I’m on the road this week but took some time to look for art that accompanies this week’s scripture.
This week’s lesson is the parable of the Great Banquet. Jesus tells this story as he is being seated at the dinner table of a Pharisee—one of the richer of people in Jesus’ life. Imagine his reaction to the story as he directs Jesus to his seat. A bit disconcerting?
The offerings are a bit confused with some of the referenced art actually depicting the Wedding in Cana. You can tell because Mary is nearby.
Here is a painting by Cicely Barker from 1934. Notice the crowd of people waiting for their seat at the table. She was best known for her illustrations of fairies.
The next painting concentrates on the act of inviting. It is called Parable of the Great Supper and was painted in 1900 by Eugene Burnand (1850-1921)
Here’s our own take on the invitation to the banquet table.
Today’s object is a bowl of candy—mixed hard candies would be good.
Early in the service, (not close to communion), invite your congregation to come forward and choose a piece of candy. Engage them in conversation as they do. Comment on their choices or perhaps their reluctance to choose. Suggest what you might like. Respond when they say thank you. Someone might ask for two. Allow them. Share a story about the candy. Make sure everyone is satisfied.
You can just ask everyone to file forward or you can be creative and ask certain people to choose first. Just make whatever you do complement your message.
Use the experience to talk about hospitality.
Hospitality is the common theme of today’s lessons. In the Gospel, Jesus refers to the accepted protocol of honoring guests. Hebrews commends the practice of hospitality. Proverbs teaches the recipients of hospitality a lesson in grace.
As your congregation returns to their seats to enjoy their treat, talk to them about hospitality in today’s world and in ancient Israel.
Life was a bit different then. Travel could be dangerous and unpredictable. A crippled beast of burden, lack of water, an unexpected illness or accident, sudden changes in the weather—all could be life-threatening. Hospitality was expected.
But there is another reason for hospitality. It was entertaining. There were no newspapers, radios, or TVs. People worked at home and traveled rarely. The sight of a stranger on the horizon meant an evening of good conversation, news from far away. Perhaps they would be carrying exotic things.
There was something in it for everyone.
Ask your congregation what hospitality means to them today and how they might feel if a stranger knocked on their door expecting a meal and lodging.
Meals are a common setting in scripture, culminating in the ritual that commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus’ sacrifice.
Talk about what Jesus and the disciples learned around the dinner or banquet table, preaching on the hills of Galilee, and after the Resurrection—when Jesus shares a meal in Emmaus and cooks fish on the shore as he waits for the disciples to anchor their fishing boat. Remind them of meals with tax collectors, the wedding feast in Cana, the visits with his friends in Bethany, and the hospitality he enjoyed on occasion with richer friends.
Talk about your own meal experiences. The family dinner (or the parish dinner) is where we learn to work together. The home table is where we learn manners and to carry a conversation. We learn how to treat guests. The church can be a place to learn these things, too.
There is a scene in the classic movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, where the Finch Family sits down to eat together. A young friend of Scout’s, a boy from less fortunate circumstances, is invited to join them. The boy is overwhelmed by the feast put before him. Scout responds in critical amazement as he pours a pitcher of syrup over his food. She is stopped by her father and the housekeeper and deeply embarrassed.
A similar scene might be repeated in our families as our children learn how to treat guests.
How do we treat the strangers in our midst? Are they made truly welcome? Truly valued? Truly equal at the table? At the Eucharist?
Do we engage them in conversation, eager for news from other places? Do we make our church homes places they will feel comfortable returning to?
Do we seek only members who can contribute or who are like us? Do we welcome those who cannot contribute in the ways we expect?
What might we learn from our visitors?
Hospitality must be modeled. You just did this with you candy exercise!
In practicing hospitality we are modeling godly behavior. Are we doing a good job?
The version of the Lord’s Prayer that is often sung today was written too late (1935) to receive a stamp of approval by many in the church. It became popular. Popular is somehow seen as ungodly—a dangerous place to lead the common parishioner.
Yet, the Lord’s Prayer in music never fails to stir the heart and take the words so easily repeated by mindless memory to new heights.
There is a traditional singing of the Malotte version by British artist, Charlotte Church.
A second offering explores the Lord’s Prayer musically, in different languages, and visually.
A third was published in the United Kingdom at the time of the Millennium. It topped the British charts, although some stations refused to air it—too religious and Christmas was over! It uses the tune of Old Lang Syne.
My favorite appeals to my love of guitar music. It’s the fourth video on this site by Doyle Dykes. Again, it’s the Malotte version. Love those harmonics near the end!
And guess what! Albert Hay Malotte, the composer, was a member of St. James the Less Episcopal Church in EAST FALLS!
They were treated badly by their diocese, too! The riches of East Falls are coveted by many!
Published statistics have St. Paul’s membership at about 1700 with average attendance of 400. For the last ten years the statistics have held their own. An occasional slight rise or fall. That is an accomplishment, considering the average rate of decline in many churches—large and small.
St. Paul’s has two pastors, The Rev. Carl Linders, who has preached there since 1977. Today, a young pastor, Thomas Rusert, conducted the service.
In planning the funeral, one of the pastors questioned whether there would be enough people to carry the singing of the family’s choice of hymns, which varied from those suggested. They don’t know the Speakman/Leach tradition of singing! Voices filled the sanctuary as if there were several hundred and not just 100 or so. Some of that tradition comes from having roots in Redeemer. We continue to share this strength of our congregation in our Ambassador visits.
Tradition is carefully guarded at St. Paul’s. A soloist in the family (and there are many) wanted to sing The Lord’s Prayer, a family tradition. The family was told it can’t be sung during the service. We enjoyed it as a prelude.
The Ambassadors have joined in singing the Lord’s Prayer in several of our Ambassador visits. We often sang it during our services. So we wonder what the problem could be.
The family was also discouraged from speaking at the service. This had been one of the most moving and memorable parts of our last family funeral. Instead, we compiled a Memorial Booklet. There are always work-arounds when faced with rigidity. And sometimes they lead to something better!
The pastor wore a cassock and cotta, which is rarely seen these days.
A study of their website proves they are a consummate program church. I checked their long list of activities and wondered what some of them were. Relational Ministries seems to be smaller segments of the congregation with special interests. In other words—clubs. Large churches need small groups.
They have an active youth group. Some of our family—the ones with infants and toddlers in tow today— were once involved.
They are also proud of their many musical ensembles ranging from various choral groups to a brass ensemble and bell choir. Again, our family have been very involved musically at St. Paul’s.
We saw a page for downloadable forms. Ah, perhaps they’ll have a sample Membership Application Form! SEPA had accused us of contempt of court for not providing these records—all to make us look bad. We had never encountered Application Forms for Membership—and still haven’t, but a judge could easily believe that there should be such a thing.
Actually, there was only one form available for download—a youth participation permission form.
This was our 71st visit to a SEPA congregation. Perhaps we will return some Sunday morning.
This is a term familiar to marketers. It refers to niche marketing. Major retailers are generally interested in selling lots of just a few products. The emphasis is on creating products that will appeal to everyone.
This traditional business model is why it was hard to get a book published. Publishers wanted to make sure it was worth printing 100,000 copies minimally. If your interest was canoeing in Nepal or the life-cycle of spiders, you were out of luck!
The internet has made it possible for products that appeal to smaller audiences to be profitable, too. In fact, there is great potential in recognizing the people who go against the mainstream. It is a numbers game. There are an awful lot of people in the world!
The result in the publishing world, with which I am most familiar, has been an exciting explosion of new titles.
Jesus’ approach to ministry describes the long tail. Seek and serve the marginal members of society—everyone from the rich man and educated Nicodemus—to the dead, infirm, and dying—to the women and children with no status—to the foreigners.
As the Church grew, every neighborhood was a “niche.” But today, the Church is abandoning its strength, hoping for economic strength in size.
This may be a long-term disaster.
Large churches are not filling the gap of the abandoned small faith communities. A few are growing slowly but most are in decline. People like to worship with people they know. Being part of a crowd may be fiscally desirable, but faith doesn’t work that way. Most churches will continue with memberships hovering between 100 and 300 ( a third of them active) until the Church abandons them. That’s the way it’s always been and it follows the findings of sociology that it’s the way it will always be.
We already know the small church works well—perhaps even best. The challenge to the Church is to keep small churches viable and in keeping with their expectations. This requires entrepreneurial thinking which is not prevalent in the Church.
Churches like to do things the same way (while preaching transformation). They have an expensive infrastructure that resists change and requires size.
The concept can even be seen in their approach to mission.
Redeemer’s membership was always an immigrant population. Early members were western European. The immigrants of recent years represented five continents. Many from East Africa found their way to our door. We welcomed them and they were part of a truly transforming ministry.
The Synod, on the other hand, had a different vision for us. The older immigrants and their descendants had to die. (They waited eight years for this to happen at one point in our history—2000-2008). But new members came along. Their plan was not working.
Their pronouncement: White Redeemer must be allowed to die. Black Redeemer . . . we can put them anywhere.
Actually, SEPA had a vision for a Pan-African church. Something big. Something to boast about. Something that could exist without bothering white Lutherans.
A Pan-African Church! When you realize the size of Africa, the concept is ridiculous. Africa is a BIG place, with varied customs and cultures. Our African members were amused at the idea. “They don’t speak our language in Zimbabwe!”
This is nothing new. Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown, Roxborough, Manayunk and East Falls look so close on the map. The managerial temptation is to try to unite them for efficiency and cost-savings. Four church closings in this area have not bolstered the memberships of the other churches. (Advent in Mt. Airy, Grace and Epiphany in Roxborough and the seizing of land in East Falls). (Shh! The doors may be locked, but we are still open!)
Urban people know their neighborhoods are distinct. So, too, are their ministries.
With size and managerial motives (among others, we suspect), SEPA Synod orchestrated the closing of our growing viable community congregation. Their plan (never discussed with our leaders) was to set our white members free to fend for ourselves (excommunicate us) and assign our black members to another site. Result: 82 Lutherans locked out. A squandering of new blood!)
Unfortunately, when you close churches in the neighborhoods where immigrants live, you take the resources that would serve them. Everyone in the neighborhood loses and the takers of the property get only a short-term advantage as they quickly spend the assets the communities developed over a century.
The future of the Church may be in rediscovering its past. The trick will be finding a way to make Long Tail Evangelism fiscally viable. The more active and inviting the ministry, the more realistic this will be.
If the Church is to be successful in recognizing the benefits of Long Tail Evangelism, they must help congregations explore the use of their assets for ministry, not seize them for their own financial fix.
The result is long-term loss to faith, community and potential.
Perhaps it is time we return to Jesus’ approach. Love that long tail.
TREND 4 Extremely short attention spans due to clutter.
Oh, my! This is a challenge for the modern church.
Five, two-hour sessions constitute today’s Bible School as opposed to two weeks, including weekend events.
Praise songs that repeat one simple theological concept. Let’s not think too hard when we are singing!
Fast food-style Eucharists (Take and dunk.).
Every event interrupted with snack breaks and coffee breaks.
All of these things are enjoyable but take something away from the experiences we once valued. No wonder today’s Christians don’t know the Bible as well as their ancestors. They also have less understanding of “church.”
Attention span was a challenge at Redeemer as a multicultural church. Our American culture often clashed with the more laid-back ways of our immigrant members. When we planned events we started with two extremes. “White Redeemer” (the Synod’s term, not ours) would advocate for a two-hour event. Our African members didn’t mind planning for the whole day. We managed to compromise. Events were planned for two hours, would last closer to three, and the social afterwards would last just as long for those who chose to stay. Most did.
The challenge to the western Church is to recognize that their members’ attention is demanded by many more sources than in yesteryear—professionally, socially and as family members.
We can keep offering the same sorts of educational events. The people who show up may never really connect.
This is where online ministry can shine. A simple thought presented daily will have far more impact than an hour-long Bible study. You may find that when members get together on Sunday that they are talking about the short messages they read during the week. (That’s been our experience.)
The Church can also be a slowing agent, a social retardant, a respite from the hectic pace of the Information Age. Try going against the norm now and then. Ask people to slow down and take time for God. Weave this into your more fast-paced ministry.
Study a four- or more-verse hymn together—something with some theologic substance like The Church’s One Foundation. Mix the hand-clapping mantras with something that may one day be of more comfort and guidance.
Change up the worship service. Add an object lesson. Divide the sermon into three with a comment on each of the major scripture readings. Illustrate the sermon with slides. (People who watch worship on TV are used to this!) None of this abandons the sacred order of liturgy. That would bring the roof down!
Change venues. Short attention spans might be lengthened if the surroundings change. Meet in different places (maybe even for the same event!). Move from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall to the outside. Take advantage of your church camps. Meet in homes. Small churches can meet in local restaurants. (We do!)
The short attention span is likely here to stay. Let’s work with it.
Many of the churches we visit have “fast food” Eucharist, (people file past quickly with just a nibble of a foretaste of the feast to come). This can be a shock to the senses of those who were raised kneeling together with family at the altar. A few provide an option. The communicants who filed through the line were invited, if they wished, to retire to the altar. Several did.
What would happen if everyone did—and they stayed there in prayer for ten minutes, instead of sixty seconds?
New Life Fellowship, a mission effort in northern Pakistan, sent pictures of a recent event in their ministry. Their project for the year has been to start 1000 home churches. They have sought contributions for the purchase of one Urdu Bible for each church.
In these pictures it looks like they’ve had some success. The are also distributing small gifts to the children—sandals, pencils, t-shirts and story books.
Here’s where a Church hierarchy can still play an important role.
Since the beginning of the Church there were offshoots of Christianity to deal with. Separate groups of followers had a different story to tell. Much of early Church history is about deciding exactly which group is telling the most authentic story.
Early leaders looked for sources with the most direct connections with Christ. They sought to verify connections. That’s how we arrived at today’s approved Bible, which isn’t about to change soon. Nevertheless, scholars with the help of archeologists still find new texts to add to our knowledge of the early Church.
For example, most Protestant churches teach very little from the Apocrypha. Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions include these books.
The challenge for today’s Church is that the Church is accustomed to dictating what the true story is. They will now have to live in a world that challenges their authority.
That’s most easily done in an atmosphere of open dialog. Dialog is easy in today’s world, but the Church needs to be where the people are—and it’s not in church on Sunday morning.
The Church is inexperienced at open dialog. How much dialog really happens at Synod Assemblies or Church-wide Assemblies? They are pretty well orchestrated to limit dialog.
Frequently, dialog is open in the Church only on approved topics and only up to a point. The cast of players is hand-chosen and properly vetted.
The parameters of the dialog are likely to be narrow and the results are likely to be predictable. Their discussions may be published, but few will read them. The people in the pew know their input is not particularly welcome. Why bother? The dialog was taking place so that we could all be told what to think and believe.
Yet it was never more important. The Scriptures can be easily distorted for selfish purposes. Every 10-year-old holds in his or her hands tools more powerful than ever before in history.
The telling of the story is often a tool of charismatic people who crave control, power or are following any number of dangerous urges. This is how cults gain traction. Cults can be big movements. They can exist in little congregations. They can be led by outsiders. They can be led by church leaders.
The Church won’t be able to check this if they aren’t part of the dialog. When they abandon churches—waiting for them to die, they open the door to all kinds of potential bad teaching.
It may seem insignificant. After all, they are waiting for churches to die. What does it matter?
But the damage can be devastating—even life-threatening. The stories of loving parents following the lead of faith healers right until their child (or children) die regularly make the news. So, too, the stories of innocent youth lured into inappropriate situations.
The Church needs to address this on every level. The story must be told nationally and internationally, regionally and in every neighborhood congregation. Every congregation must (and can) be part of the ongoing dialog of faith.
We’ve collected a few images to help illustrate this week’s gospel, Luke 13:10-17. Jesus goes to the temple on the Sabbath and reaches out to a crippled woman. He heals her and raises the hackles of temple leaders.
The first is by Juan Rodriguez Juárez, a Spanish artist whose life bridged the 17th and 18th turn of the century.
The others are by unidentified artists, generally more modern. Each gives you a slightly different viewpoint. My favorite is the last one!
Amplification of the voice of the consumer and independent authorities
The voice of the individual is far more powerful today. There is no way to hush it. There will be attempts to try. Old habits die hard.
In the past the great silencers would banish a dissenter. A train ticket to Siberia is cost-effective! Disconnect them from the rest of the world. Problem solved.
There is no longer anywhere to send them.
A less drastic technique of the great silencers is to isolate them socially. They would sully their reputation, limit their opportunities for advancement, threaten their livelihoods or break their kneecaps—anything that could be done legally or without getting caught. This would often be done under the guise of beneficence. We are doing the world a favor.
Today, they can be called out by anyone with a smartphone and a backbone.
The Church is slow to discover this. Church structure takes comfort in acceptance. The clergy have a pulpit. They have an audience. They don’t use their voice with much effectiveness. They crave acceptance.
Someday they will find their voices. It will only take a few little successes and a refreshing power will be released.
But it won’t be easy. For example:
One retired pastor—a member of Redeemer—uses his voice. He writes letters, mostly to clergy, protesting the actions of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod in our neighborhood of East Falls and pointing out the violations of the governing rules.
The reaction: Synod Council voted to ask a neighboring bishop to censor him. They wrote a letter. Most, if not all, signed it. It didn’t work. The neighboring bishop knows this pastor to be a good man. And so they are left to take another course — just dismiss him as a malcontent.
Time will tell whether or not he was right.
Interestingly, the people who signed the letter have found no other way to use their voice on the issues. They follow the crowd.
While the whole world is exploring new ways to right wrongs and make the world a better place, the Church is still seeking ways to keep people towing their line (even when their line violates their own governing rules).
Where this will go for the Church is hard to say. It is a new force that wise church leaders should recognize and begin to work with in more enlightened ways.
Reverting to the Middle Ages is not likely to work.
The Creation and Amplification
of the Voice of Independent Authorities
This is something that the Church really needs to explore.
It can be dangerous in the world of religion, eclipsing any possible good. But it might also be good, if nurtured.
It has never been more possible to create a cult. Cults prey on the insecurities of the faithful.
It has always been a problem in the Church. Some ordained pastors practice cult leadership. They find ways to make themselves the center of the religion—making obedience and compliance indispensable to salvation or participation. The major tool is charm. They tend to be likable people. Do some good things that attract admiration and attention. They soon have a growing following—that will disappear as soon as the cult leader disappears (often with the money or a harem).
Sometimes they are called out but rarely before serious damage has been done.
The road is difficult and divisive for all—those who get caught up in it and those who try to battle it.
You can be certain it is happening in today’s church—in little pockets and in broader territories—perhaps entire denominations. A few years of damaging leadership can create long-term strife.
And so, the Church (that means everyone in the Church) must be vigilant. Most important they must be knowledgable in their faith. A strong knowledge of faith is the best weapon in fighting potential cult leaders.
Sadly, Christian education tends to stop at age 10 these days. When these Christian children grow up and begin to face the complexities of faith, they are ill-prepared to cope. Easier to opt out.
But it’s not all bad!
New leaders with good faith foundations may emerge outside of the “system.” They may have something important to say and add to the mainline expression of faith. They will see things that have been camouflaged by ritual and tradition.
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.