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Archive for the ‘Small Church Resources’ Category

IMG_0267Rachel Held Evans and others maintain that it’s not hip-ness and cool-ness that most young adults need and want in a faith community.  It’s authenticity.  It’s real, loving, stand-by-you-no-matter-what community.  It’s a family of people from all generations.  It’s a congregation where all–and I mean ALL–truly are welcome and wanted in the  congregation’s heart and life together.   Many small congregations cannot be “cool,” and yet we are this kind of community.  Real.  Mine is.  So how do we raise our profile so we can connect heart to heart with people hungering for the God we love, and who loves us without condition or limit?  How do we mingle with people “out there”?

I recommend Rachel’s book Searching for Sunday, and here is an article she wrote for the Washington Post: “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.”

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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.

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I recently came across this quote from Eugene Peterson. It comes from an interview he did with Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Service:

JM: Eighty-one years is a long time. As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship? What’s your word to them?

EP: Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.

– See more at: Faithful to the End: An Interview with Eugene Peterson.  

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Stories don’t always have to be big to be good.  They don’t have to be exciting to be powerful.  Here is a sermon inviting disciples and congregations of disciples to point to Jesus by telling the simple, beautiful stories that are ours.  It follows up on the sermon Be Opened, and it celebrates my home congregation’s heritage.

 

Have We Got a Story to Tell!
A Sermon on Exodus 3:7-12, 4:10-13; Romans 10:14-15, with allusions to Mark 7:31-37
Homecoming at Morton Church

At first Moses liked what God was saying. God was saying, “My people are crying out in pain in Egypt, and I’m going to do something about it!” Even though Moses had been living in Midian for decades, he remembered well the horrible abuse the Hebrew people were experiencing at the hands of the Egyptians: unjust working conditions, physical and emotional violence and more. Doggone right something needed to be done! High time! Past time!

“I’ve seen my people’s misery in Egypt,” God was saying, “and I’m going to get them out of there and take them to a good new place.” “Wow!” Moses was thinking.

“ And so…and so,” God continued. I am sending you to Egypt to speak up for me. Tell the people that I know very well what is going on with them. I see how they are suffering. Tell them the good plans I have for them. And tell Pharaoh that I say, ‘Let my people go!’” Then you lead the people to their new home.

Moses was utterly gotten away with. “Who, me?” he exclaimed. What made God think anybody would listen to him? Nobody was going to listen to him. So Moses gave God all sorts of reasons why this was not a good idea. Moses raised a series of objections, ending with one that really was serious. “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses objected.

Perhaps Moses simply felt that he wasn’t particularly good at putting words together. But the original Hebrew text there uses a pretty strong word for what ailed Moses. It reads “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” like there really is some physical difficulty.

Moses probably had a physical problem—perhaps a cleft palate—that meant he had to work really hard to make himself understood. And the reality is, if you have speech related difficulties, people often wonder if your intelligence is intact, and if you really have anything to say. Is it worth the effort to listen.

With substandard speech, who was Moses to be speaking publicly, and in the name of God? No! Just no!

“Lord, please send someone else!”

But when God’s got a job to be done, somebody has to go. Somebody’s got to speak up. Just like Paul said in our epistle lesson today, “How are people going to trust Jesus unless they hear about him? And how are they going to hear unless somebody tells them the good news? Somebody’s got to tell the story.”

Often people think that telling the story of Jesus is a job for someone else, and for reasons a lot like Moses’ reasons. They feel inadequate. Surely somebody else can do a much better job. What about a trained professional?

Maybe it’s partly a hearing problem, as we were talking about last Sunday. Last week we noted that you have to hear and repeat words in order to be able to speak them. Hearing and speaking go together. To speak the word of Christ’s love to others, we must first hear it—hear it deep down in our souls, and let it heal us.

Or maybe it’s that we aren’t sure we have a story to tell, not an interesting story, anyway. Not a powerful, riveting story like Paul’s story, where the light of God literally knocked him down and turned him completely around. How can we be effective witnesses unless we have something big and exciting to share? Who’s going to listen to us? (more…)

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Recently I wrote a review for the Presbyterian Outlook of the book Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities.  The authors, Jeanne Hoeft, L. Shannon Jung, and Joretta Marshall, show why the church’s presence is critical in rural communities, and how congregations of God’s people care faithfully for one another and the community around them.  While it’s not an easy read, it is an important read for all who want to be faithful witnesses in a country context, and for all who care about small congregations and God’s work there.

The review starts this way: Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities

I grew up in the 1960s in a dairy farm family and in a tiny rural church where everyone had ties to farming. The congregation shared a pastor with three other small congregations. I remember hearing my father, the clerk of session, report that the pastor thought that all the churches should close and become one large church in a central location, about fifteen miles from our farm. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t understand.” I realized then that the pastor didn’t understand the realities of farm life, and I realize now that he didn’t fully understand the sense of place that shaped our lives and our modes of caring for one another in community.

“Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities” is an essential book for all who want to understand and to care faithfully. The authors challenge the whole church to learn from the wisdom that comes out of rural and small-town communities. Moreover, they issue a powerful reminder of why it is crucial for the body of Christ to maintain a presence and witness there.

Read more here.

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'Interior, St David's' photo (c) 2009, Christine McIntosh - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia has announced a conference for people who have been in small church pastorates for a long time.  It’s titled Staying Fresh in a Long Small Church Pastorate, and it will take place March 24-26, 2015.  That’s a year away, but I am intrigued.  The leader is the Rev. Chris Stewart, and Presbyterian pastor who has served the same two small congregations since 1978.

Here is a link to the conference infomation: http://www.upsem.edu/img/leadership_pdf/Staying_Fresh.pdf

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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.

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Hanging of the Greens

Hanging of the Greens at Church

Presbyterian pastor Rebecca Kirkpatrick writes an excellent blog entitled Bread, Not Stones about nurturing our children’s faith.   A few months ago, when God called her and her husband to another form of Christian service,  her family searched for a church home.  You can read her post about that here.  It’s full of good counsel for anyone looking for a church home.

After her family settled in to a new congregation, Rebecca wrote this thoughtful post entitled “The Sound of My Child’s Voice: Choosing Our New Church Home.”  I was greatly heartened to read that her family did not automatically cross a small congregation that only had a few children off their list.  They had two congregations to choose from in their location, a more contemporary style congregation with many of the offerings that families often want, and a smaller, more traditional congregation.  Both were good churches, but the Kirkpatrick family eventually chose the smaller congregation.  A big part of it was the way their six-year-old son’s voice is welcomed and needed there.  She notes that, in more ways than one, he can be heard in the smaller church.   Do read the whole post, but here are a couple of excerpts:

“[W]hen we sing hymns that I remember loving as a child, I can hear his tiny and clear voice singing next to me. The music may be “old fashioned,” but I swear he sings louder, probably because he can finally hear his own voice. I like that after a hymn the adult sitting in front of him will often turn around and tell him what a nice job he did. ”

“I need him to know that church is not just about what you get out of it, but about how his voice adds to the life of the community. 
“This week he and my husband led the congregation in lighting the first Advent candle. On our walk home from church he told me that one of the older women came up to him after worship to tell him that he did a good job and that she loved the sound of his voice. He said to me, “I really like that she told me that. It made me feel good.”

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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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'mister rogers display - pittsburgh airport' photo (c) 2006, Greg Dunlap - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Mr. Rogers’ sneakers

In his television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers approached children in such a gentle manner.  Except for the trolley bell, there were no bells and whistles on the show.   The tone was quiet and conversational.  At an unhurried pace, Mr. Rogers talked with adults and children on the show.  Often he was seeking to learn from them, as when he asked a young neighbor to show him some dance moves.  Mr. Rogers addressed his television neighbors about topics of interest or concern.  The Neighborhood of Make Believe was definitely low-tech, leaving lots of room for children’s imaginations.  Simple hand puppet characters interacted with people.  Some of the characters were children, and some were adults.  It was intergenerational.  Children loved Mr. Rogers, and I did, too, even though I only watched the show as an adult.  I am too old to have been one of his neighbors as a small child.

Our small congregation loves children.  We have no bells and whistles to offer, except that we love it when there are children present to ring the church steeple bell.  We can’t offer busy programs and sports leagues with crowds of excited children.  But we can be neighbors like Mr. Rogers, himself a Presbyterian minister who saw the children as his congregation.  We approach children with his gentleness and loving simplicity.   Like Mr. Rogers, we share Jesus’ love conversationally.  A child who comes to Morton will find many “grandfriends”–my daughter’s term–who will take genuine, ongoing interest in them.  We tell the gospel story.  We share our talents and encourage the children to share theirs.

DSCN8728Here are some pictures from our recent summer program for children.  God has given our church many talents in music, so we decided to share that with the children, both as an expression of love and an encouragement for them to give musical instruments a try.  We also invited them to express their creativity through art.  Adults and children alike were enthralled by Jesus’ story, and mixed together in a lovely way.  We are so grateful for this time God gave us with these children!DSCN8897  (Click here to see more photos.)

Now we’re working on developing more opportunities of this kind, with the dream and the hope of welcoming these and other children and their families fully into the family of God.   We long for them to join us on Sundays!  But even if they don’t, we are still going to do what we can to help them know that Jesus loves them, and encourage them to love him back  He is their nearest, dearest neighbor.  Living in God’s neighborhood means loving other neighbors as Christ loves us.

We are a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood kind of church, looking for ways to ask people of all ages, “Won’t you be our neighbor?”

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