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Archive for August, 2013

'Secret Agent Geocoin' photo (c) 2010, DM - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Here is a link to an article about what teams of church visitors have found.  It’s called “Eight Confessions of Church Spies,” and the author is  Chuck Lawless, a professor of evangelism.  Click on the link to read all the details, but here is his list of common hospitality problems that the “undercover agents” found:

1. Church websites are often outdated, boring . . . and useless.  (Often they don’t have basic information like worship times!)

2. Churches are not friendly.  (Be sure to check this one out.  Lawless says that more often than not, no one speaks to the guests before or after worship!  I can hardly believe it, but I’ve heard others say the same thing!)

3. Church facilities are not generally marked well.

4. Churches aren’t prepared for guests. (This includes things like not having any means to get contact info from the guests.)

5. Churches are poorly equipped for protecting children.  (Children’s areas need to be secure.  Policies, such as having two adults with children at all times, need to be in place.)

6. Worship through music often needs improvement.

7. Preaching is often weak.

8. Churches are not always clear in “what to do” in response to worship.

How does your church do on these points?

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Here is a repost of a sermon I preached years ago in my small congregation:

Just a Spirit of Weakness…

Painting by James Tissot

In God’s eyes there is no “just a” as in “we’re just a small church.”  When I hear people in small congregations use those two words “just a,” I suspect that a spirit of weakness has hold of them.  Like the bent over woman in the synagogue in Luke 13, small churches often have a hard time looking the world in the face.  Christ the healer is at work doing something about that.  Here’s a sermon I preached on Luke 13:10-21 some years ago.  Notice that the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast immediately follow the healing story. 

“Stand Up Straight!”

This story of Jesus is one of my all time favorites.  And now it is especially poignant because my father is in the same fix as the woman in the story.  He is bent over, and he feels too weak to stand up straight.

The Greek text says that a spirit of weakness had crippled this woman.  For eighteen years it had held her down, so that she couldn’t stand up straight.  Nowadays she would probably receive a diagnosis of scoliosis or osteoporosis. Think of what that means.  Pain.  Spontaneous fractures in her vertebrae.  Think of what being bent all the time did to this woman’s lungs and her other internal organs.  Think of what this woman had to do to her neck to be able to see.  She would have to bend it backwards, like this, or else turn sideways and look at the world from the side.  It took so much effort to look up and see that she spent most of the time looking at the ground.

Even worse, perhaps, than the physical suffering was the emotional suffering.  In Jesus’ day people believed that disability was caused by a demon, and that it was a punishment from God.  Just as they do now, people stared.  They avoided her.  They wondered what in the world this woman had done to deserve such an affliction.  It was a source of shame.

Shame is very much a spirit of weakness.  Shame makes it tough to stand tall and look the world in the face.  It has many sources.  Example: Appearance is so important in today’s world.  If you can’t fit the ideal or even the norm, you are subject to harsh judgment and even ridicule.  Heaven help you if you’re not thin!  Heaven help you if you have some kind of deformity, or a condition that makes it hard for you to control your muscles!  Heaven help you if you’re frail and require a lot of care!  You will be stared at and pitied.  And it hurts.  It really hurts.

There are many sources of shame.  Many folks are ashamed to let any weakness or hurt or inadequacy show.  Even a single incident of abuse can be enough to break people’s spirits, leaving them feeling terribly ashamed.  Shame has such a tight grip on some people that deep inside themselves they believe their whole life is a mistake.  How can you stand up and look the world in the face gripped by such a spirit?

Even churches can be gripped by a spirit of weakness.  This is a frequent problem among small churches and an issue at every small church gathering I’ve ever been a part of.  These dear congregations describe themselves this way:  “We’re just a small church.”  “Just a.”  What belittling words!  “Just a!” They might not say this out loud, but they’re thinking it:  “No pastor will ever stay with us long.  As soon as she can, she’ll move to greener pastures.”  Some churches are downright ashamed of being small.  Any church worth its salt is supposed to have certain programs and resources.  Even churches a lot bigger than we are ashamed of their struggles.  Some congregations are so worried about their inadequacies they can’t see their strengths.  It’s hard to see heaven when you’re looking down all the time.  Why set their sights on anything, only to be disappointed?  Besides, they figure their days are numbered. (more…)

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Hootie2Some people see a preponderance of older people–who often have gray hair–in a congregation, as a liability and a turn-off.   Having known and loved so many gray-haired saints, and now being gray-haired myself, I see their presence as an asset and a gift to the church.  I was delighted to come across an article by someone who agrees.  It’s entitled “The Gift of Gray Hairs,” and the author is Diane Roth, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota.  I resonated as she described scenes like the following:

“There is a teenage young woman who sits at worship every Sunday with an older retired woman and her friends.  The young woman is training as a singer:  she sang “Pie Jesu” at our Good Friday Service.  The older women recently gave her a gift:  a number of opera librettos.

“After worship, one day, one of our young parents was in tears.  I had announced the death of one of our older members that morning.  I checked in with the young woman, concerned about why she was crying.  “I’m sad about Pearl,” she said.  Pearl used to sit near their family and interacted with her children nearly every Sunday.”

The author notes three ways in particular in which older adults can enrich the life of a congregation:

1. Mature faith and a lifetime of stories to tell about what living out that faith means in all kinds of situations.

2. Older adults often have a sense of clarity about what is truly important and can be more willing to let go of sacred cows than many younger folk.

3.  Younger people need the experience of being around older people and all the realities that often accompany living a long life, such as coping with frailty.  If we are blessed with a long life, that’s where we will be one day.

My ideal church has people of all ages in it, with people loving and learning cross-generationally.  We can bless one another!  I don’t think it is healthy for the generations to live segregated lives.  So many institutions in society segregate us.  We find the young in school, and we find the old in retirement communities.  The church is just about the only place in society where young and old can be in close relationship with one another.  Moreover, it’s not difficult for younger people to find friends their own age.  What’s more difficult is for them to have the opportunity to know older adults well, since in contemporary society, extended families often live many miles apart and young and old don’t interact as often as they once did.

I hope as I get older that younger people will still want to be friends with me, and will still want to be around me.  I hope I will have the opportunity to bless many, many younger people before I join the Church Triumphant.

Helen

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Christian Church

I’m trying to be better prepared to answer when people tell me that Christians do not need to participate in the life and worship of a congregation.  What can we say, for example, in answer to the following?

  • “I don’t need to be with other people to connect with God.”
  • “I can worship God in nature.”
  • “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart, and I know I’m going to heaven.  That’s all I need.”
  • “I don’t need to be part of a church to help people.”

There’s no doubt about it: living in community with other people of God is challenging, but it is also the place where we experience God’s grace, mercy and love most powerfully–or at least it has been for me.  In Christian community we learn how to practice generosity, forgiveness, and all the virtues and actions of Christian living.  Church is where we learn how to love even when we don’t feel like it.

Here are some links to helpful reflections on why Christians need to be active participants in a faith community.  In Do You Really Need Church? Tara Woodard-Lehman, Presbyterian chaplain at Princeton University, notes that the church is a community of memory.  It holds the memory of who God is, and who God calls us to be.  The community is a constant reminder of the point of life.  She writes, “I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God’s Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.

“I forget. A lot.

“On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the freaking time.

“So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.

“I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that’s important.

“And when I say Church, I’m not talking about a building. I mean the people. I’m referring to the organic, collective, flesh and blood Body of Christ. I’m talking about the beautiful but undeniably imperfect community of people who help me remember who I am, and to Whom I belong, over and over again.

And here is a link to an interview with UCC pastor Lillian Daniel, Why Christians need the church.  Daniel notes, “It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”

She also notes that the scriptures are meant to be read and interpreted together in community.

I commend these articles to you.  And please send in your comments.  What do YOU say to folks who believe that Christians don’t need to be part of a church?

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