Archive for July, 2017


Laura and her Grandma at worship.

Going to Sunday School and worship every Sunday was our family’s pattern since before I can remember.  If we were away from home, we found somewhere to worship.  If we had family members visiting us on Sundays, our family members went to church with us.  The weekly rhythm is so ingrained for me it is hard to grasp what it would be like not to be in that rhythm.  Even when I was a child, there were people in the congregation who were not in that rhythm, and I wondered why even then.  It caused me pain even then.

The drop in regular worship attendance over the last several decades, and particularly in the last two decades, has been well-documented and much discussed.  In general, people’s understanding of what is regular has changed, and many consider once or twice a month to be regular.  For me as a preacher, it means that each sermon must stand alone, even though I really feel that my sermons build on each other.  It is a challenge for those who are at worship every Sunday not to interpret others’ sporadic attendance as rejection.

Carey Nieuwhof has written about connecting with people who are not in the every Sunday pattern that I am in.  Here are some thoughts from his post 5 Ways to Embrace Infrequent Church Attenders.  Embrace is the operative word.  He notes that when he encounters busy people who haven’t been to worship in a while, they often express deep love for the church and that they are looking forward to getting back.  I experience that, too.  His number one recommendation is to develop some empathy.  He writes, “[I]f you stand there with a scowl on your face every Sunday angry about empty seats, why would anyone want to sit in one? People can smell judgment a mile away.  So, church leaders, stop judging.”

People often have struggles that we know nothing of.  I remember the challenge of getting just one child ready for church, and how much harder it would have been if I hadn’t had a supportive spouse to help me.  If getting everyone up and where they need to be at work and school is a difficult challenge during the week, I can see why it would be so tempting to take things easier on Sunday morning, to take some much-craved slow time.  Moreover, some people have to work on Sundays, while others have challenging personal struggles that make it difficult for them either physically or emotionally to get out and be a part of the assembly.

Nieuwhof also calls us to remember that our mission is not to fill seats on Sundays but to lead people into a relationship with Jesus.  We are making disciples of Jesus.  We do that in many ways all week long as we support them on their faith journey.  He points out, “[I]f you really help people move into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, they might show up more regularly in your church on Sunday.  Ironic, isn’t it?”  Church is not just what we do on Sundays; it’s who we are all the time.

Thirdly, he reminds us to use the technologies at hand every day to connect with people.  I wholeheartedly agree.  For example, I have found that online social media is critical for connecting with younger people.  Social media helps me know when the children that are under my wings are sick, and when they make the honor roll.  I can quickly share encouragement and keep in touch.  This is the best way to share prayer concerns with younger adults.  Face to face conversations are still the gold standard for pastoral care, but I have found that Facebook messenger is a helpful tool for brief conversations and prayer, especially late in the evening when children are asleep.

Read Nieuwhof’s post for more, and see the links on that page to his other posts on this topic.

See also this post by one of his colleagues, a young mother, on what you miss when you skip church on Sunday.


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In the ideal world families come to church together.  The reality is that sometimes children come alone. Sometimes an adult friend or neighbor brings them.  As Christina Embree points out in her article Seven Family Ministry Ideas for Kids who Come Alone, there are things the congregation can do to nurture children who come without their families.

Among her suggestions:

  • Find other adults and families who will welcome the solo child to worship with them.  These could be older adults, who become grandfriends.
  • Talk about their home and family.  Make sure you know the names of the important people in their lives.
  • Reach out to their family with personal invitations to church gatherings, instead of always using the child as a courier.
  • Give the child a place to serve, such as helping to hand out bulletins.  Help them know that their presence and contributions to the church are welcomed and needed.

Read her post for more, and see the links she shares.

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I once took a course entitled The Hymnal as a Tool of Christian Education.  The hymn book is still one of my primary tools for ministry, but I am also grateful for online resources like hymnary.org, which is a vast database of hymns and songs.  It is searchable by title, first line, subject, scripture text, tune, and more.  Texts and tunes that are in the public domain can often be copied from the site.  It also refers searchers to published choral and liturgical works that are related.

I also frequently use the online edition of Glory to God, our newest PCUSA hymnal.  It has been well worth the cost.  It is searchable, and it includes liturgical resources that go with the Revised Common Lectionary.  PDF files of hymns in the public domain can be downloaded and printed, plus there are a few newer hymns and songs where permission to reprint has been granted purchasers of Glory to God.  The copyright information on each hymn is easy to find, along with what to do to get permission if permission is required for reprints.

I came across a welcome commentary on why reports of the demise of hymn books have been greatly exaggerated.  In Ten Reasons Why Hymnals Have a Future John Witvliet

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“Church is the best ♥”



As congregations look towards the future, what kind of community do we want to be?  More importantly, what kind of community does Jesus want us to be?

The Beloved Community*

A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37; and John 13:33-35, 15:12-15


Back in June I read an interesting article by New York Times columnist David Brooks.  He started out with some reflections on billionaire Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge campaign in which he and other wealthy people are pledging to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

Then Brooks described what he would do if he had a billion dollars to give away.  He said he would do something to reweave the social fabric of our country.  He said he would use his money to support the formation of small groups of twenty-five people each all around the country.  These groups would meet weekly to share and discuss life.  They would be multigenerational with older members mentoring younger members.  These groups would engage people’s hearts through deep friendships, their hands through service, their heads with reading and discussion to stimulate the mind, and their souls to help them reflect on the purpose of life and orient them spiritually.

Here is Brooks’ reasoning behind this:  He said that people need to grow up enmeshed in loving relationships.  Quote, “Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can only be formed in small groups.  Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed 25-person collectives around the country.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/opinion/giving-away-your-billion-warren-buffett.html?_r=0)

I couldn’t help thinking of the 4-H club head, heart, hands, health pledge.  But Brooks reminded me of another group I am even more familiar with.  I grew up in one of those twenty-five person groups, a group of about twenty-five followers of Jesus, give or take a few, and now I am the pastor of another one.

As he walked with his disciples, Jesus patiently formed them into a community of love, a community of beloved people, a community that was itself beloved.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus told them what to do.  He showed them how to do it.  And on the last night before he poured out the last ounce of his love for us on the cross, Jesus summarized it this way.  After humbly washing his disciples’ feet, even the feet of those who betrayed and denied him, Jesus said, “Love each other just as I have loved you.”

The early church wasn’t perfect, but they tried to do what Jesus said, and their loving manner with each other left a positive impression on people around them.  (more…)

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When Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, beloved Mr. Rogers of public television, stood to acknowledge his induction into the Television Hall of Fame, he spoke about the power of neighbors, including people on TV, to shape the lives of children.

You can view his acceptance speech and other videos here.

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Respect–and more–for the rural church

I just came across this piece from the Alban Institute at Duke Divinity School: The Demise of Haystacks and the Future of the Rural Church.  This author, R. Alan Rice, is preaching to the choir with me when he says that rural people matter, and that pastor as gardener is a good way to think about the kind of pastoral leadership small, rural congregations need.  The fruit we are looking for is lives transformed through life in Christ.  The measure is not how much money we raise and how many programs we generate.  The measure is in the difference we make in people’s lives.

The need is great in our rural part of God’s garden, with so much struggle in our area, and downright hurt.  It is a blessing to be able to help folks see Jesus’ loving face, as he reaches out to them offering a future with hope.

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