“Do Something!”

I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

Transitions

On Tuesday of this week, my brother Gray helped get my dad into a nursing home.  It’s been a long struggle.  For the past three-and-a-half years Dad has suffered from severe anxiety and depression, lying on the couch during the day and tossing and turning at night.  It’s such a change from the man I’ve always known, who was optimistic, energetic, and enthusiastic, ready to change the world or chop a load of firewood, whichever was needed most.  We’re not really sure what happened.  My mom thinks it started when he stripped a piece of furniture and spent three weeks in the presence of those strong fumes.  The doctors disagree, and they’ve experimented with a raft of psychotropic drugs.  Nothing seems to help. 

And so Dad went to the hospital last week mostly because he lacked the will to get out of bed.  Mom called the doctor, who suggested that they meet him at the hospital.  After four days there, and a full battery of tests, a nursing home seemed like the best option.  My brother Gray, who lives in the same town (and who has been absolutely heroic in the care of my parents) sent this message to his five brothers at the end of  a long day on Tuesday:

Dear Brothers,

Today was a good day.

I picked up Dad and Mom from the hospital at about 2:00 and drove them to the nursing home. We were warmly greeted by a number of friendly staff members and taken immediately to Dad’s room. While the nurses went through the check-in process and helped Dad unpack, I took Mom for a tour, including a stop by the ice cream parlor where she made Dad an ice cream cone. By the time we got back, Dad was all settled in. I left Mom to visit with Dad, went and did all the paperwork and then dashed back to the office for a meeting. When I returned around 5:30, Mom was all smiles and Dad seemed totally content.

Dad’s is sharing a room with a very sweet and alert 90 year old man who worked in the CCC camps during the Great Depression and later served in the Navy. His sister and brother were visting from out of town and were very reassuring about what a nice place this nursing home is. That was really encouraging to all of us.

All of the staff that we worked with, or just bumped into while we were touring around, were super nice, cheerful and patient. A nurse and a physical therapist got a complete run-down on Dad’s medications, medical history, and current physical condition. I think Dad appreciated the professionalism and it probably didn’t hurt that they were both young, pretty, and sweet.

Mom was absolutely thrilled. She couldn’t believe what a nice place it was and that we could actually afford it. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see so pleased with our choice. She had been really determined to go the Presbyterian Home and I was afraid that she wouldn’t like any other option.

When we left the nursing home, Mom and I spent about 45 minutes practicing how to get to there. (It’s only a mile or so away from one of the hospitals that she has been to repeatedly, so we just had to practice on that small stretch of unfamiliar road.) It was cute. A lot like giving driving lessons to your teenager.  After a few tries, she seemed to have it down pat.

I think it will be a couple of weeks before we really  have a feel for how this is going to work, but like I said, it was a very good day.

With love,

Gray

Anyone who has helped a parent into a nursing home knows what a difficult decision it can be, and how many emotions are attached to that move.  I’m surprised by how grateful and relieved I feel at the moment.  Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.  Maybe it will.  But for now I’m simply thankful that such a good place exists, and that my dad is there.

And that my mom can bring him an ice cream cone.

You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!

My friend Drexel Rayford got a whole sermon out of this YouTube clip from that classic film, “A Christmas Story.”  The sermon was about how anxiety can kill the joy of Christmas.  I haven’t heard it yet, but the last scene in this clip—where the sole of Santa’s black boot comes slowly toward Ralphie’s hopeful face—is an excellent illustration of joy-killing anxiety.  What do you think?  Is there a sermon in there?