Tuesday, January 3, 2012

If I Could Give Advice

This past Sunday, I had one of those conversations that grieved me.

Not in the sense of a breaking relationship or trouble for myself or my congregation, but trouble for another church about an hours drive from me.

One of the son-in-laws of one of my members approached me and asked me to pray for his little congregation.  They have dwindled substantially in the past several years and are now facing the real possibility of closing.  It's a congregation with a long history, and, unfortunately, it might be ending.  According to the gentleman I visited with, the synod office basically advised them to close their doors.

This grieved me.

I do not believe congregations need to close.  Even those who cannot afford a full time, part time, or even a supply pastor.  I believe just about every congregation can grow and thrive regardless of the circumstances--especially if that congregation puts its trust in the power and promise of the Holy Spirit.

No one has asked me for advice on what to do in this situation, but with just the limited amount of information I have, here's what I would suggest:

#1.  Spend some intentional time in prayer asking God to reveal His purpose for the church.  Really be open to His prompting.  Don't have a preconceived idea of what He wants you to do.  Don't come up with an idea and then ask His blessing upon it.  Seek how He might be calling you to spread the good news of His Son in your community.   Don't think you are going to change the world or the community, but think about how God might need you to make an impact in individual lives around you--starting with your neighbors, your friends, and your family.

#2.  Don't rely upon the synod office or a clergy person to turn the church around and make things happen.  The Holy Spirit is gifted to EVERY believer at baptism.  EVERY believer has the opportunity to read, interpret and share God's Word.  Have a group of designated elders who lead sharing God's Word at worship.  It doesn't have to be a formal sermon in any sense of the word.  Just read a Gospel lesson, look at the congregation and ask, "What does this teaching have to do with us today?  How does it apply to our lives today?"  Don't try to get fancy.  Don't worry about the historical context of when the teaching occurred.  Don't worry about the many layers of interpretation that have come down through the ages.  Let those who are gathered for worship add their comments and questions throughout the "sermon."  Let the Word of God become alive and living with all the members in attendance.  YOU DO NOT NEED A CLERGY TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN!

#3. Take a hard look at the hospitality you offer to one another and to those who come into your midst.  Most churches believe they are friendly, and to an extent, they are.  But people pick up on subtle clues.  For instance, when I was in seminary, I supplied for a local country parish on a semi-regular basis.  One Sunday, they had a pot-luck following worship.  My wife and I were invited.  Congregation members had told us how nice it was we were with them and how much they appreciate me helping them out.  They asked me to lead the prayer for the pot-luck and then they allowed my wife and I to go through the line first.  We did and proceeded to sit down at one of the tables in the fellowship hall.  There were two sets of long tables, and we sat at the end of one.  All of the chairs filled up long before someone actually came and sat down beside my wife and I.  The actions of the church spoke much louder than their words.  True hospitality neither smothers nor ignores guests.  There is a delicate balance that is walked, and many congregations truly need to take a hard look at how folks are welcomed.

#4. Take a good hard look at how important your faith and worship life really is.  Is church something you "do" when you have spare time?  How committed are you to being in worship on a VERY regular basis?  Can you invite others to focus on God's love if it isn't first important to you?  Commitment is a thing that is rarely seen in our day and age.  See if you need to re-discover it.

I wouldn't go much further than this.  Are there other things to cover?  Sure.  But I don't believe it takes much for a congregation to begin spreading the Gospel and beginning to grow.  God has a habit of working through people who place Him and His will first in their lives and in the life of their churches. 


Kathy said...

Very good post. Unluckily for you, when I just see the word "advice," it hits a button, and advice wants to spout out.

Here are my impressions, by numbers:

#1 This is excellent. Very well stated. Could be the preface to a book.

#2 Now this is problematic. From my experience, this simply doesn't work. Maybe a century ago it did, but not now. There is too much "diversity" out there. Too many controversial issues. If a church is to hold together, it must have -- as I have said a million times -- Central Authority. Otherwise, it's toast.

#3 This is of no consequence -- that is hospitality. The church is not a social club. In my case, sometimes I feel like socializing, sometimes I don't. That is NOT why I go to church.

#4 This is why the Sacraments are so important -- especially the Eucharist. People go to church to make CONTACT with God. If this doesn't happen, they leave. Plain and simple.

Kevin Haug said...

#2. The Church has a Central Authority, and it is not in Rome, and it does work. Do you think the church in Corinth had priests handling the sacrament when Paul was admonishing them? Apparently, they were gathering and eating and celebrating without him or other apostles there at the time--if the apostles would have been there, they might have not been so bold in excluding the poor. The churches in the book of Acts were started by the apostles and then left to figure things out on their own. The model is biblical--not medieval.

#3. Hospitality is of consequence when you understand that one is welcoming not only guests and visitors, but one is welcoming Christ as He comes in the form of visitors and guests. Dare you leave off hospitality to our Lord?

#4. People make contact with God in ways other than the Sacraments. Remember Matthew 25? Or do you need a refresher?

Kathy said...

Man, this is tough!

I would say: "And now the gloves come off!" but I really don't know what that means.

#2 This is exactly what I am trying to say! Of course the model is Biblical! -- Acts 2:42. But... the Church DEVELOPS through time. The question we are faced with is HOW?

#3 Of course, I understand this. I am just a bit of an anti-social grinch. I hate it when some "welcomer" assaults me like a perfume girl at the mall. It makes my church look desperate.

#4 Of course... (see #3).

Kathy said...

... a little more, just for fun...

Central Authority? What do you mean? Is it the office building near O'Hare Airport from which Bishop Mark Hanson presides? Is it the Churchwide Assemblies? -- Remember the quote from Living Lutheran after last summer's Assembly? -- "I didn't even know if I was a Christian or not when I arrived, but it was really cool!"

Whaaat? Just because a person is Black or Asian or a Spanish-speaking woman, he or she has voting rights as part of the Central Authority of the ELCA? (Quota system, cf. R.J. Neuhaus) How different from how the Catholic Church operates!

Medieval model? The Church has developed throughout the centuries, from several hundred followers of Jesus to well over a billion. Of course it will change. I would not say the model is Medieval -- the Church was modeled on the Roman Empire, I believe -- but I am not an expert.

Kevin Haug said...

Taking one's gloves off is a reference to boxing. Knuckles are harder than the gloves and do more damage. Please, by all means go ahead and take the gloves off, but if you don't mind, I will keep mine on lest it wouldn't be a fair fight. :-)

#2. Yes, the Church develops over time, and it develops as the Spirit leads it. It led it towards institutionalization, but perhaps it is being led by the Spirit to revert back to a more first century model in some cases. Who are you to decry that this is not of God's doing when it was so successful then?

#3. Did you catch in my post the phrase, " True hospitality neither smothers nor ignores guests."? Apparently not.

And as to the Central Authority of the church...read Matthew 28. And, hello! The Holy Roman Empire...that was Medieval.

Kathy said...

... and to continue...

#3 Hitting that balance is difficult. I have been in parishes with and without greeters -- I don't think it matters much. I read on Clint's blog that as a visitor he was even given a "welcome bag." Now that is over the top!

Because the CC does not indulge in this sort of silliness, it has grown very large. Our ushers would have no idea of the thousands of people who attend mass every Sunday, who is a visitor and who is not!

When I said Roman Empire -- I meant, like, the ORIGINAL! Duh!

Mt 28 -- I agree 150%! Jesus gave authority to Peter and the other 10 (then) disciples! This is the baby form of the Church -- the Pope and the Magisterium! So simple!

#2 "Successful." That is the word. The famous Gamaliel Test.
If a church reverts back to a more First Century model now, there is a very great danger that it will become a cult. I have seen this happen here in Miami. It is actually quite common.

Kevin Haug said...


Your exegesis of Matthew 28 might stand a little tweaking. Jesus gathered his disciples. Some believed. Some doubted. He looked at all of them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me..."

Pretty self explanatory there. Jesus has all the authority in all of creation and all that is above creation.

"...therefore, go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you..."

Jesus doesn't say, "Now, I give you authority to go and do these things." Nope. Not in the least. Jesus looks at them after making a defining statement of who has authority, and then Jesus uses HIS authority to give a command. Why should the apostles go and make disicples? Well, Jesus told them to, and they should listen to Jesus because HE is the Authority.

"...and lo, I am with you always until the end of the age."

Interestingly enough here, if Jesus is with us, then He remains the Authority, doesn't He? I mean, we are in no way, shape or form to usurp His authority, are we? Does Jesus delegate or is He the Central Authority?

As far as I know, (and I'll probably need to do some polishing up on this), the authority that Jesus does give His followers is to either bind or loose sins--the Office of the Keys. And I am personally a great fan--as is most of the Church--of believing that that Office is given to ALL believers. (Yes, even the Church Fathers said so.)

So, you see, Kathy, your analogy that this is somehow comprable to the Pope and the Magesterium falls way, way short.