Category: Congregation

Communion Sermon: You Should All Eat Together

world communion sunday

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The point of the sermon was to address an issue in the way we were observing communion. Our children were downstairs in Children’s Church, and when communion was served, they all wanted to participate. I thought that parents should be involved in deciding whether or not their children took communion. So, in this sermon I address the history of communion from the early church in 1 Corinthians 11 through the Reformation and the formation of Baptist congregations. While I believe that you can make a case from Scripture for including children at the Lord’s Table, my point is that this decision ultimately is up to parents. If you prefer to listen to the sermon, the podcast is here

A Problem With Our Practice

This morning, if you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This is not the lectionary reading for today. But, I want to address a concern that I have because an issue has come up in our observance of the Lord’s Supper here. It particularly has to do with our children. I’ll explain more about that momentarily. But, let me tell you what has prompted this message, and why we’re having the children join us for the communion portion of the service today.

As you know, our practice has been that we do not have a children’s time on communion Sunday because Communion takes an extra amount of time in the service. In the past, our children have stayed downstairs during the entire service, where they have their own Bible study, activities, and snack. [However, the result was that both children and workers missed communion.]

A couple of years ago, our deacons started taking Communion to the nursery and to the adult workers there — which I thought was a very good idea. And, because we had older children in children’s church at that time, the deacons would also serve communion to those children who had been baptized, per our Baptist tradition. And that seemed to work for awhile.

However, Erica came to me several weeks ago with a concern. She said the problem they were having was that all the children wanted to take the bread and the juice, too, along with the adult workers.

I remember when our granddaughters were younger than they are now. Maggie and Vivian were in the service sitting with Debbie one communion Sunday. Maggie was about three years old at the time, and as the bread passed her by she wasn’t very happy. Then, as the juice passed her by, she looked at Debbie and said, “Little children like juice, too!”

So, the issue of whom to serve communion to in the nursery became a very difficult issue for our deacons. And they did what I would have done — they did not refuse anyone who wanted to partake of the bread and the juice when they served communion downstairs.

But it concerns me that our children are not involved in the worship context of communion. It is one thing to have a quick, standup distribution of the bread and the cup, as a deacon reads from First Corinthians. But, it is another thing altogether, I think, to be here with the full community of faith as we go through the ritual — and I use ritual here in a very positive sense — as we go through the ritual that we observe, very carefully handling the elements and distributing those; and, singing; and, reading the words of Scripture; and, then reading responsively the litany during our observance of communion.

That’s the issue that has brought this to our attention in the service today.

After this message about communion and after the choir sings, all the children will join their families here in the sanctuary. And, together families will decide what is appropriate for their children as we take communion together. That is the bottom line that I’m coming to this morning.

Celebrating Communion The Wrong Way

Let’s read what Paul says about communion in his letter to the church in Corinth:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions. — I Corinthians 11:17-34 NIV

 We have these words of the apostle Paul, giving instruction about how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted. This is, for all practical purposes, the only glimpse we have into the New Testament church about the manner in which they conducted and received communion.

Paul is making two points, I think. The first point is that the Lord’s Supper is a communal experience. The second point is that they aren’t observing it in a worthy manner.

Apparently, in the first century Corinthian church, they bought more than just bread and wine to communion. Paul said they brought the equivalent of a covered-dish lunch. Because the Corinthians were primarily pagans before they became Christians, they had not come out of Judaism. They had no shared history of the Passover meal. They did not understand the symbolic nature of that meal, and consequently when they came together for communion, they brought a lot of food.

Obviously, Paul says rich members were bringing more food than those who were not wealthy. Some of the Corinthians apparently brought nothing because they were poor. Then, rather than sharing, every family had their own little picnic lunch. One group had a lot to eat, while other groups had nothing, as they are celebrated together the Lord’s Supper.

Paul said, “That’s not right.” And he says, if you do that, you are eating and drinking the Supper in an “unworthy manner.” When we take the Lord’s Supper, we think of examining ourselves, and we often think that means examining our own life and understanding our shortcomings.

But, primarily what Paul is talking about here is their relationship to each other. He is concerned that they were not aware of each other. When Paul writes about not recognizing the body of Christ what I think he means is not recognizing each other in the communal context with which they were taking the Lord’s Supper.

This whole passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is about taking the Lord’s supper by recognizing that the individuals gathered are the body of Christ. To take the Supper in a worthy manner is being aware of others, so that everyone has equal access to the table of the Lord.

Communion Foreshadowed In the Gospel of John

With that backdrop, I want to talk a little bit about communion. You know from reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke — the synoptic Gospels — we have pretty much the same picture. The Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples is the Passover meal. It reflects the Old Testament record of God’s deliverance of Israel. When Jesus celebrates the Passover, he does so as a Jew, as a participant in the Jewish heritage he shares with the disciples.

But then, during that Passover meal he does something different, very much like he did when he talked about the law. Jesus would say, “You have heard that it has been said…” and he would talk about whatever commandment that was. Then he would add, “…but I say to you…” and he would have them look at it in a new way.

Jesus is doing the very same thing with the physical elements of Passover. He reinterprets them so that the bread becomes his body, and the wine becomes his blood. It is a symbolic re-imagining of what this Passover meal will mean for those who are his followers.

The Gospel of John has a very different take on the Last Supper than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John does not record any of the “Eucharistic words” that the other Gospels have. He doesn’t have Jesus breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body, take and eat.” Nor does he have Jesus say about the cup, “This is the new testament in my blood. As often as you drink this, you show forth my death until I come, again.”

John doesn’t record any of those details. What John does is very interesting, however. John’s Gospel was written after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is the latest gospel written, just as the Book of Revelation, also written by John, is the last book written in the New Testament.

What John does is present Jesus and the Supper in a different way. That last encounter with Jesus and the disciples goes on for several chapters. Their last time together included the Passover meal. What Jesus does there, though, is talk about the place he is going to prepare for them in John 14. Then, he talks about the coming of the Spirit in John 15. Then, he prays for their unity in John 17. And in the midst of all that, he washes their feet and talks about servanthood. So John gives us a very different picture of what happens in that Passover meal.

But look back at John 6, where John does several things that are interesting. The sixth chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. John 6:4 says, “the Jewish Passover feast was near.” I’m convinced that the Gospel writers say things intentionally. I don’t think John just was telling us what day it was on the calendar. I think John connected the feeding of the 5,000 to the Passover meal.

In effect, what Jesus does when he feeds the 5,000 is a Passover meal for common people. He takes the elements that God has provided of the five loaves and the two fish in the little boy’s lunch. Despite the lack of faith of the disciples, and the puzzlement of the 5,000-plus who were gathered there, he breaks the bread and blesses it.

Then, the disciples distributed the bread and fish to the congregation gathered on the hillside. And you know the story: everybody had plenty to eat. Afterward, they gathered up 12 full baskets of leftovers – one basket for every disciple who said he had no idea how to feed that many people.

That is a picture the abundance of the kingdom of God, the provision of God, and the feeding of God’s people by God. It is not explicitly communion, but many biblical scholars believe it prefigures the experience of communion.

The Christian church would understand this idea contained in the feeding of the 5,000 because John was writing later in the first century after the Church was established. They would understand that it was about Jesus being the bread of life, and they would remember that at their own observances of the Lord’s Supper.

Later, in John 6:26, Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the lake, and the crowd followed him. Jesus answered them in verse 26: “I tell you the truth, you’re looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for that which spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give you, on whom God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

In John 6:32, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who was giving you the bread from heaven which was manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. So they said, ‘From now on give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life…” You can read the rest of that passage where Jesus said those who eat this bread have eternal life. John takes us to communion by way of the feeding of the 5,000, which in addition to men, included also women and children.

Then, Jesus says in John 6, “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup you have no life in you.” That is a very important symbolic act.

Communion Changes Over the Centuries

By the second century in the New Testament church, however, communion has become something very different. It has become what one of the theologians will call “the medicine of immortality.” The elements are transformed from being symbolic to being supernatural. They are believed to really become the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Roman Catholic theologians call this transformation of the bread and wine, transubstantiation — a kind of a mystical alchemy. They believed that even though the elements still appeared to be bread and wine, but they were supernaturally transformed into the real body and blood of Christ.

From that change the church decides that it must limit those who can take the body and blood of Christ. Church services where communion is offered become exclusive. The priests eliminate those who are not fit to receive communion, whether they are Christians or not. Those who have violated church law in the judgment of the priest, are banned from the communion rail.

Eventually communion is restricted even further to the point where the priest alone takes the wine and distributes to the worshippers only the bread. That is done to avoid accidentally spilling the blood of Christ.

Now back to us Baptists. Baptists, after the Reformation, took a different tack. Baptists decided that in addition to the reforms the reformers brought, that only believers could be members of a church. Baptist further believed that each church was separate and independent. So Baptists believed that once a person was baptized, then that person could take communion. But every Baptist church was an entity unto itself and was not answerable to any other church. That’s where the idea of closed communion came from. Communion was closed because each Baptist church believed that you should only take communion with your own congregation. They literally would close the doors of the church to keep out anyone, including other Christians, who were not members of that particular congregation.

In the 20th century, some Southern Baptist churches continued to practice closed communion, but most moved toward open communion. In open communion, anyone who was a baptized believer, whether from that church or not, could receive communion. Ultimately, many churches like ours, invited all to the Lord’s Table. That’s a very brief history of communion.

Children and Communion

So then, what should be said about children and communion? There is ample evidence in the history of the ancient Church that children participated in communion. Saint Augustine said of babies, “They are infants, but they are His members. They are infants, but they receive the sacraments. They are infants, but they can become participants at His table so they may have life in themselves.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, infants have long received communion. And Pope Innocent I said that little children should be given the Lord’s Supper. He even tells them how to do it: “in a liquid form of the Lord’s blood or in the form of bread crumbled and mixed with water.” (These historic examples are from the book, Take Eat, Take Drink: The Lord’s Supper Through the Centuries by Ernest Bartels.)

That sounds very different to us because Baptists have said historically that only those who have been baptized should receive Communion. That, of course, usually excluded our youngest children.

However, I think there are a couple of things we need to remember about communion. First of all, it is meant for community. We talked about the manna that Jesus referred to from the Old Testament. That was God’s gift to the whole community of Israel. Secondly, the feeding of the 5,000 included men, women, and children. I’m sure they fed the boys and girls because the lunch came from a little boy.

After Pentecost, when the early church met together there were no nurseries or preschool departments. I’m sure their children were with them when they “broke bread.” Many scholars believe that “breaking bread” meant sharing communion. I believe, although I can’t prove it, that because children were considered part of the family of faith they shared in communion. If households converted together, like the Philippian jailer’s household, I believe they took communion together.

In Conclusion

In closing, there are three things I want you to remember about communion. First, it is a community experience. While it has meaning if taken individually, it is primarily an experience for the church gathered together.

Secondly, communion is supposed to focus on Jesus, not only whether the elements become something or not. The focus is on the elements as representative of the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Third, I think the intention is to include rather than exclude people. Two things lead me to that conclusion. First, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship when he ministered was inclusive.

Communion originates directly from table fellowship at the Passover. But in Jesus’s earthly ministry, he was accused by the religious leaders of his day of having table fellowship with those who were unrighteous and unclean. Jesus ate with the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the outcasts of society. His table was open to everyone.

The second reason is Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about children. At one point, parents brought their little children to Jesus to have him bless them. The disciples were trying to keep them away because they thought Jesus was too busy for children. But Jesus set the disciples straight, and I think there is no getting around Jesus’ attitude toward children. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and do not stop them, because of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

So, where does that leave us? I think that leaves us right back where we started earlier. I think we ought to celebrate communion as an entire church. So the boys and girls are going to join us after the choir sings in just a moment. I believe it is up to your family, not to a tradition, which may or may not — depending on how you read Scripture — have a biblical basis.

I see the table of Christ as inclusive, not as exclusive. Boys and girls may not understand everything we are doing. But, by inviting them to that celebration, they feel included. And, they grow up knowing that they are a part of God’s family, the community of faith.

If that is not what you believe, that’s fine. That’s why I want to leave it to the families of our children to decide whether or not they want their children to participate. I am not going to keep a child from taking the bread or the cup. But, you as parents may have very good reasons for wanting your children to wait. That is a question that I think we must experiment with and try out together.

So, today this is an experiment. If you have strong feelings about this, please talk to me later. But we’re inviting our children to join us today. And during this service, parents, that will be your decision as a family as to how your children participate. They will be in here participating with us, but it will be your decision as to how they will participate.

Let’s pray together.

A New Subtitle: Churches as Communities of Reconciliation

The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.

Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.

I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.

Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.

The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.

In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

The Pastor as Artisan

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Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

An Unwelcomed and Unexpected Illness

It’s 11:12 PM on Friday night, March 8, 2013. I cannot sleep despite having taken several medications that are supposed to relieve the pain I’m having. Yesterday, after two weeks of agonizing symptoms and three trips to hospital emergency rooms, a neurologist diagnosed me with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying I have unexplained pain, numbness, and weakness in my legs, arms, and other parts of my body.

During his examination, he determined that I no longer have reflexes in my legs and arms. You know the test: the doctor whacks you on the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up involuntarily. Except mine doesn’t, not even slightly. I am now walking with the aid of either a cane or a walker because the bottoms of my feet are numb, and my legs give way without warning.

Needless to say, this is an unwelcomed and unexpected situation. I am an extremely healthy person. I lost 40 pounds last year eating a low-fat vegan diet, just like Bill Clinton does. My heart, which has been tested three different times over the past two weeks, was described by the cardiologist as “as good as it gets.” My blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar are all well within the optimum ranges.

In January of this year, I contracted a nasty virus and was sick for three weeks. I was so sick that my wonderful church family gave me the entire month off to recuperate. I had only been back to work three weeks when the first of my symptoms began to appear. On Monday I will have a MRI, and on Tuesday a nerve conductivity test where apparently you become a human pin cushion to measure the speed and conductivity of nerves throughout the body.

To be on this side of illness is a new experience for me. I now know why when I visit my members in the hospital, their arms are black-and-blue from the IV ports inserted in them. I am more able to empathize with the loss of dignity in times of illness as others talk about your bodily functions and as you lie half-naked on an uncomfortable gurney hoping you’re not putting on a show for those passing by.

The other part of this experience is to be on the receiving end of love and care demonstrated by my community and congregation. Members have brought food, sent flowers, loaned me a recliner and a walker, have prayed, visited, and expressed their concern over and over again. I have found that it is encouraging to have someone visit when you’re sick. I do feel supported, loved, and cared for by the people I have called my flock for almost 9 years.

Debbie and I do not know if this condition is permanent or temporary. In either event, we do know that God is walking with us down this road, whether the journey is long or brief. Most importantly, we feel God’s presence in the cards, calls, visits, food, flowers, and expressions of concern from our church family.

I’m learning some new things about the ways of God. Not that God caused this illness, or even would will it on me or anyone, but I am learning that in the midst of difficulty, God is present in Spirit and in the lives of the people in whose hearts he lives and reigns. I hope to be back soon with a regular schedule of sermons and thoughts on small church life, but for now I’m on my own journey to the cross and empty tomb, but I’m not on it alone.

Sustainability: A Small Church Concern

Small churches are concerned about a lot of things including growth, finances, and ministry programs.  But one issue seems to cut across all of these small church concerns — sustainability. Small churches often do not ask the question, “How are we going to sustain this?” before launching a new program or ministry.

A quick glance at the typical small church’s schedule illustrates the importance of sustainability.  Most small churches have at least two weekly programs — worship and Sunday School.  Think about what it takes to sustain these efforts each week.

First, Sunday School.  If yours is like ours, we have classes for adults, teens, elementary children, and preschoolers.  Each of these classes needs a meeting space, some type of literature, supplies, and leaders.  Our church also maintains attendance records for Sunday School, so there are administrative functions that have to be attended to each week as well.

Our Sunday School spends about $4,000 a year on literature and supplies; has designated rooms for each group to meet in (which involves utility costs and furnishings); and, utilizes somewhere between 12 and 18 leaders each Sunday.  We have all of that infrastructure for an average Sunday School attendance of about 50 each week.

Then there’s worship.  Worship at our church involves the following:

  • a preacher (usually me);
  • a part-time accompanist;
  • a part-time choir director;
  • a choir of between 8 and 15 each week; and supplies like choir robes, hymnals, choir anthems and other special music;
  • meeting space (our sanctuary);
  • part-time custodial services to clean and prepare the space each week;
  • audio-visual equipment and volunteer operators;
  • ushers;
  • a group to prepare for communion and baptism each month;
  • administrative support for bulletins, envelopes, and other printed material;
  • worship participants who pray and read Scripture; and,
  • a flower committee for altar flowers and sanctuary decoration at special seasons of the year.

Each week we involve between 20 and 40 people just to provide worship for 80 to 100 people.

Given the above examples, what guidelines can you use to determine whether or not a ministry is sustainable?  A rule of thumb might be that a church needs 1 leader for every 3-5 participants.  This 20-33% ratio seems to hold true for other programs that we have, including our Wednesday night fellowship meal and the age-group programs that follow it. But remember: the younger the group, the more leaders per participants are needed.

What’s the point here?  Very simply, determine how many leaders and what resources your church needs to mount and sustain a new program.  Of course, specific programs will require different mixes of space, financial resources, supplies, and personnel.  But whatever programs your church is considering, these programs will need some combination of those elements.

As a pastor, don’t do what I have done too many times in the past — start a program by yourself, or one that is inadequately staffed or funded, hoping that others will help.  That approach seldom works.  Believe me, I know.

In my opinion, small churches function best when they realize that they cannot sustain more than a few weekly or monthly programs.  But small churches can supplement their weekly programs with one-time efforts such as special programs at Christmas and Easter; a once-a-year push to feed the hungry, or collect relief supplies; or, special outreach opportunities.  Small churches can rally higher percentages of their congregations for one-time events than for on-going weekly or monthly events.

In planning your church calendar for 2012, consider which programs you can sustain, and what other one-time events your church can orchestrate.  Sustainability is important for small churches.  When adequate consideration is given to what your programs will require to sustain them, your small church can avoid the disappointment of overloaded leaders and failed programs.

When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?

God’s Timing Is Important Even For Programs

God’s timing is important.  It’s so important that the writers of the New Testament distinguished between chronological time, chronos;  and, the right time, kairos.  Of course, there is much more to it than that, but you get the point.  The biblical writers knew the difference between the time of day, and the opportune time.

At our small church we’re experiencing a Kairos Moment.  Not a Kodak moment, but an it’s-the-right-time moment.  For over 3 years we’ve been trying to get something going for children’s ministry.  We tried several approaches, special events, and none of it worked.  Attendance was poor, enthusiasm was in short supply, and it just didn’t happen.

But this month we’ve seen a sudden resurgence in our children’s ministry.  Last fall we created a Family Ministry Team composed of young adults who were all new members of our church.  Some have children, some don’t, but all of them are interested in enhancing our outreach and ministry to families.

Their recommendations were presented to, and adopted by our church this summer.  This month the first of those recommendations began to take shape.  They recommended a change in our Sunday School curriculum, and the addition of a younger children’s teaching time during the worship service.  And on Wednesday nights, we now have children’s missions groups for all ages from preschool through elementary school.

Our Sunday School class, which we started 3 years ago for younger adults has also grown.  Sunday we had a new family with three children attend both Sunday School and worship.  At our annual church picnic yesterday, most of these newer members and their kids were present.  They enjoyed fishing, playing with each other, riding the 4-wheelers around the farm, and just being outdoors on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

On the way back to the church on the church bus, a couple of us commented that “this is God’s timing” because all of our efforts to get children’s ministry cranking had failed previously.  Our plan is to “grow up” our own teen group by starting with the children we have who in a few years will themselves be teenagers.  It’s a long-term plan, but one that I can see taking shape now.

My point in all of this is that God’s timing is important.  Too often we see God’s timing only in big events.  But even a program like Sunday School and children’s church, or children’s mission groups, is in the Father’s hands, too.  At the right time, the right people will come forward, the children will appear, and God’s providence will prove infallible again.

If you’re struggling to get a program going, don’t despair.  Keep praying, keep hoping, keep dreaming of the day that God will raise up the right leaders, and things will begin to take shape.  Have you had that experience?  If so, share something in the comments to encourage others.  Thanks.