Thinking Out Loud

September 22, 2016

A Pastoral Career: The Parabolic Curve of Church Size

Filed under: Christianity, Church, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:34 am

Conrad sat in the living room staring at the “yearbook” that Central Church had given him when he resigned several years ago. Well, “resigned” wasn’t exactly the right word, but other than that, there was nothing about his time pastoring the 700+ member church that did not evoke fond memories. He was only the third pastor Central had ever known, and while he did not experience the rapid growth of his predecessors, he’d seen the church grow from 556 members to 703.

Not that it was about numbers. Well, maybe it was. His first church was 168 members, but he was only there for three years. Then he jumped at the opportunity to go to a 289 member church, where he stayed for five years. Next, he entered a four year term with the 374 member — oh, my goodness; it really was about numbers; he couldn’t believe he had remembered all that detail.

Short StoriesBut Central was the pinnacle as it turned out, twelve years, and average weekend attendance just under a thousand in two services, with 703 of those people full members.

And then he got sent to East Valley on an interim pastor assignment, that ended up lasting six years. Smaller numerically. A little backward culturally. He was balding now and the 414-member church was an older demographic that signified, along with his own age, the numbers might start dropping. And then it did.

Before he knew it, he was doing a meaningless job in the district office waiting out the years to retirement. He had ridden the entire parabolic curve of church size.

He put the yearbook down and sighed.

“You’d better get ready to go;” his wife Carla admonished from the kitchen, “The service at Whispering Willows starts at 2:00 PM.”

So this is what it comes to, he thought. Sunday afternoon chapel services in the local seniors’ home.

The pianist assigned from the Salvation Army didn’t know any of the hymns he’d bookmarked. “We tend to do Army music;” she confessed, “But I can do Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art.”

“That’s all they ever want to sing anyway;” Conrad told her, and at 1:55 Whispering Willows staff started wheeling in the dozen-and-a-half women and three men who had signed up to go to chapel that week, plus two staff. Okay, a few of the residents used walkers, but he noticed that everybody that week had some type of appliance necessary to get them around.

At 2:00 he opened in prayer. At 2:01 they sang How Great Thou Art. At 2:05 they sang Amazing Grace. At 2:08 he asked the pianist if she would play a little number from her Salvation Army hymnal. She gladly obliged, but the tune was unfamiliar and the melody was incomprehensible. But now it was 2:10.

Conrad checked his watch again. These services ran an hour, usually 40 minutes of singing and a 20 minute message. He knew he needed to stretch, so he asked if anyone had any prayer requests. “Just put your hands up.”

Surprisingly a woman in the second row did just that. He nodded toward her to share anything with the group and she said, “This isn’t the dining room.”

“No it isn’t;” Conrad replied.

Silence.

More silence. He noticed the ticking of a mantle clock he’d never noticed before. Things had never been this quiet.

“You know;” the retired pastor said, “I come here each month and I’ve never really told you much about myself, so before I share today’s scripture reading and message, perhaps I should share my story.”

So he spoke about his call to ministry late in high school, and how he had gone off to his denomination’s Bible college, and how he graduated and started climbing the ministry ladder. The problem was, as he had done before leaving for Whispering Willows, he was sharing more about the metrics of the various churches than about anything else that had happened in those various communities.

There was no story about Fred, or Jill, or Michael, or Jennifer, or anyone else. It was about the 168 and the 289 and the 374 and the 703 at Central Church and down to the 414. There was no reference to Carla standing by him in all those years in ministry, or raising a daughter and two sons in those various churches.

And then Conrad stopped. He had been listening to his own story. And he realized that it sounded pathetic.

It wasn’t that all he cared about were the numbers; it’s that he was bitter about never again getting the adrenaline rush associated with being able to speak to a thousand people each weekend. About being bounced down to a smaller church. And then left to deteriorate in a useless administrative position in the district office.

Another resident raised a hand, this time one of the men.

“You left out a number;” he said; “22. There’s twenty-two of us here, twenty-four if you count yourself and the woman who can’t play the piano.” (Of course he had miscounted by one and ignored the staff, but…)

“Well actually;” he said, trying to do some damage control, “I think she did those hymns really well, she just doesn’t know the ones that are in your book.”

“Well I grew up Salvation Army, so hey, Miss, do you know Thou Christ of Burning, Cleansing Flame?”

“I don’t think we know that–” he started to say, but the pianist suddenly lighted up and launched into a rather rousing introduction, uncovering previously hidden keyboard skills, and the man stood to his shaking feet and in a loud and clear voice sang verse after verse.

As it turned out the song had a hook, a line that repeated constantly and by the 4th verse, all the residents were singing. Singing loudly, “Send the fire, Send the fire, Send the fire.”

By now it was 2:40 and he was back on schedule.

He read the text for the message, a sermon from the files of the glory days at Central Church, slightly shortened to fit the 20-minute window. In his mind he was back there. Two services. Almost a thousand people every weekend.

One of the two staff members held up a cardboard sign that said “One Minute Left.” He thanked everyone for coming and gave a short benediction. The staff members started getting ready to pull wheelchairs out of rows and into the hallway.

“Wait a minute! Stop!” yelled the man who had introduced the last song into the service mix; “That number you forgot. We aren’t 703 members, but there’s twenty-two of us, and we’re the best damn twenty-two people you’ve got right now.”

Conrad looked deep into the man’s eyes, and then noticed the smile.

And then he smiled back.

And then time froze and the staff stopped moving wheelchairs and everyone waited for Conrad to say something in return, except he couldn’t think of anything. Nothing at all. So he said the first words that popped into his head.

“This isn’t the dining room.”

 

September 21, 2016

Wednesday Link List

well-played-church-sign

 

young-jesus-at-bath-timeWelcome to WLL #326. The issue of the missing years of Jesus’ childhood is thorny and the ‘infancy gospels’ are long contested. So we don’t lay any claim to the accuracy of the cartoon at right, nor do we know the source. For the more conservative out there, try not to be offended.

When your business has a name client, you want to advertise that:

christian-plumbing-truck

September 14, 2016

Wednesday Link List

It may not catch on like WWJD, but...

It may not catch on like WWJD, but…

 

This Lexus owner is either a NKJV supporter, or expressing a Christmas wish for a new copy of the classic. Will that be 1611 or 1789?

This Lexus owner is either a NKJV supporter, or expressing a Christmas wish for a new copy of the classic. Would that be 1611 or 1789?

the-bard-and-the-bibleWelcome to WLL#325. If you love theater and love God, have we got a devotional book for you; pictured at right, published by Worthy Inspired.

I hope you find something of interest in this week’s list…it was lots of fun putting it together for you.

September 12, 2016

Selah

guitar-solo

The Saturday Ramblings column at Internet Monk always proves interesting. It’s basically like our (occasional) Weekend Link List, but they tend to feature different types of stories.

Like everyone else, they’ve been captivated by what Adam Ford is doing at Christian fake news site, The Babylon Bee; and recently featured the item below, which sparked me to get creative. First, the article:

Ancient Documents Confirm ‘Selah’ Best Translated ‘Extended Guitar Solo’

ISRAEL—Ancient documents uncovered by archaeologists working in the West Bank confirmed Friday that the disputed term “selah” present throughout the Psalms and Habakkuk is actually best translated “extended guitar solo.”

While many scholars had previously believed the Hebrew word referred to either a period of quiet reflection, a musical pause, or a time of heightened musical crescendo, the recent discovery of scrolls in remarkable shape lend overwhelming evidence to the theory that the term actually instructed Hebrew worship bands to shred across all six-strings in a blistering, melodic guitar solo.

“This is an astounding find—it really can’t be overstated,” biblical archaeologist Dr. Thomas Earl told reporters excitedly. “While we knew that Old Testament worshipers often incorporated instruments into their singing of the Psalms, we had no idea that biblical worship was often accompanied by a gratuitous, performance-oriented electric guitar solo.”

Other experts in Old Testament language studies have confirmed that scribbled on the back of one of the newly discovered scrolls was a piece of tablature notating a rudimentary version of famed guitarist Slash’s soulful solo from hit single “November Rain.”

“While many Christians have cautioned against excessive use of showmanship and flashy musical performances in our times of worship, well—it seems like the Scripture now confirms it’s okay to wail, if the Spirit so moves,” Dr. Earl continued.

This prompted me to leave prose behind with this free verse concoction:

The lyric screen goes blank.
The guitar solo begins.
We stand there.
And stand there.
We have heard this solo before.
It’s a copy of the one on the album.
We take a deep breath to sing the next line.
Nope.
Too soon.
He’s going for another eight bars.
An older woman sits down.
A small child follows.
They’re dropping like flies.
The computer guy puts the next verse up in anticipation.
I’ve lost the worship vibe completely.
Now I just want the song to end.
This isn’t right.

Guitars in Church

 

September 10, 2016

Quick Ordination to Perform a Wedding or Two

Filed under: Christianity, marriage — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:52 am

Wedding RingsMatt Marino is an Episcopal Priest who in a previous lifetime spent 17 years with Young Life. He blogs at The Gospel Side.  Several months ago — admittedly at the start of the wedding season in North America — he posted this article. At one time I tried to pursue ordination through an independent organization, and never went through with it because every organization I contacted assumed I was just another guy wanting to perform weddings…

No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.

It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear.🙂

September 7, 2016

Wednesday Link List

My wife snapped this pic in a thrift shop where, for only $20, you can own a genuine menorah from the Holly Land.

My wife snapped this pic in a thrift shop where, for only $20, you can own a genuine menorah from the Holly Land.

I’m just gonna assume everyone is up to speed that Mother Teresa is now Saint Teresa (of Calcutta).  Here’s the rest of this week’s list:

The Wednesday Link Letter was written by Paul Wilkinson and recorded before a live audience (Paul’s wife). Read more of his work at his Anglican baptism website, Sprinkling Out Loud, or at Devotional Plagiarism 201, where only the best get borrowed.

pi-pie

August 31, 2016

Wednesday Link List

From Reddit: "Had a lady from church ask me to remove an Ouija board from her home because she was afraid to touch it, but I have enough spiritual power to withstand it. So I did. It's burning in my fire pit right now. Sometimes my job is awesome and hilarious."

From Reddit: “Had a lady from church ask me to remove an Ouija board from her home because she was afraid to touch it, but I have enough spiritual power to withstand it. So I did. It’s burning in my fire pit right now. Sometimes my job is awesome and hilarious.”

Welcome to Wednesday Link List #323. Lots of listicles this week.

From Twitter: "Some churchy words for @worldscrabble champs this week, Quinquennial scores at least 30 if you could actually do it!"

From Twitter: “Some churchy words for @worldscrabble champs this week, Quinquennial scores at least 30 if you could actually do it!”

August 24, 2016

Wednesday Link List

Tomorrow is August 25th, which means only 4 months to Christmas. It’s never too early to start planning your advent services:

Advent Service Planning

Wednesday List Lynx

Wednesday List Lynx – Do Not Pet

Today something a little different. Because the 30th Weekend Link List happened on Saturday, I’m going to reiterate all those links at the bottom of today’s, just ICYMI. (Statistically many of you do miss it, and this one contained some important items.)

Adam and Eve

As promised, our first ever reiteration of the weekend list experiment, not including images and witty introduction.

 

August 21, 2016

Most Popular Church Website Tag Line

new-website-small

Years ago my wife and I noticed that the phrase, “A Different Kind of Church” was becoming so ubiquitous to the point of being meaningless. It was a decade of great ecclesiastic shuffling, books were being written at a furious pace, and church planting was the de rigeur activity for any younger pastors or leaders who wanted to keep up with the times.

Even today, the phrase will produce about 114,000 results on Google; change the word Kind to Type and you get 42,000 more. The fastest growing church network in Canada, The Meeting House boasts it is a “church for people who aren’t into church,” which will get you almost 1,500 more results.

But these days, it seems like, where I live anyway, the most popular tag line for church websites is something like,

Website Under Construction

Admittedly one was hacked, but one church signed up with a new provider only to find themselves being down for over a year. It’s up and running as of a few weeks ago.

This week we’re visiting a church that is in-between websites, and it’s frustrating not having the advance information as to what to expect, or if the regular pastor will be speaking. At least we were able to verify the service time, and get the location from Google Maps. You are referred to a Facebook page, but it seems to be more about reflecting back to the previous weekend than looking forward to the one to come.

Someone has said that in the 21st Century, if you’re not online you don’t exist. It’s true. I’m betting that internet searches now exceed word-of-mouth as the top reason people visit a church. And don’t even mention those adverts in the weekend newspaper. Waste of money.

I recently tried to contact a pastor whose church is about 45 minutes east of me, only to discover they never had a website. Not even a static, single page. That’s a major blunder as I see it.

Service industries and other commercial ventures couldn’t tolerate being down for more than a few hours. An IT guy would be called in to fix the glitch and get the thing going. So why do churches let it slide for so long before the sites become operative again?

I think a greater level of urgency and prioritizing is needed when the site goes down. Your church can’t afford to be without it.


A year ago we linked you to this related article by Derek Ouellette

If you’re not already aware of it (and don’t mind the title) check out Church Marketing Sucks

August 20, 2016

Weekend Link List

Do you accept the one on the far right as your personal watermelon? (Must be an Evangelical thing.) Image via Rachel Held Evans.

Do you accept the one on the far right as your personal watermelon? (Must be an Evangelical thing.) Image via Rachel Held Evans. Just pray the ‘Shopper’s Prayer.’

Cat reading Dog DelusionIt’s Weekend List Link #30!

Never been here before? This weekend edition is a version of our popular Wednesday Link List. Yesterday, we discovered that all those years later, Jeffrey Smith is still writing Prayer Pups. Click the image below to read more.

Prayer Pups Church-Newsletter

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