Advent for the Liturgically Challenged

advent-candle11I can still remember the First Sunday of Advent, 1996. 


One of our church families came forward and gathered around the wreath to light the first candle of the season.  A litany was read from the pulpit, and then the oldest son (who must have been about twelve at the time) struck one of those big, wooden kitchen matches and lit the candle of Hope.  Afterwards, he held the match up to his lips and blew it out, blowing out the flame of the candle at the same time.  The congregation gasped.  There was an awkward pause before he realized his mistake and corrected it by striking another match and lighting the candle again, and then blowing out the match—and the candle—again.  This time, the congregation laughed out loud.  What else could we do?


We Baptists aren’t all that good at liturgy.  On the First Sunday of Advent, 2006, at First Baptist, Washington (“a church of Baptist tradition and ecumenical perspective”), I handed a brass taper to a new member who comes from the Anglican church and asked him if he knew how to handle one of those things.  A taper, as you probably already know, is the proper name for one of those fancy candle-lighting thingamajigs.  “Oh, yes,” he said with a smile.  And then I asked if he would be interested in serving as a “candle consultant” (remembering the near-disaster of All Saints’ Sunday a few weeks before when we had tried to light candles for all those we had loved and lost and nearly lost a few more in the process). 


Baptists are not all that good at liturgy, but one of the reasons First Baptist, DC, tried to cultivate an “ecumenical perspective” is that there is much to be learned from the larger household of our faith. 


This matter of observing the seasons of the Christian year, for example, holds the promise of making every worship experience richer.  At First Baptist, Richmond, we wait with breathless anticipation for the coming of Christ in Advent; we walk with him, trembling, toward the cross in the season of Lent; we crash cymbals and sound horns in celebration of his resurrection at Easter.  Along with those broad themes are the colors and sounds and smells of the seasons.  Advent begins in darkness, with the flame of Hope sputtering on its charred wick.  We sing our hymns in minor keys.  We drape the church in purple.  But as the other candles are lit in the weeks that follow—peace, and joy, and love—the sense of expectancy is heightened, and when the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve, the mood shifts suddenly and dramatically.  The church is filled with light.  Deep purple is replaced by brilliant white and gold.  The minor key modulates into the major and suddenly it is nothing but joy to the world, the Lord is come!


Hope to see you in church this Sunday.

If the Vote Were Taken Today…

I wasn’t able to attend last month’s deacons’ meeting, but I gave the deacons an assignment anyway.   

The meeting was on November 11, just a couple of weeks after our “Holy Conversations” on baptism and church membership.  Some of the deacons wanted to discuss the issue at that meeting, but I asked them to hold their thoughts and instead spend a month praying over it.  I printed up a slip of paper they could tape to their bathroom mirrors, where they would see it every day and be reminded to pray.  This is what it said:

“While we will continue to make disciples the way we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—is it possible God is leading us to change our membership requirements, to open the door of the church a little wider in order to welcome Christians from other denominations who have been discipled in different ways?”

So, when the deacons meet this Tuesday night, I will be interested to learn what they have heard from God in the last thirty days. 

We still won’t be discussing the issue.  We will probably save that until January when the new deacons have rotated on and the old deacons have rotated off.  At that meeting we will try to make a decision about whether or not to bring this issue to the church for a vote.  In the meantime I would be interested to know what you think.  Please take a moment to answer the question below, and encourage your friends and fellow church members to do the same.  You can send them a link to this website or just call them or text them and say, “Take the poll on JimsBlog!’

And when you’ve finished voting, please pray that our careful consideration of this issue—rather than dividing us—would serve to bring us closer to Christ and to each other.

Making Disciples, or Drawing a Crowd?

The article printed below is from Leadership Journal, but it seemed so relevant to the conversations we’ve been having about the church lately that I wanted to post it here.  The author, Walt Kallestad, confesses that he was willing to do almost anything to get people to come to church, even if it meant turning worship into entertainment.  I don’t think Richmond’s First Baptist Church is in any danger of becoming only “a show,” but this article warns us against thinking that attendance figures are the most important thing. 


“Showtime!” No More

Could our church shift from performance to mission?

by Walt Kallestad | posted 11/26/2008 11:49AM

My first Sunday back from some time away, I sat in the worship service and wept. It struck me as such a production, so performance driven. In a word, it was shallow. I couldn’t believe this had happened on my watch.

On the surface, all was well. I was a megachurch pastor with invitations to speak at conferences, write books, and mingle with dignitaries. Our church had state of the art facilities next to a major freeway. But that was on the surface. Deep down inside, I was mortified at what we’d become. We had to change. We just couldn’t keep going like this. Not anymore.

When I arrived in Phoenix to lead 200-member Community Church of Joy, my whole desire was to reach people—really, at my core I am an evangelist. Any day that I get to tell someone about Jesus is a good day for me. I long to see those who aren’t following Jesus transformed by the Spirit of God into empowered disciples.

Within a few years of assuming the helm at Joy, I was invited to a gathering of large-church pastors to dream about the future together. We envisioned what the church might 1ook like for a new generation. At the gathering, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and others exchanged ideas about how to build a church “for people who don’t go to church.” Like men of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32), we understood our times, at least for the 1980s and beyond. We knew that people didn’t want to give anything, sing anything, or do anything—they wanted anonymity, not community. They didn’t want theology lectures; they wanted to be entertained and inspired. So we set out to give them exactly what they wanted.

The concept came together for me while standing in a line at a Dallas Cineplex waiting to see the Batman premiere.

The only way to capture people’s attention is entertainment, I thought. If I want people to listen to my message, I’ve got to present it in a way that grabs their attention long enough for me to communicate the gospel.

It was an epiphany, a breakthrough understanding for me. So our church strategy revolved around the gravitational force of entertainment for evangelism. We hired the best musicians we could afford; we used marketing principles and programming specialists—for the gospel’s sake. Attendance skyrocketed. More people meant more staff, more programs, more facilities, more land, and of course the need for more money. We became a program-driven church attracting consumers looking for the latest and greatest religious presentations.

For us, worship was a show, and we played to a packed house. We grew by thousands, bought more land, and positioned ourselves to reach even more people. Not that any of this is wrong in and of itself—people coming to faith in Christ isn’t bad. I told myself it was good—I told others it was good. But now I was beginning to wonder if I’d led my church down a wrong path.

The show was killing me.

Attracting consumers was consuming me—not in the way vision consumes a leader. It was the opposite of that—I was losing sight of the vision. Our church was a great organization. But something was missing. We weren’t accomplishing our mission; we weren’t creating transformed, empowered disciples.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

The Best “Hanging of the Green” Service Ever

30wreath1Lately I’ve been thinking about how the church will have to change to reach a world that seems less and less interested in churchgoing.  That’s part of my job as a pastor, to look down the road a few years, especially if I’m sitting in the driver’s seat: I don’t want to steer the church in the wrong direction.  But I also don’t want to miss the party that’s going on in the back seat.

Last Sunday, for example.

For years Richmond’s First Baptist Church has been celebrating the First Sunday of Advent with an evening service called “The Hanging of the Green” (notice that it’s not “Hanging of the Greens.”  That what we used to call it, apparently, but the Green family was offended and threatened to leave the church if we tried to hang even one of them.  So we started calling it “Hanging of the Green” instead).  I hadn’t been to this service before, not here, and wondered about these cryptic emails that started showing up in my inbox with references to the “H.O.G.” 

But on Sunday evening everybody seemed to know what to expect.  The church was packed, with children, youth, parents, and grandparents filling up the sanctuary and spilling over the balcony.  We opened the sanctuary doors and someone rang the big bell in the courtyard as a call to Advent.  Candi Brown welcomed us to worship and Becky Payne played a beautiful organ prelude.

It was sometime during the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” that things started to come undone.  The youth were hanging fresh pine garland and wreaths around the balcony railing when one of the wreaths slipped off its hook and crashed onto three or four hymn singers below.  No one was injured, and they were all good natured about it, but it was the first of several mishaps that night.

Someone stepped on the power cord that supplied the huge, bass speaker the deaf choir depends on to feel the beat of the song they were supposed to sign (that’s not a typo: the deaf choir doesn’t sing, it signs).  As a result they weren’t sure when to start signing, or when to stop signing, and simply had to do their very best to follow the uncertain lead of their leader, who was feeling the loss of that big, bass speaker.  I think they were all a little embarrassed, but the congregation gave them an enthusiastic ovation, putting their hands in the air and waving wildly to signify loud applause.

And then Matthew Brown stepped to the pulpit to tell us he was not Rick Whittington.  Rick and his family were supposed to light the Advent candle but they were not feeling well and therefore not able to come to church even though their names were in the bulletin.  Matthew gladly offered to fill in but somehow the word didn’t get to his family, so as he stood there he invited them to come forward and join him at the wreath, only…no one came.  He asked again, and again, and finally he said, “Are any of you here?”  That’s when his four-year-old son Jonathan stepped into the aisle and said, “Daddy, I’m right here!” in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

And we all laughed out loud.  Why wouldn’t we?  Wreaths were falling, equipment was malfunctioning, and whole families were failing to report for candle duty, but the First Baptist family let out a belly laugh that let everyone know it was OK—OK to be human, OK to make a few mistakes, OK not to be perfect—we were all God’s children in that moment and it was all perfectly OK with Him.

Later I heard someone describe the service as a “comedy of errors,” and in a way it was, but in another way it was a celebration of humanity in all its awkward, adorable imperfection.  I sat there for the rest of the service with a smile on my face, shaking my head and thinking,

“It’s no wonder God loves the world so much.”

Fifty Years from Now, Part 2

signexitledrdI noticed a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog site yesterday, and it wasn’t because of the funny Advent story about Donald, or the sobering reminder of the AIDS pandemic, it was because people were reading the post called “Fifty Years from Now, Will We Still Be Doing This?” (or maybe they just wanted to push the button on the nifty polling device).

I’ve been surprised by the results of that poll.  When I last checked, 41 percent of respondents thought we would still be doing church the same way fifty years from now; 39 percent thought the church would be bigger and stronger than ever; while only 20 percent thought the church would have evolved into something else by then, perhaps a collection of house churches.  The results suggest that the people reading my blog are either a) stubbornly optimistic or, b) woefully uninformed (smile).  There is a third option, of course, and that is that my readers are believers who know that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

That’s true.  But let’s take a look at the facts:

According to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002.  In 2005, instead of asking people “Do you attend church regularly?” sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler asked them, “Did you attend church last Sunday?” and got numbers closer to 22 percent of the total population.  You don’t even have to know the facts to know that churchgoing in America has changed significantly in the last fifty years.  How will it change in the next fifty? 

While the movement Jesus started will never die, the institutional church seems to be in trouble.  I remember hearing Biship William H. Willimon report, years ago, that the United Methodist Church was losing 2,000 members each day.  Even strong, evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, once thought to be immune to such decline, have shown a recent downturn in membership.  Those churches that are thriving, mostly megachurches, tend to achieve their success through agressive church growth strategies that often minimize the demands of the gospel.  

First Baptist, Richmond, has been able to maintain its vitality largely through its television ministry, which reaches an estimated 20,000 people each week.  While other downtown churches are struggling, our sanctuary remains comfortably full on Sunday, and the visitors and new members who come to us often say they first saw us “on TV.”  Still, the people who actually come into our building each week represent less than a third of our total membership.   And of those estimated 20,000 people who watch our services now we need to ask how many will be watching ten years from now?  Or thirty?  Or fifty?

I’m still reading Julia Duin’s book (Quitting Church), and I’m still asking people what they think the future holds.  I’m finding that many of them, instead of being depressed by the statistics, are excited about how the church might change.  One of those people is my friend and colleague Amy Butler, pastor of Washington, DC’s, Calvary Baptist Church.  If you’d like to read her thoughts, click here.  If you’d like to join the conversation, click on the word “comments” below and let me know what you’re thinking.  And if you’d rather just click the button on one of those nifty polling devices, try this one:

Forgetting to Remember World AIDS Day

2098276910_39ea0cbbb71Today is World AIDS Day.


I know because I just went to Starbucks where all the baristas were wearing red aprons and where five cents of every purchase went to help people around the world living with HIV/AIDS. 


I was a little embarrassed that it took Starbucks to remind me.  For years in Washington I participated in the annual AIDS Walk.  Our church would put together a team of walkers, and together raise as much money as we could to help the Whitman-Walker Clinic.  We would all walk together, enjoying the camaraderie and the feeling that we were doing something to help.  One year I raised over a thousand dollars and earned a snazzy fleece vest.  Another year I ran the course early because I had to catch a flight later that morning.  But the year I remember best is the one where they asked me to write down the name of the person I was walking for.


I can’t mention his name here, but he was a member of one of my churches who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion years earlier.  He was a happily married man—a father and grandfather—and the thought of dying of AIDS terrified him.  He didn’t want anyone else to know about it, but he talked to me confidentially and—very confidentially—we made some tentative plans for his funeral.


That was back in the day when AIDS almost always led to death.  These days things are better.  Being HIV Positive is not necessarily a death sentence.  Thanks to fund-raising efforts like the AIDS Walk and what Starbucks is doing today, people can live with AIDS almost indefinitely.  It’s not cheap, but it can be done, and because it can my former church member can rest a little easier.


Of course we haven’t solved the problem.  AIDS continues to ravage the continent of Africa, where there are millions of deaths each year and millions of children who have been orphaned.  I remember the Sunday in DC when I visited with an articulate young man from Nigeria who eventually admitted that he was one of those people—an AIDS orphan.  He showed me the statistics and they were heartbreaking.  A million orphans in his country alone, with millions of others across the continent.


So, I’m embarrassed that it took a trip to Starbucks to remind me that today is World AIDS Day.  I should have known that when I woke up this morning.  It should have gone off in my head like an alarm clock, accompanied by the picture of that young man’s face, and my friend and former church member, and all those people who live in the shadow of this devastating disease.


Please don’t let me forget it again.