Last week I talked about getting yourself into the door of a gym or church, and three ideas to think about when resolving to do so. This post is a follow-up to that one, and here I am thinking about ideas to consider when you are attending a bit more regularly. You are beyond just getting in the door, but are now a bit more comfortable with the surroundings: you know your machines, where to stretch, which piece of cardio equipment you use (or avoid), and have a general idea of who shows up at what time; in the church you have found out who does what, who sits where, who to talk to (and who to avoid), and have a sense of the church's mission.
My hope is that you have found a church that has authentic worship, small groups, and mission/ministries in the community or for the community that you can be involved with. Unfortunately many smaller towns have churches that are ... well ... struggling. I am going to be speaking about those small churches that may seem to have older congregations and fewer ministries. In fact, if you are just starting to attend a church you may be at the bigger one's with a wood pallet background and track lighting, but I want to encourage you to consider the churches I am talking about in this blog post.
These churches are like small gyms. They have all the right equipment, but some of it may be outdated. It still works, but might need some slight adjusting to bring about the results they were bringing and producing in the past. I like smaller gyms because I don't feel like I am getting swallowed up by all the options and all the people I do not know - or need to make small talk with!
So I am going to give you a "fly on the wall" view into what many churches are going through so that you can understand how to be a help.
I am going to overgeneralize here, and some of this is "tongue-and-cheek," meaning that I am over-exaggerating to make a point.
Most of the small churches you may visit or that are in your area are concerned about programs and the building. The building will have some issues, there will be outdated materials, there will be classrooms that haven't been used, etc etc. There will be a piano/organist, perhaps a couple to a few people in a choir, maybe someone that plays guitar, old hymn books, older people dressed in suits or nice clothes (Sunday best), pews and not chairs, and one or two grandchildren running around getting an icy stare or two. There will be one or two people that are "in charge" and he/she or they are not the pastor.
No doubt for a few years (or more) the conversations are revolving around keeping the one program alive that seems to reach people (and may only be reaching a handful), keeping people on the committees - particularly the trustees - and how there are fewer and fewer people, the people that come don't stay, and there may be talk about closing the church down during the winter to save money.
Okay, I have painted a pretty bleak picture here haven't I? The truth is that what I wrote above will not be in every church, nor will everything I wrote about be in one particular church. But most of the small rural churches will be facing those issues at some point. So what does this have to do with you? Why would you go to a church that is facing these problems?
God might have it in His plans for that church to use you to bring the momentum for revitalization. You will bring fresh perspectives, ideas, and energy. And guess what!? It wont' be received well - at first. Relationships run two ways - you need to learn about the people in the church, but the people in the church need to also learn about you. Understand here, I am not advocating for a way for you to come into a church an manipulate things in order to achieve some kind of legacy. What I am doing is letting you know that God has a purpose for you that you may not have ever considered before, especially if you are seeking to understand more about Him and all this seems like the "typical church issue" stuff you here about.
But you are needed.
Remember, we are all on a journey, and your part in this journey might to be run up the road a bit and catch up to some folks that might be too focused on how they are walking and how much their feet hurt, rather than on the people they are walking with.
Learning as they go
Like I said in the previous post, you will be learning as you go. Many of these churches are doing the same. At one time in its history, the particular church you might be attending (or thinking about) was making disciples. It was a full church. Now, many of the people in that church are thinking about those times and trying to figure out how to get there again, but they don't know how.
This is where you come in.
But no doubt you are thinking, "I don't know what to do! I'm not a pastor or churchy person!" But you do have needs, and you can tell the church that they have the ability to meet a need you have, and others in that community might need the same things. What is it? Do you wish to learn? Ask them if they have a Bible Study or group that discusses Biblical things. Are you struggling with something? Find someone in the church that you seem to be getting along with and ask them to meet at a local diner and start having discussions with them. Tell them why you are meeting with them and if the conversation goes well, plan to meet regularly.
This will inject new life into the church, and it will begin a journey into discipleship once again in that church.
I'm telling you, it doesn't have to be complicated. Just allow God's Spirit to move. Learn to trust those things that seem to be pressing on you, on your spirit - those things that make you slightly nervous and stupid for thinking about it. It might be God telling you to step out because He has something in mind.
All churches have hope - hope that someone will come along to help them, hope that something will kick-start the 'fire' in that church again. If you have found a place where you think you might be cared for ... then start thinking about how you can care for the people there too. Again, they will likely resist at first, but there are people there who will appreciate who you are and welcome you into "their" church.
You don't know it now, but you are an answer to someone's prayer in that church.
When we learn to trust in God, amazing things begin to happen. But those things don't happen overnight. It will take months. That's right. MONTHS. It's just like starting to go to the gym to get healthier - it takes months. It is the same with your spiritual life. You may be spiritually unfit right now. But you will be fit in a few months. In a few days you'll start to feel different, in a few months you will start being different. Imagine what a few years will bring, and what a few years could bring that church God is calling you to.
One of my guilty pleasures is to watch the Epic Fail workout videos on youtube. I am sure that there are probably some parodies out there for first time, or returning, church experiences. I know that whether it is a church or a gym that there are many people who don't want to start going simply because they don't know what to do after they get through some door that may or may not be the right door to enter through!
So here are three short thoughts I have when it comes to the idea of coming to church, or to the gym, for the first time:
1. You don’t know what you don’t know - deal with it
You may not know where to go to enter the building, you may not know what to do when you first walk in, and you may not know where to sit or get started. I have no doubt that this is the reason why the "front door" of churches are now considered to be the website - I know that's the first thing I look at for a church!
But when it comes time to actually go I would encourage at least two things: 1) go with someone else, preferably someone who already attends; 2) just "gird up and go." Sometimes you just might need to put your adult pants on and get to it. Just like with the gym, going to church can be an awkward experience because you do not know what to do. Don't worry! You'll figure it out.
Now, will you run into the 'regulars' who might get annoyed at you for their perception that you are in their way? Yep. Unfortunately you will always run into those people. But those people are the very small minority. 99% of the other folks in the church love it that you are there, and may feel a bit awkward coming to say "hi" because that may be unsure of what you want and what would make you feel comfortable. Not the other way around!
And if you don't know something .... ask!
2. Learn as you go
Asking brings me to the second item. As you attend you ought to pick up on some things - but really the church should be doing what it can to teach throughout the service as well. I wouldn't doubt that most people in the church have no idea why things are done the way they are, they just do it.
Ask questions. Observe.
There will be some things that seem big to you that might be pretty insignificant in the member's view. Ask questions, but also offer up why you are asking. Trust me this helps a lot.
You are not getting in the way. You are not being bothersome. If someone reacts to you in a way that makes you feel that why, congratulations! You found the 1% of the people in the church who are crabby. Now, move on to the next person and have a delightful conversation.
3. Be helped, and help others
There will come a time, soon after you start attending, where you will be considered a "regular attender." This is a great time to become a greeter or person who welcomes guests. The feeling of being at the church for the first time, and what you experienced, is fresh in your mind. What a great time to start helping others who are visiting! You know how they feel, you know what they might be thinking, and you know who you don't want them to run into first! So be that first person!
It's the same in they gym. I am always looking for those regular people who seem to have servant hearts. They are the ones picking up weights, cleaning machines off (who don't work there), people who are doing those "good" things that you think ought to be done. It is the same in church. You will see people milling around doing various things. Some are talking and having a great time, others might be cleaning up a bit.
If you are a person that feels like you need to do something then ask to help in whatever it is you feel comfortable doing. In that is the beginning of a discipleship journey that can and will lead to some significant transformation in your life.
So do not worry, just get up and get in there!
I hope everyone had a great Christmas!
I can't believe it has been a whole month (more) since I last blogged. But with all that is going on at the church, I am not surprised either. I am looking forward to more consistency with this blog in the future. So keep checking in!
Being in a smaller gym, I get to know the people I see every day and we begin to have conversations. Much of the time it starts with the common goal of exercise, but quickly evolves into more casual, personal conversation. Church should be this easy where people gather for a common goal and purpose, and encourage one another onward. Is your church like this?
Churches like this are often referred to in two ways, one positive and the other ... not so much. The positive way of referring to a church that embodies community is sometimes called a "church of small groups." This is a church that promotes and encourages growth through mutual accountability in small groups. These small groups are based around common interest but all have the main idea of being a place for people to gather together for fun and mutual encouragement to be grace-filled ambassadors.
The negative way of referring to a church that is about community can be referred to as "ingrown," "inward focused," or "clicky." The difference in the positive referral is that those small groups have the idea that there is room for inviting others in ... continually. In fact, there is also the idea that there is a handing off of responsibilities where people come to be able to lead their own groups after a time.
This is a little like going into a gym, getting to know the machines and exercises, seeing results, getting good at nutrition, being guided by a trainer, and then you begin helping others with what you know. You don't have to be a certified personal trainer to help someone get started. You, through camaraderie and relationship, begin to help someone who might be struggling to get started or get over some initial "humps" in their workouts or those "pits" we fall into when we aren't emotionally "there."
In the coming weeks, we'll be starting a Bible Study group, and a couple months after that a Small Group Study. Some church don't like to use those terms because people can be turned off by them. Well I'm sorry, but if you are turned off by those titles then you aren't ready for the next step in your relationship with Jesus Christ in community with others who are. And that's ok. Take your time and let the Holy Spirit move in your heart. When you're ready, you won't care about titles. I also won't worry about calling them fancy names to trick you into thinking they are something other than what might be presented. We'll be studying the Bible in one group, and in the other encouraging one another through certain acts of grace to experience God in new ways in ... you guessed it, a small group!
Keep an eye out of your local. We'd love to have you!
Two steps forward, three steps back.
Just get going and something knocks you off course.
Get to the cellar and then you have to pee.
Those moments just kind of creep up on you. Your doing great and then suddenly - BOOM, you feel like you're "in the pits" again. Naturally the same can be true of exercise and the spiritual life. We all aim for those mountain top experiences. Many people leave the church, and probably the gym, when the daily grind become too much. We want things to happen quickly, and we want to be amazed all the time.
Life just isn't like that ... #srynotsry.
Life is the daily grind. Life is getting up and getting "to it" every day. The pit falls are just going to come. They can be financial, physical, emotional, etc. but they will come. This is just telling you the reality (one you already know). I'm not being a "negative nancy," just setting the ground work for awesome.
So here is the awesome.
The daily grind leads to each moment we long for, and they come just as suddenly as the pitfalls. Those moments are like: when we are happy with the results we see in the mirror, when someone tells us that we have changed for the better, when we become financially free all together or pay off a bill, when we receive a diploma, trophy, award, etc for hard work, or when we land the job we've always wanted and cease to "work" and do what we love.
You don't get to those moments without trudging through the daily grind and getting out of the pits.
I find Philippians 3.12-21 helpful. Paul has the humility to recognize that he needs to keep going in order to receive eternal life. And guess when eternal life comes? At death. Boom. That's right, but is straining to live towards the glorious day when he dies, and is living each day toward one end - eternity. He is not sitting back and waiting because he is "saved," no. He is becoming more every day.
We can do the same. And when we have Christ, he strengthens us when we hit those pits. He brings us up out of them, and sets us back on the path the leads to greater things.
So press on through the daily grind and do not be idle. Keep going!
In last week's blog I talked about the spiritual disciplines, which we in the Methodist tradition(s) know as the "Means of Grace." What we Methodists believe is that through these opportunities to receive and give grace, is that we will be more and more transformed into the likeness of the living God, Jesus Christ.
Heavy right? That's some powerlifting theology right there. The thought is actually a simple one in Christian theology, and very basic. But in that simple statement is a major thought exercise toward understanding much in the Christian faith. This would be the "squat" of Christian theology. I think of it as the squat because it can be a heavy load to be under, straining to rise to the level of being like Christ. However, the burden is actually light because all we need to do is believe. That is the one and only requirement for life change. For transformation.
What is also important that the Methodist tradition believes, is that having faith in Christ is the start of your Christian journey, not the end. There are still pit falls that can ensnare you in your faith walk as you strive to bring the Kingdom of God that is within you to others in need.
Don't let that last sentence cause you to mentally struggle. It is a concept I will deal with later (and hopefully remember to link it here when I do). For now, just understand that when you come to the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ as your personal savior a weight is lifted off your shoulders and your transformation begins. Now your journey of "spiritual bodybuilding" has begun.
With this journey you have a spotter, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives you understanding that living out your faith is done with its power and guidance, not solely your own. This means that you are not chasing after personal virtues and keeping tabs on how nice you are each day and trying to be better. No. This is quite different. This is also where the Means of Grace can serve as your spiritual bodybuilding guide to a balanced, proportioned Christian life.
I'm going to stop here because I feel like this is enough to chew on for a little while. I feel like I just had you chug down a weight-gainer with almond milk.
To here is the takeaway: much like a life of fitness, your spiritual transformation begins the day you decide to start "for real." This might come at a low point in your life where "something needs to change," or at a high point where you feel energized to make a difference. Either way, you have the opportunity to be transformed into a person set apart for a glorious undertaking ...
One of the reasons why I am a Methodist is because of the disciplines practiced to obtain spiritual health. To learn briefly what they are, go HERE.
I always imagined treating these disciplines like I would muscle groups in the gym. I love bodybuilding and powerlifting, especially when they are put together in a program to build strength, symmetry, and more importantly longevity. Likewise, I see the Christian spiritual disciplines like powerlifting, symmetry, and longevity.
Powerlifting and Olympic weight lifting are very similar. The difference lies in where you start and how you finish. See where I am going with this? Are you "picking up what I'm laying down?" Powerlifting is power at the beginning of a movement that tapers off toward the end. Olympic lifting is essentially power throughout and ending solidly. Understand, that is a very general way of looking at it.
When I think of "heavy lifting" for spiritual exercises, I think it is reading the Word, praying, music, and ministering to the needy (hungry, fatherless, widowed). All of those things should be done individually and in community.
Bodybuilding is about shaping the body to look good, and to look good with minimal fat. There is a degree and danger of vanity here, because bodybuilding is about health and looking good. Too often people in the church just want to look good, and do things that make them look good. But inside, their empty and wanting.
In order to have good shaping in one's spiritual life, I think those are the things that cause us to go out of our comfort zones - that is where growth occurs. Growth occurs with a little "pain." No pain no gain after all. We need to allow and have God shape us and mold us to look more and more like him. We often think of our giftings at this point. I challenge that.
Jesus sent out about 150 disciples in 2s to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. I doubt every single disciple had the same gift set. So there is something about just getting the job done because it needs to be done. These are the places where we can be shaped and molded into the ambassadors of God that we need to be, through the power of His Holy Spirit. We need to be shaped by living out our faith. We have the Holy Spirit, and therefore have all the gifts of the Spirit. The one gift is the Holy Spirit. Be empowered and shaped by it.
Understand something. You ready?
If you exercise regularly, you are an athlete.
Did you chuckle or laugh? I can understand that. But understand yourself as an athlete, and act like one.
Same thing with being a Christian. If you believe in Jesus Christ you are a Christian. Act like one. Acting like a Christian is both hearing the Word and acting it out (doing it.) When we ... wait for it ... exercise our faith we are acting as ambassadors of Christ in the world. This isn't easy. This is like being up for the Supreme Court every day of our lives and people reminding us of our past, or accusing us of things to tear down who we are.
The same was done to Jesus.
We need to press on. Our strength is in the Lord, and our home is a present reality and a far away place. We live in the Kingdom of God now, and our longevity comes as we practice and live out the Disciplines. To believe in Jesus and then do nothing is not Christianity. To believe in Jesus and be saved from doing things our way (self-referenced life) and do things God's way (God-referenced life) we are at the beginning of a journey that goes on into perpetuity.
Grow in grace through the disciplines. Focus on some for a time, then others. Build your life in power, balance, and longevity as servants, sons, and daughters of the living God!
Some "weekly" musings from Pastor Dave as he sits on his porch and drinks coffee, thinking about theology and lifting heavy weights. For gymsharks, there is something called "Flex Fridays," where we vainly put up photos of ourselves flexing. So this blog is my attempt to flex my theological muscles through reflection ... get it?