Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, that went well

So last night was the first night of the new contemporary service at church. It sure seems like there is a lot riding on the "success" (whatever that means - how do you measure it?) of this new thing. Before going further, some background info is necessary.

There is a core group of members who are just the salt of the earth, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. They show up and do the hard work that needs to be done. When you talk about the 80/20 rule(80% of the work is done by 20% of the people), they are the 20. But I have noticed that this group of folks has felt for some time, even well before we arrived on the scene last summer, that their church is dying and there's not much they can do about it. And it's basically true. The town is dying - young folks grow up and move to where there is more opportunity. For whatever reason, the town has resisted change for decades. I am not sure how the powers that be in town feel now, but in the past, it seems that growth was not something they wanted. The town is right off the interstate, with no exit for 7 miles in one direction, and no exit for 4 miles in the other. At the town's exit, there is one gas station. In the last couple years, an additional and potentially large development has started, but I'm not sure what the timeline is for it, nor what exactly is going to happen there. I've always wondered why there wasn't something else there like fast food or something - it seems like a no-brainer.

In addition to the problem of the town dying, the church itself has been in a state of decline. There have been a lot of pastors in and out of this place in the last decade, and families with children have found that the rock and roll church nearby is a lot more fun for them. I can't really speak to all the different reasons that folks may have left this place, but the end result is that many of the remaining members feel mostly sadness about their beloved church. In fact, I think it's really sadness mixed with anger. Folks have told me that 10 or 15 years ago, this church was the church in town. That the place was crawling with people and activity. I am sure that some of this may be romanticizing the past a bit, but I believe that it was surely a more vibrant place than it's been lately. It makes me think that something significant may have happened, but we don't know what it was. Enough background - now for the good stuff.

I would guess that Sunday morning worship attendance has been averaging in the 60's since we've been here - even before our bus driver started bringing children (see earlier posts about that). Yesterday morning it was in the low 70's, I think, which is pretty good. Last night? Around 105. The place was crazy crowded with children - but they only accounted for about half the number. The music was upbeat and energetic, and while I missed the message - took all those children outside to the playground after all the singing - I heard that it was well received. What else would I expect from this beautiful, magnificent pastor? The one who woke up yesterday with a stomach bug, by the way? It has been so amazing to see my wife become a pastor with authority. Regardless, as proud as I am of her, and as hard as she has worked, and as good as she is, this is not about her or me or our family. God is moving in this place, and I am glad to be around to see it.

We really couldn't have hoped for a better start to the Sunday night adventure. In coming weeks, we will not be providing food (at least not officially - some of these kids come hungry and we'll probably end up doing something about that), and it's hard to tell how attendance will hold up. But we will also have programming for the kids, led by me(yikes). I'm not sure how that's going to go, but I will do my best. I expect that good things are going to happen regardless of my competence or lack thereof. A wise person once told me that "being present is highly underrated." I suppose that's another version of the Woody Allen quote that goes something like, "95% of life is just showing up." And these kids are so very needy of positive attention from grownups, it will be hard for me to screw it up too badly.

And those 20%, salt of the earth types? I'm not sure I've ever seen so much joy on their faces as I did last night. They needed this. Some of them really wanted it to happen and worked hard on it. Some didn't know if they wanted it and worked hard on it. Some may have opposed it, but they either worked hard on it or at least stayed out of the way. It is good to have a clear mission. It helps distract us from the back-biting and silly bickering about the minutiae of church life and calls us to be the church, the body of Christ. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

how many sides?

I had to move from Panera bread before usual today. A couple men were sitting at the table next to me talking about politics. It was just too distracting, even though these guys were in agreement, not arguing. In the year or so that I've been working from Panera (and the public library, where it's much quieter), I've heard all kinds of discussions. People meet there for casual work discussions, for Bible study, and just to catch up with friends. Different political views are espoused with different levels of grace and intelligence.

I was raised in a Republican home and I would describe my parents as "Gerald Ford Republicans." They don't go foaming at the mouth about social issues and really are mild-mannered people who like a balanced budget. They are far more comfortable with George Will than Sarah Palin. My dad's family was Republican in rural Kentucky, where they were a distinct minority. I remember that my Granny was a Democrat, but Granddaddy was a Republican. My mom's step-dad was very active in the Democratic party, but she converted upon marrying my dad. After college, I switched parties for reasons that I don't have time or energy to explain, at least not in this post. However, it's interesting that I can get swept up in the emotions of party loyalty. I felt loyalty to the Republican party as a teenager, and feel similar loyalty to the Democratic party today. I don't like that about myself. I want to think for myself and come to opinions about issues on a case-by-case basis. Like many well-intentioned people, I try to do that. But a lot of times, we let our loyalties simplify things and we take simple opinions on complex issues. That seems to be what those in power want us to do, even though on many issues, there isn't much difference between the two parties.

Like the weather, everyone complains about the political climate, but noone does anything about it. I'm not sure what can be done, though. I would like to think that I am becoming increasingly a-political in some ways as I mature and move forward - that being in a pastor's family is helping me see all people, regardless of their political persuasion, as love-worthy children of God. Maybe it is. I have many friends who are fiercely loyal to one of the two major American political parties, and I'm sure some who belong to wacky nut-job minority parties. I don't think less of my Republican friends because of their political leanings, but it can get uncomfortable when politics come up. I just try to avoid those conversations. I would like to be able to disagree with people on political issues without feeling anger brewing between us. So that's at least partially my problem. We just seem to take things too personally.

It's been said that one problem is that we're always dividing every issue into two sides. Maybe we could start with the realization that there are almost always more than two sides to most issues. This does not drive ratings on cable news channels, but if everyone would just take a deep breath and be honest with each other, maybe we could find some common ground.

Monday, October 18, 2010

time for an update

It has been too long since the last post. To my imaginary readers, I apologize. If there are any actual readers, I apologize to you too, if you've been wondering what's going on.

Turns out, there's quite a lot going on. School has been back in session for almost two months. This involves lots of driving for us - mainly me - and thus a different work environment. Really, it's kinda nice to have the routine again. Even though working in public places leads to distractions, it's not any worse than being interrupted to referee fights and to try to come up with new ways to fight summer boredom. The first part of summer was fun, but once the summer boredom showed up (camps and trips done, just counting down the days until school started), life became difficult. So now there's a ridiculously busy school routine to follow, but no one is really bored.

At church, new and different things have begun to happen. Shortly after my last post, way back in June, we had our Senior recognition Sunday for high school and college graduates. At churches everywhere, this is one of those days when people who have been inactive for a while will make a point to come back. One of those families with a graduate fits that description, and the dad drives a school bus. He knows the kids on his route very well. Knows their families and their different struggles. It is not a bus route through gated communities with immaculate yards. He picks up at trailer parks and old country houses with no A/C. Families without steady employment. These are not people who typically have insurance cards in their wallets. The parents may not speak English well.

So our bus driver decided that it might be a good idea to invite the kids to come to church. We are now averaging about 20-25 children per week in Sunday School. Earlier this year, we were probably averaging about 5, with 3 of them being the pastor's kids. It has been quite a blessing. I must admit that I was a bit concerned about how all these kids might be accepted by the parishioners. We live in a time when there's a lot of screaming on cable news channels about immigration, and let's face it, the rural South does not have a great reputation for embracing diversity, especially in churches (ironically enough). How would these older folks react to the influx of Latinos and poor white kids from the trailer parks? Silly pastor's husband, they reacted with overwhelmingly open arms! I overheard more than one person comment about how they needed to get the kids' parents to come too. And this is slowly happening. There have been a couple baptisms and new faces showing up at worship. It seems that God is moving here.

On a related front, this is a hugely important week for our church. Instead of fighting the "worship wars" about style ("traditional" vs. contemporary), we are leaving the sacred cow 11:00am worship service as is - traditional - and starting a new contemporary service on Sunday evenings. The focus of this new service is to try to attract (I hate that word in this context) the unchurched (I hate that word in any context). Should I say "reach the lost" instead? Nah, too paternalistic - sounds too much like we are the ones doing the "saving." How about something like, "inviting and welcoming people to come as they are to experience the love of Jesus?" Ack! Whatever, I am excited about the possibilities even if I can't come up with better syntax for it. We want to create a space for folks (like these kids' parents) who might not be comfortable in the traditional worship environment. The music will be very good - our fabulous pastor has called on a contact from one of her div school field ed appointments who has promised to help us for the first six months. He's basically doing it for gas money. And we have had some anonymous donations to fund different aspects of this service - including a BBQ dinner to kick things off. It does seem that God is moving here.

Of course, it's not like everything is perfect - if it were, we wouldn't be talking about the church. There are always concerns and worries about something, but usually it's money. We do tend to hold onto it tightly. Of course, with our economy sputtering along and unemployment stuck at an uncomfortable level, it makes sense to be prudent with our resources. But most of the worry and angst is not about being a good steward - it seems to me to be about control. About not trusting in the abundance of the kingdom of God. This is just my opinion, but I don't think that the worst thing you can do with money is to spend it. Spending foolishly can get you into trouble, but sometimes holding onto it too tightly is the worst thing you can do. I think there are parables from Jesus that make that point.

It's interesting how people can miss the movement of the Holy Spirit when it is right there in front of them. I include myself in the word "people" here, by the way. God help me not to be petty and cheap with my love, with my money, with my time. Let us be bold, let us be thought fools by the world, let us go all in on this mission. Why else are we here?