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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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Why does it seem that so few people want to give a small church a chance?  David Fitch suggests some answers in his blogpost “Why Do American Christians Prefer Big?” 

'New Life Church in Colorado Springs 2' photo (c) 2009, David Shankbone - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Fitch says that bigger is often seen as a sign of God’s presence, that a celebrity pastor is a known quantity, and that “Big church is less messy,”  i.e. in a big church you can easily come and go, take it or leave it.  It caters to the search for the “convenient.”  He also suggests what small local missional communities to overcome these habitual ways of looking at church.

Here’s a sample: “Of course, missional communities should not try to “compete” with this. Nonetheless, I think our gatherings must be intentional about displaying that God is present in this gathering and He is mightily at work in this body of people. It just looks different and (can I say this?) it is more real (less clouded by celebrity and special effects). Missional leaders should keep the gathering simple and be intentional about leading us into an authentic encounter with the living Christ from which we are sent into the world.”

Check Fitch’s post out and see what you think.

'Country Church' photo (c) 2012, dublin molly - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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Julia and Chester singing

Photograph by Lindsey Williams

Hymns Without Words is an online source of free, high quality, easily downloadable mp3 recordings for congregational singing.   All the hymns are arranged and performed by Richard Irwin, who is  Director of Music for the Parish of Holy Cross Chiseldon, UK.  There are a number of different instrumental combinations.  Almost all the hymns are in the public domain and lyrics are included on the hymn’s page.   If you have the proper copyright licenses, you can access others that are under copyright for use in worship services only by emailing Mr. Irwin.

Here is “Holy, Holy, Holy” performed on the organ, and “Morning Is Broken” performed on the piano.

He also has produced two CDs, “Hymns Without Words,” volumes 1 and 2,  that include some copyrighted tunes, such as “Bind Us Together.”  You can access them on amazon.com by clicking here.  You will see that he has also produced a collection of carols.

I highly recommend this site!

Here is a roundup of my posts about the many free and low-cost music resources available:

Hymnpod.com: downloadable piano accompaniments.

Smallchurchmusic.com: downloadable mp3 files.

Worship Service Resources: a CD collection.  Downloadable mp3 files also available.

See also this review of three CD collections: Hymns for Church, the Hymn Project, and the CD Hymnal.

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…and proud of it!

Do you ever wonder where the folks are who are enthusiastic about small church ministry?  I find myself wondering how many of us there are and where they are.  Here’s a blog that’s a gathering place and a source of encouragement for small church enthusiasts.  It’s called New Small Church, and its creator is Karl Vaters, a longtime small church pastor in California.

Here’s some of what led Karl to launch this venture: “I’ve read all the pastoral ministry books and attended all the seminars, just like you. And I’ve found great help from many of them. But, after a while, I started getting frustrated with the books and seminars because all the “can’t miss” principles for growing my church … did miss.

“My church stayed small.

“But it was (and is) a good church. And I was (and hopefully still am) a good pastor. So I started asking myself some questions about Small Church ministry.

  • “Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?”
  • “Why can’t I find help to understand how to do that?”
  • “Why does it feel like I’m on my own, learning by trial-and-error most of the time?”

He went on to write a book entitled The Grasshopper Myth.  The blog builds on the book and is a way to make it a conversation and not just a monologue.  I read the book and recommend it.  This author is deeply respectful of congregations of every size and of those who serve there.  What’s the “grasshopper” in the title all about?  Check out Numbers 13:32-33.  You can order the book on the site, or access it from amazon.com.

Click on the website name above to explore.  And here’s a post Karl wrote that was published recently on Qideas: Why Small Churches Are the Next Big Thing.

Many thanks, Karl!

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'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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