Posted tagged ‘congregational life’

Two Double A’s!

January 1, 2018

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                January 1, 2018

                                             

I arrived at Simla First Baptist Church yesterday as usual…about 10:00 for the 10:15 worship service. Simla First Baptist is one of those older small town church structures, white on the outside and dated on the inside. Pleasant looking enough, but it’s far from contemporary. People don’t go to Simla for contemporary and fashionable, let alone church in Simla.

I walked into the sanctuary and was immediately greeted by Laura, who was shivering in front of the communion table. The temperature in the worship space felt forty five-ish!

“Ray went to get new batteries!”

“New batteries?”

“Yes, the batteries in the thermostat died.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Wish I was! Two AA batteries, that’s all it is!”

The death of two Double A’s had rippled into a lack of life in the furnace on a Sunday morning when the temperature outside was hovering around twenty degrees. The sun shining through the east side sanctuary windows was not going to lesser the lack of heat. We proceeded to light every candle at the front of the sanctuary, but fifteen wax candles are not the same as a campfire to warm your hands beside.

The blankets were dispersed amongst the pews. We usually prayed for the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to be upon us. This morning we grabbed comforters and wrapped ourselves within them.

Two Double A’s!

There’s a lesson to learn in that. Here’s the cold hard facts! (Sorry! I couldn’t resist using a pun here.) It’s the small things that bring warmth to a church!

When perfection is more important than the person a coldness descends.

When grace and forgiveness get smothered by program and performance the temperature of the church plummets.

When ministries that care for the poor, displaced, and discouraged are seen as being of less significance than ministries for the well-to-do, established, and encouraged the warmth of community flickers away.

It’s the small things, often unseen, that cause a congregation to experience authentic fire and relational depth.

Two Double A’s!

Thank you, Lord, for the lessons you teach us in the little things of life!

Conversing with Church Runaways

July 16, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                 July 16, 2017

                             

Josh Packard wrote a book a couple of years ago entitled Church Refugees. A sociologist, Packard had noticed that there had been a good bit of research and writing about the “Nones”, those people who select “No Religious Affiliation” when they are filling out a personal information sheet; but there hadn’t been that much study conducted that dealt with the “Dones”, those people who had been involved in a church and left it to go…nowhere!

It doesn’t take me very long to recall a number of “Dones” that have been involved in a church that I’ve pastored. Packard labels the “Dones” as “church refugees”, meaning that they have left where they were a part but aren’t quite sure where they will land. There is a vey good chance that where they land will not be in “churchland!”

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who would classify herself as a church runaway. I deeply respect this person, and value the conversations I’ve had with her. She exited the church of her upbringing mainly because of the judgmental posture of some of the church people she had known for years. They assaulted the experience of community that she longed for. She observed inconsistency in their words and actions and finally exited by whichever door was closest and never looked back.

The thing is…I can not argue her reasoning! She’s right! Church people often ration out grace and pour out judgment. Grace is too fluid and judgment is very clear, so judgment becomes the “go to.”

Some of the neatest, most incredible people I know are intimately involved in churches…and some of the meanest, most vindictive people I know are involved in churches. The blessing of the church is that everyone is welcome (At least that’s what the marquee says!); and the curse of the church is that it will accept people that no one else would put up with!

And it’s not like the church at one time had it all together and then lost its way! 1 Corinthians deals with a dysfunctional congregation that needed an outside consultant to come in and do a full body analysis! Spain didn’t join the American Colonists in their Revolutionary War fight against England because Americans were “too Protestant!” In other words, they did not belong to the one true church. On the other hand, in the early 1800’s very few Protestants celebrated Christmas in America because it was “too Catholic!” Churches have been prone to pointing their fingers at other churches and shaking their heads in contempt.

And so many churches are no longer seen as being safe locations but places that are caustic. And we have no one to blame but ourselves!

Here’s the interesting, and perhaps disturbing, thing! I feel much more comfortable having a conversation with my church runaway friend than I do with a lot of people who sit in pews each Sunday morning. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it is a bit unsettling!

The Key To the Church…Literally!

May 9, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         May 8, 2017

                           

I arrived with my friends Ed and Diana at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado this past  Sunday for morning worship. We parked in one of the “parking suggestions”…that means there are no lined spots to steer the vehicle into. You just park it in the general vicinity!

Thelma, one of the church saints, was standing on the front steps. And then it hit me! I didn’t have a key, and Thelma, who had arrived early to prepare communion, didn’t have a key.

“Do you have a key, Pastor Bill?”

“No, Thelma, I don’t! And I’m assuming that since you’re standing here on the steps that you don’t either.”

“No, I came early to get communion ready.”

“Oops!” I walked around to the area on the other side of the steps that disguises itself as a landscaped garden of shrubs and plastic flowers. In the past it also had served another purpose. A key to the church was hidden underneath one of the rocks that decorated the area. I commenced to turning each rock over and seeing if a treasured key was to be discovered.

Polly came walking around the corner with a cane, but no key.

“Good morning, Polly!”

“No key!”

“Not yet! We may have to worship on the front steps this morning.”

“That would be okay!” she replied. One of the wonderful things about this small congregation is that no one gets bent out of shape when a crisis…like no key…happens. In a town of diminishing population and limited opportunities…life happens! Polly had been gone from the church for years and has recently returned. When she attended years ago she didn’t have to have a came along wth her, but now mobility issues abound. Her church family offers her encouragement for the slowed-down journey.

I came up empty on my hidden key search amongst the rocks. John and Sherry pulled up and we all looked towards them with limited hope.

“Good morning, John! Good morning, Sherry!”

“No key?” they question.

“Not yet!” The probability of worship on the steps was increasing! John and Sherry were okay with that. They’ve headed up a summer experience called “Cowboy Camp” for years. It meets in the midst of someone’s pasture for five days in late June. People from miles away bring their campers and lawn chairs for the preaching, teaching, and music. It’s all outside, so John and Sherry might feel more at home on the steps than in the pews. John’s cowboy hat is an indication of this.

“I wonder if Henry and Mildred have a key?” Thelma asks. “I know they did years ago.”  Henry and Mildred are the ninety-somethings of the fellowship. They are about the dearest people you could ever meet, now in the last years of their journeys. Henry has limited vision and Mildred has limited hearing. Mildred went through a tough time recently when their family dictated that she could no longer drive. It was a hit to Mildred’s independence and purpose. Struggling through each day with limited energy, driving the Town Car around town whispered to her that she could still do things. Taking the car keys away, even though it was a decision made in love and a needed development, edged Mildred towards the pit of depression.

“I think Angie is picking them up today, so we’ll see soon,” Sherry said.

Our growing cluster stood around the steps and chatted about communion grape juice, rain showers, and the Methodists. I was formulating a revised worship order in my mind that could be accomplished on the steps. We could pick out a couple of songs that we all were familiar with and go to town A cappella with them. John’s cowboy hat could be the makeshift offering plate. It was doable!

But about that time Angie arrived with her two kids…and Henry and Mildred.

“Good morning!” everyone greeted one another.

“Any of you have a key?” Thelma asked.

“I do!” replied Angie.

“Praise the Lord!” echoed a couple.

“I’m not sure if it fits the front door or the back door.”

“As long as it fits a door that’s all right,” I chirped.

It fit the back door! Angie’s daughter, Lena, made her way from the back of the church to the front and we all laughed and gleefully chit-chatted our way into the sanctuary.

I thought to myself that whether a key was found that day or not, we still were going to have church…and we were the church!

 

No Grow and No Go

May 7, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          May 7, 2017

                                     

Recently a pastor friend of mine was sharing his church’s “simplified plan.” Our ministry support group of five people was sitting in a restaurant having lunch together. The noise and my aged hearing caused me to misinterpret what he was saying. His congregation’s simplified plan is “Know. Grow. Go.”

I, however, heard him say “No grow and go!” I thought to myself, “That’s an unusual plan…no grow and no go!’ I asked for clarification and my friend corrected my understanding when I told him what I had heard. All five of us got a good chuckle out of it, but then I thought about it a bit more. “No Grow and No Go!” might better define many churches of various flavors around the country.

There are many reasons why a number of churches don’t desire to grow as disciples and go and make disciples of others. First of all, growing requires commitment to something and surrender of part of my agenda. “Growing” is a marathon race and the church is crowded with sprinters and jumpers. In sports there are “fair weather fans”, and in churches there are “fair weather attenders.”

Growing requires change and, whereas we are fluid in many areas of our lives when it comes to change, we are also entrenched in other ways. For example, I need a new pair of jeans but I love the pair I’ve been wearing for about a decade. The pocket that I’ve carried my wallet in has a hole in it that resembles a woodpecker’s carving. I’ve tried changing pockets, but then I feel like I walk funny. I’m considering the option of not carrying my wallet with me rather than buy a new pair of jeans that I have to get used to. That’s how we are in various areas of our lives. I drink my morning juice out of a certain plastic cup, but I drink my dinner milk from a glass. I write my blog from a certain stool at a certain Starbucks. To vary that always gives me the feeling that the quality of the writing has diminished…unless I’m visiting my dad in southern Ohio, and then it’s okay to write from the Starbucks across the river in Huntington, West Virginia.

On the other side of the equation are churches that have a hard time figuring out what that “growing” element looks like. Our recent history shows the jumping around of churches trying to nail the discipleship block. But growing followers of Christ is not easily contained in a program or a curriculum, and that’s a hard truth for many of us professional church leaders to admit. It’s not that programs and curriculums are bad or unnecessary, but rather that we often put all of our eggs in one basket and there’s, so to speak, a growing number of spiritual egg-haters!

Moving on to the “go” part we’re often unmovable! Jesus’ Great Commission too often is the great omission in congregations. To sum it up, most of a typical church’s budget goes for what happens inside the walls, and what is designated as the mission budget is what gets sent outside the walls to support people not from the church in mission work. When the budget gets evaluated each year the mission budget lies there like a clay pigeon ready to be shot at. Want proof? Just notice how many people in your church come to a potluck dinner, and compare that to how many people participate in a community service or ministry project!

“No grow and no go!” symbolizes the “standing firm congregation.” We’ve mis-translated that great hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” a bit! Jesus didn’t intend for us to be stationary and anchored to what has always been, protective of our resources and unsympathetic towards a broken world around us.

Out of Shape Churches (Part 3)

April 23, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               April 23, 2017

                             

Jesus’ words to his followers at The Last Supper have new meaning for me this morning. This morning my body feels broken. Don’t worry! I understand that the kind of brokenness I’m feeling is different than the heartache-filled brokenness of Jesus, but I am “feeling it” today!

I got on a treadmill yesterday and ran a couple of miles, and then did some weight-training. My hips and shoulders are having temper tantrums this morning! They are like the stiff wind that was blowing through our middle school track practice on Friday. Besides the 41 degree temperature, the wind blowing in the faces of our runners as they did 200 and 300 meter intervals around the track was biting! What do you tell a 70 pound seventh grader trying to sprint into the wind…and he forgot to bring his school-issued sweats with him? He’s thinking of a dozen reasons why what he is doing is stupid. I’m urging him on each set of sprints. A couple of our more manly coaches ran alongside the sprinters. There’s something about having a coach run with a student that causes the runner to grit it out!

I realize that today is “a quitting point” for me! Even as I write this I’m constructing my list of reasons as to why I should be “unmoved” this morning. Everything from “hip replacement”, to Sunday being a day of rest, to needing to catch up on my bible reading…as well as a few other excuses…are coming to my mind! My hips are warning me “Don’t go past this line or else!”

Years ago I ran the Chicago Marathon. At the 22 mile mark I “hit the wall!” Not literally! that’s just what they call that moment of decision. It’s when a runner is physically fatigued and mentally tired. I had cramps in both legs. I had to convince myself that I could go on, when my body told me to lay down and die! I took my inspiration from the people who lined the streets cheering the runners on..plus the embarrassment of the sixty year old woman who passed me by!

I take these recent and distant memory examples into my understanding of out-of-shape churches. Out-of-shape churches will without question face “quitting moments” in their journeys to wellness. Avoiding pain in the present will lead to debilitation in the future!

Here’s the thing! The uncomfortableness of the needed moves and decisions toward getting in shape have the enormous potential of keeping a church from seeing the long-term. It is the most tempting quitting point. It’s “the wall” moment, and it is “the wall” moment that causes churches to give up and stay unhealthy.

Rough comparison! When I was growing up and had to go see the doctor to get a shot our doctor would give me, the one who just suffered the agony, a sucker at the end of the appointment. It was a reward…and perhaps a way for the physician to ask my forgiveness for making me cry! In out-of-shape churches it would be like giving the kid a sucker and never administering the shot!

Churches are very good at avoiding life-and-death decisions. And even after deciding to move on, the lists of excuses continues to be constructed. Remember! If put to a vote the Hebrew people would have most assuredly voted to return to Egypt! Egypt was what they knew and were familiar with. The journey out of Egypt was the unknown. If put up for a vote they would have voted to return to bondage rather than walk towards the unfamiliarity of freedom!

That Biblical story is still getting played out in hundreds of churches today!

In a personal way, this morning my hips are voting to return to Egypt!

Redefining What Resurrection Means

April 16, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 16, 2017

                             

It’s Easter Sunday! As followers of Jesus we point to this day as the changing agent in our faith journeys. It gets referred to as Resurrection Sunday, sometimes with conviction and commitment…and sometimes because we’re paranoid people about the Easter Bunny! In about two hours I will be standing in front of a small town congregation of about 25 people proclaiming the hope of life after death, and life out of death. It has caused me to reconsider what resurrection means for this group of faith journeyers, and for myself.

When my friend Steve Wamberg and I started traveling out to Simla, forty-five minutes east of Colorado Springs, a little over a year ago, we encountered a church that had experienced its heyday two or three…or four decades ago. Some of the people still recall the Sundays when the sanctuary pews were filled in a place that seats about one hundred and twenty-five.

But things changed! The main industry in town shut down. Kids grew up, went off to college, and didn’t come back. Other people grew old and passed away and there were no others to take their places. Baptists did battle with Baptists and left for the Southern Baptist church on the edge of town. Other Baptists just turned on the TV and watched Charles Stanley.

When Steve and I started driving out and speaking on Sunday mornings we encountered a church that had a fear of closing. They can’t afford a pastor, even though there is a parsonage right next door to the church. I’m not sure if and when they will be able to afford a pastor.

As the weeks and months passed, however, there was a growing sense of hope in the midst of that small group. We’ve found what I like to call “the rhythm of community.” There’s been a couple of conflicts along the way, but you know what they say about Baptists…where there’s two Baptists there’s at least three opinions!

It has caused me to redefine resurrection. Whereas in many churches the success of Resurrection Sunday is tied into how many showed up, in Simla resurrection is tied to the growing hope of new life in the midst of an aging building. It is intimately tied to the hope of new life in the midst of impending congregational death hanging over the people.

Personally, it has brought new life into the spirit of a tired and fried pastor. You see, resurrection isn’t just about the people in the pews. It’s also about the people who lead the people in the pews.

Last summer we were able to get a few kids to go to church camp, the first time that has happened in recent memory. This year there is a congregational effort to get each of the children who are age-eligible to camp. Resurrection can sometimes grow from a seed of hope into a tree of determination.

This morning I look forward to hearing a ninety year old man named Henry lead one of the prayers. In his speaking to the Lord he anoints my soul. I look forward to seeing the five or six kids we have enjoy an Easter egg hunt after church. I look forward to hearing of this week’s farm stories from two sisters who run the family farm. I’ll chat with a former county commissioner named John about how blessed he and his wife are and how thankful he is for the grace of God. Victor, a fifth grader who comes by himself, will show up in his Sunday suit. Three year old Eric will arrive with his Minion hat on and be cared for during the children’s story by the older kids as we sit together at the front of the sanctuary. We’ll endure the music from a music machine that is about as Mayberry as you can get! The church moderator- a man named Ray who talks kind of like Andy Griffith- will lead the worship.Two of the kids will take the offering up.

Resurrection gets experienced in the shared life of the saints, and this group of saints has come to understand the hope of an empty tomb in an entirely new way.

The Entitled Church Attender

March 19, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             March 19, 2017

                              

There is a lot of talk and conversation these days about entitlement…from government programs to children of helicopter parents to job wages and benefits to kids sports. Entitlement could be a defining term for our culture. We hate it and yet we expect it!

Entitlement has entered through the front doors of the church as well! This past week I was listening to the morning host of a Christian music station as he launched into a discussion about finding a new church. One of his co-hosts had invited him to visit her church. The discussion flowed around what he might tell her afterwards if he didn’t enjoy the experience?

There was much laughter and humorous remarks related to the subject. How the host approached the subject left me a bit chilled. His opening was something like this: “Recently my family and I have been looking for a new church and been trying out some different places…”

His tone gave me the impression that changing churches was kind of like deciding on what restaurant we’re going to have lunch at today? How will the service be? Will we feel comfortable? Will we have our needs met? Does the time suit us? Will we like the music? How will we be made to feel special? Will it be easy to get into and out of?

He seemed to indicate that changing churches is no big deal, as difficult as deciding whether or not to get cheese on that burger I’m ordering!

But, of course, it goes with our culture. All those questions place “me” as the focus! After all these years we’re firmly traveling through a period of time where people don’t understand the purpose and mission of the church. The church simply reflects our culture, as opposed to being counter-cultural.

Perhaps the radio host had a good reason for leaving his old church. Maybe there was some doctrinal issue. Perhaps his church had lost its understanding of being the hands and feet of Jesus. Maybe the way it treated women and minorities was out of line with the gospel. Maybe the worship service had become an hour of entertainment.

The way he began the topic, however, made his previous place of fellowship sound like an old sock with a hole in the heel…tossed to the side!

Counter-cultural would have the host say something like this: “My family and I recently began a search for a new church to journey with. It wasn’t that the congregation we had been journeying with was bad or anything, but they didn’t expect anything of us. They didn’t expect us to be willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the gospel, and didn’t expect us to understand and incorporate the idea of servanthood into our lives. So we’re in search of a fellowship that will challenge us to live out of faith in word and deed.”

Wouldn’t that be a twist in our thinking? It would go completely against our culture’s question of “what can I get out of it without putting anything into it?” Of course, we read that idea into some of our hymns and praise songs. “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed me white as snow.”

We sing the song, say “Thanks Jesus!”, and then stroll out to the church parking lot saying “Where shall we go for lunch?”