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XMSC_151Over the last few months my congregation and I have been talking about our life together as a kind of monastic community with Jesus at the center.  I wrote this article to help stimulate discussion:

They still print Christmas cards showing small, light-filled church buildings looking inviting in the winter snow.  These images still capture some people’s imaginations momentarily.  Perhaps they remember a similar spot that was dear to them in their childhood.  The thought, “How lovely!” flashes through their mind.  But that’s often where the imagination stops.  They don’t imagine calling such a place home now.

In the light of day, real life little churches in the wildwood seem to have little to offer with their small communities of believers, simple buildings, humble worship, and slower pace.  What can they offer that is excellent and life-enriching? 

It’s true that some small congregations—and larger ones, too, for that matter—are not healthy.  Whatever its size a church isn’t healthy if it’s only about serving self and what the insiders want, or if it’s a service club wearing religious clothing.  It’s not healthy if it’s a place where people are primarily interested in wielding power and controlling others.

But other small churches in the vale are healthy, and what they offer is a way of life, a way of being together in community with Jesus at the center.  They are trying to practice the way of Jesus with one another and with the neighborhood and world around them.  They are trying to become like him.  They want to help others see Christ and experience his healing love and salvation.

Healthy small churches can be a type of monastic community, complete with a rule of faith and practice.  Whether it’s expressed explicitly or not, the people see themselves in sacred covenant with each other.  These congregations resemble the ancient Celtic monasteries that were more like a small village.  Celtic monastic communities included single men and women, which is what we typically think of when we imagine a monastery, but they also included couples, and families with children.  Celtic monasteries were intergenerational.  Hospitality was one of their highest values.  Strangers were honored and welcomed to spend time with the community.  The guest house was one of the most sacred places in the village. Sometimes strangers found the way of life in the community so welcoming and so winsome that they stayed and eventually became believers (1).

The small congregation I serve that calls a little reddish-brown church building home is a monastic community with Jesus at its heart.  Morton Presbyterian Church has formed generations of loving, serving, giving people who have taken the blessings of Jesus Christ far and wide.

With a huge and tender heart, Morton Church very definitely offers a way of life, and we have a number of spiritual practices that are distinctive.  Here are some of the norms of life and practice at Morton.  We do not practice them all perfectly, but we are growing into them.

  • Our boundaries are elastic.  The word “us” is very elastic.  People are warmly included and welcomed to walk with us as long as they need to and want to whether they choose to “formally join” or not.
  • The family of our family is our family.  This practice is apparent, for example, when the congregation offers tender care and hosts funerals for people who have never been in the church, and perhaps have never been in any church, just because they and their families need it.  Another example is helping people in the extended family and community celebrate milestones with graduation lunches and baby showers.
  • We show up for one another, whether it’s a funeral for a relative or a child’s school program.
  • Prayer bathes everything.  For us, prayer is a way to practice love.
  • Gratitude is a central practice.  The congregation deliberately counts its blessings, noticing what is good and beautiful, noble and just, and gives thanks.  Prayer concern times are filled with thanksgivings as much as naming needs.
  • Children are cherished.  They are seen as young disciples.  Wherever possible they learn to serve by serving alongside faith-filled adults.  Adults go out of their way to reach out to other people’s children, not just their own.  Older and younger people spend time together.
  • We tell and retell the scripture stories, aiming to internalize them so that they come to mind when we are discerning what to do in the present.
  • Simplicity is a way of life.  Simplicity is practiced in many ways.  Our worship is simple.  Our organizational structure is simple.  Our church house is simple, yet beautiful.
  • Group singing is a practice that joins our hearts in fellowship.
  • Stewardship means caring well for all that God has entrusted to us.
  • Breaking bread together is a priority, and so is seeing to it that people get nourishment when they are sick or stressed.

We find these practices and more to be life-giving.  Walking together with Jesus in this way greatly enriches our lives.  A big question for us is, “So how do we share this way of life?”

I have read article after article and book after book expressing the deep hunger of people of all ages in our culture for loving, authentic community.  Loneliness is profound, and people long to be known and loved as the people they really are.  Yes, that includes young people, who do not need more of the noise, busy-ness, chaos, and stress that so often characterize daily life in this age.  Young pastor Laurie Lyter Bright, for example, speaks of the millennial generation’s longing for deep relationships across generational lines.  “Millennials want to know and be known,” she writes (2).  “They want to choose and be chosen into a family in the fulness of their identity.  Is the church ready for that?”

Are we? A healthy small church certainly has the potential to be that family.  How does a small monastic community like ours take our tenderhearted hospitality where the people are, where they can experience it and experience Christ’s love?  How can we make the guest house, the sacred space of hospitality mobile and visible out in the world?  How do we share Jesus pure and simple without seeing people primarily as potential consumers of programs, attendance builders, and offering-givers?

The light inside the little church in the wildwood is lovely indeed.  But imagine another Christmas card showing the people spilling out of the church, carrying the light through the darkness to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  It would in fact be a better representation of the meaning of Christmas.

 

1 For a discussion of life inside a Celtic monastery, see George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), Chapter 2.

2 Laurie Lyter Bright, Vagabonding: In Defense and Praise of Millennial Faith (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), p. 61.

For more about children in small churches, see this post, Give a Small Church the Chance to Nurture Your Children.

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PaliftsLaura

Pa lifts Laura, 1994

In a post entitled An Army of Grandparents, Christian educator Christina Embree cites studies showing that grandparents have a strong influence over their grandchildren’s faith development, an influence second only to the children’s parents.  In some cases that influence actually increases with time.  She writes:

“I learned that if grandparents talked about their faith with their grandchildren face-to-face more than once a week OR went on family vacations with their grandchildren once a year that those grandchildren had a significantly higher chance of remaining in the faith than those who did not and led to an increase in grandchildren talking with others about faith struggles in their life.

I learned that ‘when grandparents consistently modeled their faith, their grandchildren tend[ed] to share that faith.'”

Whether we have grandchildren of our own or not, we should not underestimate the power of simple, everyday actions like saying “Hey!” to children when we see them, reading together, talking about things that matter, and taking them along when we share God’s love with others.

If you are looking for good books and activities to nurture your children’s and grandchildren’s faith, here are a few resources:

Books to read:

The mission of Sparkhouse Family is to support faith development in families.  They have a growing catalog of Bible story books, other books, and videos you can enjoy with your children and grandchildren.  Our church’s Sunday School teachers are adapting some of them for use on Sunday mornings with our children’s class.  They also have a blog you can subscribe to for ideas, including Bible reading plans.  Each month of readings has a theme.  Click here to subscribe to the blog, and here to subscribe to monthly Bible reading plans.  Look in the sidebar for categories of posts: parenting, faith resources, family freebies, things we love, and news.  Sparkhouse Family books include titles like Search and Find in the Bible, which resembles the hidden picture pages in children’s magazines, Spark Devotions for Kids, and Frolic First Bible,which makes a nice baby gift.

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers has published many wonderful titles for children, including one of my all-time favorites, Psalms for Young Children. Click here for my review of this book.

You can access these materials from the publishers’ web sites and from booksellers, and you may be able to find some in your local or church library.

Pockets Magazine is published by Upper Room Ministries of the United Methodist Church.  It is aimed at children ages 6-12.  Eleven issues each year deliver “full-color photos, stories, poems, games, mission-focused activities, daily scripture readings, non-fiction features, and contributions from children who read the magazine.”

Activities to share:

Flame Creative Children’s Ministry is a blog with lots of activity ideas using simple materials.  For example, here is a meal time grace place mat  with prayer reminders that you can make.

Music to listen to:

Glory to God: Hymns and Songs for Children and Families. See my review here.  You can order the CD here.  You can also download it from iTunes.  Search iTunes under “Nassau Presbyterian Church.”  I love the natural sound of acoustic instruments, and the voices of singers of all ages on this CD, and the fact that it includes music we sing during worship.

Shine Early Childhood Music CD. This CD comes from the Shine Curriculum of the Mennonite Church.  Click on the title to hear some samples, and to order.

CDs from Making Music Praying Twice.  I can’t recommend these highly enough.  I have thoroughly enjoyed using these with children.  Click here to read about how we have used these in our church to nurture young children.

 

 

An Army of Grandparents Unleashed

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In an article entitled Choosing Church Marilyn McEntyre reflects on some reasons to consider becoming part of the life of a congregation.  But first she suggests several good reasons for avoiding some churches:

  • “Some churches are clubby and exclusionary.”
  • Some offer easy, oversimplified answers.
  • Some churches try (unsuccessfully) to imitate the language, music, and style of popular culture.  (Another way to put that is that they are trying to be something that they are not.  As many writers such as Rachel Held Evans have noted, young people can smell inauthenticity a mile a way.)
  • Some churches are predictable, lukewarm, and boring.
  • Some churches are partisan.  They support particular political candidates and tell people how to vote.

Now on to some good reasons for checking out church and giving church a chance:

  • “A healthy church will help you get over yourself.”  The church invites us into a story that is bigger than we are.
  • A healthy church calls us to confession, to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness.
  • A healthy church calls us to live according to the norms of the kingdom of God instead of the norms of the culture around us.
  • A healthy church gives us access to words and music that address the experience of life, connect us with the way of God and point us to the future.
  • A healthy church is a place to experience the presence of God.

There’s more in depth discussion of all of these in the article.  Check it out.

 

 

Prayerful hands3

Prayerful hands.

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John and Mimi

My husband, John, and his grandmother, Blanche Todd

I often think about how faith is transmitted across generations.  Last night I heard a story about the power of shared faith across generations.  I was listening to a book entitled The Spiritual Child, by Lisa Miller.  It’s about the neuropsychology of spirituality, and how nurturing children’s innate capacity for spirituality helps them thrive.  The book is very repetitive and a bit sleep-inducing, and I am still listening for practical applications.  However, this story was striking.

The author describes what happened one Sunday morning aboard the New York City subway.  When she boarded, she saw that the passengers were crowded at one end of the car.  At the other end of the car was a disheveled man clutching a bag of fast food, brandishing a piece of chicken at the other passengers and yelling, “Hey!  You want to sit with me?  You want some of this lunch?”  The author took an empty seat across the aisle from the man.  At every subway stop the man issued the same invitation as people boarded.

At one stop an elegant older woman boarded with a young girl, about eight years old.  They appeared to be a grandmother and granddaughter.  They were beautifully dressed for a church service.  When the man saw them, he issued his invitation: “Hey!  You want to sit with me?”  The grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other, nodded, and sat down right next to the man, looking into his face.  “Thank you,” they said in unison to him.  The man and all the passengers were shocked.  “Do you want some?” he bellowed as he offered his chicken.  They replied, “No, thank you,” and again looked at each other.  He asked again, in a calmer voice, and they patiently replied with kind voices, “No, thank you.”  This was repeated a few times, and each time, the man grew calmer and calmer, until he was quiet. The grandmother and granddaughter looked at each other with understanding and agreement.

It was clear to the author that the grandmother and granddaughter had a shared spirituality.  The look that passed between them, which the author calls “the nod” was a sign of something deeply shared.  It was a sign of spiritual direction and values taught and received in a loving relationship between an elder and someone younger. The author felt like she was witnessing the passing of a sacred torch.

My hunch is that this granddaughter had accompanied her grandmother and  observed her kind manner and respect for others many times before.  And soon this way became a part of who the granddaughter was, too.  The author went on to point that out that the strength of this kind of connection across generations makes a big difference as children learn to live with the ups and downs of life.  Among its blessings are a sense of security and resiliency.

I give thanks to God for my grandmother and all the elders in my life who gave this gift to me.  I’m still looking for ways to pass that sacred torch on.

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Neighbors from Flickr via Wylio

Saying hello at the curb.

When we think about sharing Jesus’ love and inviting people to follow him as disciples, a big part of it is simply being neighborly.  I once wrote a sermon called Front Porch Church reflecting on recovering the kinds of neighborly interactions that front porch living facilitated.  Often we work outside the neighborhoods where we live, and when we are home, we hang out on back decks and in fenced back yards.

Here is a post from the Slow Church blog entitled “Three Shifts Towards Neighborliness.”   I recommend the whole post, but here is a quote that I really resonate with:

“We need to give ourselves permission to waste time with our neighbours. When we choose to be present—around dinner tables, on porches, and in local parks—we create space for life-giving relationships to be deepened, for collaborative opportunities to arise, for creativity to be co-inspired, and for the cultural idol of productivity to be subverted.”

For more thoughts on neighborhoods and neighborliness, see my post “You shall love your neighborhood.”

Credits
Photo Credit: “Neighbors”, © 2012 Tony Alter, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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HPIM0165

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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