Archive for May, 2013

'Cotton Harvest' photo (c) 2009, Kimberly Vardeman - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/In God’s big scheme of things, getting smaller as a church might not necessarily be bad news, even though it’s no fun.  It may be a necessary step on the way to new life.

Recently I read the story of what Clarence Jordan, founder of the Koinonia Community, once experienced more than fifty years ago during the segregation era when he went to preach a revival at a church in South Carolina.  When he got there, he found a well-blended congregation of several hundred black people and white people worshiping together. Jordan was amazed.  After the worship service, he asked the church’s pastor how this had come about.

The pastor described how, when he started, the church had about twenty people.  When the congregation couldn’t find another preacher, this layman volunteered to preach.  He said, “I got up the next Sunday, opened my Bible and I put my finger on the verse that says, ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.’ I commenced to preachin’ on that. I told them how Jesus makes all kinds of people one. When I finished that service, them deacons wanted to talk to me in private. They told me they didn’t want to hear that kind of preachin’ no more.”

The old man went on to describe how he continued to preach along these lines, and the church shrank down to four people.  He said, “I preached that church down to four people.  And I found out that sometimes revival happens not when people come in to the church, but when people go out of the church. If people were going to stand in the way of the moving of the Spirit of God, it’s better they go somewhere else. And after that, we decided that we wuz going to build the church on people who were actually serious about following Jesus. And that’s when it started to grow.”

Hmm.  Will we trust God to build our congregations on a few people who are serious about following Jesus, or will we seek to quiet our anxiety with larger numbers of spiritual spectators?

There’s a coda to Jordan’s story: After the service that night, Jordan rode home with a young member of the church who drove 70 miles each way every Sunday to worship with that congregation.    This member was a professor of English literature at the University of South Carolina.  Jordan asked, “Why do you go to a church that has that old hillbilly preacher? You have a Ph.D. from Yale. And he can’t even utter a single grammatically correct sentence.”

The professor answered, “Sir, I go to that church because that preacher preaches the gospel and this church lives it.” (From The Cotton Patch Evidence: The story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (1942-1970).)

Lord, help us to preach your gospel, and help our churches to live it!


This story reminds me of the story of Gideon’s army in Judges.  See my sermon on that text:  “Onward, Christian Soldiers?”

See also this post: “Called to get smaller???” 


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'IMG_3655.JPG' photo (c) 2007, ted Bongiovanni - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Here is a link to a beautiful post encouraging parents to keep their children in the worship service along with the rest of the people of God.  It is entitled, “Dear Parents with Young Children in Church.”  The author is a mom and pastor’s spouse.  (Thank you, Ed Boyce, for posting the link!)

Click on the title to read the whole thing.  Here’s an excerpt: “I know you’re wondering, is this worth it? Why do I bother? I know you often leave church more exhausted than fulfilled. But what you are doing is so important. When you are here, the church is filled with a joyful noise. When you are here, the Body of Christ is more fully present.

“When you are here, we are reminded that this worship thing we do isn’t about Bible Study or personal, quiet contemplation but coming together to worship as a community where all are welcome, where we share in the Word and Sacrament together.When you are here, I have hope that these pews won’t be empty in ten years when your kids are old enough to sit quietly and behave in worship. I know that they are learning how and why we worship now, before it’s too late. They are learning that worship is important.”

Amen, amen, amen!

Here are links to two resources on the subject on the Episcopal website LeaderResources:

“Top Ten Reasons Why Children Are Welcomed In Our Church”

“Welcoming Children in the Church,” a brochure to help parents and children worship together.

Highly recommended!

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English: NorthRidge megachurch, 49555 North Te...

English: NorthRidge megachurch, 49555 North Territorial Road, Plymouth, Michigan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Mattson has written a post that’s a helpful challenge and encouragement to congregations of every size.  It’s called The Megachurch vs. Minichurch: Do Popularity and Growth Really Matter?  It is posted on the Sojourners Community blog.  He cautions against making judgments about any church based on its size and statistics.

He also speaks to a struggle that I live with: how can pastors and church leaders care lovingly and faithfully for the saints who have been faithful to the congregation for many, many years, and conserve what is beautiful and needed, while also helping the congregation follow God into the future and reach new people in Jesus’ name?  Mattson notes the harm that leaders can do when they chase numbers and frantically try to implement change too fast.  The old Girl Scout song says, “Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver and the other’s gold.”  How can we cherish both so that old and new can be one family together?

Here’s how the post concludes:

'Tiny old church' photo (c) 2009, B. Carlson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“There are thousands of small faith communities doing it right by striving to make the world a better place by passionately following Christ’s example. These churches understand that Christ-centered community trumps the value of popularity.

“So which is better: large communities or small ones? Neither! Numbers, attendance, and popularity should never be used as indicators of spirituality. Expansion should never be pursued at the expense of righteousness.

“In a society obsessed with consumerism, we have mistakenly used growth charts, predictive modeling, quarterly forecasts, stats, and numbers as indicators for success. Instead, we should be striving for the fruits of the Spirit. Thousands of Christians can get together yet accomplish nothing, while tiny pockets of believers can be transforming lives — and vice versa. We need to start recalibrating our goals towards Christ’s commission to serve, sacrifice, and love instead of treating the church like a Fortune 500 company.

“Before assuming numerical growth or decline is a sign of God’s favor or judgment, prayerfully consider how you can use your faith to help the poor, shelter the homeless, generously give to those in need, comfort the hurting, protect the vulnerable, and selflessly make sacrifices for the benefit of others. Focus on achieving the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5), passionately loving God (Mark: 12:30) and serving the world around you (Mark 12:31). If these Christ-centered values aren’t eagerly embraced and acted upon, then the numbers are worthless.”

This seems to me to be good advice for churches of all sizes.  And, as a small church pastor, I do appreciate his recognition of the great faithfulness that even the tiniest communities can show.  It’s about passionately following Christ’s example, serving, sacrificing and loving so that people can experience his transforming love.  And as the stories of the one found sheep and the one found coin remind us, there is great rejoicing in heaven when even one is saved.

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God has given an incredible gift to singer-songwriter Peter Mayer. He is a guitar virtuoso with a clear voice and a sense of God’s presence.  All this comes together in both the secular and the sacred.  He is the lead guitarist for Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, and he also performs solo, with the Peter Mayer Group, and with others.  Each year he and the Peter Mayer Group do a tour of original and traditional Christmas music called “Stars and Promises.”  You can learn more about him and his work at petermayer.com, where you can hear clips of many of his songs.  Here is his song “God Is Loose in the World.”  Enjoy!

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'2011adults2 30 (5)' photo (c) 2011, Tom Williams - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I have long believed that strong connections with mature Christian adults in addition to their parents helps young people grow up to be committed disciples of Jesus Christ.  They need to be totally integrated into the full life and ministry in the church, alongside adults.  In a new article in The Christian Century, online and in print, called “Sticky Faith: What Keeps Kids Connected to Church,” youth minister Jen Bradbury looks at this topic.  Here are some excerpts:

Youth ministry needs to be Christ-centered rather than entertainment-oriented:

“What every teen knows, however, is that the church is not cool. The good news is that the church does not have to be cool to be relevant. What the church has is Jesus, and he is enough. He is what differentiates the church from every other organization. He’s why the church matters. If the church matters because Jesus matters, then what youth ministries need more of are not entertaining activities but conversations about Jesus.”

Sustained contact with adults of all ages is important:

“Rather than aiming to have one adult leader for every five students, it’s better to aim for connecting every teen with five adults who are willing to invest in the teen in some way, even if rather small. According to LifeWay Research, “teens who had five or more adults from the church invest in them during the ages of 15 to 18 were less likely to leave the church after high school.”

Certainly, one way of connecting teens with adults is to utilize adults in our youth ministries as leaders. Such adult leadership teams are at their best when they, too, are intergenerational. This means that when we recruit adults to serve in our ministries, we need to look not just for the stereotypical youth worker—the outgoing, funny young adult in his or her twenties or thirties. Instead, we must also look for parents, empty nesters and senior citizens who are willing to spend time with teens, asking them questions and then listening to their responses and encouraging them.”

You certainly don’t have to be a big church for this to happen.

For further thought, see this article from the Christian Century archives:  Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church?”

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It’s all about Jesus. Listen as Fernando Ortega prayerfully sings the spiritual “Give Me Jesus,” inviting us to prayer.

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Mary Lee and MamaMother’s Day 2013 will be my first without my mother, who died on March 3.  Here is what I said at her funeral service.  She is one of the greatest in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me.

A Mother’s Memory

Reflections on Isaiah 49:13-16 and Luke 13: 10-17

In Loving Memory of My Mother
Sara Perkins Harris
Friday, March 8, 2013

My brother Charles and I are going to remember a lot of things about our mom.  The fact that she enjoyed art and enjoyed giving her paintings away to people she cared about jumps immediately to mind, along with her love of music.  The three of us made a lot of music at home and in the car, while Daddy was an appreciative audience.

Mom sang alto in the church choir.  But years ago before there ever was a Kirk O’Cliff choir, Mom was the church organist.  In my growing up years, the Kirk had a Victorian-era pump organ that had an electric air pump installed under the church floor.  Mom had to turn the motor on and off for every hymn or response.  It made a noise when it started up and when it slowed to a stop.  Mom was the music for Kirk O’Cliff for a long time.  She was also our Sunday School teacher when the beginners met behind a screen in that corner and the primaries met up here in the pulpit.

You might not know that Mom loved gadgets and mechanical things, and that she could also be a silly ham.  Once those two things came together when Mom and a friend did a “powder puff auto mechanics” demonstration for the Belmont homemakers’ club.  They started their presentation with a skit.  Somewhere in the skit Mom sat down on a jar filled with nuts and bolts.  She jumped up, held it up, looked at it and said, “Oh oh!  I forgot to put this back in so-and-so’s car!”

While Daddy was busy with the cows, Charles and I went lots of places with our mother.  We often rode over to Grandma Perkins’s house on Sunday afternoons.  And Mom read to us a lot.  We wore out volume one of the Childcraft books.  We learned about the ten plagues on Egypt from this children’s Bible, which we also wore out.

Mom always encouraged us to pursue our interests, and all the way to the end, she went to as many of Charles’ band concerts as she could, and she wanted copies of everything that I had made or had published.

It is especially important to remember the heroic effort Mom made to care for the special problems that Charles and I had.  Mom called us her twins born a year apart.  Charles was born 368 days after me.  Both of us were born with cleft lip and cleft palate, and that added complications to our lives.

The first thing it meant was that Mom really had to work hard to get us fed.  No way could this mother forget her children’s constant need to eat!  She packed extra weight on us in preparation for our first surgeries.  We—and especially I—ballooned!

Then it meant countless drives to Richmond to see various specialists.  We went so often that Mom could just about drive to Richmond with her eyes shut.  It meant lots of waiting in waiting rooms  reading Highlights magazine.  It meant spending the night with us in the hospital.

One of the hardest things about it was that Charles and I both suffered from terrible ear infections.  More often than not, the pain would hit us at night.  I remember creeping downstairs to my parents’ room, making my way around to Mom’s side and gently shaking the bed.  Instantly Mom was awake, and she didn’t even have to ask what was wrong.  I remember her going back to bed with me and placing her warm hand over my aching ear.

Many years later Mom told me that even then, when something jostled the bed, she would wake up, and her first thought was, “One of the children has the earache.”  This response was permanently etched in her memory, in her body, even.  Mom’s memory was permanently set—ready to come to our aid, ready to support us, and always loving us.

Five centuries before Jesus arrived, God’s people, God’s children were far away from home in exile in Babylon, and they were in great pain.  They were ready to conclude that God had forgotten them.  This is God’s response: Can a mother forget her hungry child?  Can a woman not have compassion for the child she birthed?  Well, perhaps a human mother can, but not this mother.  Not God our divine mother.  See—God says—you are permanently etched onto the palms of my hands.  You are permanently etched in my memory.  I will never, ever forget you.  Even now I am coming to help you.

Those who know Mom well know that she persevered through a lifelong struggle with debilitating depression.  It is really heartbreaking what this illness did to her, how much it robbed her of, and what a terrible soul ache it was at times.  In the worst of it, people with this kind of depression feel like even God has forgotten them, or, as the Psalm writer often puts it, it feels like they’re down in a pit.

We’re grateful that God did not forget his daughter, our mother.  Over the years God lifted her up just as Jesus lifted the woman who was bent over so painfully.  Jesus called that woman a daughter of Abraham.  He said that she ought to be set free, and he set her free.

We’re thankful that God has remembered this daughter, our mother, and lifted her up once again, and for always, in the resurrection.

Can a mother forget her nursing child, or fail to have compassion on her baby?  Well, maybe a human mother can.  But I will never forget you, God says.  You are etched on the very palms of my hands.  Our divine mother will never forget us.  We can count on God to cover our aching hearts with a warm, loving hand.

We can count on God now, when we are so sad, and in all the time to come.

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A Different Church Building

A Different Church Building (Photo credit: justshootingmemories)

Congregational Seasons, a blog that tells stories of renewal and revitalization in Episcopal congregations recently published this guest blog, “Recasting Your Church’s Building Assets for Congregational Viability” by Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Spaces, http://www.sacredplaces.org/, an organization that helps congregations utilize their buildings as an asset to the broader community.  It’s all about using your building’s gifts, such as good acoustics, a well-equipped kitchen, or a shareable fellowship hall, as a way to bring blessing to the community around the church.  In turn, that brings blessings to the church, such as fresh engagement with new people.

Here’s an excerpt showing two examples, one from an urban setting, and one from a rural setting:

“In an urban setting, St. Martin’s, a mission church in Chicago, would face closing without new ways to raise funds and use space effectively.  The parish took part in New Dollars [a program of partners for sacred spaces], which helped parishioners organize, map out priorities and space uses and think more about their mission and purpose – within the diocese and the context of a struggling west side neighborhood.  The church is hosting more arts and music activities now, and is thinking about how it can take better advantage of its position on a charming plaza, complete with fountain, in front of the church. Thanks to Partner’s encouragement, the parish is placing a church table in the plaza for a community block party this summer, to bring visibility and new visitors to the church.

“Recognizing that many rural churches are small and could close without help, the Diocese of Vermont retained Partners to offer New Dollars training to several parishes, among them the Church of Our Saviour in Kilington. The church learned how to map its internal assets, as well as assets in the larger community. Recognizing its super acoustics, the parish is now hosting concerts sponsored by the local library when the weather is inclement.  Given its location in the countryside, it worked with the town government on a scenic byways initiative, bringing more visitors to the church.  These steps have brought new energy and visibility to the parish and have attracted new funding that has underwritten the replacement of the parish house roof.”

Food for thought and prayer…

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Until All Are Fed is a beautiful album by Bryan Field McFarland,  singer-songwriter, Presbyterian minister, and Hunger Action Advocate for Salem Presbytery in central North Carolina.  A portion of the purchase price goes to the Presbyterian Hunger Program, whose mission is to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes.  It includes new songs and arrangements of hymns such as “Christ Be Our Light” by Bernadette Farrell, “The Summons” (“Will You Come and Follow Me”) from John L Bell and the Iona Community, and “Pescador de Hombres” (“Lord, When You Came to the Seashore”) by Cesario Gabarain.  The tracks are arranged in liturgical order from gathering, to going and serving.  You can learn more at untilallarefed.net

Here is a YouTube video of the title track:

You can read a review of Until All Are Fed  here, and you can download/order it here.  You can also download it from iTunes.

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