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Holding Tight to the Rhythm of Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elise Neal

It was a blessing to grow up as a native West Virginian with small town roots and a sense of community. In my hometown of Philippi I was baptized and confirmed and ordained — all in the Philippi Presbyterian Church. This church took its baptism vows seriously and helped to nurture my faith that has led me to be an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the past 9 years. But ministry looks a lot different now in West Virginia.

Photo from First Presbyterian Facebook page

Currently I serve as the pastor the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It too is a small town by today’s standards — but it’s much larger than Philippi where I grew up. In 2015 this congregation celebrated 200 years of ministry and in 2016 they celebrated 100 years in their current building, but these celebrations come with much sadness. As with many of our congregations, membership has shrunk, but in West Virginia the numbers are staggering. My current church was built 100 years ago, during the industrial age, and this congregation had more than 1200 members. There were three worship services and educational opportunities for everyone. Many of my members remember these glory days of times past, when the church was the center of both the community and of social life. They were children during this time and they long for those days to return. But the reality is that this will never be. As the need for coal decreased and the railroads moved west, so too did companies and industries. The jobs and people followed.

The current economic state in West Virginia has only continued to diminish as companies continue to leave the area — and nothing takes its place. So the congregation that was 1200 members is now 150. My home congregation, Philippi Presbyterian Church, has 12 members where there used to be more than 100. Those that stayed owned local businesses or worked as teachers, doctors, professors at local colleges, coal miners, and in local government. These people are the members of our churches. They grew up with the traditions of the church and hold tight to the rhythm of ministry that they remember from years past.

The challenge for these churches moving forward will be to embrace a new understanding of ministry in rural Appalachia. Will they be able to move towards new ministries the reach people in their local communities, communities that are vastly different today? Most of these churches won’t be able to make the shift and will not survive. It is a story that is far too common in West Virginia and it’s sad to say, the little church that I love, the little church that nurtured and raised me will likely be one of those that doesn’t make it.

But there is hope! With every death there is a new life that arises. There is always the opportunity to grow and nurture relationships in community around West Virginia. In the future it may mean that these groups form around music gatherings or at a little diner for a weekly meal. Regardless of where we meet, ministry will continue to take place as God strengthens our faith and relationships with others. The big question is — who will we invite to join us?


Elise Renee Neal is a native of Philippi, West Virginia, and has served the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont for the past seven years. She recently accepted a new call to serve as the pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas.

Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for http://hillbillymovie.com/, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

Front Porch Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mary Harris Todd

A sermon for Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, NC. Scripture: Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus really did not cover a lot of distance during his ministry. He spent most of his time in the region of Galilee, an area about the size of two or three North Carolina counties, maybe Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.1

The region of Galilee was dotted with about two hundred villages, some larger, and some smaller, and to get from one to another you walked. Think about the old days when people around here used to walk up and down this road, visiting neighbors, and walking to school at Joyner’s Schoolhouse, which was across the road from where we are this morning — and it was the building in which Morton Church got its start. Picture what it would be like to walk from Easonburg to Langley’s Crossroads, and that’s a picture of the kind of traveling that Jesus did.

Capernaum, and specifically Peter’s house in Capernaum, was Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was more what we would call a small town, maybe 1500 residents. It was a center for the fishing industry. Jesus would go places, and then he would come home to Capernaum.

The story we read from Mark this morning took place very early in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t take long for word to get around town that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a dangerous fever. “Did you hear what happened at Peter’s house?” By evening excited kinfolk and friends crowded around and into Peter’s house, and Jesus healed many more who were sick or in the clutches of demons. No wonder Jesus went off alone for rest and prayer.

When they realized he was gone, Peter and his companions went looking for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!” they exclaimed when they found him. Jesus needed to come on back to the house and get back to work. There was so much more that needed doing right there at home at Peter’s house!

But Jesus said, “Let’s also go on to the neighboring villages so that I can proclaim the good news there, too. That’s why I came.” Yes, Jesus loved the members of Peter’s household, and his family and friends in Capernaum. But Jesus was also concerned about other neighbors and other neighborhoods. His concern reached to the ends of the earth. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” he told his disciples. And before it was all over, Jesus was going to send them on to the ends of the earth.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter and the others reacted to Jesus’ plan to visit neighboring villages and interact with other people, but if they were anything like the members of Peter’s household now — the church — I think they might have been dismayed. How can Jesus suggest reaching out to others when there is still so much to do right here? Shouldn’t we take care of the needs at home in Capernaum first? Shouldn’t Jesus give them his attention first? Besides, surely people out there will hear about the wonderful things happening here and come join us!

But reaching the ends of the earth has always been God’s intention. Early in Genesis2 God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home, to move outward, and God plainly stated, “I am going to bless you. You are going to have a lot of descendants, and your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Abraham and Sarah got up and went. This is all the more remarkable because they were 75 and 65 years old respectively, and they had never been able to have any children.

Through the prophet Isaiah God reiterated that concern as we read in our call to worship today: “I want my salvation, my blessing to reach to the ends of the earth,” God said.3

When God’s people were in exile in the city of Babylon and filled with homesickness, God told them to be a blessing right where they were, to their Babylonian neighbors. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you, for in its wellbeing you will find your own.”4

Or as Jesus put it, “You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”5

And, as in today’s gospel lesson, the ends of the earth aren’t always far away. “We must go on to neighboring villages,” Jesus said. “Let’s take the message to the neighbors.”

We live in an age where you can get on a jet and fly to the ends of the earth, and yet not know your next door neighbor, even by sight. People often live in side-by-side isolation. It used to be that almost every house had a front porch, an in-between kind of space where people could sit and talk and watch the world go by. Porches helped neighbors see one another and talk more often. Now back decks and privacy fences outnumber porches. People stay inside in the air conditioning and watch TV or stay on the internet, and family members might all be doing this in different rooms.

What’s more, cars make it fast and easy to go somewhere else to work or shop, and not pay that much attention to the neighborhood. And that makes it easy for things to happen behind closed doors without anyone nearby knowing it. No, the ends of the earth aren’t far away at all.

I read a blog post entitled “7 Reasons Your Church Should Have a Front Porch.”6 Our church building does have a front porch, so when I saw the title, I immediately imagined rocking chairs on the church front porch, and us sitting out there visiting and having Bible study. A very pleasant scene.

But that’s not the author’s point. Front porch is a way of thinking. It’s an outlook. He says that front porch oriented churches have their eyes on the neighborhood. They spend time getting to know their neighbors, and letting the neighbors get to know them. Contrast this with backyard-oriented churches that are looking away from the neighborhood, or only looking inward.

Front porch churches listen to the neighbors. They want to be neighborly right there in the neighborhood where God has placed them. The post asks, “Does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has the church developed trusting friendships that are there in times of need?”

Jesus said, “Let’s go also to the neighboring villages.” This is a call to listen to people, to listen for what is going on around here. And as we listen to our neighbors’ concerns, we will hear what God is concerned about. We will discover what God is up to. Eventually we will discover ways to get in there to work with God, and work with our neighbors.

What it’s not about is blanketing the area with flyers inviting people to come here and join us in what we are doing. It’s not about going around announcing our point of view or presenting a set of arguments we want to convince people of. I can hardly think of anything less appealing, and if that were our agenda, I wouldn’t blame people for hiding in their houses when they saw us coming.

What’s more, it’s also not about recruiting new blood for the church, and it doesn’t make people into mission projects. It’s not about dreaming up some program we think people need or developing a hook to get people to come through the doors. It values people around here just because they are here. It’s about seeing people through God’s eyes and listening to them through God’s ears.

The community organizing training that I started in Baltimore last fall is continuing, and we constantly talk about building relationships. There is power in making connections with people, building relationships, and then taking action together. A critical part of it is to spend time talking one on one with people, listening, sharing stories, finding out what’s important to them, what makes them tick.

In community organizing work they call these visits relational meetings. But to me, they sound a lot like good old front porch visiting, good conversation in that in-between front porch space where connections can happen, and sometimes grow deep.

God has richly blessed the family of faith that gathers in this house. And like all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, God calls this family to be a blessing. We could stay home in Capernaum, spend most of our time hanging out with each other here in Peter’s house, or we can visit neighboring villages with Jesus. We can stay inside, or we can find a way to get out on the front porch and spend time talking with neighbors. We can sit around and worry about our own wellbeing, or we can connect with neighbors and in their wellbeing find our own.

We can literally visit people with Jesus. Think about where our neighborhoods are. Think about where our homes are. There’s this little section of West Mount Drive right out in front of the church house. There’s Leaston Road down at the corner, and the trailer park there. There’s the Vick path. There’s the village on Great Branch Drive. And there are more. These are some of our neighboring villages. God has placed us here geographically. And God has placed us in workplaces and in different kinds of groups. These are neighborhoods, too. We can find out what brought these people to these neighborhoods, and what they’re concerned about, and what they need and hope for.

This is the place, and these are the places where God has planted us. These are the people we are called to listen to. These are the people we are called to love. Front porch churches are concerned about our neighbors because Jesus is concerned about them. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” Jesus said. “I want to proclaim the kingdom there, too.”

Or as he puts it in another place, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Which also means, you shall love your neighborhood.

Amen.

1 Nash is our congregation’s home county. Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson are the tri-county area that the congregation knows well.
2 Genesis 12:1-5a.
3 Isaiah 49:6.
4 Jeremiah 29:7.
5 Acts 1:8.
6 http://after.church/7-reasons-your-church-should-have-a-front-porch/.

Editor’s update: We’re gearing up for our second community organizing cohort, which gets kicked off in late October 2018. We hope you’ll join us! 


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Podcasting Made Easy…Even for Small Churches

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. For January and February, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a month of reflections on technology, faith, and church. Join the conversation here or on Facebook. This how-to post first appeared on MaryAnn’s blog The Blue Room.

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

You, too, can podcast!

You, too, can podcast!

Some pastor friends and I got to talking recently about sermon podcasting. I’m always disappointed when gifted preachers I know, whose sermons I’d like to listen to, aren’t available as a podcast. Some congregations put their sermon audio on their church’s website, but that’s not the same as setting up a podcast that can be searched for and subscribed to via iTunes.

Many medium-sized and large congregations have folks to record the service and take care of this technical detail. But what about small congregations? Yes you can! We’ve been podcasting at Tiny Church for a few years now. (Search Idylwood Presbyterian on iTunes, or click here.)

In my experience with a small church, many decisions are inevitably weighed in terms of stewardship of time and resources. Or to put it crudely, a cost/benefit scale. Is it worth going through the effort of podcasting if only a couple of people will avail themselves of it?

It is absolutely worth the effort because it doesn’t take very much effort at all. It’s also an easy and important method of evangelism—a way of being in the world, exactly where people are searching for inspiration and ideas.

Thinking about setting up a sermon podcast but not sure where to start? Let me put on a very old hat of mine, that of technical writer.

There are three basic steps to podcasting: recording the sermon, converting the sound file, and uploading it to a podcast service. Here is how I handle those three steps in a small church without an A/V team.

  1. Recording. I use iRecorder Pro, which is a $2.99 app for my iPhone. I put the phone on the pulpit and hit record when I start preaching and stop when I’m done. (Protip: Write start/stop reminders into your manuscript or notes.) The phone’s microphone works fine whether I’m using a microphone or not.
  2. Converting to mp3. Most recorders I’m familiar with save the recording in some other format. Podcasts require mp3. I download the audio from my phone to my MacBook Air and use Switch to convert. It looks like there’s a paid version of Switch, but the version I use is/was free. There are a ton of audio converters out there.
  3. Uploading the mp3 file to your podcast service. I use SermonDrop, which I’ve been very happy with. The free version keeps the 10 most recent sermons. If you want more than that, you can pay. You upload the file to their site, and there are places to type in scripture text, name of preacher, whether it’s part of a series, etc. You can even upload PowerPoint slides or PDFs. Here is IPC’s SermonDrop page.

You do those three steps every time. There’s also an intermediate step that you need to do once, which is to register your podcast with iTunes so it shows up in their listing. Here are some instructions. Basically you’re telling iTunes “hey, my podcast exists, here it is.” So anyone who searches for your church name will find it.

As a pastor of a small church, you could certainly find someone to take care of this each week. But honestly? It takes me 10 minutes per week, and that’s mainly waiting for the computer to convert and to upload. There is no reason not to do it.

Does your congregation podcast? What tools or suggestions do you have?

wallsquareMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, author of Sabbath in the Suburbs and a regular blogger at The Blue Room. She’s the co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

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Notes From the Field #1 – Community Church

At CPC we were proud to say about ourselves that “Community Presbyterian is a small church with a big heart.” At the outset of this revitalization work, our coaches have challenged us to see ourselves in a different context:

“Community Presbyterian Church, while having a self-identity of being a small church, is, in fact, a larger-than-normal sized church.  The perception is that in the heyday the church had 400-450 members, and now the membership stands at 143.  First, that 143 reflects a clean roll.  Good job!  Second, you are averaging 109 in worship.  That is an incredibly high ratio when compared nationally.  Again, a dramatic sign of good health.  Third, 5-6 new members joined recently, and another 6 are expected to join in before the end of the year.  That is a 7-8% increase in membership annualized – a healthy growth rate.”

Slide1

The fact that we are not considered a small church is a paradigm shift in our mindset.  Does it tell us what to do?  No, but it does cause us to think as we consider our role in the building of the kingdom of God in this community. Pastor Mike has referenced change and reform a lot in his recent sermons.  One statement was, “The world and our culture have changed and are changing radically – and we need to be open to the possibility that God is not threatened by that.”  Another crucial point Pastor Mike made recently: “God is still in charge!”

Change is not easy.  Retooling old programmatic efforts may not be the most effective approach for the future, but we think we have huge opportunity in our community and we need to explore that.  To that end, a Revitalization Team has been commissioned by Session to explore these opportunities, to engage all of us as a congregation, and to seek God’s will in this community.  Love, forgiveness, and community are why churches matter today.  We want to move forward to matter more!

Our Revitalization Team is a mix of long-term members, newer members, recent attendees and potential members and will look at opportunities with fresh eyes. Please pray for our work as we seek to see ourselves more clearly and be faithful to God’s vision for us in this day and place.

Mister Rogers, Children, and the Small Church

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Andrew Taylor-Troutman is curating a conversation around small congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

by Mary Harris Todd

In his television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers approached children in such a gentle manner.  Except for the trolley bell, there were no bells and whistles on the show.   The tone was quiet and conversational.  At an unhurried pace, Mr. Rogers talked with adults and children on the show.  Often he was seeking to learn from them, as when he asked a young neighbor to show him some dance moves.  Mr. Rogers addressed his television neighbors about topics of interest or concern.  The Neighborhood of Make Believe was definitely low-tech, leaving lots of room for children’s imaginations.  Simple hand puppet characters interacted with people.  Some of the characters were children, and some were adults.  It was intergenerational.  Children loved Mr. Rogers, and I did, too, even though I only watched the show as an adult.  I am too old to have been one of his neighbors as a small child.

groupOur small congregation loves children.  We have no bells and whistles to offer, except that we love it when there are children present to ring the church steeple bell.  We can’t offer busy programs and sports leagues with crowds of excited children.  But we can be neighbors like Mr. Rogers, himself a Presbyterian minister who saw the children as his congregation.  We approach children with his gentleness and loving simplicity.   Like Mr. Rogers, we share Jesus’ love conversationally.  A child who comes to Morton will find many “grandfriends”–my daughter’s term–who will take genuine, ongoing interest in them.  We tell the gospel story.  We share our talents and encourage the children to share theirs.

Here are some pictures from our recent summer program for children.  God has given our church many talents in music, so we decided to share that with the children, both as an expression of love and an encouragement for them to give musical instruments a try.  We also invited them to express their creativity through art.  Adults and children alike were enthralled by Jesus’ story, and mixed together in a lovely way.  We are so grateful for this time God gave us with these children!  (Click here to see more photos.)

Now we’re working on developing more opportunities of this kind, with the dream and the hope of welcoming these and other children and their families fully into the family of God.   We long for them to join us on Sundays!  But even if they don’t, we are still going to do what we can to help them know that Jesus loves them, and encourage them to love him back  He is their nearest, dearest neighbor.  Living in God’s neighborhood means loving other neighbors as Christ loves us.

We are a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood kind of church, looking for ways to ask people of all ages, “Won’t you be our neighbor?”


todd copyMary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  As Advent approaches, the Morton congregation is looking forward to a blessed season with the handful of beloved children that God has brought to us since the summer.  Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Challenges of Membership

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Andrew Taylor-Troutman is curating a conversation around small congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian Church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership.  And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.”  In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that Elders, Deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in synch with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our Presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the Presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our Presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church USA as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church”. We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?”  This break allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us”, then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with Pastor to discuss faith and life in the church
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individual right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian Education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book, The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)


KingAfter serving in her first call, at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. 

We’re a Praying Congregation

medium_3039881498By Jim Lunde

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our church over the years, it’s that we’re a praying congregation.” These were the words shared with me by a church member during my first hospital visit in my new congregation this summer. At first I thought it was a sweet statement to make about one’s church, but (as you’re likely thinking) isn’t every church a praying congregation? Over the next few months I would plunge past sentimentality and learn the true depth of this statement.

One Sunday school class exchanges prayer cards at the end of each lesson and commits to hold that person in prayer throughout the week. This class also maintains a prayer blanket ministry. The congregation’s monthly prayer group compiles a list of prayer concerns and creates a “calendar” for church members to lift specific people and places in their prayer lives throughout the month. One of the most powerful moments I witnessed was a prayer vigil that the congregation held for a member before a complicated surgery. At a moment’s notice, forty people came to the church one evening to pray and support this member and his family. I learned that this is a long-standing tradition of this congregation, as they often meet in hospital chapels and in the homes of members before tests, surgeries and procedures.

This practice has even become a community effort. Recently our congregation has joined with four other faith communities in the South Knoxville neighborhood to engage in combined mission efforts. At our monthly meetings, we basically ask one another: How can we be in prayer for your congregation? We gather to support one another in prayer as we discern how God is calling us to serve the South Knoxville community together. In this way, we have become living prayers for one another as well.

As stated earlier, every congregation prays, so what makes this one so different? To me, the difference is that prayer has become a self-defining characteristic of the congregation. It wasn’t a pastor-originated effort, but came organically through the needs and circumstances of the community. Over the generations, it has shaped their common life together. To become part of this congregation means that you are committing to praying for the community and, perhaps even more difficult for some, you are willing to be prayed for.

Whatever size your church might be, I believe herein lies something that can be transformative for any faith community. Having recently served in a large congregation, I realize that such practices would look much different in their context, but there are some common threads which could nourish any community. I think the biggest one is that prayer is not a program, it’s a ministry. It’s not something you can advertise or use as a hope to “draw” in new members, but when a praying ministry becomes part of your missional identity, the result is truly transformational. Rather than catchy programs or even charismatic leaders, across different demographics, people are seeking communities who genuinely care about them. Communities where more people than just the pastor promise to pray.

Every congregation prays, but the congregations for whom prayer becomes a defining characteristic can truly be transformational by reflecting Christ’s love. Blessings in your ministry of prayer.


Jim Lunde is pastor of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN.

photo credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Dispatches from the Front Line

medium_8066700413By George Chapman

I often describe small church ministry as being on the “Front Line” of American Christianity, and it’s easy to see why. It can be a struggle, after all. The small church typically exists in close quarters to a plurality of Christian traditions, many of which are not “Reformed” in the classic sense of the word. Finding our distinctive voice within this ecclesiastical cacophony can prove somewhat daunting. Variable economic conditions have a drastic impact on giving and budgets. When times are tough, small churches are the first to feel the pinch, and when times are good, we are the last to experience relief. Work, play and school . . . those many obligations that distract younger persons and families from fully participating in church life are magnified among our pews every Sunday morning. Aging congregation members on increasingly fixed incomes present additional complexities for mission and outreach.

To put things more plainly, the greatest challenges facing the “next” church are being experienced by the small church in the here and now. Given their size, larger churches can prove relatively immune from such trends, but I’m certain they still experience them in some noticeable way. If they haven’t yet, I can almost guarantee you, they will! And I don’t say that to sound defeatist, but . . .

I do believe that our future success as a denomination will hinge upon our ability to bridge the divide between larger and smaller faith communities.

If larger churches in our denomination wish to see the future of the PC (USA), then they need look no further than the small church. There, they will observe no shortage of challenges, but they will also find countless servants wholly dedicated to the traditions of our Reformed faith, often under some pretty demanding circumstances. There, they will discover people practiced in the art of maintaining bonds within community while faithfully persevering through periods of uncertainty. There, they will encounter real friendship, true fellowship and genuine concern for one’s neighbor. For such persons, the relevance of the church has never fallen into question; rather the church maintains a central and revered place in the daily exercise of their lives.

So, where is the small church in the “next” church? This is the question I posed to NEXT Church’s fearless leader during a recent gathering in my native Shenandoah Presbytery. Patient and gracious as always, Jessica Tate affirmed the need for movements like NEXT Church to constructively engage small churches. At the same time, she also expressed a desire to build a more “relational” denomination with stronger connections between Presbyterian congregations of all sizes.

And I believe this is where the small church has a particular advantage, in that we are already relational! This is not an abstract ideal to which we aspire, but it is the everyday reality in which we live! Our congregation members see one another as family (sometimes literally), and are eager to respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ, often with little regard to cost. As a small church pastor, I’ve been blessed to see and experience this again and again and again. For this reason alone, I am wholeheartedly convinced that the small church possesses a meaningful contribution to this dialogue concerning our collective future. We have much to teach, but we also have much to learn, as we endeavor together to strengthen the body of Jesus Christ.


Rev. George W. Chapman III serves as a Teaching Elder at Buena Vista Presbyterian Church in Buena Vista, Virginia.

 

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Futuristic Traditionalism: Small Congregations and NEXT Church

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By Andrew Taylor-Troutman

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox! Now we have some hope of making progress.

~Niels Bohr

Recently I came across an essay by Don Share, the new editor of Poetry, in which he cited a quote from the composer, Van Dyke Parks, as that of a “futuristic traditionalist.” This notion is a paradox by which two opposite notions, when thrown together, are somehow complementary. If the one holy catholic and apostolic church is engaged and invested in today’s world for the next generations, this paradox stems from a certain peripatetic Jew in ancient Palestine who was connected to his religious tradition, including its own cherished past; and yet likewise insisted that the basileia tou theou is an up-to-the-moment fulfillment of that tradition in each and every believer’s breath.

How then can we, as his disciples in next church, be futuristic traditionalists?

This month, our blog posts – though very different – will each engage this paradox through the lens of the “small church.” I place quotations around this term because it seems to me that, when used, it actually designates a characteristic spirit as manifested in beliefs and aspirations, not only pertaining to literal size. I think you know what I mean. Perhaps you have heard a wistful, elaborate description of someone’s memory of his or her “small church” from long ago, often uttered with a far-off gleam in the speaker’s eyes. Maybe you’ve heard stories of Dr. So-and-So preaching a loved one’s funeral, and Mrs. Saint teaching rambunctious children the Ten Commandments, and Mr. Rock quietly maintaining the building and grounds.

You can trust the voices gathered here this month to honor and respect such traditions. In her or his own way, our authors devout the majority of working hours, efforts, hopes, and prayers working side-by-side with such people and their living memories. And yet, with God’s grace, they labor with their communities as forces in our broken and badly battered world. Yes, “forces” – perhaps this strength-giving, mind-altering, soul-inspiring, heart-touching, life-giving ministry is greatest paradox of today’s small church, an unlikely power that is not ours but from the one who promised, For wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be also. I think that notion might be a paradox as well, and I hope and pray that, as we “meet” this month by encountering a wide range of voices, therein lies our hope.


Author photoAndrew Taylor-Troutman serves as teaching elder of New Dublin Presbyterian Church. His memoir about this experience, Take My Hand, is published by Wipf & Stock and can be ordered here: www.takemyhandmemoir.com  

Image: fusion-of-horizons via photopin cc