{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Calvin vs. Wesley (A Book Review)

Wesley_vs_CalvinAs a United Methodist pastor just three years out of seminary, it is a daunting task to go into a local church and teach people the ins and outs of what it means to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition. Adding to the difficulty of the task is the fact that so many people who occupy pews in our United Methodist churches come from varying backgrounds — some are raised Baptist, others have left the Catholic church, some were Baptist and then married a Presbyterian and found the United Methodist Church to be a “compromise church,” others are working on their third or fourth denominational affiliation. Being a Christian these days can be complicated considering how The United Methodist Church is for so many a “big tent” tradition where folks from all sorts of backgrounds can find a home.

I am currently serving in South Georgia which means I’m serving right around the right hand side of the buckle of the Bible Belt — a setting where Calvinism in both the traditional and neo sense is very much alive, well, and prominent in religious culture. So when I was pointed toward Don Thorsen’s little book, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice, I was thrilled to find a book that might help me undertake this monumental task of clarifying what it meant to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition.

And I was NOT disappointed.

Not only did I read this book, I taught it in a Sunday School setting. Our group was largely made up of upwardly mobile 30, 40, and early 50-somethings. On the first day we did an experiment to see how many denominational traditions were represented in our group and we found that only 4 out of 20 of us were “cradle Methodists.” 80% of our group had spent time in another denomination. So that became the launching pad whereby we jumped into Thorsen’s concise, yet comprehensive work.

I cannot begin to describe the thrill a pastor can feel when topics like the sovereignty and love of God are debated (Ch. 1, God: More Love Than Sovereignty). I cannot tell you how exhilarating it is to have people passionately talk about the power of grace in their lives even when they do not realize it (Ch. 4, Grace: More Prevenient than Irresistible). And then for a group to be encountered with what it means to live a life of holiness marked by the love of God and our neighbor (Ch. 6, Spirituality: More Holiness than Mortification)? Well, you get my point. Seeing the light bulbs go off as people grew in both clarity and conviction about why they are uniquely Christian in the Wesleyan tradition is an experience Methodist pastors long to experience.

Thorsen’s work is accessible to both clergy and laity alike. And despite the adversarial cover and title, he is very hospitable to Calvin. At the same time he makes no bones about what makes Wesley’s perspective unique and, in the end, superior. As Thorsen reminds us, “From Wesley’s perspective, there should be no ‘half a Christian’ — that is, one who receives justification by faith but fails to go on toward sanctification by faith” (p. 82). In other words, believing the right stuff and agreeing with the right stances does not make us Christian if our lives do not reflect the holiness of God. Thorsen reminds us that Wesley’s emphasis on practice and growing in grace more fully tells the story of what it means to be a Christian. The wonder of being a Christian is working out our salvation, empowered by God’s grace and in union with the church made up of fellow sojourners, and lived in a spirit of humility marked by a distinct love for God and our neighbor.”

In just under 150 pages, Don Thorsen writes a brilliant account of Wesleyan theology for both the new and more seasoned Christian. He deals with the matters of God, sin, grace, salvation, holiness, the Church, and how we live the beliefs we profess in remarkably clear and direct ways. It has been a book that will have a reserved spot on my bookshelf for years to come and in many ministry settings yet to come. So I strongly recommend you not only read this book yourself, but include a small group of friends in your reading as well. And that advice doesn’t just come from me, I have 20 friends who would gladly agree.

Christmas Eve Liturgy 2013

christmascandleWell it’s that time of year for pastors. Somewhere in the chaos of parties and special events you have to find time to plan multiple worship services. With Christmas Eve on a Monday this year it makes for a lot of printing to be done this week. For those who are still looking for liturgy for Christmas Eve, I wanted to share some liturgy we’ll be using in our Christmas Eve service this year at Mulberry. – See more at: http://mastersdust.com/2012/12/#sthash.F2IpAx39.dpuf

Opening Prayer

O God our Father, you have brought us again to the glad season when we celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant that his Spirit may be born anew in our hearts this day and that we may joyfully welcome him to reign over us. Open our ears that we may hear again the angelic chorus of old. Open our lips that we, too, may sing with uplifted hearts. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lighting of the Christ Candle

Good news! Good news! Our hopes and fears and all of years have met in this place tonight. And we have beheld the glory of the coming of God’s Messiah. Sing for joy! Salvation has come!

Light the Christ Candle

We light the Christ candle as a sign to the world that today, in the City of David, a Savior is born, who is Christ the Lord. We no longer have to fear the darkness for our Light has come.

Glory to God in the highest heaven! And on earth, peace to all of God’s children! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.
Invitation to the Table

Christ our Lord invites all – all who wait for the coming of Emmanuel with hopeful expectation; all who repent of their sin; all who long for peace on earth. Let that peace begin with us as we confess our sins together.

Confession and Assurance of Pardon

When we allow darkness to overcome the light,

forgive us, Lord.

When we reduce Christmas to plastic and tinsel,

have mercy on us, Father.

When hardness of heart keeps us from seeing

and hearing and touching the needs of others,

 let your grace consume us, O God.

When the wars around us are of no concern,

forgive us, Lord, and move us to compassion

        for those who suffer.

When our caring is not extended to action,

move us to seek justice for our brothers and sisters.

We come to confess our sinfulness

      before you and before each other.

Remove all barriers that divide us,

      and let there be no obstacle to our love for you

      and for one another. Amen.

All pray in silence.

People of God, through the coming of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate, the Lord has comforted and redeemed us!

Recall the words of the angels: Good news…Great joy…All people…

In Christ we receive the salvation of our God. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Glory to God in the highest!

 

Benediction

May the peace of Christ be with you all both this night and forevermore.

Alleluia! Amen.

Just a quick note: If you offer a morning or midday service, why not instead of singing “Silent Night” you sing “Joy to the World”? Context is important and it is a bit awkward to sing about what a holy night it is at 11 in the morning.

Also, here’s a poem we’ll read this year. I’m a big, big fan of incorporating poetry into corporate worship and this is a real gem from Madeleine L’Engle

“First Coming”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.

In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

I hope this series of worship planning ideas have helped your planning this season. Most of all, I hope through the singing and praying and preaching and sharing of the bread and cup you have experienced and helped others experience the power and grace of Emmanuel, God with us.

Why a Service of the Longest Night?

Candles Burning in Dark ChurchThe Christmas season is often marked by expressions of joy, excitement, and happiness. It’s a time for family to gather and for churches to worship pointing to the hope that is found in the coming of the Christ child. However, this time of joy and expectation can often overshadow the pain and hurt many experience during this season, when the world’s merriment puts their grief and sorrow in start relief.

One of the greatest acts of pastoral care in the Advent season is to offer a service known as a Service of the Longest Night. It’s a worship service scheduled around the winter solstice (the longest night of the calendar year) and it just happens to fall on or around December 21st every year. As Dan Benedict notes: “it is also the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle. This linkage invites making some connections between Thomas’s struggle to believe the tale of Jesus’ resurrection, the long nights just before Christmas, and the struggle with darkness and grief faced by those living with loss.”

Author Taylor Caldwell writes, “I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.”

This season is still the time God chooses to bring the world’s greatest hope into the very darkness of life that can seemingly weigh us down every day. There is, indeed, hope for those who live in darkness. But part of being encountered by that hope is telling the truth about those moments when we feel nothing but hopelessness. Maybe this year isn’t your year of feeling hopeless — maybe you’re ready for a holly jolly Christmas with all of the trimmings. But being Christian means thinking of others besides yourself. And being a Christian during Advent means being willing to stand in the darkness with others because that’s where Emmanuel promises to show up first. While Advent for many churches is little more than a pre-Christmas celebration with festive traditions and rituals, the Service of the Longest Night gives space for the real meaning of Advent — our saving hope promises to come as a light that our darkest moments cannot conquer.

Below is our order of worship for the Service of the Longest Night to be held on Sunday, Dec. 22nd at 5pm:

Prelude

Words of Welcome

Call to Worship

            Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who labor

                  and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

            And so we invite each other to this time of peaceful worship.

            Flee for a while from your tasks;

            Hide yourself for a little space from

                  the turmoil of your thoughts.

            Come, cast aside your burdensome cares

                  and put aside your laborious pursuits.

            Give your time to God, and rest in God for a little while.

* Hymn No. 211

             “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”         (stanzas 1, 2, 6 and 7)

 

   A Liturgy of Remembering and Lighting of the Advent Wreath

            This first candle we light to remember

                  those whom we have loved and lost.

            We remember their name, their face, their voice,

                  the memory that binds them to us in this season.

            May God’s eternal love surround them.

            This second candle we light to redeem the pain of loss;

                  the loss of relationships, the loss of jobs,

                  the loss of health.

            We gather up the pain of the past and offer it to God,

                  asking that from God’s hands we receive the gift of peace.

            Refresh, restore, renew us O God,

                  and lead us into your future.

            This third candle we light to remember ourselves this Advent.

            We remember these past weeks and months;

                  the disbelief, the anger, the poignancy of reminiscing,

                  the hugs and handshakes of family and friends,

                  all those who stood with us.

            We give thanks for all the support we have known.

            Let us remember that dawn defeats darkness.

            This fourth candle we light to remember our faith

                  and the gift of hope which the Christmas story offers to us.

            We remember that God who shares our life promises us

                  a place and time of no more pain and suffering.

            Let us remember the one who shows the way,

                  who brings the truth and who bears the light.

 

   Act of Praise  

            “We Shall Walk Through the Valley”             arr. Burroughs

 

   Responsive Reading from the Old Testament                  Psalm 121

            I will lift up mine eyes to the hills.

            From where does my help come?

            My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.

            God will not suffer your foot to be moved.

            The one who keeps you will not slumber.

            Behold the one who keeps Israel shall not slumber or sleep.

            The Holy one is your keeper.

            The Holy one is your shade on your right hand.

            The sun shall not hurt you by day nor the moon by night.

            Our God shall preserve you from evil

                  and shall preserve your soul.

            Our God shall preserve your going out and your coming in

                  from this time forth and even for evermore.

           

* Reading from the Gospel                                                John 1:1-5

 

   Meditation                                                             Rev. Ben Gosden

 

   Hymn No. 230

            “O Little Town of Bethlehem”                              (Stanzas 1 & 4)

 

   Invitation to the Table 

            Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,

                     who earnestly repent of their sin

                     and seek to live in peace with one another.

Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

 

    Confession and Pardon

         Merciful God,

            we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

            We have failed to be an obedient church.

            We have not done your will, we have broken your law,

            we have rebelled against your love, 

            we have not loved our neighbors,

            and we have not heard the cry of the needy.

            Forgive us, we pray. 

            Free us for joyful obedience,

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

            Hear the good news:

            Christ died for us while we were yet sinners;

                     that proves God’s love for us.

            In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

            In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

            Glory to God.  Amen.

   The Peace

            Let us offer one another signs of reconciliation and love.

 

   The Great Thanksgiving

            The Lord be with you.

            And also with you.

            Lift up your hearts.

            We lift them up to the Lord.

            Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

            It is right to give our thanks and praise.

 

            O God, you created the universe with a shout of joy,

                  a word of delight, and a big bang.

            You made gravity holes and antimatter,

                  swirling electrons and dancing quarks,

                  shooting stars and sapphire blue planets.

            You filled the ocean with clown fish and sharks,

                  with dolphins and killer whales.

            You filled the air with doves and hawks

                  songbirds and hummingbirds.

            You covered the land with shimmering aspen

                  and weathered pine.

            And You blessed all the children of the earth

                  every shape and size, every color and complexion,

                  every makeup and mood, every style and substance.

            When we walk through sorrow and chaos,

                  You are with us.

            When we live through moments of war and acts of terror,

                  You walk with us.

            When we face death and loss, loneliness and grief,

                  you stand with us and finally lead us home to you.

            And so, with your people on earth

                  and all the company of heaven,

                  we praise Your name and join their unending hymn:

 

            Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might,

            Heaven and earth are full of your glory,

            Hosanna in the highest.

            Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

            Hosanna in the highest.

 

            In the right time, in the fullness of your time,

            In the nick of time, you sent your Son to bring us back to life.

            He opened a window into your new creation.

            He showed us a vision of your way:

                  where every child has enough to eat,

                  and can sleep safely all through the night,

                  where every graveyard is a front porch of heaven,

                  where the untouchable and unloveable

                        are given the seats of honor,                                      

                  where tears of mourning become tears of laughter,

                  where grievous wrongs and horrid suffering

                        are made right and fair,

                  where children hunt Easter eggs on playgrounds

                        made from battlefields,

                  and where everyone is welcomed and loved.

           

            And so,

                  on the night in which he gave himself up for us,

                  Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you,

                  broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said,

                  “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.

                  Do this in remembrance of me.”

 

            When supper was over, he took the cup,

                  gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said,

                  “Drink from this, all of you;

                  this is my blood of the new covenant,

                  poured out for you and for many

                  for the forgiveness of sins.

                  Do this, as often as you drink it,

                  in remembrance of me.”

 

            And so,

                  in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,

                  we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving

                  as a holy and living sacrifice,

                  in union with Christ’s offering for us,

                  as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

           Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

            Pour out Your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,

                  and on these gifts of bread and wine.

            Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,

                  that we may be for the world the body of Christ,

                        redeemed by His blood.

           

            Renew our communion with all your saints,

                  especially those who now live with you.

            Since you have refreshed our souls from the waters of life,

            Help us refresh and renew others.

            Since you have given us strength for the journey.

            Help us to strengthen others on their journey.

 

            Send your Spirit to renew our faith and transform our souls

            So that we may hear your music,

            Work for justice, delight in heavenly food,

            And strengthen one another in love and grace.

            Thanks to be God.  Amen.

 

   Giving the Bread and Cup

           

* Hymn No. 218

            “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”

 

* Benediction

Go forth into the world in the loving strength of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Go forth to serve God and your neighbor in all that you do.

And may the peace of Christ surround you and enfold you this night and forevermore. Amen.

 

**Great Thanksgiving: Copyright © 2001, 2002 Mark Wiley. Reprinted with permission.

O Come, O Come Emmanual: Advent 2013 (Week 1)

Advent

Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be sharing liturgy, prayers, and ideas for worship planning during Advent. I will note the source of things I will borrow and what is original. Please note: Anything that is original from me is available to be used and/or adapted without citation. Please do not worry about citing me if you use a piece of liturgy because all of my personal work is to the glory of God and for the benefit of the Church (and I don’t have publishers or copyrights to worry about).

The readings for Advent Week 1 are:

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

We will be mainly focusing on the Isaiah and Matthew readings throughout the season. This week, Isaiah points to a grand vision — a vision of God’s holy mountain — where nations will all come to be judged. We see images of light and peace give shape to what God’s righteousness looks like. In Matthew’s text, we see a particular event break into  ordinary life. We are told to stay alert because this event will happen at a moment’s notice. God will break into our lives when we least expect it so we must stand watch and be prepared at all times.

We begin the active waiting of Advent by beginning at the end — the culmination of God’s justice and final glory. But this ending helps to prepare us for the agent who will embody this justice and righteousness — Emmanuel.

Below is some liturgy for Sunday, December 1.

Greeting

On this day we begin the season of Advent in the life of the Church.

This is the time when we gather together

to wait and watch and prepare for the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.

May our worship guide our hearts and orient our lives

that we may truly be prepared for the coming of God’s Messiah.

Let us worship God!

 

Lighting of the Advent Wreath

Keep awake! Be watchful!

The Son of Man is coming with great power and glory.

He shall judge the nations;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.

We light the first Advent candle reminding us that God’s promised Messiah

will break into our time and space

to teach us his ways

that we may walk in his paths of righteousness and peace.

May we stay alert for his coming.

               Light the candle

Come, Lord Jesus.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.

Maybe sing a verse or two of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to follow this act.

Opening Prayer

Ever present God,

you taught us that the night is far spent

and the day is at hand.

Grant that we may ever be found watching for the coming of your Son.

Save us from undue love of the world,

give us eyes to look and wait

with patient hope for the day of the Lord,

that when he shall appear, we may not be ashamed;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[United Methodist Book of Worship #254]

 

Invitation to the Table

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.

Let us prepare our hearts for his coming by confessing our sins together.

 

Confession and Pardon

Lord Jesus Christ, you have promised to come again

            as one breaking through the clouds

with great power and glory.

We confess that we get lost in trivial matters.

We do not love our neighbors

because our personal ambitions are more important.

We do not hear the cry of the needy

because we are busy accumulating wealth.

We have become drunk with the pursuit of power

            because we fail to put our trust in your power.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us that we may have eyes to see your glory,

            ears to hear your voice,

            and lives to devote to the service of your kingdom;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Silence

Hear the Good News:

Emmanuel, God with us, is coming

that we might live our lives

in the grace that frees us from the bondage of sin.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

Prayer after Communion

Holy God,

we thank you for this holy mystery

            in which you have given yourself to us.

Grant that we may go into the world

            as a people with eyes to see your presence

            as we serve one another;

through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Benediction

Go forth now from this place in hopeful anticipation

for the glorious work God is about to do.

Go forth in love that you may serve others.

And may the peace of Christ fill you and empower you

this day and forevermore. Amen.

I hope this helps you a bit in your worship planning. Please feel free to contact me directly with any questions (bgosden@mulberrymethodist.org).

Why Immigration Matters to Me…And to God (A Guest Post from Rev. Stacey Harwell)

immigration-signs_onlineathens_130118-articleSomewhere in Georgia tonight, a mom will be missing her son. She will be worrying about whether or not he is thriving in a country that he does not remember. He was deported from this country during a raid that played out like it was a scene from a horror movie. The son “looks and sounds” American which equals rich in the eyes of the people in that small town and puts a target on his back for thieves.  He knows no family there and is scared. He is isolated and alone with no place to truly call home anymore.

This scene isn’t rare. I hear about it more times than I care to share. It’s not always a mother and son. Often it’s a woman with children, left here without their primary breadwinner, missing a husband and father, and left vulnerable in a world of searches, ID checks, and raids on homes.

While we have a great many systems that work and work well in our country, one broken system in particular has captured my heart and attention. The immigration system in our nation, simply put, is broken.  From the number of visas we give out, to the backlog of immigration cases, to the way we incarcerate those who are here without documents in for-profit detention centers, our system is in need of a just, humane overhaul. For United Methodists, the call for overhaul is especially felt. Within our very churches we can tell terrible stories of families that are torn apart. My church’s own sister congregation saw a dramatic loss in congregants when Georgia passed an Arizona-style law that seeks to viciously crack down on those here in this country without proper documentation.

The thing I hear most from people who disagree with me is that they wish the undocumented folks would simply “get in the right line” and follow the law.  I wish (and many of my undocumented friends wish!) that it was that easy. The so-called line does not exist for many who aren’t highly skilled and recruited by companies. Average laborers have short stay visa options and precious few green cards. The wait time for those green cards approaches infinity for unskilled laborers. [Reason Magazine had a great graphic detailing this back in 2008 http://reason.org/files/a87d1550853898a9b306ef458f116079.pdf]. Those here on those visas are easy targets for wage theft and substandard working conditions.

I wish I could tell you the situation has gotten much better since 2008, but it hasn’t. Children are left orphaned in the U.S. as their parents are dramatically taken from them at work or in their home while their children are away at school. Other undocumented children came here so young that they’ve never known another way of life. Many graduate and are then told they aren’t citizens and can’t do anything they would hope to do like college or the military.

I live in Macon, Georgia, which is not exactly the seat of progressive politics or theology, but I am surprised at who and which groups agree with me on this issue. Republicans and Democrats alike see the need for immigration reform. Farmers have need for migrant laborers. Business owners see the number of positions and institutions across our state rely on immigrant labor.  Many see the human rights concerns.

God’s people are crying out. Nobody wants to leave their home and come to a place where they will be treated like enemy combatants. Yet conditions in home countries are so bad that people are willing to risk arrest and deportation for a chance to feed, clothe, and educate themselves and their children – all in the hope that life, can in fact, be better. As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the way we treat those strangers in our midst should NOT be dictated not by the government laws, but by the laws of God. Over and over again in the Old and New Testament we are commanded to take care of those who are a stranger in our midst and especially the widows and orphans among us. We are called to recognize the image of God in our brother and sister and to practice hospitality to strangers. We remember that our very Lord was once an immigrant in a foreign land when his parents fled to Egypt to flee a life of a fear. And we are called to live into the example of Jesus who lived on the edges, traveled more than he stayed put during his three years of ministry, and had a special knack for befriending the “marginal people” of his society. We are called to love and serve all of our neighbors – all of them.

Will you hear the call and ask our legislators for just, humane immigration reform? If politics aren’t for you, will you think about ways you and your congregation can be welcoming to those in our midst? Will you prayerfully and actively seek to find ways to be a place of welcome and love for even the most vulnerable among us? And will you hear the call of God to go out from your buildings, neighborhoods, and places of comfort in order to seek and find and be with the very people on the margins of our society? After all, there’s a good chance Jesus will already be there.

Rev. Stacey Harwell serves as Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, GA
She is an Ordained Deacon in the South Georgia Annual Conference.
[And I am very thankful for her wisdom and proud to call her my friend]

Can Churches Ask Too Much?

stressed family  “Will you be loyal to the church and uphold it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”

These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.

But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?

After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.

Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?

Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people  to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.

But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.

In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.

So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?

I think it could be.

For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?

Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?

Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.

“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”

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