Month: December 2008

The 12 Days of A Small-Church Pastor’s Christmas

christmas_treeWith apologies to whomever wrote the original.

On the first day of Christmas my ministry assistant gave to me, one cup of coffee, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the second day of Christmas my VBS director gave to me, two nice craft projects, her resignation, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the third day of Christmas my Building chairman gave to me, three bills for paying, two bulbs for changing, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.  

On the fourth day of Christmas my choir director gave to me, four great musicians (one played off-key), three new hymns, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas my missions coordinator gave to me, a missions prayer calendar from 1953, four missions goals, three unreached peoples, two missions projects, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas my children’s worker gave to me, six dirty diapers, all were quite stinky, five recalled toys, four had lead in them, three melted  crayons, two volunteers, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas our webguy gave to me, more bad news, six google searches, five metatags, four busted mouses, three new solutions, two more excuses, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas my finance chair gave to me, some worthless stock with seven strings attached, six pastdue bills, five unhappy members, four benevolence cases, three check requests, two more reports, and a broken chrismon off the chrisom tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas our choir gave to me, nine singing lessons, eight Bach etudes, seven Gregorian chants,  six offertories, five Anglican hymns, four Gospel quartets, three string ensembles, two familiar songs, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas our worship chair gave to me, a tiny baby Jesus, stolen from our own na-tiv-ity.

On the eleventh day of Christmas our seniors gave to me, lots of hugs and thank yous, much appreciation, and one broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my deacons gave to me, Spurgeon’s Complete Sermons, with some suggestions, eleven names of prospects, ten hospital visits, nine grumpy members, eight more meetings, seven budget cuts, six urgent problems, five words of encouragement, four happy faces, three days off, two new watches, and a broken chrismon off the chrismon tree.  

I hope your Christmas brings you at least as many wonderful gifts as ours has this year — no kidding!  Merry Christmas to each of you and thanks for staying with me for another year.  

Buried with their Blackberries

blackberry-curveA funeral home in Hollywood, California reports that under-40s are taking their Blackberries with them when they go.  I mean really go, as in dead.  Sort of gives new meaning to the word mobile.

One guy even had his GameBoy put in his casket.   This trend apparently started in the UK, Australia, and South Africa and is spreading to the US.  Mobile technology is not only changing the way we live, it’s changing the way we die, too.  I’ve started a new mobile technology links site, mobilejprof.com, where Jim Stovall and I are exploring the impact of mobile technology on church, journalism, and culture.  Drop in sometime and tell me how you think mobile technology is and will change us.  Should be an interesting conversation.

Becoming a fan of Jesus

facebook-logo-289-751I’m starting to get into Facebook.   Debbie and I have connected with old friends, our own family, former church members, and lots of new “friends” that we would not have met anywhere else.  

As experienced Facebookers know, not only can you find friends online, but you can join causes, too.  I’ve joined a few causes, let a few other opportunities slide, and read them all with interest.   Some causes are being touted by professionals.  I won’t name names, but they’re probably your “friend,” too.  That’s the downside of social media — insincere friends trying to get you to do something that benefits them.  Actually, that happens in real life to, so maybe this is not so virtual after all.  

Another way to identify with your new online Facebook friends is to become a fan of someone or something they’re a fan of, too.  Which got me to thinking about the whole missional vs. attractional church debate.  Dan Kimball stirred the pot a little with his shot at missional churches that don’t grow.  Julie Clawson fired back with her take on the missional scene.  

But, what’s wrong with attracting people?  Jesus did it.  Granted the thousands abandoned him in the end, but they still got fed, healed, encouraged, taught, and loved.  Maybe some of them got it later.  We don’t know.  But, Jesus is the most missional guy I know, and he wasn’t offended when big crowds flocked to him.  Of course, he recognized that most of them didn’t get it, but he still did what he could with them.

While there is a big difference in becoming a “fan” of Jesus Facebook-style, and becoming a disciple of Jesus New Testament-style, it’s not a bad thing for people to be drawn to Jesus and his church, even out of curiosity, even for entertainment.  

The challenge is leading fans to become friends of Jesus, real friends.  After all, Jesus said to those following him, “You are my friends if you do what I command.”  Maybe starting as a fan can lead to something more.  What do you think?

5 Lessons I Did Not Learn in Seminary

Browsing in a Barnes & Nobles today, I saw a book titled, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Apparently the author takes issue with some historical stuff he thinks is misrepresented in public education.  The title of that book got me to thinking about my seminary experience.  While I would not accuse my professors of lying to me,  I did learn that there are some lessons seminary never teaches you.  

  1. Ministry can be lonely.   Nobody prepared me for the isolation of single staff ministry.   Seminary campus life provides a rich mix of faculty, students, and organizations in a collegial atmosphere.  But when I left seminary to take my first church, there were long afternoons when I wished I was on the campus again.  
  2. You can’t please everybody.  I guess I knew you couldn’t please everybody, but I thought good pastors tried to.  Or at least tried to get along with everybody.  I quickly ran into agendas about church, community, and family that I never anticipated.  We made lots of friends in those early churches, but we realized we couldn’t please everybody.
  3. Not everyone sees your vision.  I had lots of ideas for my first full-time church, and we put a lot of them into practice.  But not everyone thought new people were a blessing to our church.  Not everyone thought we ought to spend money to improve our Sunday School. Not everyone was thrilled when we set new records on high attendance Sunday.  Not everybody got it, but enough did that we made significant progress.
  4. There are not enough hours in a day.  Or days in a week.  Or weeks in a month.  As a new pastor, I tried to do it all.  I made pastoral promises for my time and attention that stretched me too thin.  Some days I resented the intrusion into what I thought was my “personal” life.  It took a long time to find a rhythm of public ministry and private life that was both challenging and encouraging.  
  5. You have to manage yourself.  Managing time is one thing, but managing your emotional response at times of great disappointment or opposition provides a real challenge.  I don’t think I ever heard a professor talk about “self-management” in difficult moments.  I learned some of those lessons the hard way.  Fortunately, churches are forgiving of a young pastor’s missteps.  However, those lessons need to be learned early, as later pastorates might not be so generous.  

Well, there you are.  Five things I never learned in seminary.  I’m sure there are more.  What are some of your post-seminary lessons?

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The Voice in the Wilderness

John 1:6-8, 19-28
6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
19Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” 
      He said, “I am not.” 
      “Are you the Prophet?” 
      He answered, “No.”

 22Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

 23John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

 24Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

 26“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know27He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

 28This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Who are you?

A recent article by Oprah Winfrey asked the question, Who Are You Really?   In the article, Oprah stated that we have many labels for ourselves, and if you were asked to complete the statement,

“I am ___________________________”

how would you finish it?  The list of possibilities is almost endless.  You might say:

  • I am a man (or woman)
  • I am an American
  • I am an optimist
  • I am overweight
  • I am too busy
  • I am a grandparent
  • I am a teacher or doctor or painter or brick mason
  • I am a Baptist
  • I am a Christian
  • I am searching
And all of those descriptions, assuming you told the truth, would tell us something about you.  Society identifies us by a variety of factors, such as:
  • Our work
  • Our race
  • Our age
  • Our financial status
  • Our education
  • Our place of residence
  • Our faith or lack of it
  • Our relationships
  • and so on…
Our identity is bound up in a lot of different things about us, but there is always something about us that is unknown to someone else.  So, while most of your friends might know that you live in Chatham, some will not know that you are a Civil War buff.  Or, while many might know what you do for a living, most will not know that you are an expert in your field. 
Who Is John the Baptist?
 
When the priests and Levites came to John the Baptist, they asked him, Who are you?  Of course, they already knew some things about John.
  • They knew that he was Zechariah’s son, a former priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • They knew that he lived a strange, ascetic life in the wilderness.  Stories had been told of John’s strange diet of locusts and honey, and his self-styled wardrobe of animal skins.  
  • They knew that others listened to John, so many that they were becoming concerned about John’s influence over those who had previously come to the Temple for ceremonial cleansing, but now after being baptized by John, did not return so regularly.  This cut into the income for the Temple, challenged their authority, and diminished their followers.
  • They knew that John’s message was powerful.  Hundreds make the journey out from Jerusalem to hear him preach.
  • They knew John’s crowds were growing.  
  • They knew they didn’t know everything about John.
So, one day a group of priests and Levites, selected to confront John, made their way to the place where he was preaching.  Bethany was a village about 2-miles from Jerusalem, on the slopes of the hills of Palestine.  Sheep grazed there on its sparse vegetation, and about an hour’s walk from Bethany was the Jordan River.  Archaeologists believe they have discovered a possible site where John might have baptized those early followers of his.  
But, the priests and Levites were concerned that John was not a pretender to the role of Elijah, or another mythic figure in their nation’s imagination, the messiah, also called in Greek, the christ.  
Malachi, the last prophet of Hebrew scripture, had prophesied himself that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, which was the coded phrase Jews used to talk about the coming of the messiah.  Here’s what Malachi said, 

 

“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and… all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch… And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do [this], saith the LORD of hosts…. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” -Malachi 4:1-5

 

If John were labeling himself as Elijah, that would be outrageous enough.  Jewish tradition taught that Elijah the prophet would return before the coming of the messiah.  At every sabbath meal, on Friday evening, as the family gathered for prayers around the table, an empty chair was kept for Elijah in case his sudden appearing during their meal should catch them unprepared for his return.  
“If John the Baptist were pretending to be Elijah, then there were ways to deal with that,” the priests and Levites must have thought.  First, Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.  No one had seen this John descend from heaven in a chariot of fire.  He had been born to his mother and father like everyone else.  Born after some strange malady had stricken his father, Zechariah, but born like all humans are born.  No, this couldn’t be Elijah, because John had not returned, he had just been born.
But, of course, John wasn’t Elijah, because he said he wasn’t.  “I’m not Elijah or the messiah or the Prophet,” he said,  possibly meaning the great prophet Isaiah.  But, John did say, quoting Isaiah, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’” 
What Are You Doing?
Apparently there were also some Pharisees in the group sent to question John.  It wasn’t enough for them that John said, “I’m not Elijah.”  Nope, they couldn’t leave it alone.
“Why are you baptizing if you’re not the messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?” they asked.   Baptism was a sign of cleansing, and only the priests had the authority to baptize others ceremonially.  The Pharisees practiced a ritual bathing, letting the water run down their forearms and drip from their elbows as a sign of purification.  But, what’s John doing, baptizing without authority.  Telling people the stink of their unholiness has been washed away.  A stink John attributed to the failed spirituality of all the religious leaders — priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees.  
John’s answer was to the point — “I’m just using water,” he said.  Now, by that he didn’t mean to diminish the baptism of repentance that he preached.  What John was doing was distinguishing between his very symbolic work, and the work of the true messiah, who would wash away the sins of the world.  
John’s baptism was the baptism of getting ready.  The religious system of the first century was so political, so corrupt, that it makes Illinois politics seem tame.  The chief priest was a lackey of the puppet king Herod.  The religious offices, deemed as holy assignments in the Law of Moses, had become political appointments.  Rather than serving God on behalf of the people, and the people on behalf of God, the priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees all had one thing in common — they had failed God.  
So John’s baptism of repentance indicated a change of heart in the lives of the people baptized.  They were repenting — turning from the corrupt system of patronage and politics that had overtaken the religious culture of their day — and turning toward God.  Turning again to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Turning, or returning, to the God of their fathers.  John was just helping them give symbolic expression to that new desire to serve God and live rightly before God.
Who Don’t You Know
If political influence is based on who do you know, John’s concern for the committee of inquisition that confronted him was who they didn’t know.  They knew all the political power brokers, but there was one person they had overlooked.         

John said, “…but among you stands one you do not know.

 

William Stafford’s poem, A Story That Could Be True, goes like this —


If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.


He can never find
how true you are, how ready.


When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.


The people who go by–
you wonder at their calm.


They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”


William StaffordGoing Over to Your Place: Poems for Each Other (Selected by Paul B. Janeczko, Bradbury Press, New York)

While Stafford’s poem is a lovely sentiment — that we might be more than we had ever imagined — John’s concern is real.  John is telling the Pharisees, the priests, and the Levites that they have missed the one person whose life can give theirs meaning.  Whose sandals, John says, he is not worthy to unlace.

Only the lowest servants were assigned the task of removing the sandals from the feet of guests, and bathing those dirty, dusty feet until they were clean.  Touching the sandals and feet of others was itself considered a degrading act.  Yet John says, “I’m not even worthy to touch his feet, untie his sandals, perform the most base of services.”  
In all of their religiosity, all of their concern that someone might pretend to be the messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, they had missed the One who was in their midst right then.  They had missed Jesus.  
Who Are You?
Which brings us back to our original question, “Who are you?”   The Pharisees, and we, are very much like the man who just died this past week — Henry Molaison.  Never heard of him?  Well, Henry Molaison was the longest surviving extreme amnesic that scientists have ever studied.  At the age of 27, in 1953, Henry underwent brain surgery to relive debilitating seizures and blackouts.  The surgery was successful in that regard, but Molaison was unable to retain any short term memory.  Although he knew his name and could perform tasks he remembered from before his surgery, he had no short-term memory.  He met friends and family members every time as though it were the first time they had ever seen each other.  Even the doctors who studied him until his recent death were complete strangers to him each time they saw each other.  Molaison knew who he was before 1953, but after that everything was a blank.  
Remember the article from Oprah Winfrey I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  Well, Oprah said that a good way to fill in the blank to the statement, I am _____________________, is to sit quietly until your thoughts, emotions, and recollections reveal your innermost being.
That’s not a bad thing to do, goodness knows we need more quiet time.  But our problem this advent is not looking into ourselves, it’s looking out to see Christ in our midst.  To actually see the Messiah that the Pharisees missed.  To see the One about whom they had studied, taught, and were preparing to meet, but who was unrecognized as he moved among them.  
Who are you?  Advent reminds us that we are people who are looking for God.  Not looking in a mindless, idealogically -closed way in which the Pharisees looked, but really looking to see the God who walks among us.  To see his presence in our lives, and the lives of others.  To define ourselves, as John did, not by who we are — unworthy servants — but by who he is.  
The tragedy of advent is that we will repeat the blindness of the Pharisees, having eyes that do not see the Messiah in our midst.  John’s voice crying from the desert calls us again to ask, not who we are, but who Christ is.  Only then will we truly be watching for his coming in this and every season.  

Advent sermon: How God Came To Be With Us

My sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent is coming later today.  But, here’s a sermon I preached last year, How God Came to Be With Us.   This sermon features the fictional character Itzak, who tells the story of his friend Joseph and how God came to be with them.  A pastor in Ontario presented it in costume recently and reported good responses from his congregation.

Free YouVersion now for iPhones, Blackberries

I mentioned this yesterday on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and some other places, but if you don’t get those feeds, here’s an early Christmas present for you:  

YouVersion, an online multi-edition Bible, is now available for Blackberries.  The iPhone version has been out for a while, but now Crack Blackberry users can have it, too.

YouVersion is a very simple, but complete Bible in multiple translations — The Message, NIV, TNIV, ASB, KJV, NKJV, and a bunch of others.  No NRSV for some reason, but they are adding other translations, like the NLT which was up yesterday.  

But wait!  There’s more!  A read-thru-the-Bible plan brings up 3 passages a day for you to read, helping you read thru the Bible in one year.  I read yesterday and today, and it’s a real help.  You can change Bible translations, search keywords or phrases, search for specific passages, go to books and chapters, and more.  A really cool feature allows users to add comments, videos, and mp3 files at any chapter.  Other users can access those comment files while reading.  

YouVersion is brought to you by the good folks at LifeChurch.tv, who are not paying me anything — although I can be bought 🙂 — to say this.  I just think it’s a very cool Bible and it’s FREE!  Did I say that already?  And, when you join the YouVersion community, you can invite all of your other friends to join, too.  So, Merry Christmas from the kind, innovative folks at LifeChurch. tv.  Thanks!

Small is out, majority is in

I just read that small churches make up 90%  of the churches in America, and most of those have 75-100 in attendance.  Of course, I already knew that, but it helps to read it somewhere besides my own blog.  Which brings me to a perennial topic — looking for another way to describe small churches other than as small.  

After all, small is only one measure.  Small usually refers to attendance, not buildings.  If we were talking about buildings some small churches wouldn’t be small at all.  But, that’s kind of silly.  “Oh, we go to a big building church.  So sorry you’re attending one of those tiny building churches.”  See what I mean — silly.  

So, I’m reading some guy’s comment on some other guy’s blog last week, and the commentor says something about being from the “majority world.”  Here I’m still calling it the “third world,” which is kind of demeaning and not very PC of me.  For awhile the new jargon was “two-thirds” world, meaning developing countries.  But, this guy calls it the “majority world.”  Meaning: there’s more of us than you.  Which brings me to small churches, again.

We (small churches) are the majority.  Why not call our churches “majority churches?”  

Hi, my name is Chuck and I pastor a majority church.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  All of a sudden we’re not ecclesiastical outcasts anymore.  No more ducking at the pastors’ conference when you see Reverend I. M. Abigdeal coming.  Nope, you hold your head up, stick  out your hand, and say, “Rev, sorry you megachurch guys are in the minority.  What’s the matter, why aren’t you serving a majority church, like I am?”  

So, from now on this is “Confessions of A Majority Church Pastor.”  Now if I can just get the art department to change my blog header…

Looking at the future

Seth Godin has a great post today about his greatest business failure — not recognizing the impact the internet would have on everything. He who has ears to hear….

Waiting for Christmas

 

christmas-decorations1When I was a kid, time seemed to stand still, especially in the weeks before Christmas.  I remember asking my mother, “How many days ‘til Christmas?”  

 Her patient reply to her 6-year-old reassured me that Christmas would indeed come someday soon.  We didn’t start decorating for Christmas at our house until the middle of December.  But I could see the signs of Christmas long before it actually arrived.  Mama would start getting out the boxes of ornaments and the strings of colored lights — the big ones, not the tiny ones like we have now — and I knew that Christmas was coming. 

Gifts arrived by mail from cousins and aunts and uncles whom we only saw a couple of times a year.  Christmas cards began to pile up in the living room as friends and relatives near and far sent greetings of Christmas.  Some cards contained Christmas letters, catching us up on the lives of families we seldom saw, but cared about deeply. 

Another sign of Christmas coming appeared at the church.  Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia was a working-class church.  I remember firemen, mechanics, store owners, factory workers, and truck drivers who made up most of the membership.  These men dressed up in suits on Sunday morning, filing in to sit on the front pew, as the deacons did back in those days in Georgia.  At Christmas, the old sanctuary came alive with color.  Now, this was long before Baptists ever heard of an advent wreath or liturgical colors.  No, the sanctuary brimmed with poinsettias, Christmas garland, some candles, and Christmas lights.  Always prominently displayed was the Lottie Moon Foreign Mission Offering board.   Big white lights were lit for each $100 given toward our goal of $2,000 — a big sum for working folks to give. 

Of course, the Christmas that all the red and green gave way to purple and gold was one to remember.  Seems that the son of one of our members, who owned a flower shop in Atlanta, volunteered to decorate the church.  Instead of pine garlands that year, we had lemon trees with silver and gold ribbons.  Instead of red-and-green, the colors were lime, purple, and gold.  As you can imagine, that caused quite a stir at Eastern Heights Baptist Church.  The next year we were back to our traditional décor.

 All of those signs told a little boy that Christmas was coming.  So I waited, and Christmas did come.  Just like the world waited 2,000 years ago, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what to hope for, but seeing the signs.  This year, as you wait for Christmas, watch for the signs of His coming.  That was always my favorite part of Christmas.