Month: March 2016

United

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I have discovered what unites Christians. I have uncovered the long-buried secret that will band Christians together, that will make them move as a single family, that will bond them. Oh, it is no gimmick, and it is no leadership tactic. It’s not a program and it’s not a new sermon style.

It is the cross.

I have nearly two separate churches in the same building. The morning rarely seems to acknowledge the evening exists, and the evening is quite content to remain in the evening and not interact, for the most part. I feared mostly that the morning discounted the evening. One person had even said they didn’t count, mostly for monetary reasons.

But this week… this week has united us.

It began Thursday. We celebrated Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus gave a new command – that we love one another. We also celebrate the founding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. And on that day, a regular visitor who came to Refresh was confirmed. He had studied what we teach and proclaimed it to be his faith. He joined us as a member, and that night, he joined us in Communion for the first time.

The evening ended with the “Stripping of the Altar,” a tradition I introduced to the congregation. Every movable piece of furniture is taken from the altar area, until the altar is left alone and bare, just as Jesus was abandoned and alone on that first Thursday night of the first Holy Week. Several individuals assisted me: Two councilmen, a mother-son duo (the son is in first grade), and two young men from the evening service. Two different worlds, united to serve at the foot of the cross. When I thanked each one individually after the service, the response I got was, “Anytime, pastor. Just ask.”

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Thursday night the congregation was divided nearly equally between evening and morning. And they blended together in marvelous ways – united by worshiping at the feet of the Savior who served them.

Friday night the wonder continued. Good Friday here does not allow much fellowship; we enter and leave in silence in this one very special service as we commemorate our Savior’s death. We did not have as many from the usual Sunday evening crowd at this service, but they were still well represented. Once again, the people gathered around the Word. They gathered to worship the Savior who bled for them.

And tonight. Oh, tonight!

We moved the Sunday evening service to tonight. I knew there was no way after Holy Week I’d have any steam left to lead a Sunday evening service. Instead, we held an “Easter Vigil.” We waited by the tomb after Jesus has died, considering his promises to us. It was a service in the style of a Sunday evening service – so much more laid back, with discussion throughout – but held in the sanctuary and with more ceremony than they were used to. In other words, it was nearly a hybrid service. This is the first time we’ve ever performed such a service.

We had nearly all the normal attenders for Sunday evening, and about the same amount of Sunday morning people came. Through all the “unusual” elements, they worshiped.

And what united them?

Oh, it was not me. There was no charismatic leadership here. And it was not some mysterious “new service” that brought Christians out to sate their curiosity. It was no gimmick.

They came to worship the Savior who died for them.

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And afterward? Afterward, men and women leaped into action, preparing the sanctuary for Easter morning. Take the black cloth down from the cross; put up the white! Bring on the flowers! Change the paraments!

And once more, though the Sunday evening crowd knew not what to do… all worked together. Learning names. Laughing together and considering whether this flower looked better here or over there.

United not by simple service, but by serving their Savior, who lives again for them.

We are not even to Easter yet, but God has poured such blessings onto this congregation. He has united us around Word and Sacrament. He has brought us together, not simply into a family, but into His family.

And I stand back. I didn’t do this. He did.

And what God has begun, he will bring to completion. I may not see that completion until heaven. I may have no clue what that completion looks like. But this is the Savior who bled, died, and lives for me. How could I not trust him? His mercies are new every morning.

Friday night ended with reproaches. Our service ended with God laying out our need for repentance. Part of that service includes the congregation begging God for mercy.

And last night it struck me.

I am Scar.

At the end of The Lion King, Scar has destroyed the Pride Lands. The rightful king, Simba, returns, and the two battle. Scar had murdered the previous king and thought Simba dead . When Simba learns of Scar’s betrayal, Simba attacks – and Scar ends up on his back, defenseless, as Simba holds claws to Scar’s throat.

And Scar begs, “Mercy, Simba! Mercy!”

Simba has no reason to give it. Scar has earned death. He is the villain of the piece.

And Simba lets him go. As Scar slinks away, he throws burning coals into Simba’s face and attacks again. In the end, in defense, Simba kills Scar.

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How often have I been Scar? How often have I stood at the foot of the cross, convinced of my sins, the claws of the Law at my neck, and I know God would be right to destroy me?

And I beg “Mercy.”

And God gives it. I slink away – only to return to my treacherous ways. How often have I attempted to steal God’s property? How often have I made the ministry here about me? How often have I stolen his glory and thought it was my responsibility to get people in here, to grow the church, to get them to listen? How often have I complained about the gift God has given me of serving him here? And how often have I repented of my sinful pride, of stealing God’s place?

Mercy!”

And here God reminds me: Here is the price of my sin. And he gladly paid it.

And here God reminds me: He is in charge of this congregation. Do you see, my child, as I call my own to worship?

And here God reminds me: This is all his, and I merely steward.

Mercy!”

And here I, too, am united with the congregation I serve. Here, too, I come to fall at the foot of the cross. I, too, cry out “Mercy!”

And I, too, receive the mercy I should not have. I, too, am washed of my offenses. I, too, stand and marvel at the cross.

Because that is what unites me with my people. It is not my service to them… but His service to us.

It is the cross.

And tomorrow… oh, tomorrow, the empty tomb!

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Times of Refreshing

Maple syrup

Apparently I am worth half a gallon of real maple syrup. I count this as a win.

God has heard my plea and peppered the last few weeks with shining spots of encouragement. They were all needed.

About a week ago I met with my church council to point out the problems we have with our culture and being able to do effective outreach. The council (or rather, a few loudmouths on the council) countered with other churches that are just as cold as us (because that helps us somehow?), and one councilman pointed out some doctrine that does indeed scare some people away – but I will not bend on doctrine. If God says it, it is good for us, even if it scares sinful humans away. (more…)

Alone in a Crowded Fellowship Hall

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“We’re doing so much, but we’re just not growing as a church.”

So much, huh?

Here, let me gripe a little:

Today in morning worship we had three guests: A member’s boyfriend, who visits sporadically; a member’s stepdaughter, who visits sporadically; and a woman who came to us through a mercy ministry, who visits semi-regularly. None of these three have been here often or regularly enough to be “in.” None have gone through or begun membership classes. All three are here just regularly enough that they’re likely familiar to a chunk of our regularly-attending members. I got to greet all three either before worship or shaking hands on the way out.

I’m always the last one into the fellowship hall. That’s the place we go after worship to drink coffee, eat sugary treats, and gab. After worship I need to take off my robe, take care of the mic, and sundry other duties. Any member that sticks around beats me into that room. Care to guess what I find?

Member’s boyfriend: Standing by himself, looking over the room, snacking on something. His girlfriend is gabbing with some other ladies, ignoring her boyfriend. They’re not even standing in proximity to each other.

Member’s stepdaughter: Sitting next to stepmom, being pulled into conversation at the “lady’s table.”

Visitor who came through mercy ministry: Sitting by herself at a table, alone, ignored.

In other words, our congregation failed to reach out to two-thirds of our visitors today.

Yes, I spent time talking to both. I attempted to connect them to others. However, the fact that our congregation thinks they’re so welcoming versus the reality of it turns my head and angers me.

How dare you pat yourself on the back for being so welcoming? How dare you say, “We’re doing so much,” when you refuse to say ‘hi’ to someone standing by themselves, while you gab with an old friend?

Does that mean I want you to ignore your old friend? No. Why not gab with both?! Invite the visitor into your conversation.

I know. I’m asking so much. I’m asking you to be the body of Christ and reach out to those around you. I know. It’s ridiculous.

But don’t give me this B.S. that we’re all so welcoming when two-thirds of our guests are flatly ignored.

Ignored.

Boy, that would sure make me want to return!

Oh, please note the sarcasm there.

Morning worship: Fail.

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This evening I tried something different. We had lower-twenties for worship. Of that, over one-third of the people were guests. Another third were welcomed into membership less than a year ago. Two-thirds of those in attendance are still new to our congregation.

After worship, I made a request: Everyone, take some time. Talk to someone you don’t normally see during the week. Exchange phone numbers. And call each other. Talk for ten minutes. Talk for more if you want. Go out for coffee together if you want. But take a little time during the week and get to know someone else here better than you do now.

You know what happened?

The group mixed as never before. I know at least some did exchange phone numbers. Some people rushed toward each other to begin this project. Teens interacted with older folks. (I was especially happy to see the inter-generational connection.)

Evening worship: Success? Well, at the least it’s a great start.

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What’s the difference between evening and morning worship?

It’s all about self-image.

Morning worship, as a culture, sees itself as welcoming and is comfortable with that image, true or not. They do what they do and are content with it. Why change?

Evening worship sees itself as a new group. When I suggest it would be good to grow in our relationships with one another, they agree.

A big difference is the longevity of the groups. In morning worship, we have people who have been friends for over fifty years. They want to catch up on Sunday morning the way they always have, and that takes priority for them. Sunday evening, we have some pairs that have known each other for a long time, but for the most part we see ourselves as “new.” We don’t have the benefit nor the detriment of years of accumulated culture.

When I encourage those in the evening to talk to someone new, because of percentages, our “older” members will need to talk to someone who hasn’t been here long. If I did that in the morning, it would be far more difficult. We have far fewer visitors in the morning.

And… well, those in the morning are going to do what they’re going to do. If I try to force change, they’ll walk away. If I try to sweet-talk, they’ll ignore.

Which is why I didn’t bother with this push in the morning.

Should I try?

I don’t know. I really don’t think it’s worth the effort – or at least, pursuing the same kind of project would not be worth the effort.

Pointing out how we ignored two-thirds of our guests would be a good wake-up call, but I suspect all I would get is defensiveness or, “Well, I want to talk to my old friend. Is that wrong?” Or possibly blame – “Person X should have talked with them!”

And so… man.

Do you get my frustration here?

Do you understand my struggles as I minister to two such very different groups of people?

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It’s ok. I needed my back popped anyway.

We’ll see how things go in the evening over the next few weeks, and we’ll see if I have the chance to bring up our evangelism efforts for the morning. There’s a council meeting next week, and I suspect someone will bemoan how “we’re trying everything but no one’s coming.” And I’ll point out they are – but our congregation is not welcoming them as we ought. We’re too busy stuffing our faces with sugar and guzzling coffee to notice those sitting alone.

No one should be forced to be alone while in church. Choose to be alone, to gather thoughts, to pray, to meditate? Oh, yes. If this is what you choose, I want to give you space. No doubt.

But no one should be forced to be alone. No one should sit alone at a table while tables around are filled with members. No one should stand off in a corner, idly munching, while longing to talk. Brothers and sisters, such things ought not be.

I hurt for those who are alone, but I know I cannot be the only one to talk to them. That’s a recipe for disaster – I need to be able to be shepherd to all, not just the new people. And there’s a limit to how many people I can talk to on a given Sunday morning. The body of Christ should be that – the body of Christ.

And now I am weary with this wrestling.

Once more, I want to just give up on the morning. Once more, I want to walk away.

But the sheep call out for their shepherd again. And I long to connect them to their Shepherd. That is the only way they will grow. That is the only way they will mature.

And so I point them again to their Shepherd… and I pray they choose to mature.