MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

As I mentioned (or confessed) in the previous post, I have a deep and strong connection with my electronic devices. Keyboards and screens and processors and memories are a basic and significant part of my life—a day that involves my not looking at some type of screen at some point would be possible but it would likely involve a total wilderness experience or a coma. On second thought, I would most likely have my camera on the total wilderness experience so maybe only a coma would keep me from my electronics—I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to the medical device screens I was hooked up to.

So, in many ways, I am a typical member of the electronic age—plugged in, carrying a backup power supply, using the car connectors to charge equipment and rarely without at least one electronic device with me. But there is one line that I have yet to cross and given my personality, may not cross.

I first became aware of the line after the wide spread adoption of smart phones. It became more and more common to see people seated together at a restaurant absorbed in conversations—with their smart phones, not each other. I discovered that more and more conversations with people were being put on hold as the other person answered their phone or read and responded to a text. As a teacher, I found myself having to make and enforce anti-phone call rules in class, a decidedly unpopular move for many students.

It seems that many people have shifted their relationship priorities. Anyone on an electronic connection automatically becomes more important than a real, live, physically present human being. This is, I think, a real problem. It is likely also a sign of a huge shift in human relationships that likely isn’t going to go in a good direction.

My uneducated guess is that the shift began innocently enough. Cell phones began as an expensive novelty—and all of us like to show off our expensive novelties. Answering a ringing cell phone was a way of letting people know that you had one—and those of us who like technology weren’t all that upset because we wanted to see the cell phone anyway. But at some point, some people began to prioritize electronic communication over face to face communication.

I think one of the underlying factors is the reality that face to face communication can be tricky. When we are with people physically, we can never really tell or control what will happen—personal communication can be messy, what with all the feelings and potential mis-understandings and non-verbals and all that other stuff. Electronic communication, even with video is clean, crisp and more than a little impersonal.

We can separate ourselves more from the person and all the stuff that goes along with really relating to people in a full face to face communication. With electronics, we either can’t see or can ignore non-verbals. We have some real distance, not just physically but also psychologically. No matter how clear the picture on the screen and how high quality the sound, communicating with my grandchildren electronically just isn’t the same as holding them on my lap while we get silly together.

I am afraid that we as a culture are using electronics to distance ourselves from each other. We want the semblance of communication and relationship without the demands and potential messiness of real face to face communication. That goes against a lot of what I believe.

Even the fact that I am a confirmed introvert doesn’t lessen my concern over the distancing effect of electronic communication. I believe that we were created as social beings and best relate to each other when as many barriers as possible are removed. I believe that Jesus’ command to love each other as he loved us require that we do more than text and spend screen time with each other. To really communicate, we need to be present so that we can hear and see and, according to some studies, even smell each other because all those means of communication are essential to the process.

So, let me make a suggestion. Use some screen time to send a message to someone inviting them to have a real face to face conversation.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80

One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate.  One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community.  We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.

For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer.  Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer.  We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.

In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research.  Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855.  Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.

She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches.  Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator.  Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor.  When the building whose renovations we  were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.

In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs.  In their early history, they had some serious expansion.  From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations.  While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100.  I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.

Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful.  Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.

So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith.  Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision.  When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.

In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, they got stuff wrong.  Sometimes, they got things right.  Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice.  This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when  it happened in 1974.

So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors.  I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here.  I hope to stay beyond the average stay.  But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things.  First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor.  And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world.  If we do that, not much else matters.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

In both the collections of congregations that I serve, we have a very informal approach to doing the business of the church.  There is a formal process requiring notice and written agendas and stuff like that but we reserve that for really important stuff where we would actually have to discuss and have a recorded vote–something that might happen once or twice a decade.  Mostly, we realize that we need a meeting and sometines announce it for the next week after worship but sometimes, we announce it during the announcements and have it after that worship.  It is a system that would probably drive some people and churches up the wall but it works for us and so we keep doing it.

Anyway, one Sunday, the moderator told me that she had a long list of things that needed to be dealt with.  There was nothing on the list that was difficult or controversial so she suggested that we have a meeting after the worship and deal with it all.  Worship began, followed its appointed course and finished.  After we finished singing the threefold “Amen”, I reminded people of the meeting and headed for a seat–I don’t have much to do at meetings except begin and end them with prayer.

As the congregation settled down for the meeting, our new couple got up to leave, at which point, the moderator called out their names and said they were welcome to stay, something that she and others have done before when we have new people–it is an almost automatic response.  We are a small group and like to include everyone in what we do.  I managed to get to them to greet them before they left and reinforced the invitation but they chose to leave.  After seeing them off, I sat down, the meeting progressed, we finished, I prayed and we all went home.  Just another somewhat typical worship and meeting for our small church.

So, we all show up for Bible Study during the week.  Almost all the regulars are there and the group now includes the new couple.  We always begin Bible study with an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the past Sunday worship service.  There were a couple of comments about the service and a bit of discussion about the sermon theme.  And as that petered out, the husband of the new couple began to talk about the meeting after worship.

He had some very strong feelings about that part of the afternoon.  He did mention that he liked the sermon but for him, the high point of the day was being invited by name to stay for the meeting.  It gave him a sense of belonging, a feeling that he was part of us.  It was clear to all of us that the moderator’s invitation touched both of them deeply.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as deeply moved by an invitation to attend a business meeting.  He went on to give a little background that helped us see some of what made the invitation significant to him–not the whole story but enough.

We are always hearing about how some off the cuff remark offends and upsets people.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone who has stopped being a part of a church because of some comment that the pastor or Sunday School teacher or janitor or someone else made.  Sometimes, I get a bit paranoid and spend too much time wondering how I am going to phrase a comment that I know can cause some problems.

And so it is nice now and then to see an unplanned and somewhat off-hand comment have the opposite effect.  It is encouraging to know that thanks to the Holy Spirit, those comments that we might have made a dozen times before are sometimes just the thing that a person needs to hear and will be used powerfully by the Holy Spirit.  That particular day, our worship was good, the meeting was okay–but the most significant thing that happened, I think, was that God was able to use something all of us had done many times before to make a difference to someone who needed it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISITOR

The last Sunday before my vacation, we had a visitor at our worship service.  While not a completely unusual event, visitors in that particular place are not overly common.  This visitor had actually been in worship before–she lives in the community and is well known to the church members, all of whom welcomed her and talked with her and included her in the community.  I don’t know if the welcome encouraged her to come back–I kind of suspect that her attendance will continue to be somewhat sporadic and unpredictable.

The key issue for me was that the church did everything right, at least from my perspective.   The visitor was welcomed, included and involved.  That is a strong contrast to many congregations where visitors are either under-welcomed or overwhelmed with welcomes.  The traditional welcome for visitors in small rural congregations such as I serve is covert glances, somewhat hidden whispered questions about who that person is and maybe a welcome or two, although some rural congregations aren’t willing to go that far.

My experience as a visitor in larger congregations has convinced me that the typical welcome isn’t much different, except that because the larger congregations have greeters and ushers, the visitor is generally at least given a greeting and a bulletin.  I do remember one instance, though, when I visited a large congregation and was ignored by the greeter, who was engaged in a conversation with another greeter about some event they had both attended.  I found a bulletin and a seat and was eventually greeted after the greeters found out I was a friend of the pastor.

I understand the difficulty surrounding visitors.  On the one hand, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted.  But on the other hand, most of us are introverts who have difficulty connecting with people we don’t know.  Even as the pastor, I would rather hide in the office until just before the time to begin worship–but since all the church buildings where I lead worship share my living room office, I have no place to hide before worship.  And since I don’t have assigned seating in the congregational area, I tend to be standing and thus the first person to see and be available to greet visitors.

I have to confess that I am much more comfortable when visitors come in late, after we have already started worship and I am behind the pulpit leading the worship service.  Actually, everyone is happier with that because the visitors find their own seats and since worship has already started, no one has to talk to them.  We will overlook the fact that in this particular congregation, we have a very open worship with lots of back and forth chatter during the worship time.

So, we are all pretty much happy to see visitors but not really sure how to deal with them.  We are doing okay–there are some of our people who are getting comfortable greeting and welcoming people.  One is something of an extrovert who likes to talk to everyone.  Another has come from away and worked in public service so is used to greeting new people.  And one or two others are becoming aware of the need to at least say hi to people.

In our small group visitors stand out–but they also cause us some anxiety.  We want new people–but since new people have to start out as visitors, we need to get better at welcoming them.  In the end, this becomes both a test and sign of our faith.

When we have visitors, our faith is tested–it our faith real enough and strong enough for us to overcome our fears and anxieties about strangers?  Can we find the Holy Spirit’s help and leading to help us greet new people appropriately?

The way we greet visitors shows the reality of our faith–are they objects of fear and curiosity or are they real people whom God loves and whom we are therefore to love as well?  Is our faith just words about loving as God loves or can we really do what we say we are supposed to do?

Like all small churches and probably many larger churches, we have some ambivalence about visitors but we are learning and hopefully are creating an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable and accepted.

May the peace of God be with you.