Ashley Goes To Church

A church beyond beliefMy friend Bill Sachs has written a new book called A Church Beyond Belief (co-authored by Michael Bos).  He gave me a copy last week when we were having coffee together, and said it was a book about how young people find a place in church these days.  He said, “We used to think you had to believe before you could belong.  Now it seems that young people need to belong before they can believe.”

I was intrigued, and the next morning, sitting at my kitchen table, I read through the first few pages.  This is what I read:

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One Sunday morning it occurred to Ashley that she might visit a church. As she awakened, the thought lingered—it amused her. She smiled as coffee finished brewing and she poured a cup. Once visiting a church had been the farthest thing from her mind. Faith seemed like a crutch for the old and weak. Churches seemed irrelevant. Now she was exploring them.

As a student Ashley was confident of her abilities and certain of her future. She moved smoothly through high school and entered a good college. There she began to envision a career and her personal life. Graduation was followed by a job where she began to advance. The young man she had dated became her husband. The world was set, just as Ashley intended.

But Ashley’s world did not become what she had expected. The happiness she anticipated never materialized. For reasons she was still sorting out, both she and her husband had affairs. Counseling did not help, they divorced, and disappeared quickly from each other’s lives. “It’s the only thing we did well,” she mused. “We had nothing spiritual in common,” she thought often.

Ashley paused again at the word “spiritual.” As she sipped coffee, she tried to remember when “spiritual” matters gained priority and even what the word meant to her. Was it when she lost her job, or when she joined a women’s book group? Did “spirituality” awaken when a new job took her across the country? She handled the job fine, but her personal life almost came unglued. Involvement with a married man and evenings with scotch became a downward spiral. Comments at work about sloppy performance struck home. She ended both destructive ties.

Along the way “spirituality” became a key reference point. But more questions than answers surfaced: What did she believe and where did she belong? As these questions bore in on her, Ashley knew she needed to search, and as she searched the questions intensified. Was she alone or were there other people facing similar challenges? Was there something she could believe in that could give her deep roots in life? Was there something beyond her vague, agnostic existence? Was there a group of people with whom she might seek answers together? As these questions came into focus, the thought of attending a church first crossed Ashley’s mind.

Initially the thought surprised her. It was uncomfortable and odd. A church? At first Ashley doubted there could be a congregation for her. Laughing at this bizarre idea, several friends discouraged her. The images of churches were not appealing. Ashley imagined stern morality and threats of eternal judgment. She imagined being coerced to believe ideas that were absurd or to take sides in disputes that seemed pointless. Ashley wanted belief and belonging churches did not seem likely to offer. But she resolved to explore a few congregations. Telling no one, and hoping not to be recognized, she set off one cold Sunday morning.

How will Ashley be received when she comes to church?  How would she be received at your church?  What can we do to give people like Ashley a warm welcome, food for the soul, and a place to call home?  If you’d like to read more of Bill’s book, you can get more information by clicking HERE.

A Sermon for Every Sunday


Well, here’s something you may not have known:

For several months now I have been working on a project called “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” which was conceived as a way to help small, struggling churches that don’t have preachers, but has evolved to include churches in the interim, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Wednesday night programs, and Sunday school classes.

The idea is simple enough: with some help from my friend David Powers I have been recording sermons by some of America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the liturgical year, so that when those small, preacherless churches get to the Third Sunday of Advent (for example) they can simply push a button and hear a sermon from Bishop Michael Curry (above).  Other “Every Sunday” preachers are William Willimon, Brian McLaren, Lauren Winner, David Lose, Brian Blount, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Andrew Foster Connors, Grace Imathiu, Rolf Jacobson, Gary Charles, and Karoline Lewis.

How does it work? Here’s a possible scenario, straight from the website:

Imagine that the bright young pastor of a country church is called to a church in the big city…

The congregation is faced with a decision: do we call another pastor?  Can we afford to?  They hear about “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” a way to get America’s best preachers into America’s small churches, house churches, Bible studies and small groups–on video.  They decide to give it a try, at least in the interim.

With the money they save they buy a big, flat-screen TV and a quality DVD player.  They put the lectern on one side of the chancel and the TV on the other until the two are nicely balanced.  Some of the older members shake their heads.  They never thought they’d see such a thing in church, but again, it’s only for the interim.

On that first Sunday the English teacher at the local high school–a member of the church–leads the service.  She opens with the call to worship, announces the hymns, invites members of the congregation to read scripture and say prayers.  When it’s time for the sermon she reads the Gospel lesson and then nods to the high school student who has downloaded the video from the web site.  He pushes a button, and the congregation waits, breathlessly.

What they see is high-definition video of one of America’s best preachers, looking straight into the camera and preaching the Good News.  It’s as if he is talking only to them.  The sermon lasts 12-15 minutes, and when it’s over the congregation responds with a murmur of approval.  The English teacher steps back to the lectern and says, “I had a chance to watch the sermon last week, and I was thinking about how it applies to our context…”  She takes a few minutes to make some connections between what the church has just heard and what they live with every day, and then she moves on with the service.

When she greets them at the back door later even those older members have to admit, it’s been a good day in church.  And they want to know:

“Who’s preaching next week?”

Click on the link below to visit the website, and then, if you feel inclined, share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by word of mouth.  I’d like to make sure that the people who could benefit from such a service would have access to it before the launch date on November 28.

It may seem a little crazy—but in times like these, when churches are struggling and technology is everywhere—maybe not so crazy after all.

Click HERE to find out more.

 

Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

Old friends, two happy senior women talking in parkGuest blogger Becky Payne, church organist and friend of the elderly, shares a story about a recent event that truly brought heaven to earth.

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When our pastor, Jim Somerville, challenged our church to “bring the kingdom”, one of our members at Lakewood Manor, Bernice Rodgerson, was a bit puzzled about what she might do to participate in the challenge. At that time Bernice was not well and didn’t get out much. She and I talked about the possibilities and decided she could write notes and make phone calls to other senior adults who are homebound. I gave her several names of ladies in other retirement facilities and she began her “ministry” of encouragement.

Earlier in this year we were discussing one of her ladies and Bernice expressed a desire to visit her. I assured her I could make that happen. On a Wednesday afternoon mid-August Bernice and I went to visit Anne Poindexter. I watched with great joy as these friends greeted each other and talked non-stop for a lengthy time. Anne was happy to share refreshments with us as we talked about our church, our families and Anne’s upcoming 99th birthday. The excitement of these ladies and the sweetness of that visit is etched in my mind.

As we drove back to Lakewood Manor Bernice and I talked a bit about the other ladies she had been writing. You guessed it: this Friday Bernice and I will make the short trip to Gayton Terrace to visit with Betty Grubb!

How to Talk to A Complete Stranger about Church

man_walking_dogTwo Sundays ago, at the suggestion of preaching professor David Lose, I challenged my congregation to ask people if they go to church and if not, to ask them why.  I try never to ask my congregation to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and so, on the way home that day, I asked someone.  Here’s what happened, as reported on Facebook:

Actual conversation on my way home from church today:

“Excuse me,” I asked the stranger walking his dog on my street, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Honestly? Because a lot of churches are too judgmental.”

I told him I was a pastor and that I was trying to help my congregation be less judgmental. He asked where and I said First Baptist. He wanted to know where it was and what time we had services. And then he said this:

“I believe in God. In fact one night I was lying there in my bed and I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show me.’ And then my bedroom door opened, not once, not twice, but three times!” (tears came to his eyes, and he got choked up).

He asked again where my church was and then said, “I might not come to church, but if you want to talk to me on the street anytime, I’d be glad to.”

So, that was two weeks ago.  Last Sunday I saw the same guy on the same corner as I was walking home from church.  This is what happened:

He: Pastor Jim!

Me: Hey, aren’t you the guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago? What’s your name?

He: Edward.

Me: Right! You told me the story about knowing God was real because of your bedroom door opening and closing three times one night.

He: Right.

Me: I shared that story on Facebook! A lot of people were really moved by it.

He: I almost came to church today, except I didn’t wake up until 10:45. I work late, you know. But I am reading the Book of Isaiah.

Me: You’re kidding! I talked about Isaiah in today’s sermon. I said I thought it was a book Jesus grew up listening to, and one that helped him understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

He: Well, I’m on chapter 65, so…just one chapter to go.

Me: Good for you. That’s amazing! And listen, I hope you’ll come to church next week. We’re having one big worship service at 11:00 and then dinner on the grounds afterward. If you come I’ll buy your lunch!

He: Okay!

I don’t know what will happen next, but #churchjusthappened both times I talked to Edward.  Maybe you could try it yourself this week.  Somebody might be hoping for just that kind of conversation.

–Jim

What Is a Sabbatical?

ImageDear Readers:

I will be on sabbatical from June 8 through August 2, taking some much-appreciated time away for rest, travel, and study.  It’s the policy of Richmond’s First Baptist church to grant sabbatical leave to its ministers in the seventh year of their tenure.  I think it’s an excellent policy, and so does Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources and former Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Take a look at this article from his own blog:

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The word “sabbatical” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.

For the purpose of this article, I define sabbatical in simple terms. It simply means time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or, on rare occasions, a few months. The pastor is given paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and, perhaps, deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this requirement of their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.

I have the opportunity to work with lay leaders and pastors. I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks even beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.

1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions.

2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.

3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.

4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I do see the trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.

5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me a sentence similar to this one: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

I estimate that only about five percent of churches offer sabbaticals. In almost every case where I am familiar, the relationship between pastor and congregation is very healthy. I do think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.

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I hear you, Thom.  I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.

Right back at you, church.  I love you, too.

See you August 3!

Jim

 

Is this Man the Best Liar in America?

ImageShhhhh! Donald Davis is telling a story.

Actually, you don’t have to shush anybody when Davis is at work: his stories do it for you. The listeners lean forward, heads cocked in the direction of his voice, straining their ears for every word, and the words they hear often cause them to gasp, to sigh, or to laugh out loud.

Donald Davis is a storyteller, but he hasn’t always been. For twenty years he was a Methodist minister. But he couldn’t seem to keep the stories out of his sermons, not only the great biblical stories like Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions’ den, but also the stories about his own eccentric family members and some of the odd neighbors he had known through the years.

“I didn’t learn stories, I just absorbed them,” he says as he recounts tales and more tales learned from a family of traditional storytellers who have lived on the same Western North Carolina land since 1781. Davis grew up hearing gentle fairy tales, simple and silly Jack tales, scary mountain lore, ancient Welsh and Scottish folktales, and-most importantly-nourishing true-to-life stories of his own neighbors and kin.

It was Uncle Frank, a man who “talked in stories,” who helped Donald capture the real and daily adventures of life…and it was Uncle Frank who gave him the creative courage to tell about them.

Davis remembers, “I discovered that in a story I could safely dream any dream, hope any hope, go anywhere I pleased, fight any foe, win or lose, live or die. My stories created a safe experimental learning place.”

His congregation loved his sermons, but nobody dared call him a storyteller: in Western North Carolina if somebody said you were “telling a story” they meant you were telling a lie.

And you wouldn’t want to call your preacher a liar.

But Davis was good at it, so good that he eventually retired from the ministry to take up full-time storytelling. At the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where Davis has been a regular for decades, crowds pack the tent where he is telling. A fellow storyteller admits, “It is not a stretch to say that Donald is the top draw for the nearly 10,000 people who come to the National Storytelling Festival each year.” His books and CD’s always sell out first in the resource center, leading some to wonder:

“Is this man the best liar in America?”

Richmonders will have a chance to answer that question for themselves May 30 – June 1 when Davis comes to town for “America’s Best Storytellers,” a weekend festival to be held at the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the historic First Baptist Church at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard. Barbara McBride Smith, a champion storyteller from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will also be featured at the festival, along with Virginia storyteller and accomplished banjo picker Rex Ellis.

Festival organizer David Howell has recruited local radio and television personalities to emcee the event, and invited local storytellers to audition for a slot in the Sunday afternoon lineup. Maybe the best liar in America is right here in Richmond…

…just waiting to be discovered.

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Tickets are $35 for the weekend; $10 for Friday or Saturday evening only. To register or simply to get more information visit http://www.thebeststorytellers.com