Being the Body of Christ is Seeing Christ in Every Person

My thanks to Lori Robinson for permission to reprint her sermon from September 23, 2012 at St. Timothy’s Danville.  Her work with the children of our parish is truly God’s work through her hands.  Her sermon wove together the story from the appointed reading from Mark 9:30-37 with the reasons we have as a parish invested so much heart and treasure in creating an environment where we can give our kids a faith foundation that will endure their lifetimes.

Listen with your heart:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me

but the one who sent me.”     Mark 9:37

If you do a Google image search on your computer with the phrase “Jesus and children” you will see dozens of inspiring pictures of Jesus surrounded by adoring youngsters.  In some pictures there’s a child in his lap.  In others, he stands facing a group of children with outstretched arms.  In every picture, Jesus is beaming at their upturned faces and the whole scene is bathed is a warm, glowing light.  These charming pictures project an image of innocent children playing at the feet of a gentle and loving Jesus.  The message these pictures convey is clearly that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!

But this familiar scene of Jesus with children is a very modern interpretation of attitudes towards children. The idealized vision doesn’t accurately reflect the actual relationship between children and adults in the New Testament era.  Social scientists and religious commentators point out that the children of ancient Mediterranean culture weren’t valued in the same way we value children in modern Western culture.  Children in Jesus’ time had little status within the community. And like so many other low status groups of every time and place, children were treated as if they didn’t really exist; as if they were invisible.  A child of this era was most likely viewed as a “non-person” – particularly by the male population. (1)   It was adults – not children – who mattered.

So, for Jesus to tell his disciples to welcome a child in his name probably doesn’t give his disciples a very warm and fuzzy feeling!  It is – at the very least – shocking and probably insulting to them.  And it’s another example of how Jesus challenges the people around him to be in relationship with those who are the most powerless and vulnerable.  Jesus uses a lowly child to teach that God’s kingdom is not like the world the disciples are used to.  God’s kingdom is a reality where everything is upside down – where the last are first and the least are to be treated as the most welcomed.

Today’s Gospel doesn’t have the shock value for us that it had for its earliest listeners.  We aren’t the least bit insulted at the thought of paying special attention to a child.  Indeed, our culture values children in a way that was inconceivable at the time that Mark’s Gospel was written.  We promote childhood as a time of innocence – we don’t want our children to grow up too fast – we don’t want them to be exposed to the challenges of the world too soon.  The desire to treasure our children is deeply embedded in our modern culture and in the church.  So, how are we to understand this use of the imagery of children presented in today’s gospel in a contemporary context?  Is it possible that we too sometimes fail to see – and welcome – the children in our midst?

The spiritual nurture of children is one of the values the church promotes – it’s why we have Christian education programs for children.  But as much as we claim to value children, I sometimes wonder if we are misguided in how we view children within Christian community.  In a culture that encourages children’s participation in all kinds of activities – even on Sunday mornings – commitment to bringing children to church on a regular basis has dwindled. And even when children are at church, the ways in which we interact with them is often lacking. It’s not that we don’t “do” things with children at church.  Parents want and churches provide all kinds of programs for kids. But I wonder if we – as Christian communities – ever take the time to be self-reflective about how to fully support and nurture the spiritual growth of the children in our community?

Spiritual growth is a core value for all Christians and it begins for many people in their childhood.  Take a moment to think about your childhood experience of church if you went to church as a child.  What was that like?  Did you feel safe?  Did you feel loved?  Did you feel seen and heard and valued for who you were as a child?  Were questions allowed?  Were you encouraged to explore and express your own thoughts and ideas about God and Jesus?  Was the God of your childhood one that sustained you into adulthood?

Questions like these matters because what we think children should get out of church shapes how we treat children in church.  Having lots of programs for children may look like a great thing. But having programs for children is not the same thing as being in relationship with children.  One of the biggest misconceptions about children and church, in my opinion, is that if children are seen “doing” lots of things, the assumption is that we are doing our job of raising them as Christians.  And “doing things” seems good in a culture that values busyness over idleness.  But it may not be very good spiritual formation for a child.  Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • It’s a common occurrence in churches to ask children to perform for us.   It’s wonderful to see children singing an anthem or playing a part in the annual Christmas pageant – and some children love doing it.  We praise and applaud their efforts.  But is it possible that performing for adults, even if it’s in church, is simply that – a performance; a way to be noticed for those children who love being actors or singers?  And does having children perform for us result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Oftentimes children are asked to create something to be used by the church or to give as a gift to someone.  Many children are very creative and having things made by children is very cute. And who doesn’t love to see a child’s artwork on display? We praise and applaud their efforts. But does having children create something for someone else result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
  • Most – if not all – churches have space dedicated to children.  Children are used to being segregated into a different space than adults.  And segregation has its advantages.  It allows adults to have an experience together without the distractions that children naturally provide.  And it allows children to have experiences together without being overwhelmed by adults.  But when we separate our children from ourselves, we run the risk of communicating the unspoken message that they are not welcome to be part of the community – at least temporarily.  What does that do to the spiritual formation of the child?

Please don’t misunderstand me!  I’m not saying that any of these scenarios are necessarily bad.  Singing a song during a church service can help a child feel more connected to the worshipping community.  Being Mary or Joseph or a shepherd or an angel can help a child experience the sense of awe that is at the heart of our faith story.  And having time and space where children are the focus of attention and able to build community with one another is important. But it is also important to examine the assumptions we make about children and how our actions affect children.

I hope that we can all agree that the wellbeing of children matters to us – both in the church and in the world. So, our obligation to support and honor children also extends beyond the doors of St. Timothy’s.  And we don’t have to look very far to find other children whose needs should be just as important to us as the needs of our own children.  Just go outside, look across the patio, and you will see Noah’s Ark – which is St. Timothy’s preschool.  Noah’s Ark is an important part of St. Timothy’s outreach to children and families in the San Ramon Valley.  And this very special preschool honors the whole child – including the needs and challenges of individual children – in its philosophy of child development.  It has experienced, dedicated teachers who work unbelievably hard to help children grow socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

Noah’s Ark is a wonderful model of how to provide the care and nurture that all children deserve. And yet I wonder how connected we are to this critical ministry to children?  There was a time when Noah’s Ark had over 100 children attending the school with more children on a waiting list.  But times have changed.  The combination of the recent economic decline and the introduction of a transitional kindergarten in the public school system had a tremendously detrimental effect on preschools including Noah’s Ark.  And no matter how dedicated the Noah’s Ark staff is or how hard they work to provide a program with integrity and respect for children, they need help to remain a vital outreach ministry for this church community.  So, I wonder what we can do to support Noah’s Ark as they endeavor to support deeper spiritual formation for the children in their midst?

Whether it’s a child in here or out there, we are called as a community to nurture and foster the wellbeing of all children.  We are called to support children on their faith journey.  And we are called to appreciate children for who they are, not what they can do for us.  That is what it means to be a servant to all – especially the youngest and most powerless among us.  Where do children feel welcomed?  Where do they feel excluded? And what can we do to support, empower and treasure each child as a gift from God given to our care?  These are questions that matter because how we welcome and include children is the measure of how we welcome Christ into our church and into our lives – and not only Christ, but also the One who sent him…..

Sources:

(1)     Malina, Bruce J. & Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (2003).  Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 336.  Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.

© Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church

Danville, California

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St. Paul’s Walnut Creek 125th Anniversary

Dear Members of the Contra Costa Deanery,
In 1887 St. Paul‘s began as a church springing from Grace Church in Martinez. That was 125 years ago and we are celebrating in various ways throughout the year. We will kick off our celebrations with a Pentecost Eve liturgy on Saturday, May 26 at 5pm followed by a reception in the Parish Hall. Bishop Marc will be the principle celebrant.
We invite all parishes of the deanery to celebrate with us. Also, we are asking all clergy to vest and process into the service (red/festive stoles). In addition, we’ll be inviting all clergy raised up from St. Paul’s and all clergy who have served at St. Paul’s (former rectors/associates). Just to be sure we don’t miss anyone, I am asking those of you who know clergy that fall into those categories to send me names and if you have it, please send their contact information (email  and/or phone) so that we can double check our lists.
We planned a Saturday Pentecost celebration to encourage you and members of your church to come and honor us with your presence. Our reception will not be a sit down dinner, but we’ll have enough food to qualify as a complete meal so plan to stay and share the meal.
Please send your RSVP to our parish office at 925-934-2324 and/or by email at: info@stpaulswc.org by May 15th.
Blessings, Sylvia+

Disciples in the Dougherty Valley

Notes from the October 15th Workshop on Collaborative Ministry at St. Clare’s Pleasanton.  If you were there please add your comments to this post.

No, we are not wandering in the wilderness!

It was a wonderfully sunny autumn day in Pleasanton, California as we pulled into the parking lot at St. Clare’s Episcopal Church for a workshop on Church Growth in the Dougherty Valley.  Rector Ron Culmer was decamped in a folding lawn chair at the cashier’s table for the parish rummage sale to raise money for youth ministry.  He had not slept much overnight while the “lock in” of kids took place in the church.   But he called our workshop crowd of 20 people from across the Diocese to prayer with his call to the Holy Spirit to fill us up and send us out to roll up our sleeves and get to work out in the vineyard.

It was altogether a wonderful day.

Bringing people together in community is our first step in sharing the Good News.  That was the message Shelton Ensley the project manager for the three congregations, St. Clare’s Pleasanton, St. Bartholomew’s Livermore and St. Timothy’s Danville, reported as he explained the task before them.

Bishop Marc has asked these three congregations to not only define the mission and ministry needs of this vast developing area at the edge of the Diocese of California but also to model collaboration ministry as a great ‘lab experiment’ for the vitality of our church future.

Collaboration is the current day term for what Jesus might call discipleship.  Ron Culmer reminded us that the common mistake today is to think of the church as being in the membership business and even our own church growth program talks about growing average Sunday attendance, membership and pledge units—-but instead we should see ourselves in the discipleship business and invite others to join us.

You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Questions

We laughed about that line as the project team described the rich multicultural nature of the Dougherty Valley area with a large Asian population from many nations, many languages, many faith traditions.  But that is the challenge the church faces in our future.  How do we reach out to many different cultures and communicate in ways that is welcoming and open, respectful yet transparent about our own faith journey testimony.

How do we ‘do church’ in a geography spread out in valleys and beyond the next hill where small Episcopal congregations live at the boundaries of old growth and new growth, old ways and new ways, and minister to such diverse needs as three generation households where the oldest generation may not speak English, may not drive, may not have a support system like they once had.  How do we minister to the needs of kids who often are the translator bridge between generations yet are growing up in an American culture vastly different that their grandparents could have imagined.  How do we reach out to working parents leading busy lives with competing demands for their time.

You have questions, we have questions

The Dougherty Valley project is designed to find ways to be in community with this new community.  To reach out and talk to people, to listen to their views and needs, to find ways to bring the message of Jesus to those who are open to hearing it without turning off those who are not yet ready.  The Dougherty Valley project is designed to get three congregations and the Diocese to work together outside their comfort zones to try new things, explore new ideas for doing church, and focus on building community beyond church that keeps the conversation going.

You have question, we have questions

We do know this—God has given us this wonderful opportunity to be disciples.  He has set before us a “project” that is not like anything and or anyplace we have tried before to serve.  He is challenging us to be open and transparent about our own personal testimony about why Jesus is important in our lives.

He is calling on us to be the Body of Christ and invite others to join us and do it in the ‘languages of the people’.

The Dougherty Valley project is our Pentecost—-how will we respond?

Here are some resources we learned about at Saturday’s Workshop:

Let Me In!

Jesus
Image via Wikipedia

Help me discover Jesus in my life and support me on my personal faith journey.

Help me give my kids a good faith foundation that will guide their lives.

Give me options to pray, worship and serve others on my terms, in my time available.

Help me be in community with others who share my faith and welcome me as I am.

Spare me from church politics and the hassles that get in the way of my faith journey.

These simple yet powerful messages are the hope of the church. They symbolize the deep spiritual faith of people who love God and seek Christ but often see church practices as out of touch and in the way of true community.

We did not just dream this stuff up in the Church Growth Program.  There are many surveys and studies on why the church is in decline.  The words are often evasive or designed not to offend but the messages are clear.

The younger we are the more turned off we have become by the old ways of doing church.  The people of the church are ‘not like me’ you often hear it said.  The people in church are judgmental and don’t want to hear anything different.  I don’t feel welcome there.

Instead of becoming the Body of Christ are we turning into the Pharisees instead?

Think about the plaintive yearning of the messages above—think about what the people are telling us.

“Let me in!”

Does Growth = Evangelism?

Evangelism is kind of a dirty word in the Episcopal Church.  We don’t use it much.  We don’t teach much about it and what it meant to Jesus and why it should mean something to us today. Evangelism is not politically correct.

But spreading the Good News is what Jesus set out to do and why He gathered around Him a group to multiply His efforts.

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Growing the church again after years of steady decline in membership, attendance and pledge support is a challenge facing every mainline denomination. For the Episcopal Church in the United States the decline has averaged -3.3% per year in the key metrics. For the Diocese of California, the implications of this are profound.

At that current rate of decline, the Episcopal Diocese of Caifornia will have one-half the pledge units (<5000) in 2022 than it had in 2000. Similar decline in membership and average Sunday attendance means the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone vitality.

The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in family religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and other places. And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences. Then there are the endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church seem less inviting, less safe, less home.

The church has a big problem, but the Holy Spirit is calling us to trust Him with these burdens and follow our own Great Commission to go out there and make disciples of all the nations—starting with our neighbors. This is not a message we hear very much in the Episcopal Church because we have not had a theological tradition of being evangelists.

What is it about evangelism that turns us off?

Maybe evangelism threatens our sense of safety?  We like it in our congregational silos where we go through the motions and feel comforted by the sameness of the ritual.  Most congregations I have belonged to have the same blinders on seeing themselves as unique and the idea of collaboration with others is something we assign to outreach performed safely from a distance.  We’d rather send money than roll up our sleeves and work in the vineyard ourselves.

Growing the church is about growing community—and being in communities that thrive on faith, and love and the joy of being the Body of Christ means doing His work in the vineyard we are given to tend. It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples inviting others to join us. To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.

Matthew 10:40-42:

“Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ probably was not designed to mean shaking hands at the church door each Sunday and calling it quits for the week.  Could it be that the church is no longer growing because we are no longer growing as the true Body of Christ?  Are we guilty of just going through the motions?

Evangelism is not electrifying our sanctuary adding movie screens and professional bands like the Evangelicals have tried.  Oh it brought in a crowd alright, but they only stayed as long as you kept on entertaining them.  The current research suggests that the half-life of that approach to church growth may be short as the growth rate of the megachurches on average is now flat after years of big increases. Why?  Probably for a lot of the same reasons mainline churches has declined—we lost sight of the real reason we showed up in the first place.

1 Corinthians 14:26

“So here is what I want you to do. When you gather for worship, each one you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight.”

Get the message?

A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000 – 2010

Despite ‘bursts of innovation and pockets of vitality’, the last decade has produced a slow, overall erosion of the strength of America’s congregations, according to the Faith Communities Today series of national surveys of American congregations prepared by David Roozen.

A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010, tells us that in 2010, one in four congregations had less than 50 people in the pews. While the number of megachurches doubled in the last decade, the growth of the Evangelical church seems has leveled off and some congregations beginning to shrink.

Roozen said the two big trends in the survey results are the ageing of mainline congregations and the ‘halted growth of the Evangelical church’.

“What’s interesting is how old the Oldine really is,” he said. “Half of the congregations could lose one-third of their members in 15 years.” Over half (53 percent) of Oldine Protestant congregations consists of seniors 65 years old or older, and 75 percent of these churches said that 18-34 year olds make up less than 10 percent of their membership. 

The church is losing older members to disabilities or death and there are no young adults to take their place. Young adults aren’t really abundant in the Evangelical churches either. “The Evangelical growth movement has basically halted and begun to retreat,” he said. Additionally, the study found a steep drop in financial health and continuing high levels of conflict that is turning people off.

The FACT Surveys were conducted in 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2010 and the decade brought the following changes:

  • Increase in innovative, adaptive worship
  • Surprisingly rapid adoption of electronic technologies
  • Dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups
  • Increase in the breadth of both member-oriented and mission-oriented programs
  • Increase in connection across faith traditions

One  indicator of church health and vitality Roozen found was that more churches are turning to contemporary worship. In 2010 electric guitars and drums were found in one in four congregations, a 14 percent increase from 2000. Evangelical churches were the early adaptors of contemporary worship, but it has now gained a strong foothold in mainline churches as well. Roozen said the research shows contemporary worship is a catalyst of spiritual vitality, especially when it was combined with other innovative worship practices.

The bottom line according to the FACT surveys is fewer persons in the pews and decreasing spiritual vitality, but we should not give up hope since mainline churches are beginning to face the reality of church decline and make changes to arrest it.

You Lost Me

Teens Leave Churches Seen As Judgmental, Unfriendly According To New Book ‘You Lost Me’.

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service – Huffington Post

(RNS) Why do young Christians leave the church?

New research by the Barna Group finds they view churches as judgmental, overprotective, exclusive and unfriendly towards doubters. They also consider congregations antagonistic to science and say their Christian experience has been shallow.

The findings, the result of a five-year study, are featured in “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith,” a new book by Barna president David Kinnaman. The project included a study of 1,296 young adults who were current or former churchgoers.

  • Researchers found that almost three out of five young Christians (59 percent) leave church life either permanently or for an extended period of time after age 15.
  • One in four 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church.” One in three said “Church is boring.”
  • Clashes between church expectations and youths’ experience of sexuality have driven some away. One in six young Christians said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.”
  • 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Catholics said their church’s doctrine on sexuality and birth control is “out of date.”

Kinnaman called the problem of young dropouts from church “particularly urgent” since many churches are used to “traditional” young adults who leave home, get educated, find a job and start a family before age 30.

“Churches are not prepared to handle the ‘new normal,”‘ said Kinnaman. “However, the world for young adults is changing in significant ways, such as their remarkable access to the world and worldviews via technology, their alienation from various institutions, and their skepticism toward external sources of authority, including Christianity and the Bible.”