Posted tagged ‘small town church’

Believing A Small Church Is Worth the Effort

October 15, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            October 15, 2017

 

Yesterday twenty five people descended on an aging church building in a town of five hundred people to be a help. Bill Hale, nine days my junior but years ahead of me in wisdom and craftsmanship, developed the idea along with our area denominational staff person, Mike Oldham.

The idea was to invite a few churches and individuals to come to Simla, a small town on Highway 24 that you would have no reason to go to if you weren’t heading someplace past it, and provide some labor for a few hours that would allow the church to get a few needed projects completed.

The First Baptist Church of Simla is a congregation of about twenty dear people. Bill Hale, Ed Stucky, and myself have been sharing pulpit responsibilities there for the last year and a half or so. They do not have a pastor, although they do have a parsonage right next door to the church.

The group of servers came from Pueblo, Greeley, Colorado Springs, San Antonio, Texas, and, of course, Simla! They ranged in age from four to seventy-four. One man, who owns a company in Colorado Springs, brought his “bucket truck” that allowed limbs and branches from the trees in front of the church that are about as old as sarcasm to be cut back. The carpet in the sanctuary was shampooed, the church sign was touched up with paint. There was painting done to the outside of the building after a power washing was done, and the wood frames of the stained glass windows got a needed fixing up. Sidewalks got edged, weeds got pulled, and the lawn got mowed and trimmed. Massive efforts that meant so much to the people of the church.

What I’ve learned from Simla is that small churches are worth the effort. For me Simla has become my home church. Most Sundays when I’m not speaking there I still travel the forty-five minutes east of Colorado Springs to worship with the “salt of Simla.” Small churches have a purpose. It may not revolve around budgets, staff, and packing the sanctuary, but they have a purpose. The Simla Saints have started doing community ministry efforts with the United Methodist Church a block down the street. They’ve even had discussions about how the three churches in town might have occasional worship services together, interchanging the pastors as the speakers. This past summer they made a good-sized contribution for the beginning expenses of a missionary family who had already been commissioned  by the American Baptist Churches to go to Chiapas, Mexico, but were trying to raise the last few thousand dollars that were needed as seed money. The Simla Saints gave the contribution and also started supporting the missionary family on a monthly basis.

They will never be a mega-church. They wouldn’t know how to handle that. The town of Simla has shrunk by two-thirds in the last twenty years. Mega-churches rarely happen in villages of diminishing size located between here and nowhere. Every week, however, fifteen to twenty people gather in the sanctuary of this church. They don’t whine about their size. Size does not effect the purpose or change the mission. Their purpose is to be Light in a community that struggles to keep on going.

Too many churches are trying to be great! Churches already have the greatest story to share. Sometimes it seems a congregation is trying to be greater than the story!

Simla is a love story of hope that tells of God’s love story. Call me simple, but when I retired from the ministry that’s what I was looking for…and it causes me to keep on keeping on!

Contemporary Simla

August 17, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         August 17, 2017

                                

Bill Hale, my co-conspirator….err, partner in ministry, bought me lunch yesterday and then told me about his previous Sunday’s experience at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado. Bill, another great guy named Ed Stucky, and I have been filling the pulpit at the Simla church for the past year and a half.

Now, a couple of things about Bill! He is a retired school teacher who happens to be nine days younger than me, loves country music, and has a keen wit. He and his wife Sylvia have directed our regional denomination’s camp week at Quaker Ridge (Even though we’re American Baptists!) Camp for the past several years. The past two summers I’ve come alongside them, kind of like Larry came alongside Moe and Curly! On the last night of camp this past July Bill dressed up as the Tooth Fairy. I have pictures!

Simla First Baptist is a small congregation of 25…maybe! That’s if everyone, plus their pets, come to church! They have done the best they can, not having the financial resources to pay a pastor or make many improvements. One of the things they haven’t had is an organist, pianist, or even guitar player. So they make do with what we simply call “a music machine.” The music machine plays the background organ music for whatever hymn the congregation is struggling to sing. More times than not it plays the wrong music, or plays the music too slow or softly. Every hymn we sing is a potential Saturday Night Live skit. When you don’t have what you’ve never had you don’t know any difference!

Rev. Hale (as of his ordination service this past May 7) is a bit bolder than me. (We have coffee at Starbucks, but he brings his McDonald’s Diet Coke cup! Radical!) Last Sunday he brought a projector, a laptop, and a screen to Simla. The last projector Simla First Baptist had was the type that you connect a reel of film to and thread it through to connect to the back reel. He set up the screen and the projector and his laptop and, using DVD’s, had the congregation sing praise songs with music and words. For the Sunday message he used a power point to illustrate his sermon, plus a video clip! It was like a tsunami washed over the congregation…and they loved it!

This Sunday I’ll be joining Bill and Sylvia in Simla. They’ve got me doing the children’s story! He’s bringing the projector and screen again and we’ll see if they can bear two Sundays in a row of “the new stuff.”

The Simla church is like many small town churches (SImla’s population has shrunk down to around 500). The possibility of closure is greater than the hope of continuing. They remember in days and decades gone by when the sanctuary was close to capacity. Those days have long since disappeared, and yet in recent months this small congregation has done some amazing things. They paid for and sent four kids to the Quaker Ridge camp week, and  gave a gift of almost $2,000 to help a young couple raise the needed financial support they needed to begin their new venture as missionaries in Chiapas, Mexico. the church also committed to supporting the young family of four with a monthly financial gift. Those have all been great things, but…the music machine needed to have a “come to Jesus moment!” In other words, go on to the sweet by and by!

Bill Hale said something at lunch yesterday that resonated with me. He said, “They deserve better!” Churches like Simla have often been content to settle for less. They’ve settled for less for so long they may not even realize they deserve better.

Don’t get me wrong! Bringing a projector, a laptop, and a screen are not going to transform this little church. I think they’re already in the midst of transformation, ever so slowly, but still they are changing.

I’ve told them several times that they have allowed me to fall in love with the church again…even though on most Sundays we wouldn’t need a whole pot of chili to feed the entire congregation. But you don’t need a huge number of people to love the church. You simply need a group of people who are committed to one another for the journey. The Saints of Simla, as I call them, are great people…who deserve more!

Now it’s getting them to believe it! All things are possible with God! He can even use a 63 year old man who likes to dress up as the Tooth Fairy!

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!

 

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.

Caroling With the Methodists

December 19, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          December 19, 2016

     Cautiously they came up the seven steps into the sanctuary. There were nine of them, four adults and five bouncing kids. They hadn’t gotten two steps into the sanctuary before two of the Baptist women descended upon them with greetings and smiles. Today the Methodists were joining us! More specifically, the Methodist children’s bell choir was going to play for our service. First Baptist Church and First United Methodist Church were situated just a block apart from one another in the hamlet of Simla, but worlds apart from ever joining together in some kind of activity. Today would change that.

The cold and snow kept a few of the faithful away. Henry and Mildred, our two ninety year olds, wisely stayed away. John was down in his back. A different John was on snow plow duty with the County. So nine United Methodists joined thirteen American Baptists for a time of worship, celebration, and laughter. The five-child bell choir, all related to one another, delighted us. After they finished their two songs they passed out candy canes to everyone…and then I passed out the candy canes I had brought for them!

Two small churches figuring out each other! At the end of worship the crock pots with chili were plugged in and most of us trudged down the snow-packed street two blocks to the full-care senior facility to sing for the elderly residents and, once again, to have the bell choir play. The two churches had collected pairs of socks that the children passed out to the residents, socks with brightly colored stripes and designs to bring a bit of color to the lives of some folks whose days were mostly gray and hopeless.

Two small churches walking together, becoming familiar with one another in a community we were all familiar with. Two small churches figuring out how we could join together to make a difference.

Back to the Baptist church we walked to enjoy chili and cinnamon rolls together. We gathered at the front of the sanctuary, joined hands in a circle of prayer, and asked God’s blessing on the meal and thanked him for the day we had enjoyed. Guests went first, savoring the aromas as they passed by the pots. One of the girls gave the ultimate compliment. She said, “This place smells just like Taco Bell!”

We sat together and enjoyed conversation about school, life, and farming. A story I had shared in my morning message resonated with one of the Methodists. He had been the high school basketball coach for 35 years and my story had focused on a basketball official that we both knew. Connecting points brought us closer together in our conversation.

At the end of the day everyone knew that what had happened that morning and afternoon had been a good thing.

Two small churches a block away, but no longer worlds apart.

Preaching Again!

February 28, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        February 28, 2016

                                            

When you have been a pastor for over thirty-six years and then take that step to being a former pastor of thirty-six years…it feels strange…kind of like sleeping without my blanket. Let me emphasize THE blanket!

This morning I’m filling the pulpit at a little church in a small community about forty-five minutes from where we live. It will be the first time I’ve preached since January 17, and it will feel strange!

When you’ve preached for so long making that transition to “no longer preaching” is freeing in some ways, and bewildering in others. A few months ago I would deliver my Sunday morning message and then, after a Sunday afternoon nap, begin thinking of the message for the next Sunday. I planned Sunday worship themes well in advance, but putting the substance and flesh around the frame happened in the few days before. It became a routine, a routine that was challenging, but also helpful.

This morning I speak in a church that doesn’t use Power Point…so no slides to help make a point. That will be a change for me, kind of like going back to my seminary class on preaching.

I must admit that I have thoughts of insecurity running through my brain. It’s been six weeks! Do I still know how to deliver a sermon? Will this small gathering of farmers and good folk understand my humor? Will they be a tough crowd? Will they ask me to come back again?

And yet the thought of preaching in front of a new group of people is exciting! I’m anxious to hear some of their faith stories, to see how what I say this morning resonates with many of them.

I’m preaching on my favorite story from the Old Testament…David and Goliath. I asked the man from the church if there were any children? If so, I would do a children’s story. He told me “Well…there’s a couple! I’ll contact them to make sure they will be there.” A few days later he called me back to tell me that the family with the two kids would be there, and he added, “There may even be a third and fourth! They were pretty excited!”

So I’ll launch into the story of a shepherd boy with a sling, and talk about how God use what other people see as foolish to do something that can only be explained as being of God.

After the service I’m sure people will tell me how happy they were to have me come…I hope…and would I come back again?

I hope so! Two Sundays in a row would almost be a routine!