Pastor, this is real commitment

2014 – Oysterville Historic Church – Near Long Beach, WA (not the church in the story)

I heard a pastor deliver a heartfelt message calling for his congregation to really commit to the church.  He told the church that he had had opportunities to go elsewhere, including a return to his home area to a previous pastorate.  However, he had turned it down because he was committed to this current church.  Then, at the conclusion of the message all those in attendance were invited to join the pastor in his commitment by coming forward as a testimony to their allegiance.

Frankly, there was nothing wrong with any of this.  However, having known many of those laypersons for over 20 years I couldn’t help but smile to myself.  If anyone was qualified to call anyone to real commitment to the local church it was several of those laypersons.  They have already proven themselves faithful.  Several, for a lifetime.  They stayed true to that church through a series of pastors who after a while had declared that the Lord was calling them elsewhere.  They hung in there through some hard times when others moved on to a church down the street.

These were the people who had financially supported the church through the years.  They gave of their time by teaching Sunday School, working in VBS, leading Bible Quiz programs, and showing up for church work days.  They showed up for choir rehearsals and took a turn mowing the church lawn.

Meanwhile, pastors had come and gone.  Some retiring and others just packing up to continue their ministry elsewhere.  Listen, I know that that happens.  I do believe that there comes a time when a person needs to move on in their ministry – often for reasons they, themselves, don’t understand.  Circumstances change and both church and pastor can benefit from a healthy change.  Also, in my own ministry, especially in my younger years, I ran out of gas way too early in more than one assignment.  Happily, and to my credit (I think) my stays got longer as I matured in my ministry.

I also understand that some church people need to make a decision and quit playing church.  Some folks have been around the church for years and are still hanging out in the shallows rather than fully committing to the Lord and his Church.  They need to be challenged to go deeper in their spiritual lives.

Still, as I watched those who are prime examples of commitment and faithfulness respond to that sermon I couldn’t help but think things were the reverse of what they should have been.  It was those people who should have been challenging the pastor to commitment.  They should have been on the platform inviting him to come forward and accept their example.

Or, maybe said better, the good pastor should have told his congregation that the example of many in the congregation had inspired him and, as a result, he was committing to them to join them in their faithfulness.  I really doubt that some of them could be more committed to their church than they already are, and have proven over the decades.

Many churches are full of dedicated people who love their church and continue to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure.  We can only hope for pastors who will join them in that commitment.

Looking for a pastor

My mother was a regular delegate to District Assembly (it’s a Nazarene thing). In the old days, every pastor on the district was required to give a verbal report to the Assembly. Some of the reports were inspiring and some not so much. At some point through the years Mom started “grading” pastors. If she liked the way the pastor reported she would put a mark beside their name. She explained that if it so happened that during the year our church went through a pastoral transition (and it happened a lot during those days – the average pastoral tenure at that time was less than three years) she would use her star system to vet potential candidates.

Honestly, I don’t know that it ever happened that way, but she was ready – just in case.

As I remember her approach I realize that we do something similar with Facebook these days. In the past few years I’ve been involved in a couple of churches going through a change of pastors. Both times, as soon a potential candidate’s name became known a significant number of people headed for Facebook to find out all they could about the candidate.

And, using Facebook in particular and Google in general, you can find out a lot about a person. Some things are really easy to see and others take a bit of digging, but if a person is even marginally Facebook savvy they can learn a lot about someone who posts on Facebook.

I’m not discounting the spiritual in the least here. For years I’ve encouraged church people to see a pastoral search as a spiritual rather than business endeavour. Still, I think church people are probably wise to use this to their advantage, at least in the early part of the process. We all know that resumes don’t tell the whole story. If a pastor is active on Facebook it is easy to get a more candid look at how they interact with people and what interests them when they are “off the clock.” This, I think, can help churches find a good match when they are looking for a new pastor.

Pastor Appreciation – why some churches don’t do it

I’ve been thinking about why churches fail to honor their pastor during pastor appreciation month. I can think these possibilities:
 
1. In denominational churches at least, the district, etc. needs to contact church board secretaries prior to October, possibly with examples and suggestions, encouraging them to see to it that the pastor is honored. Then in November, they should be contacted again, asking them what their church did.  If the church leadership isn’t being encouraged to honor their pastor by someone with authority, it may never happen.
 
2. I have the idea that church leaders who listen to Christian radio are more likely to honor their pastor during this time. Most Christian radio stations make a big deal out of it. If church leaders don’t listen to these stations (and I’m not saying they should), they won’t be influenced to take action.
 
3. Many churches are so pastor-centric that nothing much happens unless the pastor is either leading it or at least approving it. (I had a women’s council one time that was amazed that I didn’t attend their meetings – all previous pastors had attended.) In the case of pastor appreciation, it doesn’t happen because the pastor isn’t in a position to organize it like he/she organizes everything else.
 
Just some passing late October thoughts.

Pastors need Mondays

For many years prior to retirement from pastoring I took Mondays off. I generally took a long walk, did some banking, and pretty much crashed. Since retirement, of course, most days are “days off” so Mondays are pretty much like any other day of the week.

Right now, I’m filling in for a friend who is taking Sabbatical leave so I’m back “on the clock” at least in part. My only real responsibility is preaching the Sunday morning sermon although I’m “being the pastor” in a few other ways as well. I certainly don’t have the full pastoral load.

The interesting thing to me is that that old Monday weariness has returned. It has to be the preaching and maybe interacting with a number of people throughout the day because I’m not doing much else. I confess that I’m not much of a people person, so spending a large part of the day chatting and “being nice” does wear me down a bit. Still, I think the preaching is the biggest part of it.

It’s not as though I’m a high energy, pacing, pulpit pounder. My style is conversational, considerably thought through, and much prayed over. To most non-preachers I know that that doesn’t sound like much and some may accuse me of whining or maybe just of getting old and more easily tired. Honestly, there may be some truth in the second accusation and hopefully none in the first.

However, I think that there’s a least a reminder here that pastors work harder on Sundays than most people think they do, even if all they “do” is preach a sermon for 30-40 minutes. The preparation, both academic and spiritual, takes a toll. The energy spent, even with Spirit anointing, is considerable.

I don’t think I’m just whining or wimping out. Pastors carry a burden that takes a toll and they both need and deserve a Monday day of rest.

During Communion

Traveling as we do we see different approaches to the elements of worship. That’s especially true when we visit churches outside our own Zion, but often even different churches of our own denomination have approaches to things that are new to us.

We visited one church in which the bulletin directed us to receive the elements whenever we wanted upon receiving them. They passed the trays and most everyone received them immediately. Those in the front of the church got theirs first, received them, and then waited for the service to continue. I didn’t like that very much because it seemed to take the “union” out of comm-union for me.

Other churches may instruct people to wait for further instructions but they have a congregational song going throughout the distribution of elements. At one place the minister was almost shouting over the praise band, instructing us to “take and eat.” I found myself wanting to say “hush!” to the singers so I could not only contemplate what the Lord did and is doing for me but also hear what the minister was saying.

Since I believe this sacrament is, indeed, “a means of grace” I want to be given a bit of spiritual space when I receive it. Time spent holding the symbols of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood while others are being served is one way that can happen. Also, some quiet time, maybe with just some soft instrumental music, helps me listen to the “still, small voice” of God.

Sing it right! “Christ Arose”

There are a lot of great Easter songs, both old and new.  However, I think my all time favorite is Robert Lowry’s “Christ Arose.”  “Up from the grave he arose” never fails to get my spiritual heart to pumping!  This old song, to me, captures the resurrection with powerful words and a simple melody that the congregation can sing with joyful abandon.

But many churches don’t know how to sing it!

The song is supposed to contrast between “low in the grave he lay” and “up from the grave he arose.”   The verse is “in the grave.”  It’s a funeral song.  The chorus is Easter resurrection: victory over the grave.  It’s exciting and joyful – maybe even a little giddy.

The verse and chorus aren’t supposed to be sung at the same speed.   Stated simply, sing the chorus at twice the speed of the verse.  Don’t over think it – sing the chorus like you are four years old at a birthday party and having the time of your life.

Then, Lowry ingeniously puts the brakes on with the final lines of the chorus, preparing the singers to slow down again for the next verse.

Please share this with every worship leader you know who, having never heard this song sung right before, are destroying (yes, it’s an over-statement) an awesome Easter hymn!

Preaching for decisions: know when to land the sermon

I heard a well-prepared, well-delivered sermon that was intended to conclude with an invitation. As the sermon was finished a sweet spirit was evident in the service and I fully expected to see several people respond. The case had been made and the Spirit of the Lord was at work.

But the preacher wouldn’t land the sermon! Instead, we heard one more story followed by yet another application. By the time people were actually given opportunity to respond the moment had faded and the response was meager.

There are two points in the sermon that especially need to be well thought through by the preacher. The first is the first part of the sermon. The other is the closing of the sermon.

I’m not saying that sermons should never include “in flight” direction of the Holy Spirit, even at crucial points (like leading to a call for decisions). However, the preacher needs to be careful to leave the Spirit room to work in the hearts of the listeners and be leery of telling “one more story.”

Contemporary worship in a traditional sanctuary

drums
We visit a lot of churches; frankly, it’s a lot of fun. I find hearing different pastors, enjoying the music of some talented people, and even looking over the décor of the sanctuary to be interesting and sometimes inspiring. It’s the sanctuary set-up that I’m thinking about today.

Most churches (thinking of buildings here) that we visit have been around for a while. When they were built people had a rather specific idea of how a church ought to look so it comes as no surprise that buildings that were constructed at similar times for churches of the same denomination have the same look and feel.

Interesting to me is that, while church sanctuaries have remained the same, the worship services themselves have undergone some major upgrades the last 20 years or so. Most churches we visit have gone to a blended type of worship service. The music has changed and now it’s guitars and drums with the piano relegated to a less central role. Organs have fared even worse; often little used or even removed from service all together.

Probably the only sanctuary change in all this that is common is the addition of a video screen. In some churches the screen sticks out like a sore thumb, maybe even covering the top part of a cross during at least part of the service (not a very good visual in my opinion).

Often, aside from the video addition, everything looks pretty much the same as it did 40-50 years ago.

Frankly, I don’t think that works very well. Dark paneling, oak pews, and heavy furniture on the platform…these speak of another day. They make me want to sing “Oh God our Help in Ages Past” with pipe organ rather than “Good, Good Father” with praise band.

I know that, really, what I expect or “feel” about this doesn’t matter much. After all, I’m going to attend and worship either way.

But what does it say to the people we want to reach? If everything they see around them says, “Grandma’s church” all that contemporary music is going to do is create a disjointed feeling, like, say, mixing perfectly good mashed potatoes with perfectly good ice cream. Either one is okay without the other, but together…they don’t mesh very well.

Also, I know that dealing with this kind of stuff is, for a church leader, a stroll through a mine field. Many of our most faithful folk have only grudgingly gone along with the change in music style. If someone starts messing with their pew things could get rather dicey in a hurry.

I’m no architect or designer so I’m not sure how to best accomplish it, but I’m thinking that an updated, contemporary worship service will work best in an updated, modernized setting. Otherwise, we’re just, to borrow (in a rather out-of-context way) from Jesus, trying to put new wine into old wineskins.

The biggest single change for pastors

preaching

I was just thinking about the biggest single change I’ve seen in my 45 years of ministry.

One big one was the move away from the KJV to the NIV (or some other modern version) being the most commonly used version of the Bible in our services by preachers. That changed sermons from being, to a large part, translating Shakespearean language to modern English for our listeners to being more focused on the meaning of the text itself.

Another big change was the addition of video to preaching. I know some pastors have yet to move toward it, but the vast majority of our churches have video up at least for scriptures, but often preaching is supplemented by professionally produced videos and clips from popular culture.

A more subtle change is that our listeners now consume a wide variety of teaching ranging from TV and radio preachers to reading books or listening to podcasts from a variety of theological perspectives. This is a major change from the day when the local pastor was the primary source of teaching to those in the congregation. I’ve heard fine lay people repeat stuff that it is clearly incompatible with our doctrines. They’d heard it somewhere, and just accepted it because the speaker is a well known, capable teacher.

I think, though, that the biggest change is the move away from Sunday night services.

As I’ve just been saying, the pastor’s voice is diminished in the lives of church attenders already. So, while people are consuming a variety of religious teaching through the week, most pastors only address their congregations on Sunday mornings during the sermon. That limits the pastor’s influence over the congregation.

I’m not saying, though, that this change is necessarily a bad thing. It was late in my active ministry that our church yielded to the reality that most people simply didn’t want to attend a Sunday night service. And it was only with that change in the church schedule that I had a taste of Sunday being a Christian Sabbath. For many years of my ministry I came to Sunday night exhausted. The concept that the pastor should take a different day as a day of rest never really worked for me. My weekly “day off” was filled with the kinds of things that most everyone does on their days off and not especially restful. I came to greatly appreciate Sunday afternoons as a time to unwind without needing to “reload” for the Sunday evening service.

Beyond that, being able to focus on Sunday morning only made me, I think, a better preacher. All my preparation time was toward one sermon. For non-preachers this may not sound like much but I think most preachers who read this will agree that focusing on one sermon a week makes a huge difference in preaching.

Of all the changes I’ve seen, I think the elimination of Sunday night church is the biggest.

What do you think?

Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone”

parkingThe story of the Crucifixion is powerful. The cross was more an instrument of torture than it was one of execution. Some film makers have made it their mission to portray the agony of the cross with as much graphic realism possible.  Maybe it’s that realism or something else but it seems to me that many Christians are stalled at the cross, thinking it is what Easter is all about.

It’s not. Easter is about victory, hope, and redemption. The only reason to go to Good Friday is because we can’t get to Easter without it. However, the enduring symbol of Christianity isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a crucifix. Rather, it’s an empty cross. The reason we don’t make a cross with its victim our primary symbol isn’t because we can’t bear seeing Jesus hanging on it. We make an empty cross our primary symbol because Jesus is no longer on the cross. He has defeated it and all it stood for.

So, for believers, Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone.” We spend time on Good Friday remembering the cross and especially the love of Jesus for us that caused him to endure it. But we happily turn the page to Sunday morning, Resurrection Day.

Easter services shouldn’t be about the Crucifixion. References to the cross should be about Christ’s victory over it. If pastors and other church leaders have done their job the ordeal of the cross should have already been brought to the attention of the Church. That paves the way for Easter.  Individuals too should make it their practice to visit the cross on a regular basis, but not park there.  Its the Resurrection that transforms the crucifix into an empty cross and its the Resurrection that should be our primary focus.  Let’s turn the page from Good Friday and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and what it means to us.