Is Regular Church Attendance Good for My Health?

An article on the internet this week makes reference to “hundreds if not thousands” of studies that have been done to explore connections between church attendance and health and longevity.

The findings are positive. For example, one study indicated that people who attend church regularly show lower stress in their lives and tend to live longer.

From infancy onward I was in church twice on Sunday with parents and sister. At 16 years of age, I tried to win freedom to make up my own mind about church attendance but my disciplinarian mother insisted that attending church was non-negotiable as long as I was at home.

Even after leaving home to work in another community I continued the practice into my late teens and young adulthood and then, of course, also during my years as a pastor and overseer. Throughout these years, gathering with God’s people on Sundays has been a joy.

Seven months ago, at age 91, I found myself in the hospital diagnosed with a smouldering form of leukemia. It took a few months to get back on my feet, and two setbacks interrupted my regular church attendance.

In those months I missed more Sundays than I attended. But the love to meet with God’s people in the worship of God in Christ remains unabated.

Last week, and again this week, we have reinstated our regular attendance. When our pastor begins the service with, “Let us stand for the call to worship,” I hear that call with greater intensity. I hear it as a summons to believers of diverse backgrounds, occupations, ages and ethnicities, to worship the Almighty — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as one people.

We sang hymns and spiritual songs with fresh awareness. The prayers of the people were led by a layperson. Announcements were made to bring the congregation up to date on activities and interests; the children sang for us jubilantly; we presented our offerings, and the pastor gave a message from God on the power of Pentecost.

She had obviously spent significant time preparing it. As a pastor I had prepared fresh Sunday morning messages for many years. I knew the cost of preparation. I knew of the pastoral heart behind it. Her message was biblical. It was Christ-honoring.

There was something in it for me and I assume for others who had come to the gathering with their joys, perplexities or even sorrows. Anyone present who needed salvation would sense the call of the Spirit.

By the time the service was over, I felt in fresh touch with God my Creator and Sustainer of 91 years. The service was dismissed and there were handshakes and hugs. Worshipers showed evidence of joy as they dispersed.

Was this all really health-giving for me? For others in attendance? It appears that statisticians would say yes, and I would agree drawing on my own experience.

Jesus spoke to all people of all ages when he said, “For where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). How inviting! How could public worship weekly giving thanks to God and shared with a company of his followers mean anything but health to both body and soul?

Photo credit: John Twohig (via flickr.com)

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In Secular Times Can Weddings Be Clearly Christian?

In one sense we can call any wedding “Christian” if it is conducted in a Christian church or guided by Christian ritual: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the other hand, it could be argued that a fully Christian wedding requires that the bride and groom be confessing Christians and the event be witnessed by at least a few believers.

Since the Enlightenment, which began in late 17th or early 18th century, the secular has been invading the precincts of the sacred, creating conflict.

I have seen this trend even in the short span, relatively speaking, of my 91 years. Early in my pastoral work, young people raised in evangelical churches tended to be sympathetic to the idea that their weddings be “Christ-honoring,” and were usually open to help in having their understanding deepened as to what this meant.

However, as the years passed, the desire to honor Christ as a primary focus seemed to fade somewhat for some young people who had grown up in a Christian congregation and sung its choruses and hymns and heard Scripture read. Standards were loosening and thoroughly Christian rituals were not always wanted.

I was on occasion asked to incorporate a song into a wedding that was itself sentimental but had no trace of Christian thought — a song perhaps more suited to the reception to follow. I was on occasion presented with a proposed wedding ritual written by bride or groom, and lacking the theological grasp required for a Christian wedding.

For purposes of guidance, the central feature of a Christian wedding should be its ritual, not its decor or its symbols, though the latter can assist in creating atmosphere. As I see it now, a couple contemplating marriage might benefit by being asked to read the proposed ritual for the service several times before becoming immersed in the complex planning of the event.

Why not sharpen the meaning of the upcoming wedding with such questions as: What does the ritual say about the origin of marriage? What is the extent of the vows it sets forth? What does it say about the irreversibility of our vows? A Christian wedding is not only a “rite of passage;” it is also a distinctly Christian event.

The purpose and content of the reception that follows the wedding are different. But a reception should also be Christ honoring — a time for rejoicing, for sharing good stories about the wedding couple, for speeches that elevate, for words of welcome or words of thanks from family to family, or music to add to the festive spirit. It is an event at which Christ is to be equally present and in that atmosphere family bondings can be strengthened. If the tone is not set in advance, a Christian reception can sometimes be diminished by off-color humor, or even drunkenness.

During increasingly secular times such as ours it is good to be a part of a congregation, whether large or small, that not only sounds the gospel clearly from its pulpit but also whose church board takes the trouble to spell out the implications of that gospel for the weddings it hosts.

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Photo credit: Ian D. Keating (via flickr.com)

What to Do When A Little Boy Cries for Justice

Imagine two brothers, ages four and six. Their Uncle Carl gives them a small bag of candies of all shapes and sizes.

They run excitedly to their mother. They know they can trust her to divide the candy equally between them.

Each child mounts a chair on either side of her as she empties the bag on the kitchen table. When the content of the bag is divided she slides each portion toward one of the boys.

Suddenly there is a mighty yelp from the four-year-old. “That’s not fair!” he cries, pointing out that the older brother appears to have more big pieces.

The pleasure of sharing the candy disappears. Claims and counterclaims take over. Tears flow. So the mother patiently goes through the process again.

Where would a four-year-old boy come onto “fairness” language? And why does the mother take such care in being fair to both children? Christians would say it all derives from the image of God borne by both mother and children.

That is, Christians believe fairness is intrinsic to the nature of God and because we are made in his image, a basic grasp of fairness is inborn in humans. At our best we can see when wrong has been done, and want it to be corrected.

Of course, our human sense of fairness does not always function well because of the Fall. Selfishness or bias can distort.

We call the administration of fairness by the more formal word, justice. That is what the mother of the two boys was attempting. Whether consciously or not, she was honoring God himself in this apparently minor human transaction.

The Christian family should strive to model fairness not only between children but also between parents and children as well as between parents themselves. Parents need to remember that they are not always right even though they are always parents.

When our two boys were about 14 and 16 I corrected them pointedly for what I thought was an offense. The 14 year old spoke up strongly, “Dad that’s just not fair.” I sat down alone to reflect. I came to see that he was right, so I called the boys together and apologized for my error.

Commitment to fairness should be evident in the church too, whether in a local congregation or a denomination with stations in many countries.

Blessed is that body of Christ which not only preaches love and grace to its people but also strives in all the conduct of its business from local to international, to administer justice in plain view.

When Uncle Carl gave two little nephews a bag of mixed candies he didn’t know that the issue of justice would come to the fore and that an explosion might occur over the issue of fair play.

But fortunately the boys had a mother who knew about the need to promote fairness by practicing it early in the boys’ lives — with patience and understanding. In the name of Jesus and as a witness to the world, may that sense be evident, too, in the church!

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Photo credit: andrea (via flickr.com)

Re-post: 10 Tips for Young Pastors

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.

 

Photo Credit: Outside the camp (via flicker.com)

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There’s More to Church Than Just Attending

My father was not a converted man when my younger sister and I were growing up, but even so he attended church with the family Sunday morning and night without fail. I’m sure he believed in what the church stood for and felt the value of attending — at least for the children’s sake.

I will never know fully what his decision to attend contributed to my own life’s decisions. Neither of my Sunday School buddies, Fred and Howard, had fathers who ever turned up at church and both of them fell away from any church connections when they were 15 or so. Fred died of a heart attack when he was 31 and Howard had a checkered life and he, too, has been gone for many years.

As valuable as mere church attendance might be for either believers or unbelievers, it is far from the whole story when it comes to the Biblical understanding of church.

“Church” in the New Testament does not refer to a building or auditorium. The simplest translation for the word in English is “assembly.” Literally the word means “the called out” or the people of God whom he calls to assemble together. It means a gathering of believers — the “set-apart-ones.”

The Apostle Paul enhances our understanding of church when he further represents it as a body – a vital organism (1 Cor.12:12-27). This analogy indicates the living nature of the church. And just as a body has arms and legs, eyes and ears, internal organs, etc., all of which are subject to a common control center — the mind — so the church has living members who exercise special gifts in and through the assembly under the direction of the supreme head, Jesus Christ. These members thus contribute in an orderly way to the church’s communal life.

The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 has much to say about exercising these gifts to give the whole body order and usefulness.

And to the church in Rome he wrote, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (Rom. 12: 6-8).

The gifts God gives to the members of his church are varied for a good reason – they are to enhance the health and witness of the whole body. But the one gift, fundamental to all else, is the gift of God’s Spirit. He awakens us with the life of God (Eph. 2:4-5). That is called the new birth. And then he “gifts” us to serve in and through the workings of Christ’s body (Acts 1:4).

From these passages it is clear especially for Christians that the central idea is to participate as a living member, and to contribute to worship and ministry!

You might wonder what became of my father’s church involvement after my sister and I left home. He responded to the gospel at age 61.

He had “attended” church for nearly all his adult life but now he had become a “living part” of the church — a member of Christ’s body. He went suddenly to be with the Lord when he was 83, leaving that comforting witness behind him.

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Why We Attend Church

From infancy onward, my younger sister, Eunice, and I were taken to church. When I was 16 I made a weak effort to declare that I was now old enough to choose when I would and would not attend. It was a trial balloon and my little English mother quickly punctured it. She put one finger on the dinner table and said, “Young man, so long as your feet are under this table you’ll go to church when church is on.”

Later, when Kathleen and I were first married we lived across the Queen Elizabeth Way from Lorne Park College, west of Toronto. On Sundays, whenever we were not away singing or preaching somewhere, we walked the long gravel lane to the main building morning and evening to join faculty and students in Christian worship. On Wednesday nights we made the same trek to attend vespers.

You might conclude that after our 64 years together we now attend church without thought and by sheer habit, and there’s some truth to that. But we have additional reasons.

We attend church because we are Christians and the Christian Scriptures compel us to do so. Look at the Old Testament sequence in developing Sabbath worship. There was the weekly Sabbath in commemoration of creation (Ex. 20: 8-11) and a reminder of the people’s release from captivity (Deut. 5: 12-15). There were also the special occasions when throngs gathered in Jerusalem to worship in remembrance of certain great events of Israel’s history — Passover, for example.

Much later the dispersed Jews built synagogues where they could meet on the Sabbath and listen to the reading of the Law. It was a weekly practice and Isaiah had even declared earlier that the keeping of the Sabbath gave assurance that God would give his people a special blessing (Isa. 58: 13,14).

On the evening of the day of our Lord’s resurrection, the disciples gathered for what became the first Lord’s Day celebration. (Lk.24:18-36). But as a second generation of believers came along, the commitment to attend worship to some seemed less important. So believers were exhorted: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching” (Heb. 10:27).

Another compelling reason why we maintain the church-going habit is that the Bible exhorts that when his people assemble the Scriptures are to be expounded for their profit (1 Tim. 4:13). Some assert that we could read them for ourselves or hear their exposition by means of television or recordings. But there’s something about being in the company of God’s people for this exercise that can’t be matched. We share a common agreement and respond with a common “Amen.”

We also experience that attending church each Lord’s Day gives a divine order to life and this plays back on the way the whole week is lived. Turning up to worship is like resetting life’s priorities or getting one’s marching orders. That may be one reason why the Psalmist said, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1).

Finally, we attend church because in doing so we join forces with a company of God’s people who are committed to certain ministries in community and beyond. In doing so we help to keep a Christian witness alive. For examples, we support pastoral ministries to the bereaved, the hospitalized, the shut-ins, parents of the new-born. We are instructed on how moral issues in society should engage us. We support gospel, educational, and medical ministries for the needs of people in other lands. Local churches are often the unsung heroes of the Christian mandate to go into all the world with the gospel.

What goes on in church, we admit, can become hum drum or lacking in the excitement of faith. But, as Carl Bangs once said, “So long as the Bible continues to be read in church, there is hope.”

So, as we were taught in early childhood that attending church regularly is crucially important for Christians, so now we pass on that counsel to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We say: Know the Lord; experience him in a personal way; then find a church where you can be loyal and make regular attendance and participation a key feature of your lives.

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Ushers Are Ministers Too

I once served a church nearly 50 years ago where I had the privilege of training a newly-chosen corps of ushers. For Howard, the recently-elected head usher, I drew up a sheet of instructions and expectations. The entire group of us then met in the sanctuary on a Sunday afternoon to acquaint ourselves with the plans and to rehearse.

There was enthusiasm and camaraderie. It made these men feel like what they were called upon to do was important. The following Saturday, the day before our Sunday launch, Howard hosted a steak dinner at the nearby lake for fellowship and final instructions.

The instructions included such expectations as that ushers arrive 30 minutes early, dress uniformly in suit and tie for morning service, and for the evening, in jacket and matched pants; that they refrain from such distractions while on duty as socializing with other ushers as the large congregation gathered; that they remain on duty until the congregation had dispersed; be prepared for any emergency (with details given); and notify their team leader if they were unable to serve on any particular Sunday.

As I recall, the men were divided into two teams. To serve the large sanctuary required 12 ushers, three for each side aisle and six for the center aisle. If the balcony was to be in use, that would require an extra two ushers. There were also back-up personnel to be called upon whenever needed.

I had asked ushers to face forward as they passed the offering plates rather than appearing to peer down the row as offerings were given. My rationale was that this was to be a moment between each worshiper and God.

Meanwhile, in teaching moments I taught the congregation that the time for the reception of offerings in a service was not an intermission from worship while mundane things were cared for. Instead, the offering was itself a moment of worship. And I had made the point that in that moment of worship the ushers were not “taking up collections;” rather, they were “receiving offerings.”

Because I sat near the pulpit while the ushers received the offerings I could see this team of men at work each Sunday as they seated late-comers and later received tithes and offerings. Each usher was a committed believer, respected by the congregation. They went at their assignment with conviction. I am warmed as I recall it.

During the early days of this new regimen, I was counseling with a young man who came to see me because he was distressed over his increasing doubt and fading interest in following Christ. I recall his saying several times in our visits, “I just don’t care.” He made it clear that he was contemplating abandoning the church and its faith because of his inner conflict.

As I recall, it was during his third visit on a Monday that he told me what was keeping him from following his impulses. He said, “I look at those men who take the offering and carry it forward to the communion table and I say to myself, ‘These men are not dumb. They’re intelligent, committed, and they have a real faith.’”

Just seeing them at worship in that way had arrested him momentarily. For him, it was not the moment of an instant returning. The Lord was dealing with him about issues at deeper levels. Nevertheless, he had used a corps of faithful, believing ushers to get the young man’s attention while he dealt with him.

So you see why I say that ushers, when they serve well, are ministers too.

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