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.

Advise to young pastors: Baptism

Coming from a low church background I had very little pastoral training for conducting baptisms.  Also, in spite of my denomination’s acceptance of infant baptism, it was never practiced in the portions of the country where I grew up or ministered – everywhere I served people wanted to get wet all over and that’s what happened.  Because of that, I’ll focus in on baptism services for youth and adults – and, for the sake of this article, I’m more thinking of in-church baptisms rather than I am those that take place at a lake or river (although most of my suggestions work either way).

  • Be sure people are prepared for baptism.  Pastor, that’s your job.  Don’t leave it to the youth pastor or Sunday School teacher or a parent.  Be ready to sit down with a candidate and, in an age appropriate way, work through what it means to be a Christian and why we baptize.  Of course, that means you have to understand it.  In our tradition we baptize as a means of grace.  That means, to us, it’s more than an outward witness.  It’s a sacrament – can you explain what that means to a 12 year old?  That’s exactly what you have to do if you are going to officiate at their baptism.
  • Write your own version of the baptism ritual.  I don’t mean that you have the freedom to make it say something it doesn’t already say, but if your candidates’ (and your congregations’) eyes glaze over as you read the ritual you are just saying meaningless words.  Say it in such a way that they will understand what you are saying to them.
  • Have the candidates write out (or video) their testimony and have it read by a spiritual mentor just prior to their baptism.
  • Have everyone say the Apostle’s Creed together.  Don’t read the creed to the candidates – have them and the congregation say it and affirm it together.  After all, you are, by baptizing the candidates, uniting them with the congregation at a whole new level.  By the way, you and your congregation ought to be familiar with the Creed…maybe not memorized, but used to saying it.  This is who we are and what we believe.  Work it into Communion services or just include it in a service once a month.
  • If you are using some kind of hybrid baptistery where people sit down, etc.  then practice!  Let them get into the baptistery when it is dry and see what you expect of them (and yourself).  This is a big deal!  We rehearse weddings, why shouldn’t we rehearse baptisms?
  • Be prepared to help people in and out of the baptistery – they are nervous and distracted, and then wet!  Have someone ready to lend them a hand and hand them a towel.
  • Depending on how your baptistery is set up, invite family and guests to come to the platform to serve as witnesses (and take photos).  Beyond that, if you can, have the children and teens of the congregation to come up front to see it all.
  • Have everyone ready to cheer after each one – this is a big deal and a time of celebration.  Don’t let people just sit there watching the candidates get wet.
  • Once in a while, maybe once a year, prior to the baptismal service, preach on baptism.  Tell the congregation why it is a means of grace – have some of the senior saints ready to share the story of their baptism.  Then, with everyone freshly reminded of how wonderful it is, bring the candidates up!  Wow – what a great time you will have!
  • Once you are finished with the baptisms, and depending on your setup, take a bowl of the water from the baptismal and walk through the congregation inviting people to touch the water and “remember your baptism.”  If your sanctuary is set up to allow it, you might even have all who will to come forward and touch the water in the baptismal.
  • Even as you conclude the service, announce that you are ready to meet with others who would like to prepare for baptism.  You might just end up keeping the water for use next Sunday!

These are my thoughts…what are yours?

Reflections on the second anniversary of my retirement

IMG_2465.JPG Wow, retirement anniversary number two.  It was the first Sunday of May, 2013 that we concluded our pastoral ministry and entered into retirement.  In our case, we retired to travel and the very next day we drove off with our RV, starting the next primary chapter of our lives.

This last year has been terrific.  We traveled from Houston to the northwestern corner of the continental United States and then journeyed at a leisurely pace south along the western coast where we enjoyed amazing scenery and cool Pacific Ocean temperatures.  We visited numerous national parks and, in general, had a blast.

100_3734.JPGOur winter and early spring has been spent doing a variation of our fulltime RVing lifestyle.  We’ve volunteered at the Texas San Jacinto Battleground/Battleship Texas State Historic Park.  In exchange for donating 100 hours of our time each month we’ve enjoyed “free parking.”  That “trade” has saved us some serious, and needed, cash! We’ve thoroughly enjoyed this experience which allowed us to do some very interesting things while being close to family and friends.  While we’re more than ready to begin our travels again we enjoyed the volunteering experience enough that we’ve already signed up to do it again next year.

I did a few more clergy-like things than I did our first year but not a lot.  I filled for our pastor when he was away, filled in for our Sunday School teacher (who happens to be my son) when he was away, did a baby dedication, and finalized my series of books of devotionals.  Aside from that I’ve happily sat in the pew, appreciating the ministry of others.
clearlakenaz.jpgAll in all, we’ve spent over 4 months in the Houston area during this stay.  That means we suspended our “church hopping” ways and settled into a more typical church attendance routine.  While visiting many different churches during our travels is enjoyable we’ve missed the sense of community associated with being a part of a congregation.  This being our second winter as part of our home church helped us feel more a part of things.  It’s interesting to me how things we at first felt were somehow different become, in just a few weeks, just “the way it is done here.”  One thing that become increasingly clear is that no church can be evaluated in just a week or two.  Churches have personalities and that personality isn’t apparent until one is part of the congregation (and involved beyond an hour on Sunday mornings) for a while.  Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy visiting churches, but I know that being a regular, contributing part of a church family is superior.

So, I’d say retirement is going quite well, thank you!  We’re well aware that we are blessed to live this life and we don’t take it for granted.

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Thinking about the tomb that first Easter morning

empty-tombIn a cold, dark, dead tomb a corpse is wrapped in a shroud. No motion, no life.

Then, there’s a small motion as cells in the body begin returning to life. Tissue begins to regenerate and suddenly the body moves as the dead man takes a deep breath.

He stirs and finding himself bound by the shroud casts it off. He sits up and then removes that which was wrapped around his head and lays it off to the side.

There’s nothing frightening about all this. In an unexplainable way it all feels “right” – the way it should be.

In a flash of brilliant white light an angel appears in the tomb. The angel immediately falls to the ground, bowing, “My Lord and my God” he says.

At that moment the stone sealing the entrance to the tomb is rolled away. A second angel bows low, “My King,” he says.

The Resurrected One smiles and cheerfully replies, “Good morning! I think I’ll go for a walk in the Garden.”

Thinking about Good Friday

old-rugged-cross1I fear that too many people think the primary focus of Good Friday is supposed to be about how much Jesus suffered on the cross – and, we certainly do need to remember that. But really, the primary focus should be this: Jesus loved me that much. It’s that realization that should stun us, humble us, and cause us to bow in complete surrender to him.