Wednesday, 25 October 2017

When is a congregation "too small"?

OK, to begin with, I know the bit about "two or three gathered together".  I understand that, when necessary, the smallest number of people gathered in God's name is an appropriate number of people to worship God.  "Two or three gathered together" may be just the right number of people to worship God together in, say, a sickroom.  I really get this.

Nevertheless, I also get that some congregations are just really far too small for their own good, for the good of their communities, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically speaking.  (I also realise that some congregations are far too large, and I'll address this issue in a later post.)

In my opinion, the Jewish notion of the minyam has a lot going for it.  In a traditional Jewish context, a service can start when a minyam is present:  ten adult men.  Not wanting to be sexist about this, and looking at this in terms of the demographics of Christian congregations (at least among mainstream denominations) today, if ten adult men are present for worship, there are probably also at least twenty-five to thirty adult women.  There could also be (depending on the ages of the adults) a few children or young people (as many as, say, ten).  In terms of Christian churches today (at least here in Australia), a congregation of thirty-five to fifty people is a pretty decent-sized congregation.  The minyam has a lot going for it.

Here are some signs, based on my own experiences in ministry, of when a congregation has become too small for its own good, for the good of its community, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically-speaking.  They are arranged in no particular order.

1.  If a person in a key leadership role in the congregation expresses a desire to step down from that role, more energy is spent trying to talk her/him out of stepping down from the job than in finding someone new to take on the role.

2.  The majority of people in key leadership roles in the congregation have been in these jobs for more than five years. 

3.  There are a number of examples of people in key leadership roles in the congregation who hold more than one such role. 

4.  If the organist (or other musician) takes a holiday (or gets sick), it creates a crisis for the congregation.

5.  Similarly, if the treasurer takes a holiday (or gets sick), it creates a crisis for the congregation.

6.  There are a number of examples of people in key leadership roles who are family members of other key leaders in the congregation.

7.  A person is described as a "new member" of the congregation, even if he/she has been part of the congregation for over three years (and, in some cases, much longer).

8.  If the "Sharing of the Peace" is part of the congregation's liturgy, the expectation is that everyone present rushes around and greets everyone else present, rather than greeting only those in their immediate vicinity.

9.  Conversation during the refreshments following the service is frequently dominated by noting the absence of those who are not present, and speculating why.

10.  People of a more introverted nature may visit the church once or twice and, given the lack of an opportunity just to be an anonymous worshipper, cease attending.

11.  The prayers of intercession (particularly if they are led by lay members of the congregation) are dominated by concerns for the health of members of the congregation and their families, with scant attention paid to more global concerns.

These signs (and I'm sure you can think of more) can serve as symptoms of a congregation being too small for its own good, for the good of its community, and for the good of the mission of the whole people of God, ecumenically-speaking.  They also can be among the reasons why the congregation is too small.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Announcing my new book: The Better Angels of our Nature.

I'm announcing the publication of my new book, my first work of book-length fiction.  It's an example of the variety of historical fiction known as a "counterfactual" or an "alternate history".  It raises the questions:
  • What if Abraham Lincoln chose not to go to war to preserve the Union?
  • What if Lincoln lived to his 80s, including a number of years spent in Britain and Australia?
  • What if the vast land area between Mexico and Canada was, from 1861 to 1926, the location of not one, nor two, but five different nations?
  • What if both slavery and polygamy persisted in the Empire of Texas for a generation longer than they did anywhere else in North America?
  • What if such Europeans as Florence Nightingale, Alfred Dreyfus, and Dickens's "Tiny Tim" all spent time on the North American continent?
  • What if those who died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918 included a psychiatric patient in a Georgia hospital named John Wilkes Booth and an inmate in a prisoner-of-war camp in Pennsylvania named Adolf Hitler?
I hope you like it.  It's now available for purchase on Amazon.  And you can go to my book's page by clicking this link. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Why I won't be celebrating Reformation Day on the 31st of October

I'm not planning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation on the 31st of October.

I recognise that, in many ways, I'm a child of the Reformation.
  • I celebrate the fact that the denomination of which I'm a member and a minister (the Uniting Church in Australia) ordains and commissions both women and men to every ministry within the church, without exception.
  • I celebrate the fact that the denomination of which I'm a member and a minister has committed each of its congregations to provide a safe and welcoming community for LGBT people.
  • I recognise that congregational singing is an important part of worship for me, and I further recognise that the hymns which cause the hairs on the back of my neck to particularly stand at attention are such Reformation-era German hymns as "Now thank we all our God..." and "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty...". 
  • Above all, I celebrate that a commitment to an "open table" is a reality that is deep within the DNA of the vast majority of congregations within my denomination.
In all these ways, I'm a child of the Reformation, and I know it.

Nevertheless, I choose not to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on this coming 31st of October, for a number of reasons.

1.  I take issue with the notion, strong in some "Protestant" circles,
that "getting your theology right" is an essential precondition to a healthy relationship with God.  Now, I know that this was never taught by Luther, even if Calvin came close to it.  When Luther wrote about "faith", he meant a bedrock trust in God's radical grace.  Over the centuries, though, many "Protestants" have promoted the idea that those who "get their theology wrong" are somehow destined to become fuel for an eternal BBQ.  I refuse to celebrate this destructive idea.

2.  I also take issue with the way that Luther's idea of sola scriptura ("Scripture alone") has been used to turn the Bible into almost an idol in some "Protestant" churches.  I believe that the person of faith should take the scriptures "seriously, but not literally" (as an advertisement for one congregation once said).  The scriptures are a sourcebook for faith, with which the person of faith should engage in on-going dialogue, with the dialogue occasionally becoming robust debate, if not a knock-down, drag-out brawl (metaphorically speaking, of course).  Turning the scriptures into an infallible oracle, or a idol, is simply an abuse of scripture.  I refuse to celebrate this destructive idea as well.

3.  I also take issue with the way that worship has merely become a teaching event in so many "Protestant" churches.  Now, I'm not talking about the "megachurch" experience in many "evangelical" churches where a congregation's Sunday gatherings are part second-rate pop music gig, part motivational speaker, and part political rally.  That particular liturgical atrocity is far outside the experience of most of the churches I know. 

My concern is with the congregations within the "Protestant" mainstream where the teaching-learning dimension of worship dominates every other aspect of worship.  This happens regardless of a congregation's denomination or theological emphasis.  This happens regardless of whether the congregation's worship style is a 1950s "preaching service", a 1970s "all-age family service", a 1990s "Fresh Expression", or the standard-issue Uniting Church  "blended-blanded" service (where the highlight of Sunday morning is usually the refreshments - and frequently the accompanying gossip - following the worship service).  In all these styles of worship, the teaching element of worship predominates.

I believe that people who choose to attend worship in our day do so with the intention of experiencing communion with the God worshipped by the congregation, not merely to "learn things about religion".  I do not choose to celebrate a state of affairs in which worship has been so marginalised.

4.  Finally and in my mind most importantly, the divided state of the Christian Church today is a continuing scandal.  A particular scandal is the inability of any Christian to fully participate in the Eucharist / Lord's Supper / Holy Communion / Mass in many other gatherings of Christians for worship.  I refuse to celebrate a divided Christian church.  Therefore, I refuse to celebrate the 31st of October.