CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING THE LOAD

In common with many congregations these days, the worship in both the pastorates I serve has a prayer time, where members of the congregation have the opportunity to share prayer requests. Some Sundays, there are no requests, not because nothing needs prayer but likely because no one wants to share their concerns that particular day. Other Sundays, the list of requests is long—which means I have to take good notes so I can include them in the subsequent pastoral prayer time. The longer the list, the more likely it is that I will not be able to read my handwriting by the time I arrive at that point in the prayer time.

Anyway, I have noticed something interesting about the nature of the prayer requests that people bring. As expected, there are often requests for members of our worshipping community: things like return to health, safety in travel, successful operations and so on. There are also requests for people we know in the wider community who are dealing with illness or grief or some other issue that someone in our group feels should be prayer about.

And then there is another set of requests. Many of our members tend to be aware of what is going on in the world and because many of them are also caring and compassionate people, the things they read and see on the media trouble them. And so many of our prayer requests during the sharing time focus on people and events in places where we have no real connection and are not likely to have any connection.

But some want a connection of some kind. In some cases, they could and probably do make a connection by donating money—there is always someone or some organization willing to take money to assist in whatever the media is covering. But some of our people want a different connection. We have concerns, we want to do something and money doesn’t seem to be enough. And so we pray. I am pretty sure that those making the requests pray about them personally and privately, we pray about them during worship and some, I believe, are inspired to pray about them later on their own.

There are lots of possible comments to make at this point. We could question the value of such prayers; we could wonder if the suggestion is a way of avoiding actual involvement; we could even look at the whole issue of the value of prayer. But to me in my context, none of those seem to have much validity. I am the pastor and I have some insights into the motivations of those making the requests—and I believe that they bring the request because they are concerned and want to make a difference.

And because they are people of faith, they see prayer—and more specifically our public prayer time—as a valid and significant and important way of becoming involved and making a difference. We join together as a Christian community and open ourselves to God around those areas and situations that concern us. We might not have a personal involvement with any of the people but we make it personal when we take it to God in our prayers. We might not have any ability to personally intervene but we are enabled to personally intervene through our faith in God, whom we believe is all powerful and present everywhere. Our prayers to him are received and answered.

And we are involved. We are doing something—not doing the only thing we can do and not doing something simple to avoid doing something more serious. We are doing the best we can do, which is to share our concerns with each other before God and then in faith, trust that the God of all creation will continue to be at work in whatever has concerned us. We are not drawing God’s attention to whatever—we are, I think, reminding ourselves that the God we trust is already there and already at work and because of that, we can share the burden of those more directly involved.

We pray—not because it is the only thing we can do but because it is the best thing that we can do. We pray because we need to, because we want to, because God invites us to. We pray—and through our prayers, we share the load.

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOM SHALL I SEND?

Recently, my wife and I gave up one of our Saturdays to attend a seminar. The topic looked interesting and timely and we both decided that it was worth the loss of a leisurely day that normally includes sleeping in and breakfast somewhere. We did get breakfast out but it was eaten in the car on the way to the meeting, which wasn’t quite the same.

Anyway, the seminar was interesting and I did learn some stuff about the topic that helped me understand the issue better. The speaker was interesting, her comments provocative, here small group questions produced good discussion. But as the sessions progressed, I realized that the agenda I thought we were going to focus was different from the agenda that the seminar leader wanted to focus on.

The initial announcement seemed to suggest to me that the seminar would look at ways that I as a pastor could approach the issue in my ministry. I was expecting practical and specific approaches that could affect my preaching and my pastoral contacts with people affected by the issue. There was some mention of this but the speaker chose to focus on the larger cultural and social aspects of the issue, seeking to elicit support for a larger, more political response to the issue.

As she talked and explained, I realized that she was making some very valid points. There were some serious dangers in the processes involved that needed someone to speak up—or rather, that needed many someones to speak up. The issue has political implications and in politics, the number and volume of voices are decisive factors.

This is not the first time I have been in the position of seeing the need for a larger action process. Sometimes, the calls have come from dedicated, committed people like the speaker at this seminar. Sometimes, they have come from our denominational staff who identify a problem and suggest a solution. And occasionally, I personally see the vision for what could be if there were just enough of us squeaking the wheel.

Some things just cry out for large involvement. Some things need not just a one on one solution. They need a group of dedicated and committed people who will give a lot of time and effort, people who will take on the cause and make the noise and offend the settled and upset the established and rattle the cages. Such a process needs one or two or a very small inner group of deeply committed leaders; a larger group of less committed but very active supporters and an even larger group of sympathetic listeners. All need to be prepared to go outside their routines, change their priorities, make sacrifices—stepping onto the political process in any organization and at any time is demanding.

And it is a part of the Christian process. God can and does work through such people and their supporters. He can and does call people to commit themselves to this mission. I am pretty sure that the speaker at this seminar was one of the called, a missionary from God to seek others to help deal with this significant social and political issue. The need is there and it is a clear and demanding need, one that if left unchecked will contribute to the increasing disrespect for individuals.

And so as the speaker taught and challenged, I was listening to an Isaiah moment—God pointing out the problem and calling out for people to respond. (Isaiah 6.1-8). Now, this call wasn’t as dramatic—there were no seraphim flying and praising. There were just 60-70 of us packed in a room that would have been more comfortable with about 50. But there was still a call from God for people to follow his leading and step into the arena to help protect people from the less publicized and more unpalatable aspects of a current social issue.

I hope and pray that there were some in the room who heard the call and discovered that this was a specific call from God to them, that this was their Isaiah moment, the time when God speaks and their place is confirmed. I hope and pray that for two reasons. First, someone needs to do it—this is an important issue. And second, I hope and pray someone responds because I am not going to respond. This was not my call—and why I can say that is the topic of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHERE IS FORGIVENESS?

The Bible study that closes down for the summer was starting up again for the fall. People began arriving and the talking and sharing begins. I sit at the table, enjoying the presence of the group—I miss these sessions. My attention hops from group to group, sampling their conversations until there are so any streams going that I really can’t follow them. One of the sub-groups asks me a question that draws me into their conversation.

They are talking about the latest revelation about someone prominent who has done something that he shouldn’t have done. The conversation doesn’t take the predictable course, with speculation on whether he did or didn’t and whether he will get away with it. Interestingly enough, the incident opened a larger discussion of ethics and morality. Our western culture is in the midst of an ethical upheaval where established and accepted moral standards are being challenged.

While it is too early to tell exactly which direction the process will settle on, there was one question that this little group wanted to talk about. There is much about the new ethic that is commendable: any approach that protects anyone from being exploited and takes away the exploiter impunity is an improvement. When people can expect special treatment because of their age, gender, economic status, race or political persuasion or any other standard, that ethical and moral code needs to be challenged.

This challenge to the status quo is relatively new—but it has fairly deep roots. One could make a case that its roots go all the way back to Jesus and his teachings. But if we are not prepared to go back that far, we can at least suggest that the roots go back to the turbulent 60s. I am pretty sure that the movement will result in a significant alteration on the ethical practises of many in leadership, which is a very good thing. Exploitation and abuse are sin, no matter how accepted and normalized we want to pretend it is.

I have high hopes for this whole cultural process—but I also have a worry. There is an area of the process that probably needs to be given some serious thought. Opening doors on the underlying abuse and exploitation that has been a hidden and accepted part of our western culture is good. But at some point, we need to decide what we are going to do about, with and for the exploiters and abusers. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in that direction. Revelation and exposure are the key themes right now, with punishment of some form as a minor theme.

But the question that needs to be addressed is this: Is this developing ethical and moral movement going to include a process for forgiveness? Will there be a way for the exploiter and the abuser to put the past behind them and develop a new life? This question is incredibly important because if we say no to forgiveness, we simple invert the present process and turn the victims into the abusers.

Abuse of any sort destroys significant parts of the victim’s life. Exploitation of any sort destroys significant parts of the exploited’s life. But to simple turn the tables and make the abused the abuser and the exploited the exploiter doesn’t make things better because abuse and exploitation also destroy significant parts of the abuser’s and exploiter’s lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, allows both sides an opportunity to change direction. It provides a new start. Certainly, there will be effects and consequences for both sides that will have long term effects. Abusers should suffer consequences like imprisonment and loss of status. The abused will suffer consequences like long term emotional struggles. But without a process of forgiveness, both abuser and abused are locked into their respective roles and consequences with no hope of anything better.

Forgiveness unlocks the chains binding both the abuser and the abused, allowing them to see, accept and move beyond the evil. Forgiveness opens new roads that replace the roads blocked by the abuse. Forgiveness also provides a much needed alternative to the dangerous and empty road of revenge and counter-revenge which some find so tempting.

Abuse and exploitation in any form are wrong—and the current movement to stop the institutionalized abuse and exploitation that has been so deeply a part of our culture is a good thing. It will become a great social movement when it begins to include the reality of forgiveness in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

LIGHT BULBS AND GETTING OLDER

All of the buildings where I lead worship were built in the days before electricity was an option for small congregations. The original lighting would have come from candles and oil lamps. Because the buildings were designed as houses of worship, they were built with high ceilings to give a sense of grandeur and awe—people in those days didn’t seem to worry about heating costs or efficiency.

Eventually, electricity was discovered and wires were strung and after some initial reluctance, the churches wired their buildings. The candles and hanging oil lamps were removed and replaced with electric bulbs, generally hanging down from the high ceiling. The installers made a couple of assumptions that plague our churches to this day.

Assumption one was that since light bulbs last almost forever, it wasn’t necessary to think about how to replace them. That assumption lead people to do away with the system in place for the hanging oil lamps—a rope and pulley system that allowed the lamps to be lowered for cleaning, refilling and lighting. Those new electric fixtures were hung from the ceiling on a chain or wire at the same height as the oil lamps—well beyond the reach of even a star NBA player.

The second assumption was that the church would always have a significant number of young, athletic and risk-taking members who would love to take on the challenge of replacing the burnt out light bulbs. Over the years, there have been some truly interesting and dangerous methods utilized to change the bulbs—but young people don’t care about the danger and it was part of their way of expressing their faith.

However, some things have changed in our churches. The light bulbs are still in high and inaccessible fixtures and still burn out. However, we no longer have the young, energetic spiritual athletes in our congregations. We tend to ignore the burnt out bulbs for as long as we can—and since most of our worship events happen during the day time, we can ignore them for years.

But in two of our buildings, the situation got so bad that we can’t really ignore it any longer. We have to change light bulbs. That reality has sparked more discussion and consternation than our budget shortfall. None of us is all that comfortable with heights—aging seems to heighten the awareness of the things that can happen when the human body makes an unexpected vertical drop of that height. Also, aging knees and ladders don’t always work all that well together.

So, the congregation struggles. There are those who demand that something be done about the lights. There are those who might have done it years ago who are happy to describe the process but whose increased maturity makes it clear to them how bad a solution it really was. And then there are people like me who figure that the light on my tablet is fine for most stuff and when I really need it, I have the flashlight app on my phone.

In the end, we will replace the bulbs. One building has already been taken care of—I helped design a relatively safe process that was too high for me but one of the other men was comfortable climbing. In another, well, we are pretty sure a son will take care of it on his next visit home—we can wait for that one. In the other buildings, at this point the bulbs are all still working so we are fine for a while. When we include the time we allow ourselves to ignore the burnt out bulbs, we probably have a couple of years or more in them.

This sounds like a silly and even frivolous problem, especially if you are reading this in the context of a church whose building has people to care for these things. But these are real problems that some of us have to deal with. Fortunately, small churches are adaptable, flexible and enduring. We will find a way to deal with whatever we have to deal with, whether it is burnt out bulbs, serious financial problems or difficulty finding a pastor willing to work part-time for low pay.

We may sit in the dark for longer than we should but eventually, we will take care of things as we continue to discover how God can still use us aging people in the work of his Kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.