Thinking Out Loud

February 16, 2019

When Serving in Ministry is an Afterthought

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 am

It was 1989. The big city Christian bookstore closed at 6:00 PM on Saturday nights. At 5:30 he walked in and we got into a conversation where he let it be known that his reason for shopping was that he needed to buy an accompaniment tape as he was booked to be the “special music” at church the following morning. He wanted to listen to a few songs and “get some ideas.”

This wasn’t a small country church. This was a church that would have about 1,500 people in each of two services. The next day. In 15 hours.

img 021316He had left it to the very last minute.

I was reminded of this on Thursday when something similar happened at another Christian bookstore about an hour from where I live. The people needed six copies of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala.

They needed them for Saturday. The owner of the store wondered if I had any ideas.

Yes, I do! Plan ahead!

It amazes me how people can show up for work on time, pay their bills before the due dates, and never miss an oil change on the minivan, yet seem totally ill-equipped to do anything related to the church until it’s the last minute.

Historically, the typical stereotype was the Sunday School teacher who pulled out the lesson plan after supper on Saturday and spent ten minutes “going over it.” Is it too idealistic of me to imagine that somewhere there were Sunday School volunteers who began the process mid-week and actually allowed their minds to consider the lesson and fresh ways to present it? I certainly want to think that.

There’s a law in economics that states that everyone’s property is no-one’s property. What that means in this context is that many in the local church have simply never taken ownership of the life and ministry efforts of their local congregation.

img 021316aOne of the worst musical habits I picked up involved a group of instrumentalists who would be tuning their guitars or bass guitars and then, at a certain point, stop and exclaim, “Well… Good enough for gospel.”

Good enough for gospel? Is that what we’re aiming for? Simply good enough? Close enough? Whatever happened to “Do everything as unto the Lord?”

I was in church the next morning when the guy sang his solo. He did good, but not great. And I couldn’t enjoy it because I knew the story; the half-hearted, last-minute approach that had gone into preparing to minister in music that day.

January 22, 2018

Not Uniquely Gifted

You’ve been there and I’ve been there also. It’s usually the first Sunday of the New Year, or the Sunday the church launches into Fall kickoff mode.

The appeal for help. The big ask for you to consider using your time and talents to serve your church.

You know the word…your gifts.

My wife and I have mixed feelings about these appeals at one particular church. Here’s why…

…Without sounding arrogant, when we arrived at our new church home 28 years ago, I’m sure there were people there who thought we were God’s gift to that church. The church had undergone a radical change in direction that meant some key people had departed for the church down the road, and that left the first church in dire need with someone who possessed musical talent.

Working entirely alone for four years, I organized a palette of worship materials to be used in three different services on Sundays, and then chose from that to create distinct worship sets for each. Using only the electronic piano provided, I had to create the momentum of a band on high energy songs at our outreach service, but still be able to bring the volume down a notch for the hymns at the traditional service.

It was exhausting, and my wife will tell you that I frequently spent an hour or two lying on the living room floor on Monday morning…

…The efforts paid off however. The faithful team of Sunday School teachers, ushers, offering counters, church board leaders and one musician eventually caught on with our town to the point it is today the most growing church of the two dozen or so in the immediate and surrounding area.

But with that growth, some other musically talented people showed up and I took what I thought would be a break. Possibly even a short break.

At first it was just the new pastor’s wife. She was busy with two infants who eventually freed her up to take my place leading worship. It turned out that one of the elders was a lapsed drummer. A guitarist showed up after another church in the area closed. A bass player was transferred to the area by a large utility company. A couple who once traveled to different churches doing duets decided to settle down and become backup vocalists for the slowly expanding church.

She had enough people for one team, and that was all she needed…

…Fast forward a few years. Right now, by my last count there are eight people at this church who are capable of organizing worship sets, procuring chord chart sheets and running a rehearsal for a group of 5-10 musicians and singers. That’s right; this one church has eight worship leaders. There are at least five rhythm guitarists. Four keyboard players. Three bass players. Two drummers drumming. And many, many capable backup singers. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the youth band, which is building its own roster of capable players, many of whom grew up with modern worship and have always considered this the normal way to do church.

It also means that there is a generation of people at this church — I would estimate at least 80% — who have never heard me play an instrument or lead worship. When I tell them that I simply was the worship team for four years and that I was on paid staff at the church, they are always a bit surprised. What I don’t tell them is that I’m also an example of how this particular church puts people out to pasture. I would have thought that at least once someone would have reached out and asked me to join a team for old time sake. Or even organize a retro worship set featuring some of the songs we did in that era. (Some of them are still viable, and there are many worth re-casting with a modern sound.) That never happened. And regular readers here know what happened when my wife tried to suggest such a thing, and the wounding that occurred in that process.

Fortunately, I get to apply those gifts elsewhere. There’s another church where I am occasionally put to use and am able to bring a lifetime of experience with church music teams and church orchestras to bear on helping younger musicians.

But this article wasn’t supposed to be about me…

…There are many people who have gifts, but they just aren’t unique gifts. Or they’re gifts the church isn’t particularly interested in using. While they might help out in the church kitchen, or drive the church van to winter camp, etc., these are often one-time things that aren’t very fulfilling, never get recognized, and are not the best use of that person’s unique talents.

If anything, the glut of volunteers prepared to do exactly the same thing just makes them feel average. The church has needs in other areas, and while one wants to be adaptable and keep a servant attitude, the fact is they are not able to use their full potential. I am not able to use my full potential. You are not able to use your full potential…

…When we arrived at that church, there was a month where we got invited to lunch every single week because we were perceived as offering something which the church needed. But when your gifts are or become commonplace nobody really cares or notices. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And if you have for example, the gift of singing like my wife does, and it’s part of the essence of who you are, and you never get to use that gift again in the church, then the people there don’t truly know you, because they don’t know that dynamic that is a central part of your life.

Unfortunately, the church cannot accept every volunteer in a ministry department that is already highly subscribed to. So, church; please stop guilting us once or twice a year with your requests to sign up and start using our gifts.

Preach a different text that Sunday.

 

 

January 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Churches

What follows was inspired by yesterday’s article here. Lorne Anderson lives in Canada’s capital city and has a colorful resumé which includes missionary work in Liberia, Christian radio in Saskatoon and being a Parliamentary Assistant in Ottawa. It will appear later this week at his blog, Random Thoughts from Lorne.

tale-of-two-churches

They have been sitting just a few blocks from each other on one of Ottawa’s main streets for more than a century. The little red-brick Baptist Church, founded in 1888 and it’s beautiful stone Presbyterian counterpart that started 14 years previously.

By the mid-1970s, both congregations were past their glory days. The Baptist sanctuary could hold a couple of hundred people if they were really friendly with each other, but average Sunday morning attendance was closer to 80, most of them elderly. Obviously a church on its last legs.

The Presbyterians weren’t in much better shape. They had a bigger congregation, but the church always seemed empty with their 900-seat sanctuary. Their 12-speaker audio system produced more echo than sound.

It had become the custom, probably through a friendship that had developed between long-serving pastors, for the churches to have joint services in the summertime. In July the Presbyterians came to the Baptist Church while their pastor went on vacation. In August the traffic went the other way. The system worked well for years, with the churches saving the cost of pulpit supply, and the people of the two congregations discovering they were pretty much alike. Greying and not quite sure how to make the Christian message relevant to the age.

Then there was a change at the ‎Baptist Church. The new pastor wanted July off. He was told what the arrangement with the Presbyterians was, and wasn’t thrilled. The church board consulted their Presbyterian counterparts and a compromise was reached.

The Baptist pastor would have to take his vacation in August that first year. In subsequent years however they would alternate months. He was agreeable to having every second July for vacation, and apparently his counterpart was also. Everyone seemed pleased that the long-standing arrangement would continue.

In the second year the Presbyterians informed the Baptists that their pastor would be taking his usual July vacation, previous arrangements notwithstanding. The Baptist pastor’s family plans were already made. His board knew it would not have been right to ask him to change.

Being budget-conscious the Baptists turned to their congregation. Men (naturally) were asked to preach while the pastor was on vacation. People discovered gifts they didn’t know they had. The caliber of the lay preaching was pretty good. At least, the Presbyterians thought so. With their pastor on vacation their church just shut down for a month. Many in the congregation joined the Baptists in worship – that was what they were accustomed to.

Almost forty years later, that little red-brick Baptist church is still struggling. It still has an aging congregation and perhaps even fewer people most Sundays.

Three blocks away the story is quite different. That church is bustling, lots of young families, you can feel the excitement. It is so different than when they chose to shut for a month so the pastor could take a vacation. So much has changed in forty years.

I guess the biggest change has been in the use of the “P” word. Today’s congregation is Pentecostal. The Presbyterians closed up shop in 2008. The building sat empty for a couple of years, then this new Pentecostal congregation looking for a home purchased the magnificent structure at a bargain price.

I would argue that deciding to shut down that month back in the 1970s, in deciding there was no necessity to hold services, that Presbyterian congregation was laying the groundwork for the church’s demise.

A Presbyterian theologian might have said it was predestined. A Baptist would reject that.

 

 

January 9, 2017

Rethinking the Christmas Day Church Closings

closed signIn just 2176 days, in the year 2022, Christmas will once again fall on a Sunday. There was a great deal of angst this year about the number of churches which opted not to have a service. With only six more years to get this right, I want to address this issue now, while the subject is still fresh in my mind and yours.

First of all, I believe what we saw in 2016 was another example whereby the agenda for the church at large, at least in North America, is being dictated by the modern megachurch. The type of church service now in view is very complex and involves a multitude of staff and volunteers. Just the technical specifications for the worship service itself — and that’s not counting the children’s ministry, or the people directing traffic in the parking lot — requires an army of sound, lighting, music specialists as well as ushers. To expect a consistent turnout of these people on a morning when their hearts are at home, gathered round the Christmas tree hearing those familiar Christmas words, “This one says, ‘To Ben from your sister Julie'” is possibly asking too much.

The modern megachurch simply cannot offer an alternative service in a smaller room in the church where Mrs. Trebleclef will play some carols on the piano, the head of Men’s Ministry will speak, and then we’ll have a coffee time in the atrium. That would be a simple service. It would involve said pianist, the person giving the short devotional message, and the person to make the coffee, as well as someone to unlock the doors and check the restrooms. But that’s not the brand these churches want to offer. You can’t have a simple, grassroots service like that. Better to have locked doors.

Instead, the service is canceled and then the contagion spreads to smaller (and smaller and smaller) churches where not having the service becomes normative. Evangelicalism: Closed for the day. Be back next week.

Can you imagine a Roman Catholic church not having the mass on Christmas Day? No. Neither can I. Where did this day-off-mentality come from anyway?

Well, actually it came from megachurches who have started doing a similar week off thing in the summer, usually on Memorial Day weekend. “If you come next week, we won’t be here.” Seriously? What about visitors who didn’t know that’s the pattern? Or the Griswalds, who have driven cross-country just to see the celebrity pastor? Goodness knows these big box churches are doing something right, so if they’re not having a service, perhaps our little 200-member church should do the same. Heck, we’ll also cancel Labor Day weekend while we’re at it; this is obviously a key plank in church growth, right?

But that diverts from the more serious issue. What about the people who are lonely? The people for whom weekend services are a spiritual and social lifeline? The people who need that one hour to ramp up to the 167 hours that follow? My wife and I learned from doing the Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day in our own hometown that the people who most need some level of fellowship or companionship — not that the capital-C Church is particular good at this — know no particular stereotype.

There’s also the matter of cost. By this I don’t mean the cost of turning on lights and having people consuming coffee cups and flushing toilets. No, I mean the cost of building church buildings and then having the auditoriums sit empty for the 13 days between one service, and the one which would follow in two weeks. It’s not about having offering revenue. Skip the collection on long weekends by all means. It’s about the investment in erecting places of worship and equipping them with comfortable chairs, state of the art sound and lighting, and engaging child and youth facilities, and then shuttering the place on what is usually the prime traffic day…

…Does this make any sense to you?

So where do those KidMin, worship and parking volunteers come from on Christmas and holidays? They don’t. You change up the brand image for the sake of one Sunday and using a skeleton staff, offer something for the people who really need to be connected. Maybe not Mrs. T. on the piano. Maybe it’s a film. It might involve a guest speaker or guest musicians. Perhaps it’s a shorter service.

Just. Don’t. Lock. The. Church. Doors.

If weekend worship has gotten so complex that we can’t do it without a volunteer roster the size of the Marine Corps, maybe we need to be rethinking what it means to do and be the church.

December 18, 2016

What One Church Lost

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:52 pm

On the way home from church today, my wife shared a story a part of which I had never heard before even though it was now many years later. Basically, it was about a woman who had been involved in a leadership capacity at her church and was asked to step aside (I’d heard that part before) and how one family decided this was the last straw and they were going to quit the church and how that same woman talked them into staying (which was the part I’d never heard before.)

vhstapeAs she related this, some old feelings started to rise up about the injustice of the whole thing when suddenly I heard a voice in my head say, “Don’t worry about it. The world chose VHS over Beta.”

For those of you under a certain age, there were two different video cassette formats, and everyone agreed that Sony’s Beta provided the better picture, but a variety of market forces and distribution alliances caused VHS to eventually win the war. (Some would argue that the popularity of the PC over Mac is a similar situation.)

Perhaps some people are simply too good at what they do to suit the standard of mediocrity that prevails in many churches. They’re seen as too intense. Their attention to detail is too detailed. Basically, they pose a threat and the sooner an opportunity to comes along to replace them, someone seizes it.

In church life, the challenge is to find the Beta people and support and encourage them and in some measure protect them from the people who don’t get it and find their passion a little overbearing.

February 13, 2016

When the Work of the Local Church is Neglected

Filed under: Christianity, Church, ministry, music, worship — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:30 am

It was 1989. The big city Christian bookstore closed at 6:00 PM on Saturday nights. At 5:30 he walked in and we got into a conversation where he let it be known that his reason for shopping was that he needed to buy an accompaniment tape as he was booked to be the “special music” at church the following morning. He wanted to listen to a few songs and “get some ideas.”

This wasn’t a small country church. This was a church that would have about 1,500 people in each of two services. The next day.

img 021316He had left it to the very last minute.

I was reminded of this on Thursday when something similar happened at another Christian bookstore about an hour from where I live. The people needed six copies of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala.

They needed them for Saturday. The owner of the store wondered if I had any ideas.

Yes, I do! Plan ahead!

It amazes me how people can show up for work on time, pay their bills before the due dates, and never miss an oil change on the minivan, yet seem totally ill-equipped to do anything related to the church until it’s the last minute.

Historically, the typical stereotype was the Sunday School teacher who pulled out the lesson plan after supper on Saturday and spent ten minutes “going over it.” Is it too idealistic of me to imagine that somewhere there were Sunday School volunteers who began the process mid-week and actually allowed their minds to consider the lesson and fresh ways to present it? I certainly want to think that.

There’s a law in economics that states that everyone’s property is no-one’s property. What that means in this context is that many in the local church have simply never taken ownership of the life and ministry efforts of their local congregation.

img 021316aOne of the worst musical habits I picked up involved a group of instrumentalists who would be tuning their guitars or bass guitars and then, at a certain point, stop and exclaim, “Well… Good enough for gospel.”

Good enough for gospel? Is that what we’re aiming for? Simply good enough?

I was in church the next morning when the guy sang his solo. He did good, but not great. And I couldn’t enjoy it because I knew the story; the half-hearted, last-minute approach that had gone into preparing to minister in music that day.

 

 

June 21, 2014

Welcome to our Church Family

coffee time

Michaela and Brett have been attending Neighborhood Community Church for three consecutive weeks now and are at the post-service coffee time in the facility’s large activity room.

BRETT: I’m gonna see if there’s seconds on this decaf.

MICHAELA: Sure, go ahead mine is still too hot to drink.  [Brett exits]

[A woman walks up to Michaela]

HANNAH: Hi, my name’s Hannah, I’ve noticed you’ve been here three weeks in a row and —

MICHAELA: Hi, I’m Michaela; yes we’ve been attending here while–

[Hannah reaches inside a large brown envelope and pulls out a keychain with a key and and a white business-card sized piece of cardboard attached to it.]

HANNAH: Well, here’s your keys to the church.

MICHAELA: (pauses, not sure what to say) My keys?

HANNAH: We want you to feel part of the family and if there’s anything you want to do to volunteer, we don’t want you sitting in the parking lot waiting for someone to arrive.

MICHAELA: Actually, the reason we’re coming here–

HANNAH: The four digit number on the card is your alarm code. Just make sure you enter by the back door or the front door; although the key opens other doors.

MICHAELA: (tries to give the keys back) I don’t think I can–

HANNAH: Oh it’s easy, as you walk in the box is beeping and you just type in the number.

MICHAELA: I don’t want to have to–

HANNAH: (sees someone in the distance) Oh, sorry, I gotta run.  [Exits]

MICHAELA: (to herself) Well that was weird.

The Pastor walks up to Michaela guiding a woman he wants to introduce.

PASTOR: It’s good to see you back again, Kayla.

MICHAELA: Actually it’s Michaela–

PASTOR: Right. Michaela and Jeff.

MICHAELA: No, he’s–

PASTOR: This is Sarah, she’s in charge of our–oh my, I see someone I’ve been trying to catch up with for weeks; excuse me.   [Exits]

SARAH: He’s too busy, that guy. Anyway, I noticed you signed up to attend the banquet on Saturday and wondered if you had any time in the morning to be part of our kitchen team to help us get started.

MICHAELA: That would be nice, we don’t have anything planned.

SARAH: Good. We need someone to start the potatoes. They need to be washed and peeled and cut, so we need that to take place early. Now, I noticed that Hannah gave you a key; we thought if the potato person started around 7:00 AM–

MICHAELA: Potato person?

SARAH: Yes, you’d be the first to arrive. The potato bag will be on the counter, there’s peelers in the top drawer to the left of the sink, and we’ll leave out a few big pots you can put them in.

MICHAELA: Well, I once did a 20-pound bag at church camp, so I suppose–

SARAH: Well these are 48-pound bags. Oh my! Is that Esther? This is her first Sunday back at church after her–well I’m not supposed to say am I?  [Exits]

MICHAELA: (calls after her) Wait! Bags?    [Brett returns]

BRETT: (holding a hot coffee and a large binder under his arm): Who was that? Did you find a set of keys? We should turn those in.

MICHAELA: It’s the keys to the church. I have to be here at 7:00 AM on Saturday to peel potatoes for the banquet, and I think I’m going to be working alone.

BRETT: They gave you keys to the church?

MICHAELA: Yes. I think we need to tell these people we’re only here for ten weeks while our place back home is getting renovated.

BRETT: Yeah, I tried that once a few minutes ago and it didn’t work.

MICHAELA: What’s with that binder?

BRETT: Oh, they found out what I work at, I’m now the chair of the finance committee.

[End]

June 11, 2014

Wednesday Link List

calvinistsafety

With lots of people doing summer things this week, I thought we’d tinker with the format while nobody’s looking. ANYTHING YOU CLICK will take you to PARSE, the blog of Leadership Journal, the Link List’s owner.  But first, we take you to Monday’s edition of the comic Pearls Before Swine (click image to link).

Pearls Before Swine June 9th 2014

I usually bury the video links near the bottom, but this week uncovered two clips I wanted to give more prominence.

Church leadership stuff:

Essay(s)-of-the-Week:

The wider religious world:

Worth reading:

Be afraid; be very afraid:

So how do you like your links? Categorized or free-range? Leave a comment!

 

Happy Hour Church

April 2, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Irresistible Grace

After falling for an April Fool’s Day prank yesterday — hope you enjoyed yesterday’s here — you may be overly cautious today, but as far as we know, everything below is legit.

Despite a submission guide at PARSE that allows writers to post additionally at their own sites, our Leadership Today overlords want you clicking from their site, thereby depriving me of stats. So if you see something you liked, leave a comment here or there; it’s the only way I know. Clicking anything below will take you first to PARSE.

While leaving no Christian internet news stone unturned, Paul Wilkinson also writes at Thinking Out Loud, Christianity 201, and Twitter.

Devouring God's Word

August 9, 2013

Fall Ministry Season Focus

Full disclosure: This is the THIRD time I’ve reblogged this piece, which is actually a pre-Easter article that Pete Wilson wrote which I’ve adapted into a non-seasonal piece. Timing is everything with this, Pete’s own kids are already back to school this week. It seems fitting to remind ourselves of these priorities as the heat of summer gives way to regrouping our forces with a fresh intensity…

Like many of you I’m up to my eyeballs in the details and logistics … I’m distracted, maybe a little stressed and certainly carrying all kind of concerns. But I just want to issue this challenge to all of us…

Pastors, I pray you’ll preach the hope of Jesus Christ like never before. Preach as if you were there the day it happened and is if this were the last message you are ever going to give!

Worship Leaders, I pray you’ll lead worship with the same awe and amazement as if you just watched the stone roll away. Whether you have lights or no lights, production or no production, may they see the wonder and awe in your eyes and voice that you actually believe what it is you’re singing.

Kids’ Teachers, I pray you look your kids in the eyes and use every bit of passion, energy, and excitement you have to tell them a story that can and will impact their life forever.

Volunteers, I pray you’ll serve, sing, hand out programs, park cars, turn knobs, and make coffee as if eternities were on the line, because they are!

Worshipers, I pray you’ll open your heart and raise your voice and pour out all you have and all you are in honor of a God who has defeated death so you may have life.

I pray [each] weekend we’ll all drop our cynicism, egos, and agendas and will stand amazed and marvel at the wonder of a God who has set us free from the penalty and the power of sin

Pete Wilson; senior pastor of Cross Point; Nashville, TN

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