Returning to Worship

I have recently found myself thinking a lot about what excites me about some churches, and what detracts from others. You regularly read about the excitement, but I struggle to share the rest.

In some ways, I am not too different from many young adults in that I do not have a consistent worshipping community due to the nature of my job. On the rare Sunday “off,” I struggle to make the decision first, if I go to church or not and then, where I will go (I try to go somewhere I have not been to for work so that I can worship rather than work). Sometimes I do “opt out” of worship – I am exhausted from a long work week and traveling, there are things needing to be done at home, and/or I haven’t had much time with my husband due to our conflicting busy schedules. Many times it is as simple as not wanting to sit through another boring service.

bored-in-churchYes, I said that! All too often, church is BORING. The worship hour quickly begins to feel more like a (well-rehearsed) monolog with very little excitement or genuine passion. There is a formula that is stuck to almost more religiously than the actual congregation might be – 4 prayers, 3 hymns, 2 scripture readings, and 1 sermon. The leaders seem to be on a rotation and have become passive and bored with their jobs, and the preacher seems worn down as if presenting a research paper.

Yes, this might be a little blunt, but I fear that this is the reality that so many congregations are finding themselves slowly slip into. I also believe that this is why so few people make church a priority on Sunday morning. The worship hour has become a boxed in, predictable, and boring requirement and has lost its worship aspect.

family-playing-soccer-having-fun-14312301I think about the things which I choose to do on my Sunday “off” and I look to my friends who do not regularly attend worship on Sundays. Almost every person I think of is opting for some sort of “together time” with their family. Relationships are being strengthened and God’s grace is being shared. Those who might be “skipping” church are probably engaging in conversation with others who might not ever attend, and in the process are sharing a glimpse of the love in the checkout line, that is being taught in the sanctuary.

I regularly read articles and hear questions surrounding the mystery of how to bring in more young adults. I want to urge us to look beyond this one, very broad and diverse age group and look at people in general. Why are so many gathering at the Starbucks across the street rather than in our sanctuaries? Why do so many come one time and never return? Why are our own members slowly fading away?

Because worship has become more about being present in a building than worshiping God, and is boring.

Our greeters are more engaged in side conversations and gossip rather than greeting.
Our ushers are only present to collect the offering.
Our liturgists are quiet and bordering monotone, reciting a script they have used 20 times.
Our sermons, while they might be great, are presented as research papers rather than the Good News.

This isn’t happening in every congregation, but I am seeing it way more often than I am comfortable with. This is where we need to look at making changes, not in our programming and refreshments.

Our greeters should warmly and genuinely welcome all who walk through the doors and save the gossip time for later.
Our ushers should be present to make sure all find an appropriate seat, know where the restrooms are and have what they need.
Our liturgists should read the bulletin and scripture readings ahead of time and excitedly lead us in the liturgy and readings.
Our preachers should take pride in what they have worked so hard on all week and share their interpretation of scripture with emotion and a passion which draws the listener in rather than puts them to sleep.

I personally don’t buy it that the shrinking attendance is a young adult problem. I don’t believe that increased or more diverse programming will fix the problem.

Passion, excitement, genuine welcome, and “real” worship will draw people in. A true desire to build and share in relationship, a challenge to go out and be a better example of Christ’s ministry – this is what I believe people seek in the midst of this broken and hurting world. Not scripted, ritualistic, boring church.

It is time that we let go of the formalities and reconnect with the people. It is time that we, as leaders of the congregations, give permission to share real emotion as we share our own. It is time that we return to worship in the church, focusing on our Creator rather than the building.

When do you experience genuine excitement and worship during
your worship service?

What aspects of leadership and worship do you think could use a jump-start?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Upcoming Changes at Union!

Dear Friends,

Grace to you and peace!

I  wanted to update you with news from Union Presbyterian Seminary!

Many of you – some 200 churches – have worked with at least one of our two Church Relations Officers, the Reverends Jordan Davis and Nicole Ball, as they have visited with individual congregations and presbyteries. They have heard incredible stories of ministry and brought experiences back to the seminary, sharing them with our faculty, staff, and board as well as through the “Congregational Corner” blog. They have helped Union understand what ministry means today so that we can truly be “For the Church in the World.” They have helped to connect congregations with resources at Union about which they might not otherwise know. There is no doubt that their work has been transformational for many aspects of our shared ministry as churches and our seminary!

In the coming months, the church relations program will enter a new phase of ministry. Early this summer, Rev. Nicole Ball will complete her full time work with the seminary to balance her call to ministry and motherhood on a part-time basis. The Rev. Jordan Davis has accepted a call to serve as the transitional associate pastor for youth and young adults at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian in Cary, NC. Her work with the seminary will conclude around mid-August as she embarks upon this new call in ministry.

As August approaches, we encourage you to contact Hayley Mathews (hmathews@upsem.edu) or me, Clay Macaulay (cmacaulay@upsem.edu), for any church relations needs you may have. As my schedule permits, I will gladly come supply preach and also teach for your congregation. Likewise, you are encouraged to contact and invite members of the seminary faculty to preach and teach in your church, as well.  Just click the button at the bottom of this email. This will link you to a “speaker’s bureau” brochure entitled “What’s Union’s most valuable resource to share with your church?” The brochure will give you the direct contact information for you to reach our faculty members. Hayley is available to connect you with any needed resources and will be continuing our seasonal devotions in Advent and Lent that so many have come to appreciate.

“Congregational Corner” – that many of you have read and have enjoyed online – will continue, but with less frequency. Jordan has agreed to continue writing for us and she also has some ideas to get you involved in this blog as well!

We are incredibly thankful for the work that both Nicole and Jordan have done over the last two and three years in sharing the story of our seminary with you and many others! Should you have any questions regarding this unfolding chapter in our life together and how we might assist you and your congregation in your ministry, please feel free to contact me in our Alumni Office in Richmond. (804-278-4382).

I know that you join with me in giving thanks to God for the great ministry Jordan and Nicole have shared with us over these past three years, and wish them well in their ministry and vocation both at home and for the Church in the years to come!

With thanks for your continued prayers and support of Union Presbyterian Seminary,

Yours faithfully,
Clay               

The Rev. W. Clay Macaulay (D.Min.’85)
Director for Alumni Development

The Act of “Being”

How often do we miss parts of conversations, meetings, even worship services, because we are still so focused on the last thing we did or already thinking about the next thing? I just returned inside after meeting our new neighbor, but was so focused on drafting this blog that I don’t even remember her name! It didn’t help that my FitBit was buzzing on my wrist during our conversation because I had just received a text message.

We are constantly distracted as we try to handle too many things in too little time. We are connected, we are planning, we are tracking, we are talking. With everything going on, it makes me wonder when was the last time I gave something- or someone- 100% of my focus?!

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A few weeks ago, I was so happy to be visiting a local church that I was already planning where my husband and I would meet for brunch. I was also trying to make my mental list of things to mention in my upcoming “Minute for Mission”. I vaguely remember hearing the gathering music come to an end in the beautiful chapel at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church (Durham, NC) before Rev. Katie Crowe stood up to welcome the congregation to worship and share a few announcements. As we began to make the transition into worship, her words called out to me and helped me push everything else aside (at least for a few seconds), “…as we transition from arriving to being together in worship.”

These words- so honest and real- have sat with me for weeks now. We are always arriving and leaving, but when are we “being”?

To truly “be”, takes a great deal of focus and effort. It takes becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, silencing the deafening calls for attention, letting go of what we have left while we set our planning aside. For someone as “Type A” as myself, it can be very stressful to “just be”.

Rev. Crowe’s words sank in though and gave me permission to stop. Her words closed doors and opened my heart. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. For even just that moment, I was able to simply “be” and enjoy the gathering of God’s children in a full and beautiful way. I wish it had lasted longer, but I had to work (and my stomach was already grumbling and wondering how it would be filled later on!)

As I continue to think about this, I continue to try to “be” more. I try to set the phone down and focus on the person talking. I try to close the computer and enjoy time with my husband. I put the pen down and pray through the bulletin before I make my notes all over it.

However, just as I needed permission, I wonder if our congregants might need it as well? Each person is coming in from any number of things, anywhere on the range from exhausted and stressed, to joyful and energized. Each person has come to belong and worship, but first we must BE. I wonder, what would the conversations following worship sound like if we were more intentional at the beginning? How would relationships change, how would our personal and communal praise and worship change?

This week, I invite you to take more time as you transition from arriving to worship to being in worship with your congregation. I invite you, to invite them.

In a world of chaos, what will it be like to simply BE together?

How do you invite your congregation into the worship time and space?
What words of welcome have you find particularly inspiring and helpful as you prepare for worship?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Our Biggest Flaw

sorry

If you were to ask my husband about my biggest flaw, I can guarantee he will say that I apologize too much. I apologize for things I do and do not do, or have control over. When he tells me I don’t need to apologize, I will apologize for apologizing! I attribute this quality to the fact that I was raised to “be polite”– there was only “yes” in our house, no “yeah” and ALWAYS “yes/no sir/ma’am.” If we did something wrong, we were expected to take ownership of those actions and apologize.

The reason this is a “flaw” for me is because I believe I have control over a situation which I did not, or that I meant to do something wrong when I didn’t actually mean to do it. I give myself too much credit in thinking that I could have done it better than whomever “did it wrong” and too little credit when I shrink away and think my best isn’t enough. Apologies are appropriate in many cases, but can also be inappropriate and may cause more trouble.

I hear apologies from churches almost weekly.

I’m sorry so many are missing…

I’m sorry the space isn’t better…

I’m sorry we can’t do more… be more…

I’m sorry for their actions or words…I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.

If you ask me, I would say that the Church’s biggest flaw is that we apologize too much (I guess it takes one to know one, right?)

There are so many things out of our control– people do and likely will miss church on holiday weekends (and I honestly support that if it means they are catching up on the just-as-important family time), the size and appearance of your worship space, office, or fellowship hall means so little in the bigger picture, the “not so great” choir is making a beautiful and joyful noise, and each and every one of us gathered is a beautifully flawed child of God who is still figuring things out… It is okay.

These apologies frustrate me because it seems as if those apologizing may not see their value as a congregation or do not think that they are enough when it comes membership size, budget size, building size, and appearance. Apologies regularly come in light of comparisons to another congregation that the person seems to see more value in. They focus on the negative (that might not have been noticed, even!) rather than on the positive.

What if…We are so sorry that no one will be here today…

Turned in to…We are so excited about those who are joining us today!

If I could share one single message with every congregation I spend time with, it is simply that you are enough. Each person gathered is enough. The roof might have a leak, or half of the congregation may be away on vacation. Maybe the keys were lost and we can’t get into the office or the sound system crashed. However, we are gathered together through the grace of God to praise and celebrate that same God who is with us every step we take. We will make it through worship by that same grace, no matter who is there or what goes wrong; no matter what you think you have to apologize for.

I wonder, what would the Church look like if we quit apologizing for the things we cannot control and began acting and changing the things we can like feeding the hungry, embracing the lonely, and loving one another the way that Christ loved us?

What are you tempted to apologize for in your own congregations?
What action can you take instead of apologizing?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Busy-ness and Sabbath

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Essentials to staying busy: hydration, a schedule, lists, and pretty pens!

Earlier this year, I jumped on the clergy bandwagon and purchased a liturgical day-planner from Sacred Ordinary Days after several clergy-women friends told me how much they loved it*. There are daily prompts for scripture reading, intentional space for time-keeping and schedules as well as a weekly examen for each Sunday.

Developed from the model first introduced by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Prayer of Examen is a tool designed to take the pray-er through 5 prompts: to become aware of God’s presence; to review the day with gratitude; to pay attention to one’s emotions; to choose one feature of the day and pray from it; to look toward tomorrow.

Buying this resource and actually utilizing all of its amazing benefits has been a real challenge for me. Moreover, taking time to use the weekly examen resource as a means of intentional Sabbath has been even more of a struggle.

I am not one to hunker down and block out intentional quiet time each morning [gasp!] to reflect on my day or the day to come. Perhaps you are shocked and horrified to hear this out of the mouth of a pastor! In reality, I struggle with spiritual disciplines like quiet study, reflecting on my week and praying for the week to come.

I fall prey to the distraction of busy-ness in my life.

Balancing full-time work, my home life (complete with spouse, a toddling 1 year old child and a four-legged, fur child) and a healthy social-emotional-physical-spiritual life can feel like a daunting task. I spend more time thinking about what I have to do next, where I have to be next, and what I need to accomplish next.

I rely on my electronic work calendar, which syncs to my IPhone calendar, which is sent to my husband’s IPhone calendar, where the loop finally closes with my Gmail calendar. This reality exhausts me as I write this very minute…

Perhaps you or your congregants also struggle with the problem of being too busy. I create a busy-ness which becomes a pattern of normality for me and my family. This busy-ness distracts us from meaningful Sabbath practices. We cannot do those things which are edifying to our existence as God’s beloved because…

we don’t have time.

we don’t have the energy.

we don’t have the bandwidth.

there is just too much to do!

The reflection for this upcoming Sunday included a quote from pastor David Lomas:

(I’ll take a big bite of humble pie, along with you, when reading this reminder)

Sabbath reminds us that we are loved for who we are, not for what we can produce…Sabbath does not exist for what it gives us, nor for how it helps us, but for the way it equips us to live into our truest identities. We are not ‘human doings,’ but ‘human beings’.

Sunday may be the busiest day in your congregation. Or maybe a weekday evening includes programming for the whole family with a potluck supper. We pack our schedule for Church-related ventures with things to do: choir practice, youth group, fellowship dinners, committee meetings, worship planning, service opportunities, and the like. These things which we do are vital and important to the life of the Church! However, apart from weekly worship, does the Church serve the needs of weekly Sabbath? What might this look like?

Imagine a weekly prayer hour when members were able to meditate through prayer stations around the sanctuary in an effort to practice a weekly examen.

Imagine a small group gathering in the early morning or evening to share, intentionally, about their experience of God during the last 24 hours.

Imagine the church opening its doors to families who gather to read children’s stories and reflect on God’s presence in their lives.

Does your congregation serve the needs of providing Sabbath during the week?

What does this look like? Share your thoughts!

 

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball

 

 *This is not an advertisement for Sacred Ordinary Days planners. The opinions expressed here are mine, alone.*

 

 

 

 

 

Things They Didn’t Teach Us In Seminary

 

18449596_10212852270451677_6237463499089763518_oThis past Sunday I had the honor and privilege to administer my first baptism, immediately followed by my first confirmation at the church where I spent my teenage years. As a young pastor, both events carried a great deal of weight but also offered an incomparable experience of joy. Add to that the fact that I used to babysit the young lady being confirmed (she was baptized around the same time I myself was confirmed), and the experience was taken to another level!

In addition to these two joyous moments we also celebrated those women in our lives who have nurtured us and helped us to answer God’s call. Unfortunately, we also prayed for a mother, a friend of the congregation, whose son was shot and killed the night before.

I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on that worship service. I have spent time praying for all of these individuals.

As pastors, we are welcomed into some of the most sacred moments of a person’s life– the most beautiful and the most dreadful. We are invited and we are called to embody God’s love and grace in these moments when a person needs that the most. We are urged to empower others to do the same, with both as little and as much as they have.

The text that I chose to preach on for this unique service was Matthew 28: 16-20, otherwise known as “The Great Commission”. The part that I love most about this text is that even in their doubt the Disciples went to the mountain to meet Jesus and even in their doubt, Jesus called and sent them to all nations.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 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  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Matthew 28: 16-20

The little boy who was baptized on Sunday, the young girl who was confirmed, the son was killed, the mother who mourned— each was called by God to change the world in some way. Each person’s story has helped to shape the life and story not just of that congregation but of all those who they have met along the way. Each story has been shared with me as a pastor so that I might bring God’s presence into their lives in a new way. Even in their doubt, even in our own doubt.

I am a part of a Facebook group called “Things They Didn’t Teach Us in Seminary”. This past Sunday was a perfect illustration of just that– they can tell us that we will be a part of big moments, they can tell us stories of their own experiences and others they have heard of, but no one can teach you or begin to prepare you for that morning when all curtains are pulled back and you see God’s presence in the most powerful way yet.

Baptism

Following the baptism, I walked down the aisle carrying a little boy who had snuggled down so close against my chest that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to hand him back. As I turned around to come back, the young girl being confirmed took him from me and carried him back to his parents. I took this time to pray for the mother who lost her son, praying for the words to share the tragic news with the congregation– doubting that I would have the right words to do so. In these moments, I walked with and carry a child of God through that sanctuary. In those moments, even as I doubted, I learned what it is like to truly minister to God’s children and watch God’s grace at work. I learned what seminary could have never taught me.

When has God used you, even in your doubt?
When have you seen the curtains drawn back in your own ministry?
What have you learned in active ministry that seminary could never teach?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

 

What Are Your Dreams?

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This past Sunday, I sat back in the pew and enjoyed a wonderful performance of “The Tale of Three Trees” (music by Allen Pote and words by Tom Long) by the Junior and Children’s Choirs at University Presbyterian Church (Chapel Hill, NC).  While the entire performance was absolutely wonderful and endearing, as well as a nice change of pace for my church visits, one particular song stood out to me–

A Prayer for Tomorrow
(Tom Long & Allen Pote)

Refrain:
Dreams, we all have dreams, what we can be, what we can do.
Lord, with all we are, we pray that our dreams will lead us, will lead us to you.

See our hands, what will they make, Lord?
See our feet, where will they run?
See our hearts, who will they love, Lord?
See our lives, we’ve just begun!
(Refrain)

In our eyes you see tomorrow.
On that day one thing we know:
there’s a dream from one who loves us that is greater than our own.
(Refrain)

Listening to the beautiful voices of these children, I began to wonder what the dreams of this congregation and the larger Church might be? During the break between the two worship services, I decided to find out.

20170430_094058The first thing I noticed was a dream for the children of the congregation. Not only did I see parents and other volunteers working to make sure everything went smoothly with the performance, but I saw opportunities all around for the children to be involved in worship. Teal bags hung in the narthex, ready to be carried into the sanctuary by little hands that would explore the bag’s contents and be tied into worship in a creative and active way. In the bulletin, scripture readings were not just provided with page numbers in a pew Bible, but also in a Children’s Bible that was available right next to the pew Bible. I spoke with one young man who delighted in the greeting of a toddler and shared with me his love for the smallest children and his time volunteering in the nursery. As the sanctuary was prepared for the second worship, I saw a banner hanging at the baptismal font for the young girl who would be baptized later that morning. Everywhere I looked, I saw a dream for the faith formation of those who might not fully understand yet, but will show us the way if we let them.

I enjoyed a cup of coffee as I listened to the story of a woman who makes blankets for those children being baptized, but also for those members and friends of the congregation who are hurting– those who are grieving, those who are sick, and those who just need a warm embrace. If she can’t make them a blanket, she is sure to send them a card. In the passion and delight of this woman who grew up in this congregation, I saw a dream of caring, warm, embracing love.

20170430_0941201.jpgI walked outside of the front doors and looked up where I saw a banner, visible from the UNC Chapel Hill campus, “WE CHOOSE WELCOME”. Throughout the building, I found copies of the PC(USA) statement on immigration. I found brochures and pictures of outreach and I witnessed the embrace of members and new visitors. I saw a dream of inclusivity and truly living as the ONE Body of Christ.

As this congregation prepares for the retirement of beloved pastor for 26 years, Rev. Bob Dunham (M. Div. 1975), I heard stories of a ministry that has marked and changed hundreds of lives. I heard lament and grief, but I also heard a spark of wonder and dreaming as they asked for recommendations of pastors to call upon and things to do in this time of transition. I saw a dream for future ministry, one that holds the traditions of the congregation close but one that will challenge them in this next chapter.

Every dream was clearly visible, it took almost no effort to find them. Every dream is leading this congregation closer to the Lord, just as the song states. Every dream is fueled by the dream of Jesus Christ.

Khalom

I wonder, what are the dreams of your congregation?
What dreams do you have for your own ministry?

One of the greatest parts of being married, I have learned, is having someone to share my dreams with each morning. Voicing the excitement of my dream, or sharing the struggle of the dream; bringing life to a dream by bringing it into the light and out of my mind.

I invite you to think about who it is that you share your dreams with, and how your congregation shares their dreams with one another? What do you have around building? What stories are members and friends sharing? Invite others to take a look and share with you what they see. Do they match up or do they seem something different from you?

I invite you to dream– big and small– dream a dream that leads you and your congregation closer to Jesus.

“Dreams, we all have dreams, what we can be, what we can do.
Lord, with all we are, we pray that our dreams will lead us, will lead us to you.”

 

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations