THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M STUCK

I like writing, which is a good thing since I do a lot of writing in my job as a pastor.  A typical week these days sees me writing two sermons, two Bible studies and assorted other things.  I can easily write between 4000-10,000 words a week.  And then, I turn to my hobbies, which currently consist of learning how to keep a drone out of the trees (only on days without a lot of wind) and writing entries for this blog.

With all that writing, I am always looking for ideas.  Sermon ideas are crucial and I plan them in three to four month cycles.  Church newsletters, special projects and so on come at irregular intervals and generally have a theme already suggested.  Blog ideas come easily  sometimes–I have occasionally had weeks of ideas sitting in a file on the hard drive, waiting for me to develop and post.

But every now and then, I get stuck.  This is one of those stuck times.  I have pretty much used up the ideas in the folder–all that are left are those ideas that really don’t make any sense anymore, if they ever did.  I look at them and wonder who hacked my computer and put those strange ideas in the folder.

So, what else is there to do but write about being stuck?  I am pretty sure that I know why I am stuck this morning.  To start with, it’s Monday morning.  I am aware that this is posted on a Friday but I do my blog writing on Monday.  Mondays come after Sunday, which for me consisted of two worship services and the completion of a three part series on Islam for a church/community group.

I am tired today and when I get tired, my mind doesn’t really want to be overly creative.  I could take to morning off and mow the lawn, except sitting staring at a computer screen with nothing to write is still more interesting than mowing the lawn.  I could have written about the questions associated with moving lawns but I have already done that.

So, I am stuck.  But I am not worried about being stuck.  I know why I am stuck, I know that I will get unstuck eventually and find something more interesting to write about.  Being stuck now and then is a reality and over the years, I have learned to be graceful with myself, at least in that area.

There are times and places in my life that I need to learn to be more graceful with myself–and maybe the grace I show myself when  I am stuck can help me with that.  All of us need to be a bit better being graceful, both to ourselves and to others.  God’s supply of grace is limitless and eternal–but when it reaches is, we tend to be somewhat stingy with it, treating grace as if it was some exotic commodity that is expensive, hard to get and perpetually on back order.

But grace isn’t all that.  True, it is expensive–but that expense was covered by God.  It isn’t hard to get–God freely makes it available to all who ask.  And it is never on back order–it is always fresh and in stock.

So, I am going to be graceful to myself and finish this post today.  It is short and may not have much point.  But it does open the door to look at the unlimited grace of God and I doubt if I can do anything better than that even on my most unstuck day.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TWO HUNDRED BARRIER

Our Kenyan church family
Our Kenyan church family

The last time we worked in Kenya (2012-2014), we began worshipping in a large town church. The church has both an English and a Kiswahili worship service, both of which were generally packed. The sanctuary could hold perhaps 400-500 and there were always people sitting outside. As Kenyan churches go, they were well set up: lots of leadership; an excellent choir; some well off members and good facilities. We were welcomed and began to feel a part of both English and Kiswahili congregations.

But after a few weeks, we end up settling in with a different congregation a few kilometers away. This group had one worship service that on its best Sunday would include 50 people, if we included the kids who wandered in and out. They were lead by a senior church leader who was also heavily involved in denominational affairs so a lot of the pastoral work fell on two lay people who lead services, preached and administered the church.

The church building was solid but unfinished–the windows were wire screen not glass, a fact all the worshippers were very aware of on cloudy, windy mornings during the cold part of the year. The choir sang enthusiastically, when enough of them arrived in time for the special. Money was a problem because the congregation was mainly older people, widows and assorted unemployed. We were accepted in the congregation and were a part of it until we left to return to Canada. More than that, though, we were at home in the congregation–to say this congregation became our spiritual home in Kenya wouldn’t be an overstatement.

This decision to worship with a small struggling church rather than a large thriving one says a great deal about us personally. But it seems to me that it provides a good starting place for looking at an issue that I have been thinking about a lot over the years–church size.

Statistically, small churches abound–I have seen stats that say something like 80% of congregations have less than 100 members. Often, this statistic is quoted in the context of a concept called the “200 Barrier”. The “200 Barrier” refers to the fact that moving a congregation to grow beyond 200 members seems to be a difficult and complicated process that most congregations will never accomplish.

Unfortunately, it seems like all the information pastors and church leaders receive is produced by the leadership of the congregations that have passed that barrier. There is the unspoken but very real sense that churches that don’t pass that barrier are not as faithful or as dynamic and their leadership isn’t as capable or as good. Some of the stuff being produced seems to suggest that every congregation can break the 200 barrier if they just follow the right path and have the right leadership.

I am not against large congregations but drawing on my experience in small congregations, I don’t think that breaking the 200 barrier is necessarily the goal or measuring stick for a congregation. Small congregations are not large congregations in waiting and large congregations are not small congregations that have fulfilled their destiny. Both are being used by God and both have an important place in the Kingdom.

I am a confirmed small church fan and because of that, this blog will generally look at things from that perspective. I might refer to large (200+) churches now and then but I don’t have the experience or the background to say much definitive about them. That isn’t a problem for me because there are lots of people writing and speaking about those churches. But as we did in Kenya, I am going to settle in on the under 200 side and look at ministry from that perspective. I hope to provide some insight and food for thought for others on the same side of the barrier.

The peace of God be with you.

I Was Wondering About

I have been involved in Christian ministry since the summer of 1973, when I became pastor of two small churches in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. Although I had done a bit of preaching before that, this was the beginning of my career in ministry. Since that beginning, I have been involved in some form of paid ministry almost continuously, except for brief periods between various ministries. In those years, I have been a pastor (both full and part time), a missionary, a prison chaplain and a professor at both Canadian and Kenyan theological schools. I am currently in one of the in-between situations. I am providing Sunday worship for a couple of small struggling congregations while I wait for the next stage of my ministry.

In all these years of practising, studying and teaching ministry, I have discovered a few things about ministry that have become bedrock foundational truths about ministry. I have discovered a lot of things that seem like such bedrock foundational truths but really aren’t. I have also discovered a lot of things that help and hinder ministry, depending on the specifics of the setting. Overall, the list of things that are solid, bedrock foundational truths is very small but very important and the list of things that fit in the other categories is very big. But just which category a particular ministry approach or idea or theory is put in can be very controversial and confusing.

All this means I have spent a lot of time in ministry wondering about stuff. Sometimes, I have shared the wonderings with others; sometimes, I have written about the wonderings; sometimes, I have used them as the basis for preaching and sometimes, I really haven’t done much with the wonderings. I hope to use this blog to share some of these wonderings. If you connect with anything you read here, great–it doesn’t matter if you agree on not because the truth is that some of these things I may change my mind on as I continue wondering. I would be very interested in your comments and thoughts on my wonderings.

In order to help contextualize my thoughts, it might help to know that I am an ordained pastor in a Baptist denomination. Baptists on the whole are fairly conservative but I tend to be in the centre or a bit to the left of the Baptist theological spectrum. I have primarily ministered as a pastor in small rural congregations and have spend a lot of time studying and working with such congregations. While I have been both a full time and part time pastor, I have spent more time as a part time pastor and have even written a small book on part-time ministry.

I am not sure where this blog will go or how long it will continue but right now, it seems like the right thing to do. I look forward to your comments.

May God’s peace be with you.