Sharing the Piece of Christ

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gretchen Sausville

“It’s all about the bread!” – Jack, age 14

“No, it’s all about the brownies!” – Kim, age 14

“If brownies were around in Jesus time, he would have been breaking and sharing them!” – Maisie – 15

“Why do we need bread, when we have a bowl of brownies right here, and hot cocoa over there… this is our understanding of communion!”  – Tim age 16.

2015 communionI was 7 years into my call, and my Princeton trained ears perked up. I began reconciling the teachings of my beloved professors and the interpretation of communion through teenagers eyes. I had been classically trained in the formalities of the bread and cup, using the elements that were local to the community gathered. I was also taught that that pop and popcorn does not a Lord’s Supper make, but had anyone ever really considered brownies? Luckily for my purposes I had received session approval for this “communion meal.” I left it to the youth of my church to plan worship using their own interpretation of traditional practices, as I have always done with youth retreats. After all, communion led by youth on a retreat is not really communion, right?

The next day they were pleased with their worship service, which embraced music, scripture, sermon, prayers, and the most important piece in their eyes, brownie communion! They had spent the better half of a day planning it, and it was a perfect 30 minutes. Then Maisie said, “It’s not like they would actually let us do any of this in church, like church church. 8:30 maybe, but definitely not 10:30!”

My heart sank! These young adults had just created and led worship, using all the same pieces they see in the sanctuary on Sunday, but felt their expression of theology would not be accepted or permitted by the congregation they were exploring membership in. This is when I challenged them. If they could tell me what they wanted in worship on a given Sunday and the theology behind why they would do it differently, then they could speak knowledgeably and confidently to to session about the possibility of brownies for communion.

Soon, their fears were replaced with smiles, and I had an arsenal of information to take to session of worship and music committee. Six weeks later, after they were confirmed, we passed the “piece of Christ” in response to the rite of Confirmation. The confirmands came to the communion table and took the over flowing plates of brownies they had made and passed them out to the congregation in worship, as an act of worship. It was sweet and spirited, and enjoyed by all. There were no complaints to be had, only requests from the octogenarians to do that more often!

The brownies on Pentecost four years ago led to a shift in how we welcome not only young ones, but everyone into the worship life of the church. The brownies on Sunday lead to “Hearty Feasts” being prepared for certain communion Sundays. A hearty feast table is filled with fruits and nuts, honey and olives, sweet and savory breads, including brownies, and drinks of all kinds. At the table generations mingle together, speaking and sharing and eating the sweet and savory pieces of life.

We have moved our Fat Tuesday pancakes to Ash Wednesday so that we may break bread together and share communion around tables as an act of worship. Maundy Thursday has become a service of communion at one continuous triclinium table. It is not a seder, but a simple service, around a simple meal rooted in sacrament and scripture. Liturgy is said, prayers are prayed, bellies are filled, and God is glorified.

We still hold the traditions of generations passed and generations present together. We have also found balance, giving ears and voice to the younger generations, the reformers of the future. The shift has brought forth new language in the liturgies of baptism, communion, and confirmation based on our congregation’s understanding of ancient words for a modern day. A thesaurus has become a welcomed and well used addition to my book shelf.

Worship has the power to unite us, and when we focus on the community, the communion with one another and God comes naturally. Jesus had bread and wine, we do too.  We also have brownies and hot cocoa; pancakes and orange juice; and challah and merlot. The same God is glorified through all.


gretchen sausvilleGretchen N. Sausville serves as Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, CT.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she is passionate about preaching and creative worship, helping people think about faith outside the box, and developing interfaith conversations and partnerships between Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  When not at work she is often performing on stage, traveling abroad with her backpack, cooking, or practicing yoga. Gretchen lives in West Hartford with her puppy, Beaken, and blogs at thestandbyetraveler.com.

Fellowship and Worship as Messy Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Suzie Gerrard Fletcher

Five years ago, I moved to a rural charge with three United congregations in the Church of Scotland.  The Sunday School as was had ceased to function during the vacancy, and soon after I arrived, it was decided we would try and do something completely different: Messy Church. An interested group of folk gathered for a training course and three months later held our first Messy Church. It is a great opportunity for people of all ages to worship together, and to create a sense of belonging. Broadly based around fellowship, it is both a fun and creative way to introduce people to Jesus through hospitality, friendship, stories and worship. And, to share together in a meal, which for many families and churches, is a rare occasion in this day and age.

Messy Church is its original form is a fresh expression of church that began in a Anglican church in Portsmouth as a way of being church for people who don’t do traditional church, for whatever reason. It is a church of all ages… and lots of churches have picked up on the idea and been able to adapt it for their own situations, both in the UK and overseas. It has grown and estimates are that well over 500,000 people belong to Messy Church, and that number is growing all the time. A typical session includes an introduction, crafts, a celebration (worship) and a hot meal.

In our situation, we have a craft leader and worship leader (myself), and should have had a catering team. We generally meet on the same Sunday from 4-6pm in the afternoon every month (some do it on a weekday or Saturday). There’s a brief introduction to the theme as folk are gathering and then everyone is let loose to go and explore eight different activities which help to tell the story in different ways. The emphasis is on crafts, being sure there is something for all ages and genders, and the adults come alongside and take part whilst lending a hand to younger children. We have a person at each table (ages ranging from teenagers to the elderly) to help explain how their activities relate to the story.

After about an hour, we call everyone to the front of the hall, as our hall is separate to the Church itself, and have a time of singing songs, telling the Bible story in a creative way, a participatory prayer and Messy Grace (blessing done in a circle), before we line up to share in a meal which we serve around one large circle of tables because our numbers allow for that.  The materials used are very helpful in organising each session.  

About half of those who come have/had some loose connection to church, whilst the other half have not. For most of these families, Messy Church is church and apart from special services, they do attend on Sunday morning, and after education of the elders aren’t expected to.  This sort of fellowship is new and different more many in the UK, and it is wonderful to see God at work in generations of people who might otherwise have never known much of the faith.

Messy Church is enabled, resourced and supported by BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship), a registered charity, as one of its core ministries.


suzie fletcherSuzie Garrard Fletcher is a parish minister in the Church of Scotland, where she serves a united charge of three small rural congregations. She graduated from Presbyterian College in 1996 and has a dual degree (M Div and MA in Christian Education) from Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, as was, and went to Scotland for a year, but she and her husband loved it so much she applied for admission to the Church of Scotland and has been working in Scotland since her ordination in 2001. They have three small children, with another on the way, and enjoy family life in a small village on the North Sea, with the convenience of the beautiful historic and cultural city of Edinburgh, just forty miles away.

And A Child Shall Lead Them

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gretchen Sausville

Her name is Lily. She is a bright eyed, fair haired ten year old who began worshipping with us 6 years ago. When Lily and her parents first came to Westminster, we knew that this was not an average four year old. Lily was unafraid and outgoing in church, completely comfortable with her surroundings, endearing herself to everyone in the church family. She boldly spoke during time for children, enthusiastically sang hymns, chatted about the sermon to her parents during worship, and was less than thrilled to miss any part of the Sunday morning festivities.  Lily brought her parents to all church events, and knew everyone’s name in the congregation by the time she was five. If she didn’t know your name, she made sure that you knew hers!

child reading bible smallAs Lily grows, so does her faith and presence. Lately, she plays the Steinway piano in the sanctuary as folks traipse out into the hall for coffee hour, as her younger friends run through the sanctuary. She is the first to raise her hand when questions are asked, the first to draw a picture for the worship bulletin, the first to help the now 4 year olds navigate worship stations or “the good stuff” at coffee hour. She prays boldly for friends and pets and gives sermon feedback regularly. Not every child is like Lily, yet Lily has encouraged every child to be themselves at church. She has inspired a younger generation to be known, to be proud, and to be kids in church. In so doing, Lily has inspired the older generations too, reminding them that church is where every age and stage are welcome. She has chosen church members as her “grandparents for the day” at school, and calls up Granny Annie, who lives across the street, to take her to worship when her parents are unable. Lily loves church and the church loves Lily.

Recently, I received a call on a Friday evening, that Lily was in the hospital, the fever had come on quickly and she was very sick. As Lily sat in the hospital that night, her body fighting infection and fever, she prayed boldly, and she requested her parents call the pastors and Granny Annie. Little did she know, they already had, and prayers for this little one where being shared and lifted up amidst the congregation. Lily’s prognosis was pneumonia and several more days in the hospital. When her fever broke, Granny Annie and I went to Children’s Hospital to see her.  We had to wear gowns, masks, and gloves, a sight that made Lily laugh. As I prayed, she prayed too, clutching the hand of one of her favorite church people, Granny Annie. There in a tiny hospital room, the generations of the faithful were gathered, led by a child’s faith.

On Sunday, Lily’s absence was palatable. Her many adoptive grandparents were concerned and asking what kind of cookies to make her, her teachers planned their visits, and Lily sent a text stating how sad she was to be missing church! Later that evening, the call came that Lily was home, she had taken a turn for the better, and the only thing her parents could attribute it to, was the prayers of the church community.

Lily is special to our church family, as are all of our young ones. The young ones remind us how to be children of God and lose ourselves fully into God’s love and community. They remind us how to reach out to one another, unafraid to share our hurts, our fears, and our joys, as an act of worship. They remind us of our need for a church family and that donuts are always good at coffee hour!


gretchen sausvilleGretchen N. Sausville serves as Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, CT.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she is passionate about preaching and creative worship, helping people think about faith outside the box, and developing interfaith conversations and partnerships between Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  When not at work she is often performing on stage, traveling abroad with her backpack, cooking, or practicing yoga. Gretchen lives in West Hartford with her puppy, Beaken, and blogs at thestandbyetraveler.com.

An Intergenerational Experience of the Church

by Ellen Crawford True

If I close my eyes I can see the hallway of my home church. The linoleum tiles are slick under my 3-year-old feet as I run to hug my best friend by the choir room. In the blink of an eye, I see the loving exasperation on my confirmation class teacher’s face. I’m too busy chatting with her son to listen to her celebrating the legacy of John Calvin whose serious face stares at me from the slide on the screen behind her. Blink again and I hear basketballs dribbling on the gym floor on a chilly Thursday night in January while my patient coach urges us to run a little faster and play a little smarter. (They can’t cut you from a church team, even if you have a non-existent vertical leap and are five feet tall on a good day.) I can feel the air swirling around me as four other classmates and I dance in the sanctuary while the choir sings a Christmas cantata. Another blink, and I am walking down that aisle to say my marriage vows moments after the church ladies–armed with safety pins and stain remover–have finished fussing over me and making sure everything is just so. Two years later I am kneeling in that same aisle to feel hands pressed on my head and shoulders while prayers are lifted at my ordination. It is the same place where we celebrate the resurrection at my mother’s memorial service, the same place where the church welcomes my daughter at her baptism.

Jess Fisher-2In each of these moments I see the faces and hear the voices of men, women, and children who have been church. At its best, my experience of faith has always been an intergenerational one, long before such a notion was trending. There were coaches, parents, Sunday school teachers, nursery workers. There were preschoolers and junior highs, circle leaders and the men’s bible study that gathered every so often on Friday mornings in my family’s living room. That was church for me. In many ways, it still is.

In recent years there has been an intentional move to recover this intergenerational emphasis in the church. Some of this movement has grown out of necessity: it doesn’t make sense to have Sunday school divided into too many different age groups when there are only a few children, one youth, and a handful of young adults present on Sunday mornings, so we look to be and do church all mixed together. But the more powerful motivation has been to regain something that gets lost in the larger world. Just as we are too often segmented and separated by gender, class, race, orientation, and ability, we are divvied up by age. As is the case with every division, something crucial and sacred is lost along the way, at least for me. My faith is deepened when I get time to color with three-year-olds. My heart is lifted when I laugh and pray with seventy-year-olds. I am challenged and encouraged when I hang out with and worship alongside people who don’t know the same eighties movie references I do, people who couldn’t name a single Prince song until just a few weeks ago. Something sacred happens when we do church together. I see holiness when I watch those three-year-olds and those seventy-year-olds color, laugh, pray, and tell stories together. In those moments, I catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

In the coming weeks, we will hear from a variety of voices from across the church as they reflect on intergenerational ministry. Like every other buzzword in church circles, it’s not about a one-size-fits-all program. It’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems or alleviate all of our anxiety. But in their reflections, we will hear hope. The posts will be written by pastors, seminary students, educators, and church members about what it looks like for the church to do and be church together, what it feels like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body, what it can mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next.


EllenCrawfordTrueA native of Nashville, TN, Ellen Crawford True graduated from Davidson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has served churches in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. She’s a fan of grits, biscuits, running, dancing, and Steph Curry. She lives in Camp Hill, PA with her husband Dave, their daughter Abby, and their dog Homer. She serves as Pastor and Head of Staff of Christ Presbyterian Church, also in Camp Hill.

New Life for Dry Bones

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This post was originally shared on Carolyn’s blog, “Deep Thoughts of a Common Household Mom.”

by Carolyn Gibbs

I sat down at the table. The man next to me muttered, “Might as well hang me now.” The woman to the right of me picked up the block of clay in front of her and started kneading it enthusiastically. I looked at my block of clay and waited for instructions, like a proper Presbyterian. Yep, that’s the gamut of likely responses in an “Arts in Worship” workshop at the Next Church National Gathering.

fear creativity crossroadsI was eager to attend this workshop, thinking it would give us ideas on how to incorporate various kinds of art into our worship service. It turns out we were going to make art ourselves! How fun! Or how threatening! Or both!

Despite the fear, I immensely enjoyed responding to scripture through painting, even though I have zero artistic skill. I feel a great longing to be creative in connection with worship. I think that I am the only one who feels this way. To paraphrase the prophet Ezekiel, “my bones are dried up, my hope is lost, I am cut off completely.” God’s creative breath of life is in our worship, mostly through music, but perhaps we are missing out in not exploring other forms of creativity.

A longer description of the workshop is below, for those who are interested.

How do you like to express your creativity? If you are part of a worshiping community, would you be willing to participate in an art project as part of worship? Or would you make sure you had to be out of town that day?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As the workshop started, we were encouraged to fiddle around with the block of clay in front of us. We had no instructions regarding the clay. We continued to work with it if we wished, as we started the discussion. There were two tables, with about 8 people at each table.

First we discussed how non-artistic adults generally feel about doing art. Art (and any creativity, really) is viewed as fine for kids, but adults just don’t go there. This workshop was about why adults should go there.

The workshop leader must have had a time machine on my life. She described exactly what happened to me in second grade art class, when we painted a scene on a tile. I was quite pleased with my scene of ducks and grass. The art teacher denigrated it; the words are long forgotten, but the feeling is not. Almost all of us encounter something similar on the way to adulthood. Our human capacity for judgment and comparison takes over, and those of us who don’t have artistic talent stop making art at all. It’s just too scary and painful to endure the judgment from others and ourselves.

Then we talked about confronting that fear and leaping into creativity. Making art unleashes freedom, joy, and wholeness, and that’s just for starters. If you believe that you are created in the image of God (the original creativity maven) then exercising your creativity is an excellent way of showing it. Why should only kids be able to do this?! Why should only those with innate artistic talent be able to do this?!

In our workshop it turned out that the clay was just a warm-up to our main activity – painting a large banner. Like most art, our painting was to be based on other art, and was to follow rules. We were instructed to base our painting on our response to the Bible passage about Ezekiel’s vision of God breathing life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

We had a few minutes to discuss what images the passage evoked in us. I think this discussion helped a lot, when it came time to start painting. But before starting to paint, the rules:

  • First, paint on the space in front of you. Paint your own response to the passage.
  • After a few minutes, everyone is to move two spaces to the left and continue painting. You may not erase, obliterate, or cover up what the person before painted in their spot. You may embellish and extend their painting, or start painting in a new spot. After a few minutes, go two more spaces to the left and extend that person’s painting. Finally, return to your original spot and fill in spaces as you see fit.
  • No talking! This meant we could not collaborate. We could not form a committee to plan what to paint, or where. (That is extremely un-Presbyterian.) It also meant we could not offer any evaluation of each others’ art. We could not issue comments on our own efforts. This was crucial – no compliments, no criticisms. A compliment of one person’s art could be construed by someone else as an implicit criticism of their own art. (“You liked her art, but didn’t say anything about mine.”)
  • The workshop leader told us where the top of the banner would be. She also said that there were pieces of tape running across the canvas, and she had prepared our canvas by painting blue over the whole canvas. After our art expressions had dried she would be pulling off the tape, creating bold lines across our art work.

fruitful_worship artWe started painting. At first I felt that familiar sense of self-criticism. I started by drawing a kindergartenish slab of grass, thinking of “the fruitful land” from the passage. Being more of a “words” person than a “drawing” person, I wondered if I could dare to write a word instead of just painting shapes and colors. I dared. But which word? I chose “fruitful”. I felt I should paint it upside down (my area was at the top of the canvas) so that the word would be displayed right side up. This was challenging.

After a bit it was time to switch spots. I was perplexed after switching. It felt wrong to mess with what someone else had painted. It almost felt as if that spot was now sacred. Instead of painting within that person’s area, I tried to extend from that area, reaching more into the middle of the canvas.

By the time we switched again, I was feeling more bold, and reached into the middle to start a new shape. I painted the words “new life” in the middle of the canvas. Then I decided to paint a cell to represent a form of life and honor my sweet Younger Daughter and her interest in cells.

When we were finished we had a great sense of ownership and accomplishment at having created a work of art together. I do not know or care if it is beautiful in the eyes of the world, but it is ours, our expression of the scripture. When our canvas was displayed in the worship space the next day, I again felt like a kindergartner, proud to have my work up on the refrigerator.

new life worship bannerI just have to add that I believe that it is good and right to have beautiful art, created by truly talented professional artists, in our worship spaces. It can be appropriate to evaluate sacred art and display what is inspiring. In fact, if we non-artists are to do art, we need the professional artists, who figure out things like how big the canvas should be, what kind of paint is best, how long to let it dry, how to display it.

Our workshop group did not create our banner in order for it to be evaluated or compared to professional art. It is valuable in that we ourselves made it as an expression of our connection to holiness. For me personally, it felt like new life for my dry bones which are longing, aching, yearning to be creative in worship.

To see more photos, visit Carolyn’s blog.


Carolyn 2016-02-29Carolyn Gibbs serves as a ruling elder at Hiland Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She blogs at commonhousehold.blogspot.com and enjoys expressing her creativity through writing, raising children, and trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

Paracletos and Coaching in our NEXT and Present Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month will focus on the art of coaching and the practice of ministry. Some posts will layout insights or frameworks of coaching and some will be stories of coaching that transformed a pastor or congregation. We hope they will inspire you. We hope that inspiration will turn into actual movement in your own life and ministry so that we might move closer to that vision of the church we long for, closer to the vision of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Tom Tate

Our annual statistical report to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this year records 156 members at Plaza Presbyterian Church. Many are older. Many are no longer able to get to church. Some have moved to be closer to family members but won’t give up their membership; and we won’t give up on them, either.

homecomingForty-eight people worshiped at Plaza on Transfiguration Sunday 2016. Twelve of them were not yet members – four were first time visitors; four attend regularly but have not joined; four are choir section leaders. All of us gathered around the communion table for the last part of worship where we sang and prayed together, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, received the blessing, and passed the peace. Fifteen minutes following worship many of us were still visiting, not yet ready to head home.

Without a coach for the past few years that Sunday experience might never have happened.

Jeff Krehbiel, pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. and our coach, came into our lives in June 2013 as part NEXT Church’s Paracletos experiment. Coaching was part of the vision for that program and a concrete way NEXT came along side us to support us in ministry.

In September of 2013, after only a couple of months of coaching, and following a summer in which we were unable to use the sanctuary because of air conditioning problems, we engaged in a two-week process in which we removed some pews, moved others, and changed the look and feel of our sanctuary. (You read that right – only two-weeks for a transformation of our sanctuary.) Today, worship in our seventy-year-old sanctuary has a fresh intimacy for us. It’s almost as if the change has communicated in a way that stimulates us with creative ideas for embodying the values of the Gospel.

During the Paracletos year, Jeff got to know the Session and me and lead a retreat for about forty members. It was there we established a new direction for our church which has become an integral part of our worship and community life. Our once-a-week, thirty minute phone conversations during the first year kept me grounded and focused. They proved so useful that they continue still. Without the coaching I am quite certain the positive things happening inside the church as well as in the community around us would not now be taking place.

We have discovered that we want to be a congregation that recognizes that God is calling us at this moment in time, not just for something out there in the future.

There’s new life in our Room In the Inn homeless ministry that provides hospitality and a warm place to stay during the coldest three months in Charlotte. We have reached out to community members, parents from our Week Day School, friends, and family to be partners in this ministry, helping us serve others as Jesus taught us.

Last November, when a regular visitor suggested that we have “Cookies and Carols” for thirty minutes each Wednesday evening during Advent, we jumped at the idea and gladly got to know twenty-five folks who live nearby and are presently unchurched. We are becoming a resource for worship for many, if not for all.

When a former member recently returned to Plaza she wanted us to become involved with the parents and children living in a nearby shelter. We said an enthusiastic “yes!” to monthly meals and fellowship that have drawn members together who had not been previously engaged in the community and are helping us define what it means to be all accepting and present in the community, learning to identify and respond to the needs of others and ourselves.

We took over the medical transportation ministry for older adults in our part of Charlotte when the agency that had been providing it went out of business. We are becoming a renewing resource for ministry for many, if not yet all.

And the Session has a greater sense of community, purpose, outreach, and faith than ever before as we are seeking to be a living testament to Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Gospel.

While we’ve all benefitted from Jeff’s coaching it is transforming me. Every week we talk about how things are going. Every Friday morning I reflect with Jeff regarding where we are and what I’m doing. The result is encouragement, guidance, perspective, challenge, and help for the week and the ministry ahead.

The result of our initial work with Jeff as coach and NEXT Church as partner has been a new vision for us, a vision that is continuing to inform everything we do, everywhere we go.

At this moment in time, God is calling us
to be a living testament to Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Gospel;
to better serve others as Jesus taught us;
to be present in the community,
identifying and responding to the needs of others and ourselves;
to be all-accepting;
to be a renewing resource for worship, education, and ministry for all;
and to communicate in a way that stimulates us with creative ideas
for embodying the values of the Gospel
everywhere we go.

To be coached, or not to be coached was not even a question three years ago at Plaza. The reality of being coached, though, has breathed new life into our congregation. It has literally changed lives, especially mine.


Tom Tate is pastor of Plaza Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC and a member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg school board.

Greatest Hit: Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple… Re-Writing the Rhyme

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on welcoming guests to worship is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Ashley-Anne Masters

A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: Face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.

steeple smallAt NEXT conferences in Indianapolis and Dallas I heard much talk of wanting what’s next for the church to include hospitality, people of all ages, and sustaining life instead of attempting to prevent death. I’m in favor of all those, and have learned about the impact of all three from sitting in the pews instead of standing the pulpit lately.

One of the realities I’ve come to appreciate about not currently receiving a paycheck from a church is that do not have to arrive early on Sundays. As part of my self-guided continuing education while seeking a call, I intentionally show up 5-10 minutes late to worship services at various churches.  I do this to experience how visitors and/or latecomers are treated. In some churches I’ve been pleasantly surprised and in others I’ve been offended when I did not receive a bulletin and nobody passed me any peace.  As clergy, I happen to know insider language and cues, but if I didn’t, I might feel awkward even in the friendliest congregations.

A few Sundays ago I arrived at my scheduled 11:06 to the church I most frequently attend. I walked up the steps with two women whom I did not know. We entered the narthex and were greeted by closed doors to the sanctuary. The women looked at me and said, “This is our first time here. Do you think it’s alright to open the doors or are we too late?” I jokingly made a comment about how people come to this service up until 11:45 and opened the doors for them. Once inside we were given bulletins, and I walked with them to an open pew so they wouldn’t feel alone walking down the long aisle.

The doors of the sanctuary were likely closed because it was a crisp, breezy, fall day and someone didn’t want the sanctuary to get drafty. For all practical purposes that makes perfect sense, too. But I can’t help but wonder if those two women would have turned away had someone more familiar with that congregation not been there when they arrived. Would they have opened the doors? Would they have tried again another Sunday? Who knows, but I do know that closed doors, even for good reasons, do not send the message that this is a gateway into life, hope, and hospitality.

As I settled in to my seat next to the two women, the childhood rhyme was on repeat in my head. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. The problem with that is not that the church is a building with a steeple, doors, and people. It’s that someone on the outside of the potentially intimidating sanctuary has to open the doors to see the people inside.

I’d like to receive a paycheck from a church again, and I live in a city with a serious winter season, so I’m not about to suggest we remove all doors from all church buildings. I say we rotate the hinges, leave the sanctuary doors open, and let the Spirit blow where it will. I realize that practically speaking it may mean leaving our light jackets on while seated in the pews, but I consider that a small price to pay for hospitality. Let’s just make sure we aren’t layered in Members Only jackets, as insider language is not welcoming, nor are we the church of the 1980’s.

While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors are wide open to welcome all people.”


Ashley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org

Looking for more? Here are other resources from NEXT:

A Whisper of Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lori Raible

What is saving my ministry right now? Under the veneer of the rosy-cheeked, puffed-up, perfect show? Under the wide blanket of collective anxiety and fear? Just under the surface of baby-joy? Under the frenetic pace of life as we plead with the dusty donkey to pick it a bit?

The donkey seems so slow.

I would by lying if I said it is the innocence of my children’s faces. I would be faking it if I said it is the anticipation of joy, or the expression of community as we prepare to celebrate. It would be dishonest to say it is giving and receiving.

star ornamentsOf course the collective measure of such blessings express a truth that otherwise may not be evident. But right now, in this moment, it is a desperate hope that saves my ministry. A hope that the promise of the incarnation is not only true, but also conjoined to the promise of the cross: Already, and not yet.

I will not leave you, ever.

The promise itself is strong enough, but sometimes my hope feels flimsy.

If we make it to the manger, will we find Job there? What about poor Jeremiah sinking in the mud? King David in his grief over the death of his son? Hannah weeping in despair for a child she cannot conceive? Guilt-ridden Peter? Lost Judas? Doubting Thomas?

I wish Herod would change his mind. Can you imagine?

Already and not yet.

This year I have no words. Trust me, this is a miracle in and of itself. Call me Zacharias, but this is the type of yearning that is better sung than spoken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a singing voice either. What sustains me is that other people do. That’s the thing about church. When I can’t gather the courage to ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ I hear choirs singing on my behalf.  Three year olds sing off-key: ‘clop, clop, clop, little grey donkey.’ Willa May Young, Ellen Harris, Joanne Cole, Ed Thomas, and Ed’s dad, Herman who is 88 at least, they make magic with Comfort, Comfort You my People.

I have no words to match the truth one hears between the notes. Between the words of those advent hymns, I hear a whisper of hope that is so deep and so profound that I am left speechless. Shamelessly I rely on a host of angels, to sing the words so I can listen for the promise of delivery in the face of what seems to be an unimaginable labor.

Still. Still. Still,

Wouldn’t that be something?

O Come. O Come Emmanuel,

My heart aches with that hope.


LRaibleLori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

The Grass Withers and the Flower Fades

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click hereWe invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! 

By Joe Clifford

Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)

“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.

That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”

In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.

Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.

How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?

December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC.[1] May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.

What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?

How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.

Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”

What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”

What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.

[1] Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/


JoeJoe Clifford is the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

When Creativity Saves You from the “F” Word in Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Lisle Gwynn Garrity is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lisle Gwynn Garrity

We all know the feeling.  You’re neck-deep in sermonizing, lesson-planning, worship designing, or any venture that requires you to put your blood, sweat, and tears into creating something as an offering to others, and then the “F” word starts to rear its ugly head. FEAR is creativity’s brute oppressor; it shows up right when we’re in the thick of imagining or creating something new, and whispers not-so-sweet nothings in our ears.

“This is the WORST sermon ever written–even Calvin will be snoring from his grave.”

“We can’t possibly try this new youth activity–the youth will mock it and laugh in my face.”

“Members will certainly LEAVE THE CHURCH if I suggest we do something different for the prayers of the people this Sunday.”

Fear has this way of gripping us by the throat, choking us of any God-breathed inspiration for which we are gasping. And, too often, the “F” word wins out, shutting down the whole creative operation.  God forbid, the “F” word may even have something to do with that dreaded and familiar moniker, the frozen chosen.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity1

As a liturgical artist, retreat leader, and worship consultant, my ministry is constantly butting heads with the “F” word. When leading worship arts retreats, where I invite anyone and everyone (artist and “non-artist” alike) to create art in community, I talk a lot about the “F” word. There’s something about a blank canvas and a paintbrush that tend to strike fear into the hearts of most grown adults. So we talk about that fear. I declare that, if the “F” word shows up, we can acknowledge it, observe it, and then move right past it. That is the gospel promise, after all–fear and death will not have the last word.

When creating live visual art during worship, I am forced to practice what I preach. Being a self-proclaimed “artist” offers no protection from the “F” word, believe me. Painting for an audience to witness and scrutinize any mistake is vulnerability at its finest. But, when I step past the “F” word, I can fully offer myself as a vessel to be shaped and molded by God. Giving my whole self to the creative process is a full-body prayer; in those moments of fearlessness, I am most open, most willing, and most able to offer my gifts to others and to God.

Lisle Gwynn Garrity

So, what’s your fear-stomping creative practice? What’s one way you can regularly practice creativity (perhaps through painting, singing, cooking, gardening, wood-working, etc.) to strengthen your capacity to confront the “F” word? What’s one way you can offer your whole self to a creative process and to God? Most importantly, how can tapping into your unique, God-given creativity open yourself to that wild and restless divine Spirit that is so ready to do good work through and in you?

Lisle Gwynn Garrity2

 


Lisle Gwynn Garrity HeadshotLisle Gwynn Garrity is a Pastorist (pastor + artist) diving into ministry with a creative and entrepreneurial drive. A recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, she holds master’s degrees in divinity and practical theology. If you’re interested in pushing past the “F” word to create art in community, sign up for her workshop, “Arts & Worship” at the 2016 National Gathering. See more of Lisle’s work at www.sanctifiedart.com or on Facebook at A Sanctified Art.