesus, knowing them well, and serving actively alongside them. For the rest of their lives, your children will remember these role models in faith.
•    Your children’s concerns will be taken very seriously. The pastor has time to spend with your children and can get to know each child personally.
•    Your children’s talents will be welcomed and appreciated. What better place, for example, for a young musician to make his or her debut than in the midst of the gracious circle of a small church?
•    Through ongoing relationships, your children and older adults will enrich one another’s lives and learn how to love and care faithfully for one another over the long haul of life.

I sometimes hear people say that they want their children to go to church with a large group of children. While it may be more exciting and more fun to be around a lot of children their own age, school, scouting, sports teams, and other programs meet that social need well. What is rare in today’s society is the opportunity for different generations to mix and become one people in life and mission together. In today’s world people of different ages and life stages are stratified and lead largely separate lives. They even live in separate communities. Congregations are often stratified in the same way. Intergenerational small congregations offer a much-needed alternative that challenges everyone–younger, older, and in-between–to love each other as neighbors.

If you are looking for a church for your family, don’t just automatically drive past a small church. Stop in and take time to get to know the people.   Give them a chance to bless you and your children.  You may find that God has led you home.

You may also be interested in these posts:

Mr. Rogers, children, and the small church…

Small Church Children: Growing Up in the Arms of the Saints

How One Family Ended Up Choosing A Small Church

 

Click on Children in the Church in the sidebar for more links.

Snow, Jan 17 2016I came across one of the loveliest words of encouragement for small churches that I have read in a while.  Rachel S. Gerber, a denominational minister for youth and young adults for Mennonite Church USA, and participant in a tiny Mennonite fellowship, titled her post this way:  To small congregations: You are enoughShe has important things to say about the deep faith formation that occurs when children feel deeply loved in a small church.  They know they belong, and they know they are needed.

Noting that congregations often fall prey to “if only” thinking (i.e. if only we had more children and bigger and better programs, we could attract more families), Gerber declares, “Let me tell you: Programs rarely make a difference.  But genuine encounters with people always do.  Authentic faith formation is always rooted in relationships, not in the flashiest curriculum or best-decorated children’s wing.”

I love the way she closes her post, too: “To my dear small congregation, you are not lacking.  You are such an asset.  You are enough.”

That’s exactly what I want to say to my own small congregation.

Click on the title, read the whole post, and be encouraged to keep on keeping on, in the name of Jesus.

In a challenging post entitled Why Many Welcoming Churches are Dying Churches, Joseph Yoo explains why churches cannot sit back and wait for people to come to us.  We can’t assume any more that people even in the near neighborhood know where we are, who we are, and what we are about.

He describes a tendency in congregations to think that sprucing up the building and grounds will entice people to stop in.  He writes, “Not only do we assume that a majority of our neighbors know about church, we also look at outreach through the lens of the question ‘How do we get people into our pews’ rather than actually being missional.”

He adds, “We can’t just wait and assume people are going to show up — because they won’t. We’re also going to encounter more and more folks who don’t know the things about our faith that we take for granted. And that’s okay.

“What’s not okay is for us to mistake the words of Jesus to ‘Go’ for ‘Stay and wait for people to come’ — no matter how welcoming we may be.”

We’re trying to figure out how to “go” at Jesus’ direction.  Click on the title to read the whole post.

Don’t Be Afraid

A Meditation on Luke 2: 8-16 for All God’s Children

December 24, 2015

 

Years and years ago when Jesus was born, people were scared of a lot of things. For one thing, their country was ruled by the Roman empire. There were Roman soldiers everywhere. The Roman rulers did fearful things to people who tried to challenge them.

 

And then there was a local ruler, King Herod, who was known far and wide for being so mean. You didn’t want King Herod to get mad at you.

 

It was a scary time for Jesus’ mother, Mary, to be traveling to Bethlehem. It was almost time for him to be born. What if it happened before she and Joseph could get to shelter? She was worried.

 

And there were also some people who were afraid of God. These were people who could not do all the things the Bible experts said they had to do in order to please God. Other people looked down on them, so they figured God looked down on them, too.

 

Now shepherds were in this category. People thought shepherds were low and dirty. Second class at best. Sinners by definition. Shepherd equals sinner.

 

That night, when Jesus was born, shepherds were out in the fields outside of Bethlehem, keeping watch over their sheep to make sure the sheep were safe. Suddenly, there was a blast of light, and an angel, a messenger from God stood there, and the shepherds were terrified. Of course they were startled! I’ll bet they thought they were seeing a ghost at first. Or maybe they realized right away that this messenger came from God, and they thought, “Oh Oh! We must be in for it! We’ve done something wrong for sure!”

 

But what did the angel say? The first thing the angel said was, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, shepherds, for see? I’m bringing you good news of great joy for everyone—everyone! To you and everyone is born this day in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

 

“This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 

I’m sure the shepherds’ mouths were still hanging open with surprise, when suddenly there was a whole crowd of angels with the first angel, and together they sang praises: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace, goodwill among people.” The word from God to the world is peace and good will.

 

In other words, “Shepherds, this baby is born for you, a gift from God to you. And the word from God to you is peace and good will. God loves YOU.”

 

“Wow! Let’s go see!” the shepherds said, and off they went.

 

It was clear. Whatever anybody else thought, God loved those shepherds, and Jesus was born for them. Jesus was born for everyone.

 

Most, if not all of us, know what it is like to feel afraid. Sometimes scary things happen to us or to people we love. Sometimes we hear of fearful things on the news. Sometimes we are scared of other people. Sometimes we might wonder whether God could really love us, just as we are.

 

But what God said to those shepherds through the angels is what God says to us now. God says the exact same thing to us now. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got good news for you. Jesus is born for you. God’s peace and goodwill is for you…yes YOU! All of you, each and every one!”

 

When we are afraid, God wants us to remember that God is with us. We are not alone. We don’t have to face it all by ourselves. God will help us. Jesus is born for us, and he loves us forever and ever. He will never leave us.

 

And one thing we definitely do not need to be afraid of is God himself. God looks at us with eyes that are full of good will, good will and love for all. That’s what God told us when God sent Jesus to the whole human family.

 

We can be courageous each day, even when we do still feel scared, because we know God is with us, and we know Jesus loves us. He is born for us!

 

“Wow!” the shepherds said. “Let’s go see the baby!” Wow! What a wonderful gift of love from a wonderful God!

In those days…

In those dark days when Caesar Augustus was hailed as lord and savior, the One who really is Lord and Savior was born in tiny Bethlehem.  In these dark days, it does seem that the likes of Caesar Augustus are still in control.  Do we dare hail a different king?

In Those Days

A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21 and Luke 2:1-20

 

Now in those days the emperor Augustus was the most powerful king of the most powerful kingdom the world had yet seen: the Roman empire. Looking at the empire as a whole, it was a time of great stability. Things were more stable than they had been in many years. Some viewed it as a golden age of peace and called it the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome, or the Pax Augustana—the peace of Augustus. It was a good time to be alive—for the wealthy and powerful at any rate. Around the empire Augustus was acclaimed as lord, divine son, bringer of peace, and savior of the world. Yes—those very words, including savior and lord. That’s what people were calling Caesar Augustus!

 

But what they called peace was enforced by the threat of violence. Keep the subjects afraid. Any hint of unrest was quickly squashed by the mightiest army the world had yet seen. The Romans had an especially feared execution technique, called crucifixion, and they used it regularly. Not everybody stayed in line, but most did, most of the time.

 

Maintaining the empire and the peace of Rome required lots and lots of revenue. That meant lots and lots of taxes—steep taxes, and the Romans didn’t want to miss any tax payers. Accurate tax rolls were a must.

 

That’s how Mary and Joseph found themselves caught up in forces they couldn’t control. They found themselves on the road to Bethlehem at the worst possible time: late in Mary’s pregnancy. Continue Reading »

Here I Am, Lord

Baptism Day

Baptism Day-January 1994, with the Rev. Erich Thompson

Here is the sermon I preached on the First Sunday of Advent for my daughter’s confirmation and commissioning service.

Here I Am, Lord

Luke 1:26-38

Confirmation and Commissioning of Laura Mary Todd

A legend says that God approached others with plans for the birth of Jesus, but Mary was the first one who said yes. There were plenty of sensible reasons to say no. Allowing God to work through her in this way would make Mary the subject of all kinds of gossip. And what about her fiancé, Joseph? If he couldn’t accept this plan, what then?

Then there was the question, “Why me?” Aren’t kings supposed to come from royal, well-to-do families? Mary, and Joseph, if he chose to stay with her—did not have great means and social position. Could they really provide a suitable upbringing for this child?

The responsibility of bringing a child into this world is always an awesome one. But the child Mary was being asked to bear and raise had a mission that was vital to every man, woman, and child on the planet. Was she up to this task? I can imagine her worrying, “What if I mess up?”

No wonder Mary had misgivings. No wonder she exclaimed, “How can this be?”

Though it doesn’t come to us in that same way, the call Mary heard does come to us. It’s the call to let Jesus be born in and through our lives. It’s the call to let God work in and through us in order to bring goodness and blessing to a world that desperately needs it.

This is about much more than adding the words “Christian” or “church member” to who we are. This is about much more than what our final destination is going to be. This means responsibility. No longer can the focus be on me, myself, and I alone—what I like and what I want to do with my life. It means putting everything we are and everything we have on the line for love of God and for love of the world God loves. If we find ourselves asking questions like whether or not we are really up to it, we are in good company.

Whenever a new person comes into being, God dreams of what God

Laura and her Grandma at worship.

Laura and her Grandma at worship.

can do in that person’s life. Before my husband, John, and I started hoping and dreaming, God was already dreaming of the blessings God could share through Laura’s life. When we learned that Laura was on the way, the Morton faith family started getting ready, too. I stood beside the baptismal font and told you all that we were going to need to use it in a few months.

Laura was born loved and called, and on her baptism day and in all the years since, the Morton Church has helped her hear God calling. With us you’ve helped Laura know Jesus and his love, and helped her hear Jesus calling. You saw how Laura could use her gifts to serve the Lord, and you welcomed them. We are so grateful.

Laura has heard that call, to share the outrageous love of Jesus Christ, and to be a blessing, and she is here today to say yes out loud. “Yes, here I am!” Many unknowns and decisions lie ahead as life unfolds. One that is coming up soon is what to do after college graduation. Laura is wondering whether God is calling her to be a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer in Mission next year. She is working on her application. If that’s where God wants her, how might God use that experience to clarify what comes next?

When Mary wondered how all these things could be, God’s messenger reassured her that God was with her. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit were with her. The Holy Spirit answers the “how” question. At that, Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

God is still seeking people who will let God work in and through them to bring love and light to others; looking for people who don’t automatically answer “Not me!” but instead ask, “Why not me? Why not us?” People ready to say YES.

Here Laura is. And here we are, too. Lord, let it be to all of us according to your word.

Grownup Laura, second from left, helps other children know they are loved.

Grownup Laura, second from left, helps other children know they are loved.

 

In a blogpost entitled A Child Speaks About Church, pastor Steve Lindsley and director of children and family ministries Lynn Turnage share six things children need from a church.  They write as if a child is speaking.  Here is the list.  Click on the post to read the details for each point.

  • Just tell me the Bible story.
  • Remember: I can’t sit still for long.
  • Give me, at the bare minimum, an hour a month with the pastor.
  • My best adult teachers/leaders/volunteers are the ones that I KNOW care about me.
  • Give me some responsibility in the church.
  • I like to be with my family and all ages together in worship.

On that last point, here is some of what they add: “You think I don’t want to be in worship during the sermon because it’s ‘boring.’ I actually listen to what they say and it sticks with me–as you are well aware in other contexts, I’m great at remembering everything you adults say.  All things being equal, I’d rather stay in worship with my church family–we call ourselves a family, right?  I might get a little antsy (worship bags will help). But I promise you I won’t fall asleep like that dude in front of me every week.  Surely you’ve seen him.”

Thanks for some good food for thought, Steve and Lynn!

Bartimaeus’ Cry

Bartimaeus’ Cry

A Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 and 46-52

“Hush, Bartimaeus! Be quiet! Don’t make a scene!” MANY people scolded him. They spoke in the same harsh way as the disciples had spoken to the adults who tried to bring their children to Jesus. Mark uses the very same Greek word to convey their sternness.

Instead of helping Bartimaeus make contact with Jesus, they tried to shut him up. Was it because they thought he was an eyesore, a nuisance, an embarrassment that they didn’t want any VIPs to see? Bartimaeus sat by the roadside with his cloak spread open to receive coins passersby might toss his way. Maybe he resembled a homeless person curled up in a blanket in a doorway.

Bartimaeus was one of society’s least ones, a person whose life mattered less in others’ eyes—though polite people would be reluctant to admit that it mattered less. All lives matter. Right?

“Be quiet, Bartimaeus! We don’t want to hear it!”

Be quiet! Don’t make a scene. Through the ages that’s what countless people longing for things to be better have heard. People just wanting to exercise their rights as citizens, for example. People just seeking a decent living and who don’t want to be redlined out of safe neighborhoods. Be quiet! Don’t stir things up!

People just wanting to use the gifts God has given them—women who hear the call to preach, for example, still being told in so many places “Be quiet! It’s not your place!”

Parents of children with special needs petitioning for an appropriate education for their children being told “Go away! Don’t take resources away from our normal children!”

People deeply hurt by derogatory or unjust remarks made about themselves or others, but they don’t speak up. They swallow the pain because how well they have learned, “Be quiet! Be polite! Don’t stir things up!”

People with smiles plastered on their faces, but inwardly they struggle and cry. “Keep quiet,” they tell themselves. “Don’t let anybody see. Don’t let anybody hear. Don’t burden someone else.”

And many have internalized, “Don’t even bother the church. Don’t bring your brokenness to church. You at least gotta look like things are alright.” Continue Reading »

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