Are We Paying Enough Attention to Children in the Church?

When my mother saw I was serious about answering a call to the ministry, she gave me only one word of advice. She said, “Don, be sure to pay attention to the children.”

I’m sure she meant: speak to them; inquire of their well-being; make a place for them in the life of the congregation; be sure they are instructed in the basics of the faith — all of which would seem excellent counsel.

My mother’s words were consistent with our Lord’s response when Jesus’ disciples thought him too busy to be bothered with children who were brought to him.

Jesus rebuked his followers, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then gathered the little ones around him and blessed them.

My Mother’s advice was given in the mid-forties of the Twentieth Century and we are now nearly through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. Things have changed in fundamental ways in 70 years!

In the intervening years many subcultures on our continent have rapidly secularized. That is, they no longer have  reverence for an Unseen Presence who rules over all.   Persons who accept this cultural shift seem to be grounding all reality in the present visible world only.

Still, I would say that my Mother’s few words two generations ago and our Lord’s attitude toward children remain the pattern for us today.

And based upon my years in ministry, I offer two of many possible concrete suggestions about the children among us in these secular times.

First, a congregation should take a hard look periodically at whether the Bible is being presented to children from their early years onward. Is it foundational to all family activities and church ministries?

That is, is the Bible being read daily in Christian homes, connecting church and home in religious practice? Are children learning the Bible’s timeless stories and their lessons — like the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and especially the stories of Jesus, and his words and miracles?

Against the apparent increase of “sophisticated” and widespread antagonism to the Christian faith, the Bible is the first line of defense as well as our guidebook, and our children need to be more rooted than ever in the Sacred Scriptures.

My second suggestion deals with the increasingly aggressive secularization of sex education in public schools, countering, even scorning, Christian teaching.

Affirmation of sexual practices contrary to both nature and Christian moral teaching is being taught more aggressively and explicitly in public schools.  For example, it’s reported that in some places sexual practices that are neither normal nor healthy are being presented with approval and even encouraged in the teaching of young children.

At the time of writing concerned parents in Canada, the United States and Australia are being called upon to treat April 23 as a “day out.” On that day children are to be kept home from their schools in protest.

Do our Lord’s words pertain in this? Bringing the little ones to Jesus must also include protecting them insofar as possible from instruction that would counter our Lord’s teaching and the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is now many years since I served as a pastor over a congregation. In reflection I’m sure my mother’s advice affected my thinking to the benefit of my congregations and their children.

If I were returned to the assignment of pastoring a church, I would be even more committed to heed my Mother’s advice to pay attention to the children and their need for both teaching and protection.

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Photo credit: Philippe Put (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Mending Fences

In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.

Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.

But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.

During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.

Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.

Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.

First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.

Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.

Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.

Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.

Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.

Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.

Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)

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What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Administer (Part Three)

8276676055_a1758f96c5_mWe don’t usually think of the clergy as administrators. That activity, we say, is for professions such as school principals, head nurses and shop foremen. The basic tasks of ministers are preaching and teaching the Scriptures, counseling, visiting those in need, and sharing the Gospel.

True, but even so, ministers know that administration undergirds their activity for the Lord.  Every church is a body of believers who will flourish in a context of organization and order.

Churches are complex organizations. Multiple programs may be carried out in the same building; membership is voluntary; programs are carried out by volunteers; difficult members must be respected; real ministers don’t have firing rights; and in all of this a minister must have his or her hands on the tiller.

In a small church, a pastor may be closely involved with administrative details such as who will unlock the doors, clean the church, and manage the lights during worship. In larger churches, the pastor may administer such details through a staff of co-workers for the Gospel.

Where does a minister begin to give serious input into the actual functioning of a church? If the church’s annual business meeting is in June, in my opinion, the minister’s first and best opportunity to affect the organization of a church administratively begins in the spring of the year.

At this June meeting the congregation votes to fill lay positions for the new church year. To prepare for the annual meeting, a nominating committee is in place and active by the month of March, and is composed of four or more respected members plus the minister.

With the list of all church positions before them, the committee begins to consider prayerfully who should be nominated to continue their position, who nominated to another position, and what fresh talent should be incorporated into the nominations. This is a delicate but rewarding task that should deepen relationships and trust in leadership.

At the close of each nominating committee meeting, names of potential nominees should be assigned to different members of the committee. Each committee member makes contacts with the potential nominees, in order to describe the position and seek agreement to stand for possible election to that role. The minister may take one or two names to contact–persons proposed for the most significant offices. By the time of the annual meeting in June all nominations are settled, ballots prepared, and the election proceeds.

When this work is completed thoroughly ministers will be freer in the fall to preach and teach, call on new contacts, and give spiritual counsel. When it is not done thoroughly they will discover they must spend time solving administrative problems that should have been cared for by the process just outlined.

Even when freed up to serve the congregation in this way, ministers demonstrate their administrative abilities most clearly by their conduct of public worship. There’s something about a well-ordered worship service that calms the human spirit and engenders harmony, thereby enhancing the worship of God. The preparation of the sermon; choice of what to sing, selection of Scripture readings, preparation to lead in a pastoral prayer, and even the presentation of announcements and offerings — all can be executed either so as to add to or detract from the sacredness of the moment.

When administrative tasks are shared by the congregation, under skillful leadership, the church is likely to reflect the holiness of God to the community. It is not just God’s children who are holy; the enterprise as a whole through all of its programs, and its times of worship can also reflect a “holy glow.”

Under a minister’s good administration and through well-chosen committees the building is kept clean and tidy; bathrooms are always fresh and presentable; closets are free of clutter; parking lots are in good repair; the kitchen is spotless; and into this setting ushers welcome worshipers in the name of the Lord. This context gives the serious minister and his or her congregation a set-apart and holy meeting place for members and visitors.

Such a church has reason to expect fruitful ministry, growth in faith and maturity, and often an increase in numbers by a Spirit-led ingathering of souls.

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Photo credit: Caroline (via flickr.com)

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Preach and Teach (Part Two)

William Hatherell; John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross, 1909

During 19 years as bishop in my denomination I listened at times to lay committees ponder the qualifications of a pastor being considered for appointment. One question was sure to surface from the laity with urgency: “Can this person preach?”

This question is particularly urgent now that a pastor’s neglect of this task can be concealed by the availability of “quickie” sermons from the internet. Real preaching takes more than that.

Preaching is rooted in the history of Christendom. It reflects, for one thing, the widespread influence of the Reformation – that mighty movement of the Spirit to renew Christendom in 16th century Europe.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others came alive to the deeper truths of the Bible. As a result, biblical preaching was revived as God’s primary way of shining the light of the Gospel on his fallen creation and particularly on our human depravity. We can be saved! And begin to be ‘repaired!’

Later, the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century engendered the same high regard for preaching. John Wesley, a Spirit-appointed leader of that renewal, had much to say to his growing ranks of preachers.

For example, he gave them 12 rules to follow as Methodist preachers. The twelfth included this instruction: “It is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting from house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.”

They were to take the task of preaching seriously and also allow adequate time for reading, meditation, and prayer to inform and energize their efforts.

However, the often-asked question, “Can this person preach?” has deeper roots than either the Reformation or the Methodist revival. Long before and standing above these movements, the New Testament is rich in language that reflects the centrality of proclamation and teaching in the life of the church everywhere.

The most common word in the New Testament for preaching — used more than sixty times as a verb — means “to herald.” A herald is a servant to whom a ruler entrusts his message, expecting it to be delivered clearly and with authority, regardless of the cost.

A second New Testament word applied to preaching is translated as “to evangelize.” We know well that the word means “to broadcast good news.” Sermons, whatever the issue, should have some element of this in them.

These two words do not exhaust the vocabulary for preaching in the New Testament. The idea of teaching occurs, too, and these three elements — preaching, proclaiming, teaching — require that careful thought, serious preparation, and spiritual energy be invested into each effort.

In order to bring the three elements forward faithfully and with effect two pastoral habits are necessary. The first is good Bible study habits — the techniques and resources for exploring deeply what is in the passage upon which the sermon is based. The second discipline is to set aside and actually use significant time in study, prayer, and preparation at least five mornings a week.

And of course the congregation also has a role: to be committed to support the serious minister’s efforts with prayer, deep listening, and occasional encouragement for the pastor’s commitment to faithfulness in preaching.

To be a servant of the Word of God in the pulpit is a demanding assignment in these times of many distractions. But fulfilling the task enabled by the Holy Spirit and His work in the minds and hearts of hearers brings its rewards for the souls of both pastor and people — now and in eternity.

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Photo credit: John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: Pastoral Care (Part One)

handshakeOur son, Robert, converses every now and then with a Lutheran minister. This man has agreed to come out of retirement several times to serve one congregation after another until the congregation’s officers find a long-term minister.

Recently, he reported to Robert that during one congregational interview a woman on the committee asked, “Do you visit in homes?” He replied without hesitation, “Oh my! That goes without saying.”

He then explained to Robert that through the years his custom had been to tell each congregation that if anyone had a neighbor or knew of someone in need or in the hospital who had no pastor, he would make a pastoral visit. To him, this kind of home or hospital visitation was an important aspect of pastoral care.

Pastoral visits, in some places, may have been taken from the pastoral agenda or at least dropped to a low priority. I heard of a young pastor who declared to a friend, “I don’t do hospital calls.”

I am sure the retired minister, along with a host of other pastors in chorus, would say “What a missed opportunity!” Such personal visits (at a home, in hospital, or in the pastor’s study) often open an opportunity to understand heart issues and present Christian counsel. They also allow pastors to minister to shut-ins, to families in distress, to newcomers to the congregation, and to parishioners who appear to be dropping away from congregational life.

Pastoral visits have a deep social dimension. They include conversations about troubling or unresolved moral, relational, and faith issues. Their ultimate purpose is to apply some aspect of the Gospel to the soul. Thus, after a pleasant conversation, the pastor may ask a question about spiritual matters or may read a brief scripture and offer prayer. When such ministry is maintained the results are placed by faith in God’s hands, and when fruit appears, pastors give thanks to God for his goodness.

One Sunday evening in the church I served in Western Canada I noticed a young man in the congregation I had never seen before. After service I spoke to him briefly. The ushers had obtained his address in the visitor’s book. A couple of nights later I went to his apartment. I learned that he was a 19-year-old German immigrant to Canada named Gunter whose loneliness had prompted his visit to the church.

My apartment visit and the warmth of the people of the congregation drew him back. Several Sundays later in an evening service Gunter came to kneel at the altar to give his heart to the Lord. When we stood around him afterwards we asked if he would like to say something. He said only, “I feel much more better.”

He was a quick learner and soon mastered English. In time he attended Seattle Pacific University, trained for the ministry, graduated, married, was ordained, and served as an effective pastor until a rare disease took his life regrettably. I will never forget that pastoral visit with my friend, Gunter, in his apartment.

I could draw up a list of memorable pastoral visits. Some, like this one, added tangibly to God’s Kingdom. For others, I have no follow-up. Many visits are cause for rejoicing. At the same time, there are memories of pastoral failures too — missed opportunities, ineffective approaches, broken connections. In our humanness we pastors on occasion come short and must commit our disappointments to the Lord and his mercy.

But, oh how precious the memories of heart-to-heart conversations in a home or pastor’s study concerning the deepest issues of life. And how enriching the knowledge that the good fruit of those visits still flourishes decades later. And how comforting the thought as well, that the results are the Lord’s and his Spirit is still working in the lives of those visited decades ago.

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Photo credit: Sam Butler (via flickr.com)

Re-post: About Weddings and Such

Photo credit: Oh mon héros ! [Kenya express) via flicker.comI got a note yesterday from a longstanding friend in a midwestern city to remind me that 40 years ago this month she, her groom, and I stood at the altar in the Greenville church where I administered their wedding vows. The bride’s father, an ordained minister, assisted. Her note was warm to both Kathleen and me, with other comments about that special day and our visits together that led up to it, and how much it had meant to them across four decades. Ministerial moments like that create a bond for a lifetime.

It so happened that about one month earlier Kathleen and I had shared a celebratory mail with a couple here in Ontario, for the same purpose. In a restaurant overlooking beautiful West Lake, we remembered that I had led them in exchanging their vows in New Westminster, B. C. 50 years earlier that very month. In the glow of the late afternoon sun we had reviewed our memories of the wedding and certain features attending the event. Those memories too are precious.

In a sense, each wedding was a one-of-a-kind event, never to be duplicated. Each was planned by the bride and her mother. (Grooms often show little interest in the details of the wedding itself; they just want to get through it.) In another sense, both weddings were the same in that, from a Christian perspective, all weddings are the same. That is, they all celebrate the wedding couple’s entrance into the “institution of marriage.” We Christians believe that God himself set the standards for marriage when he brought Eve to Adam with the intent that “they too shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24b). That truth is declared at every Christian wedding.

Across our 67 years of ministry there have been many weddings, some private, some public, some joyful, some vaguely sad, some lavish some simple but beautiful. There was the wedding of the bride who had been abandoned by her father in her early childhood, and whom she had never seen again — until he turned up unexpectedly on the morning of her wedding. This brought on a paroxysm of tears, a panic, and, for her, it took the bloom from the day. Once, a couple came to my study to tell me that they had divorced four years earlier prompted by a foolish fight that got out of hand. Over time and with the cooling of their pride they had realized what a mistake they had made. A week later I took them into the Luzader Chapel along with their children to be the first couple married in that facility. It was a tender moment of reconciliation.

Kathleen served as the wedding hostess at our weddings, coaching the bride and bridle party, and thus relieving their stress, and endearing herself again and again to the brides’ mothers. This was one of the most pleasant of pastoral duties for which we teamed together. Her services certainly made my part of the task easier. And by our generous services we signalled to the families that this event was very important to us – not just something ministers do on Saturdays.

I could not have foreseen all this as a challenging and enjoyable part of the work when as a 16-year-old boy I made my first affirmative responses to a call to the ministry. Nor could I have grasped the broad assignment of Christian ministry and the breadth of its challenges. Kathleen couldn’t have either when she consented to marry me. But recalling it now reminds us of what some young people will miss if they disregard or resist the call God places on their hearts to enter pastoral life in the service of the Master. It’s not just wedding and such, it’s entering deeply into people’s lives at their big transitional moments in life. What a rich blessing. Recalling it fills us with thankfulness to the Lord for the trust.

See my piece on how to conduct a wedding here: http://pclm.freemethodistchurch.org/

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Re-post: What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)