Month: June 2008

The internet for everyone?

I ran across this site, internetforeveryone.org, which touts “the internet for everyone.” Not hard to figure that out — their reasoning is broadband access enables everyone to participate in democracy and exercise free speech.  Good argument, especially in light of the fact that only 20% of the world has access to the internet.  In the US, only 35% of families with income under $50,000 have broadband access.  That’s one reason we included a computer lab and wifi access in our new community center.

But back to small churches — does the internet figure in your small church ministry, and if so, how?  In our church, only about a dozen families even use e-mail, so the internet is not a big factor for us.  When we tried to do an on-line church-wide survey, we had to print paper surveys and then enter the results on-line manually because so few of our members use the internet.

But, your church may be different.  Do you use email, a website, text messaging, instant messaging, on-line ads, or any other internet services in your ministry setting?  Does your church have a website?  Does your church provide at least the office area with broadband access?  Is is necessary for small churches?  I’d like to know what you’re doing, and so would lots of other small-church folks.  So, either drop me a postcard, or hey, why not comment here!  Thanks.

Over 100,000!!

Today Confessions of A Small-Church Pastor crossed the 100,000 page view mark!  Thanks to all of you who stop by, comment, strike up conversations with each other, and genuinely make this blog “a gathering place for the small church community.” I appreciate you!

Are we still excluding the people from worship?

A recent post on worship here got some conversation going about what is worship?  One comment noted the word “liturgy” literally means “work of the people.”  Evangelicals are quick with criticism of the ancient mass from which the common people were excluded.  But, are we doing the same thing — excluding “the people” when we offer spectator worship services with little chance of participation by those attending?

Most of our churches are set up like theaters — performers on stage, audience in rows.  But, the small church especially can provide ways for worshippers to participate.   We’re trying to involve more people in worship services at our church.   For example, I was concerned that I did most of the talking during communion.   To solve that problem, we adapted The Great Thanksgiving, which is used in Episcopal and Methodist churches (maybe others, too), during the Eucharist.  The Great Thanksgiving in our church has become a reading that pastor and congregation participate in during the communion service.

We also are asking different people to read Scripture, pray, and lead our children’s sermon each Sunday.  Some Sundays we do a better job of involving folks than we do on other Sundays.  When we offered an early service, worshippers sitting around tables participated in creating the worship focal point — an art piece representing the theme of the day — and we had a great time in the process.

What are you doing?  How do you involve worshippers, so that worship doesn’t just get done by the professionals?  Leave a comment and share your ideas with others.

Podcast: Poured Into Our Hearts

Here’s the podcast of my sermon, Poured Into Our Hearts, from Sunday, June 15, 2008.   The text is Romans 5:1-8, which is one of the lectionary readings for Year A cycle.  I hope you find it helpful.

Would you share a table with them?

In the recent news coverage of gay couples marrying in California, you might have overlooked an event that began in May called “American Family Outing.” MySanAntonio.com reports that gay couples supported by Soulforce, an Austin, Texas civil rights organization, contacted six mega churches requesting that a church staff member have dinner with a gay couple to dialogue about the church and gay issues. The article contained the following quote:

Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, the Austin-based civil rights and social organization spearheading the outing, said the group was essentially asking churches: Can you show hospitality to strangers with whom you disagree?

“Having a meal and talking with us does not mean that you support our beliefs,” he said. “It’s simply people coming together and bridging a divide. We’re just hoping that somehow, someway we can get a little bit past the divisiveness around this issue.”

Lakewood Church, Joel Osteen’s church, was one of the churches contacted. Soulforce was told by Lakewood that their staff did not have time to have a meal with the couple, but that anyone was welcome to visit their services. Saddleback is in discussion with the group, Willow Creek met with them, and others are considering it. The Family Research Council has taken the approach of organizing “Church Crisis Response Teams”  to counter the group’s approach. Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammye Faye Bakker, is acting as liaison between the mega churches and the gay group. Lots of folks getting in the act.

What would you do? Would you share a meal with a gay couple to “dialogue?” Or do you think there’s nothing to dialogue about, and would decline? What media risk is there to either position? Is this just a political stunt, or a sincere attempt to open the lines of communication? I have a hunch these issues are going to be with us a long time. How would you respond?

The Decline of the Suburbs

CNN notes today that 40% of Americans want to live in “walkable” communities, and that the suburbs as we know them may be an endangered species. The subprime mortgage crisis, which put many people in homes they could not afford, has led to record foreclosures, bankruptcies and repossessions. Some homeowners, facing falling home values, are abandoning their dream homes altogether.

Professor Arthur C. Nelson contends that by 2025, America will face a surplus of 22-million large lot (suburban) homes. Some suburban developments are noticing an increase in crime, unkempt lawns, graffitti covered sidewalks, and other signs of “suburban decay” which is the same as urban decay, only in a different neighborhood.

Shortly after World War II, as returning GIs moved their growing families to the suburbs after buying their first automobiles, urban flight seemed like an irreversible wave. Inner cities were left to wither, urban churches struggled to stay alive (and many did not), and suburban churches thrived during the Baby Boom generation.

We may actually be watching the beginnings of the reversal of urban flight, transformed into suburban flight. Positive forces like new urbanism, the arts, downtown redevelopment, and urban diversity have made cities with high density populations the place to be. Sports arenas, once built on the edge of major cities, are all constructed inside the urban perimeter now. Negative forces such as high gasoline prices which makes commuting expensive; the subprime mortgage crisis; and cash-strapped suburban areas whose governments cannot keep pace with their growth are causing portions of the population to rethink urban living.

With rising urban home prices, the poor will be pushed out to the suburbs to occupy the surplus houses soon available at fire sale prices. CNN notes that the ubiquitous McMansion will become the multi-family dwelling for lower income families — much like urban brownstones were chopped up into multi-family apartments during urban flight.

The implications for churches both urban and suburban are tremendous. Suburban churches with large debt and massive buildings may be caught in the same predicament that urban churches were in 50-years ago. Declining membership due to population shift from suburban to urban may change the church landscape in the years to come. Our church in our small town was built on a small lot because in 1890 people in town walked to church. Maybe we’re coming full circle, back to the neighborhood church, which was usually small. What do you think? And what does it mean for your church in 2025 — only 17 years from now?

What if your church started a business?

In her book, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, Dr. Lisa M. Bitel states “The archaelogical evidence of [Celtic monastic] enclosures…suggests that living within the sight of the monastic enclosure was useful to farmers and herders, doubtless economically as well as spiritually.”  Which is a very academic way of saying that the community around the Celtic Christian abbeys benefitted financially as well as spiritually from the abbey’s ministry.

The abbeys had to be self-supporting and relied on a combination of gifts of land and valuables, plus commerce, farming, and trade to sustain their work.  Bitel goes on to comment that as abbeys grew, the community around them grew, attracting craftspersons, farmers, herdsmen, merchants, and even musicians and actors who found a ready market for their goods and services.

Why couldn’t churches today have a positive impact on their communities economically as well as spiritually?  Could we create small businesses that serve as gateways into the community of faith, while at the same time providing employment and economic impact?  Tall Skinny Kiwi, Andrew Jones, is part of a venture doing just that with the arts.  Their microbusiness, called The Sorting Room, provides a venue for local artists to sell their work.  Some churches have started coffee shops, or fair trade stores.  First Baptist Church of San Antonio operates the 4th Street Cafe staffed by volunteers and they use the funds generated to feed the homeless in San Antonio.

Maybe it’s time for churches to seriously consider going into business.  What do you think?  Do you know of any churches operating businesses either as a ministry or as part of their self-sustaining strategy?  Let’s exclude all the mega-ministries that are big businesses, but what about small churches operating business enterprises?

Sermon, Sunday, June 15, 2008: Poured Into Our Hearts

Poured Into Our Hearts
Romans 5:1-8

1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Understanding Paul’s Theological Jargon

Last week we looked at Romans 4, where Paul talked about faith. Specifically, Paul used the example of Abraham as a person of faith and because of his faith, Paul says it was credited to Abraham as righteousness. Remember what we said righteousness was? Going the same direction as God — orienting our lives with the plan of God. That’s what Abraham did as he left his homeland, the Ur of Chaldees, and all the pagan idolatry there to follow the plan of God. Because, the Bible tells us, Abraham believed that God had the power to keep His promises. And of course, God had promised Abraham at the age of almost 100, and Sarah his wife, who was about 90, that they would have a son. Abraham would be the father of a great nation, and would be a blessing to the world. Now faith is believing God can, and righteousness is packing for the journey. So, that’s where we left Paul last week.

But, this week, we run into more theological jargon from Paul, starting with verse 1 of chapter 5. Paul uses words like justified, peace, grace, and hope. Let’s take a look at these and see if we can bring them down from the world of Greek and Roman thought into our own 21st century world.

The Results of Faith

Without getting bogged down in more theological mire, let’s just remind ourselves that Paul is telling us that Abraham wasn’t counted righteous because of what he did, but because of his faith. So, faith — belief — is a central part of what Paul is trying to tell us. Faith is trust, faith is confidence, faith is assurance that God is powerful enough to keep his promises. But, what are the results of that faith for those of us who believe?

First, in verse 1, Paul says we have peace. Now when we think of peace in our modern day, 21st century lives we think of peace as tranquility, peace of mind, calmness, the absence of agitation — an internal feeling that everything is all right.

But, that’s not how Paul uses the word peace. The imagery Paul uses here is that of the military. The Roman empire is famous for its Pax Romana — the Roman peace. Now, here’s how Rome made peace with the world of the first century. The emperor would send his legions into a country and give them the chance to become a part of the Roman empire or be killed. In the words of President Bush, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” You did not want to be with the enemies of Rome when the Empire was at its most dominant.

So, when Paul says “we have peace with God,” he doesn’t mean a warm fuzzy feeling that “Wow, don’t I feel calm and tranquil now.” No, Paul means we are no longer enemies of God. We have crossed over, we are no longer at war with God, we are no longer going in the opposite direction, we are at peace with God. We’ve signed the peace treaty, there is no threat to us anymore, we are not “enemy combatants” we have crossed over into the family of God. So, this term “peace” is a legal term, a description of our relationship with God.

Secondly, in verse 2, Paul says we now have access to grace in which we now stand. In 1992, I was briefly on the staff of the Greater Nashville Arts Foundation. In addition to running an art gallery in the downtown mall in Nashville, The Greater Nashville Arts Foundation put on “Summer Lights in Music City” — a city-wide festival celebrating the arts. We closed off several downtown blocks, and set up stages for musical performances. We had visual arts, performing arts, food, activities for kids — it was great! Thousands of people came out each year to hear great musical groups, watch dramatic presentations, do hands-on art projects, eat some great food, and generally have a great time in downtown Nashville on the banks of the Cumberland River.

We also had security at each stage and art venue. Keeping 25,000 people on their best behavior in a downtown setting isn’t always easy. So, each exhibitor, artist, musician, food vendor, and festival staff member were given passes, which we wore around our necks on lanyards. Some passes only admitted the individual to specific areas — food, visual arts, stages, etc. But, I had an all-access pass — I could go anywhere! And, so I did. I walked back stage as musicians were getting ready to perform. I walked behind the barricades where only artists and exhibitors were allowed. I even had access to Tennessee state office buildings, because some of the exhibits were being set up in their lobbies. I had an all-access pass with no restrictions.

Paul says that’s what Jesus has done for us — He’s given us an all-access pass to the presence of God. Paul calls that the glory of God. And, he says, we’re standing in it. Now the word Paul actually uses there is the Greek word for someone who ushers you into the presence of royalty. Jesus takes us by the hand, and brings us into the presence of God. We have no right there on our own. We didn’t earn a royal audience, nor could we ever. But, Jesus says, “Come with me. I want to introduce you to my Father. He’s been waiting to see you for a long time. Come on, you’re with me.”

Thirdly, Paul says “we rejoice.” Of course, we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. That’s an easy one. Who wouldn’t rejoice in the future where the Kingdom of God is fully come, where God’s glory is completely unveiled, where that glory settles over the new heaven and the new earth with such luminosity that the Book of Revelation says there is no need of the sun by day or the moon by night, for God is the light in the midst of His people. Easy to see why we’d be rejoicing over the prospect of future glory.

But, Paul doesn’t just rejoice over God’s glory. Paul says we also rejoice in suffering. Uh-oh. We didn’t sign up for this — or did we? Let’s look at rejoicing in suffering more closely.

Rejoicing in Suffering

Paul says we rejoice in suffering because suffering produces perseverance. The word there means “sticking out your chest, standing firm, and not being moved.” It’s not a passive verb at all — hupomone. Hupo means under. It’s the word we use when we say “hypodermic” as in needle! A hypodermic needle goes “under” the skin. Mone’ means to stand firm. Standing firm under pressure is really what Paul is saying here. That’s the kind of perseverance suffering produces.

Dr. Bill Wallace, Southern Baptist missionary to China, rejoiced at suffering. Wallace left is hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee in 1935 to serve in Wuchow, China as a medical missionary. Dr. Wallace stayed through the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, and the Korean War. When in 1951, the new Chinese communist government accused Bill Wallace of being a spy, he went to jail, and was tortured and killed for his faith. The communists sought to cover up their crime by burying Wallace’s body in a secret location, but Chinese Christians found his body, and reburied Wallace with the simple inscription, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Paul could have no better example that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character, than the person of Bill Wallace.

The Basis for Our Hope

But Paul says, “character produces hope.” Now when we talk about hope, we really mean “wish.” As in “I hope it will rain this week.” We might as well be saying, “I wish it would rain.” Because there’s nothing behind that kind of hope. But Paul’s hope is different. Paul’s hope is based on a promise — a promise kept by the God who keeps His promises. Paul’s hope isn’t one of many possibilities that may happen. Paul’s hope is a guarantee, a rock-solid assurance, an event promised in the future. Paul says, “hope doesn’t disappoint us.” Why?

Are you ready? Hope doesn’t disappoint us because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts! While we’re looking at words Paul uses, let’s look at this verb, poured out. The King James Version translates it as “shed abroad” but that doesn’t mean much to us today. Poured out is used 9 times in the Book of Revelation, but always to describe God’s wrath being poured out on God’s enemies.

But, we’re not enemies any longer, remember? We have peace with God now. So, instead of pouring out His wrath on us, God pours out His love. Not just on us, but in us. In us through the presence of His Holy Spirit. Paul calls the Holy Spirit the down payment on our hope. The earnest money of that which is to come. The God who was with us, is now in us. Poured into our hearts. The essence of who we are, the God-shaped piece in each of us, now filled with God Himself.

And how did all this come about? How do we know that God loves us and has poured out his love into our hearts/ Because Paul says, at just the right time, Jesus died for the irreverent — the ungodly. While we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. He didn’t wait for us to clean up our act. He didn’t wait for us to improve ourselves. He didn’t wait for us to do better. He died for us. He gave himself in love, so we could see it, hear it, feel it, and understand it. Someone said, “Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe, because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.” That’s how we know God loves us. That’s how it’s possible to remain firm in the midst of suffering. That’s how we know we’re not in this alone.

While we were still sinners — undeserving, ungrateful, unhappy — Christ died for us. And in his death and resurrection, Christ made peace between us and God possible. Christ ushered into the presence of the King of the Universe, not on our merit, but on his. Christ gave us reason to rejoice, even in suffering, because God loves us and pours His love into our hearts before we can ever deserve it. We have an all-access pass to the glory of God!

What is worship? Hint: it’s not what you think!

I just finished reading an article about worship.  Or a worship service.  Or praise music.  Or singing.  I’m really not sure because the author used all of those “worship” words interchangeably, as though they all meant the same thing.  News flash: They don’t.

Which brings us to the question — What is worship? Let’s begin by defining what worship is not.

  1. Worship is not the worship service. “The worship service” (or hour or celebration or whatever you call it) is an event, a time, a place that we set aside to do the work of worshipping.   If your church is like mine, sometimes we worship and sometimes we don’t, but we still call it the worship service.
  2. Worship is not the music. Praise bands, worship leaders, singing, choruses, and so on are not worship.  Music can be a vehicle for worship, but music is not a synonym for worship.  Singing worship songs does not necessarily constitute worship.
  3. Worship is not everything we do. I read that in a book about worship, too.  The author’s point was that our lives are worship, if we live them in reverence for God.  Or something like that.  I disagree.  While I may be a Christian all the time, I am not worshipping all the time.  Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?  Worship is special, a time-out from everything we do the rest of the time, to devote our full attention, emotion, and presence to God.
  4. Worship is not going to church. Pretty well covered this in #1, but just in case somebody missed it, here it is, again.

Okay, my fifth grade teacher taught me you can’t define something by what it isn’t, so what is worship?  Jesus gives us a pretty good idea when he talks to the woman at the well.

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.  -john 4:24

“Spirit and truth” is what he says.  Spirit and truth.  Not a place, not a doctrine, not a practice, but an essence.  Spirit and truth.

Spirit and truth can take many forms from Jesus’ day to the 21st century, but worship isn’t form.  Spirit and truth can be expressed in many ways, but worship isn’t technique.  Worship is that indescribable communion of God’s spirit with ours that opens our eyes to the one who is truth.  But maybe that doesn’t describe worship, either.  Maybe worship is so hard to define that we use substitutes like “worship service” to mean worship.  Maybe that’s the best we can do.  Like the woman at the well, we focus on time, place, and technique, when we really ought to focus on spirit and truth.

This Sunday at 11 o’clock, or whenever you have your worship service, see if, among the announcements, video clips, praise songs, sermon and sound system, you encounter this whisper of a moment when God’s spirit engages your congregation, and heaven and earth fleetingly meet.  That, for me, would be worship.

Ministry during life’s turning points

At the end of each summer several new families move into Chatham, which is remarkable for a town of 1300 people.  These families are new faculty members at Hargrave Military Academy and Chatham Hall here in our small town.  This year, we’re going to figure out ways to officially welcome these newcomers to Chatham at this turning point in their lives.

In addition to moving, other turning points in life include marriage, family stages, job changes, divorce, and grief.  What is your church doing in any of these areas?  Do you have a ministry story to share about how you are helping others navigate life’s turning points?  Outreach magazine has asked me to do another short piece around this theme, and I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment, or email me at chuckwarnock [at] gmail.com.  Who knows — your church might be featured in a future issue of Outreach magazine!