July 2012

How Changing Rituals Often Substitutes for Progress

dragging the church to waterWhen churches are really struggling, leaders need to do something.

Leaders are faced with choices. Some choices will be hard work. Some choices will be expensive or chancy. There must be an easier way!

Enhancing a ritual is something that can be done — often by edict — that is a sign that something has happened.

There is an appearance of meaningful change. Sometimes the only change is that the church leader, usually the pastor, has bragging rights—something to list in the annual report.

Church rites are often the target of faux progressive initiatives.

The changes may be accompanied by a series of sermons on why the changes are being made. There may be good reasoning and sound theology, but there was probably already good theology behind a congregation’s traditions.

Holy Communion is often the instrument of such reform.

Church leaders can boast of progress when all they are doing is the same thing—more or less often or in a fancier or plainer way.

The tacit reasoning may be that it is hard or distasteful for people to argue about something so sacred.

True, many people will avoid unpleasantness in the church. If they feel their traditions are being unfairly violated, many will suffer in silence or simply stop coming. It’s called voting with your feet. Today’s church has a very large voting bloc by this definition.

People feel manipulated. “Have we been wrong all this time?”

When such changes are brought about by some form of strong-arming, it would be wise to measure results. This is rarely done! Even if it were, reversing a decision may be too embarrassing.

Before venturing change in heartfelt traditions ask a question: Will this change have the desired spiritual impact and enhance the overall mission of the congregation?

If the answer is no, find an activity that does make a difference.

It will probably be more work.

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When Religion Becomes Ritual

All religions have rituals—things we do because . . .

Sometimes the reason why is forgotten and perhaps was never known.

There was the professional cook who always chopped off the top of the roast and laid it beside the larger portion of meat in her large roasting pan. She did this for years before anyone asked why. Why? Her mother had prepared the roast that way. Ends up her mother’s roasting pan was too small for a full-sized roast. She had cut the roast to make it fit.  It had become a ritual without a cause!

One of the rituals or rites of the Church is the celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. It shifts throughout history between being an occasional part of the worship to a mandatory part of the service. Some even claim you cannot worship without it.

Oddly, Holy Communion, with the deepest of religious meaning attached, tends to incite passionate debate or even conflict in the Church.

  • How often should it be offered?
  • How old must you recipients be to partake?
  • What is the age of understanding? Does anyone really understand?
  • Shall we use wine or grape juice?
  • How shall the elements be offered? Individual glasses, chalice, intinction?
  • Can people touch the elements?
  • Should people kneel or stand?
  • Who is qualified to lead the service?

The answers to these questions run a wide gamut and can be hotly debated even after 2000 years.

Rituals need safekeepers. Safekeepers need to justify their role as safekeepers. Having rules adds authority to the ritual. So a command given to a rugged group of disciples soon has ornate robes, silver service, and approved language that is guarded by the safekeepers.

Another ritual is the passing of the peace. Passing the peace is much easier than actually keeping the peace.

Most churches do this every week. At times it is a quite mindless greeting. In other congregations, the time for passing the peace becomes a social free for all. Now, churches have hand sanitizers available so we can pass the peace without sending one another to the grave.

Guaranteed: those who are hurting within the church are receiving the passing of the peace with mixed emotions, which is likely to go unnoticed as long as the bounds of the ritual are kept.

Are these rituals healthy when they are so ingrained in our worship that the actual ritual replaces its own meaning?

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The History of Evangelism: A Pictorial Primer

Lesson 3

Ambassdors Visit St. Matthew’s, Woodlyn

Today’s visit—our 47th—was noticeable once again for its similarities to Redeemer. Most of the churches we have visited have been so like us that it is difficult to fathom why they have abided their Synod’s treatment of a congregation just like them.

Woodlyn is a small community south of Philadelphia. The homes in the neighborhood of the church are small and well kept—set back from bustling McDade Blvd.

St. Matthew will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Redeemer will celebrate our 121st. (SEPA Synod stopped counting in 2010. We have not!)

Attendance at this summer service was under 30 and included two children and one youth. Their sanctuary is long. Unlike many congregations, most of the people sat towards the front. The altar is set far back behind flanking choir lofts.

Like Redeemer, they have a summer day camp. Like Redeemer, they serve meals to children in cooperation with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Many of the churches we have visited have nursery schools or day schools. However, few of them seem to connect this outreach to church attendance. In most cases there have been very few children present at worship—even in churches with weekday children’s programming.

Music was well done. The organist, Jeanne Sach,  played a lovely Offertory on the piano. Singing was good. We are finding that the strongest music presence is often in the smaller churches.

Pastor Nancy Brown seemed to weave her message of the day throughout the service with an opening talk about the Olympics and the work that goes into them (we can relate to hard work going unappreciated), an interactive moment early in the service, and a fairly lengthy sermon.

We noted on their website that they shared a minister with us. Rev. Jesse Brown left Redeemer around 2000 and was at Woodlyn for a while before they called their current pastor in 2003.

St. Matthew seems to be another solid little neighborhood church, dealing with the same kind of challenges Redeemer and others deal with.

We wonder what would happen if we all worked together, instead of in competition for leadership and resources.

Meanwhile, our visits overall reveal a pronounced disconnect between what is preached in our churches and what is acted upon. We don’t fault the preaching—as far as that goes.


The History of Evangelism: A Pictorial Primer

Lesson Two

Individuals are invited.

The History of Evangelism: A Pictorial Primer

Lesson One

Be Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Levels of Church Membership

There are in the Lutheran denomination three levels of church membership.

Baptized Members

Baptized members include all who have been baptized—adults and children.

Confirmed Members

Traditionally, child baptized members become full, confirmed members upon completion of study, usually around age 15. Once confirmed, youth have full membership privileges.

When adults join churches with little or no childhood experience in the Church, membership requirements are less clear. They can transfer membership from another Lutheran Church or a different denomination, with guidelines for acceptance consisting of little more than the recitation of a creed. Faith communities are often so starved for members that even that is not required.

Associate Members

Some congregations have a designation of associate membership. These adult members can hold full membership in another church while participating in congregational life as fully as they like— but they do not have voting privileges.

These are the constitutional membership guidelines. There are problems with these which might become more clear if we define church membership along biblical lines.

Hearers and Doers

There are Hearers of the Word and there are Doers of the Word.

All faith begins with hearing the Word. But hearing alone is not enough.

Most church governance centers on Hearers of the Word. There are far more of them and their individual votes count the same as that of people who may be far more committed.

Favoring Hearers and ignoring Doers dummies down the Church.

Hierarchical leadership does not like Doers of the Word —unless they DO exactly as they are told. The problem for Doers who have a strong foundation in faith is that they honor leadership only when leadership is scripturally based and act within constitutional guidelines. In their minds, they answer to a higher authority.

There are differences among Doers. Doers who do not have a strong faith foundation can create a cult-like following.

Doers commit far more than a weekly monetary offering. They commit time and passion. Doers look for opportunities to improve and change church community. Doers challenge their Faith Community. They motivate.

Doers will challenge status quo leadership.

The problem in the ELCA is that the status quo is revered. That makes Doers of the Word, whether they be clergy or lay members, people to be tolerated. If Doers are insistent upon change, they become unwelcome and are labeled as oddballs or trouble-makers. At worst they are targets of insecure leaders —the more insecure, the more ruthless.

The position of Hearers of the Word becomes glorified. They are less trouble.

The fact that there are far fewer Hearers in the ELCA doesn’t seem to faze leadership.

Doers, on the other hand, are an endangered species. This doesn’t faze our leaders either!

When a denomination is governed by Hearers of the Word and Doers are shut out, there are serious problems.

Hey, Church! What Do You Want from Us?

According to the Harvard Business Review, a key component of effective organizations and their leadership is being clear about expectations.

This is a problem in the Church today. What is expected of us?

If this is not clear, congregations end up defending initiatives after the fact. In the world of Church, where people like things to be nice and tidy, this creates messes that can take years to clean up.  Meanwhile, congregations struggle and may even be forced to close.

Constitutions and founding documents (articles of incorporation) spell out the rules. A lot of people worked hard on these documents. When they are ignored for years, enforcing them becomes problematic. Expediency becomes the guide. Church leaders follow blindly. Bad precedents are indelibly impressed. People who point out Church rules are viewed as “trouble makers.”

Courts don’t want to deal with Church issues, which creates a lawlessness in God’s kingdom. No one wants to shoulder responsibility. Lay people are likely to suffer dearly—not good for long-term church-building!

What do we expect of church members? What do we expect of church leaders?

  • Have we properly trained those who are born into our community? The lack of Sunday School programs and Vacation Church Schools and scarcity of youth in the church suggest not.
  • Do those who join our fellowship as adults know what church membership means?
  • Are pastoral candidates trained in Church government?
  • Are our ruling documents a list of options from which to pick and choose?

Sometimes church leaders are so hungry for numbers and eager to appear accepting hat they fail to take the time to teach.

One pastor routinely responded to parents requesting the baptism of a newborn with a simple, “Just call the church secretary and schedule it.” He was offended when church leaders suggested that this was an opportunity to meet with members and further their faith commitment.

Sometimes pastors don’t understand church protocol. It is problematic to have to haul out a constitution in front of new members when an issue arises.

A pastor who had ben recently called to serve a congregation announced at worship that he had accepted a group of new members during the week that no one in the church had ever met. When church leaders pointed to the constitutional requirement that new members be accepted by the council, there was a hurtful uproar. The pastor stormed that he had never heard of such a requirement—even though it is a standard clause in the denomination’s model constitution. Result: The new people felt unwelcome. The church leaders felt disrespected and were criticized long-term by the denomination for “making trouble.” Leaders became suspicious of their new pastor, whose ability to lead suffered immeasurably.

Everyone expressing an interest in joining a church must understand what is expected of them. If not, you may discover that their understanding of faith may not be your congregation’s understanding and you will have voting members who are unqualified to be making decisions. Trouble with a capital “T.”

Classes for new members are important.

All church members must be occasionally reminded of why the Church is the Church. Have a handbook that spells out what church membership means. Place it in the hands of every new member. Have copies available in the back of the church. Distribute them at Annual Meetings—every year!

Here is the Membership Handbook Redeemer provided to all new members along with a copy of the congregation’s constitution.

Government Regulations and Quality of Church Life

The government, in its infinite wisdom, has solved another problem that doesn’t exist.

Churches and church organizations are accustomed to government inspectors checking church kitchens to make sure refrigerators are cold enough, etc. Now they are dictating the way food is served, imposing restaurant regulations on venues that have very little in common with restaurants.

For decades, church camps served food family style. Reports of food-borne illnesses resulting? Well, let’s not wait for disaster to strike before we take precautionary action.

Meals at church family camp were short but pleasant in that the food of decent variety and quality was placed before a family for 25-minutes of togetherness without the concerns of cooking and minimal clean-up. A respite for every parent.

Typically, serving bowls were placed on tables seating eight or so. In some camps there was no need to get up. A request for more food was met when someone held the empty bowl high for camp staff to grab and refill. In others, one person might carry the empty bowl to the kitchen window where it was either refilled or a new bowl of food was supplied. No fuss. Families at camp could spend the short meal time in pleasant conversation.

Now the government has decided this must change. Food could potentially go bad in 25 minutes of unregulated heat. (How long does food sit on your table at home when you are hosting a dinner party?)

This year at family camp. The half-hour alloted for meals was spent waiting to wait in line, then waiting in line, then scrambling to sit down with people still waiting in line brushing against your table. The remainder of the time, about 15 minutes if luck prevailed, was spent quickly scarfing down the food, which seemed to be of poorer quality—perhaps because of the atmosphere. Parents in charge of multiple small children had the joy of balancing plates, while watching the children. It was chaotic. The group couldn’t even focus for the traditional table grace, something restaurants don’t have to worry about.

The food, heated over sterno flames that heat only the center of the huge foil pan, was scooped onto each plate by a worker clad in plastic gloves. Across the room, campers were permitted to serve themselves at the salad bar protected by a regulation sneeze guard. (Shh! The sneeze guard is too high to guard against children’s sneezes). But at the main serving table — even at snack time—campers couldn’t so much as reach into a bowl of potato chips without plastic gloves or oversight of kitchen staff.

This is camp?

Regulations, meant for restaurants where food sits out on buffet bars for undetermined amounts of time and are open to strangers, have been applied to camps where meals, start to finish, are less than 30 minutes and the population is known to one another.

Government regulations met. Quality of mealtime gone.

How did we ever get by without them?!

Let’s hope the government doesn’t start attending church pot lucks and saving us from more potential disaster!

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2 Approaches to Preaching Online

2×2 has addressed the temptation for pastors to dismiss the web site as a place to post their Sunday sermon — which probably attracts zero readers. But we haven’t recommended any examples of good use of the web. Today we feature two.

Let’s start with the posting of sermons. While we advocate against this as a feature of congregational web sites, there is a pastor who has done this in a very helpful way.

Pastor Vincent Gerhardy of Australia offers his sermons online as a resource to other churches. Pastor Gerhardy has posted all of his sermons for the last eleven years.

His web site indexes his sermons by lectionary year and scripture. He makes them available to all and asks only that you ask permission to use them. His current sermon is usually posted the Friday prior to its “airing.” (Would he do this if he thought his congregation would rush to the web and read them in advance?)

This was a very helpful resource to our lay-led church. 2×2 (Redeemer) found this website about five years ago, when a pastor, engaged well in advance of Christmas Eve, called at the last minute with the message that he prayerfully could not go against the bishop and preach a Christmas message to the people of East Falls.

His decision changed Redeemer’s worship for the better, forever. We never again used a supply pastor.

We admit to feeling a bit frantic that Christmas Eve. We googled Christmas sermons and found Pastor Gerhardy. A match made in heaven? Perhaps.

We learned there was no reason to go to the considerable expense and trouble of engaging a supply pastor. After years of supply pastors, we had heard most of their stock sermons several times!

Centered around Pastor Gerhardy’s sermons, we developed lay leadership in leading our own worship. We discovered many talents within our congregation which had been fettered by the presence of a pastor. Soon almost any member of Redeemer could stand up and lead worship with a moment’s notice.

We rarely use his sermons totally word for word. We change the Australian colloquialisms and occasionally update an illustration, but his foundation of solid preaching—made available to the world—has been a God-send.

We have used Pastor Gerhardy’s biblically based sermons (carefully referenced) with a consistent message of love since 2008. Although we have never met, we look forward to his “voice” and often have discussion of his sermons during worship.  We look forward to them when we meet together in East Falls once a month. We correspond with Pastor Gerhardy a few times a year to show our appreciation.

Pastor Jon Swanson uses the web in keeping with the ways 2×2 has recommended. He presents daily insights in short, 300-word, parable-like analyses of scripture. He has several expressions — his blog and by subscription what he calls 7×7. Seven minutes of scripture study, seven times a week.

If you are developing an online ministry, study this site. Note the interaction he is receiving from readers, some of whom start out — “I’m not a Christian, but . . .

 . . .but people will read a short, well thought out message presented to them in the world they live in a way that resonates with them. Modern preaching!