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My pastor preached a sermon the other day which helped me rethink the way we see coming to church every Sunday.
Let's face it. Eventually, for any good Christian attending church regularly, we can't help much of it becoming routine. Like how you hit the gym every Tuesday or visit your grandparents, or water your plants. We go through the motions of church every Sunday, the process of events becoming mind-numbingly familiar.
What's the main, ultimate purpose in going to church? We go to church to worship God. No one would disagree with that, I presume. And worshipping God, however that practically translates to you--regardless of whether you sit among the congregation, are in the pulpit, in the AV room, in the worship team, or ushering outside--is not a passive action.
When we gather to worship God in church, we are neither performers or passive spectators.
We are all equally, actively worshipping God.
Sometimes it's easy to forget when you're involved in the worship service, in leading any of the events. I remember sitting in my seat as the sermon came to an end, feeling like a runner at the start line of a race. It must be an even greater temptation for pastors, for whom Sunday is their big day, where they present the sermon they've been working on the whole week. Or for those playing music, or teaching Bible study classes; we feel, like performers, that we're "running this."
But that's a mindset that makes it hard to worship. When we're most tempted to feel that everything depends on us and our ability, we're least aware of our need for God. And in the midst of all our busyness, we need to fight to remember this. How do we worship God on Sunday? Being busy helping others to worship Him is not a replacement. We need to seek to worship Him ourselves. This is something that, like glorifying God, we don't just accidentally drift into doing. This requires us to purposefully dedicate and prepare our hearts, to purposefully focus. We need to stop seeing ourselves as performers, being so acutely aware of the gaze of others, being so focused on getting this done successfully.
Sometimes, as someone who regularly sits in the congregation, it's easy to forget. When church is something that you're not involved in, that you simply turn up to every Sunday, we tend to develop a kind of passive spectatorship/entitled consumer attitude. As if it's a restaurant or hotel, or we're watching a movie. Was it entertaining enough, comfortable enough, impressive enough? We come expecting to be spoon-fed and served, without making more effort than it took to be there. We frown, purse our lips, shake our heads or nod, making notes, mentally reviewing, comparing, assessing. Three out of five stars. Could be more efficient. The ushers could smile more. The babies could be quieter. The air conditioning should be colder.
But no. In God's eyes, just as each one of us is individually His child, each one of us is there to worship Him. And that is something that requires our individual response and involvement.
We need to pray--not for smoother, more impressive, more well-run Sundays--but for the Spirit to move hearts, to plant repentance in us, to enable us to come before God and truly worship Him with the humble and quiet hearts, regardless of whether we're sitting in the congregation, or in front of everyone.
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Note: First of all, this is not a rant, though to some people my attempts at humour may come across as angst. I am not attacking anyone; these are simply general observations from years of experience, not just as a Sunday School teacher, but also from observing the attitudes other people and especially parents (from various churches) have towards Sunday School. As with secular teaching, there have been the good, there have been the bad, there have been the negatively neutral (by which I mean the silent hands-off kinds.) Which should be no surprise to us. But that doesn't mean we should settle for it. We should try our best to encourage healthy and theologically correct attitudes in order that God's work will be furthered without disruptions. So here is my two mites' worth.
If, like most people, you've not taught Sunday School before, or you've not had much to do with it, I hope this post will change your mind. That first of all, you too have a part in how you contribute to creating a healthy culture for Sunday School to flourish. Regardless of whether you're single, or a parent. Regardless of whether you're actually actively "involved", or not.
Personally, I've had a wonderful experience teaching Sunday School. Overall, I've been blessed with supportive and understanding parents as well as dear students which made this role a joy more than a duty. My hope is that everyone will contribute to creating this kind of environment for the teachers and ultimately, for the children, so that the ultimate goal for Sunday School--helping them to know and love God, and to believe in Jesus--will be joyfully made possible.
1. Realize that if you're a parent, the primary responsibility for your child's spiritual education and health does not rest on the Sunday school teacher, but on you. The best Sunday School teacher in the world cannot replace your role as a parent. Are you spending time to pray with your child, to listen to their questions about God, to read the Bible and discuss what they don't understand?
Knowing this is the foundation for changing unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes many parents may have towards Sunday School, and for making the Sunday School teacher's work incredibly more effective.
If you have no idea what your child has been learning in Sunday School, or if you see their weekly one hour there as their main spiritual education, it's a pretty good indication that you may need to reconsider the way you see Sunday School.
2. Be involved. Talk to the children about what they learn, and show an interest. Encourage them to tell you what they learn, if they're past the stage where they don't spontaneously want to tell you. Engage them in discussions about those topics and how they can relate what they learned in Sunday School to their everyday lives. This helps them to remember and apply what they learn, and it also shows the Sunday School teacher that you're taking an active role in supporting them and helping the child during the rest of the week. After all, they only go to Sunday School once a week; how much do you expect them to absorb and retain in just one isolated hour every week?
3. Be slow to complain and quick to see how you can support. Whether this means being involved in the children's ministry, Sunday School events, or just being understanding.
Very often, the only times teachers hear from parents is when they have something they want to complain about. Teachers out there, am I right? Obviously, this doesn't encourage us to see you as an ally. Their lack of involvement also means that the complains sometimes come across as unreasonable, or don't take into account the context and background, since the parents are not aware what the situation is like.
This is the norm for the teaching industry. When it comes to Sunday School, however, please remember this is a whole different ball game. Some parents' attitudes almost suggest that Sunday School teachers are being paid to ensure their children are saved. I'm not sure exactly why, since I've never been offered any money, but there it is. (That was a joke, by the way, if you weren't sure.)
We want them to come to faith, as earnestly as you do. We struggle to do our best teaching them and nurturing them despite multiple challenges and many ineptitudes of our own. With this common goal, parents and Sunday School teachers should be working together, joyfully, with mutual respect and appreciation. You are our partners, not our clients or consumers. We are not service providers--we are simply trying to serve God.
Would you feel equipped to teach other people's children about God? (who does?) So help us, when we struggle, and be kind, remembering that we share a common goal.
4. Pray for them. The kids, and the teachers. Too often people take the Sunday School ministry for granted. If it's struggling, they complain and often blame it on the teachers. If it's doing well, they forget to pray for it and assume everything will continue status quo because of the teacher's capability. Remember that even though the children may be young, it is just as important to pray for the Spirit to start moving and changing their hearts. It is just as important to pray for the Spirit to guide and enable the Sunday School teacher with wisdom, just as we always pray for the pastors and Bible study teachers.
I am always touched and encouraged when people--regardless of whether they have kids in Sunday School, or have kids at all--remember to pray for the Sunday School ministry during prayer meetings, because it is easy to be overlooked, especially if you're not personally involved in it.
5. Encourage them. Tell them when your child tells you excitedly about a lesson they learnt, or seems to be remembering and applying what they learn. Too often, parents get used to Sunday School teachers as Sunday babysitters, or assume that their children are in good hands without needing any of their intervention--until they suddenly get worried about something and are up in arms. Sometimes this can be discouraging; complete silence from the parents/other members for months (except complaints.) It is hugely encouraging when parents come up to you to tell you what happened at home, how their child told them about what they learnt, or when the topic you taught was relevant to something the child faced at school. It shows us that what we teach during that one hour on Sundays actually resurfaced during the rest of the week, and reminds us that we are working alongside in nurturing the children--you at home, us in Sunday School.
Or when other people in church encourage us that the children seem happy and engaged with their Sunday School, and ask how they can help.
I have wonderful people in my church who, without actually being the parents of kids or personally involved in the Sunday School work, never fail to offer their help for Sunday School outings and events, take initiative to pray for it, ask me how the work is going and what challenges I face, and pass me materials/resources for it. One sister often gives stationery, sweets, or other small items to distribute or use as prizes/gifts, for example. Another collected a copy of the chords for Christian children's songs for me in case they might be useful. Some offer to help send and pick up the children for Sunday School events if their parents are busy.
The Sunday School ministry is not just something "for kids," "for parents of kids," "for people who like kids/have a gift for working with kids."
But I'll save that for another post.
image by Devin Avery from Unsplash
Ezekiel is a book about God's holiness and judgment, just as surely as it is a book about God's mercy and compassion.
The theme of restoration, specifically the comprehensive, holistic restoration of God's people--in their relationship with God, in their sin-damaged hearts and natures, in persecution by their enemies, in their relationships with each other--is a central one, which unites those two aspects of God's character.
In Ezekiel 36 and 37, the picture of perfect Christian unity is depicted as one of the most beautiful blessings we have to look forward to in Heaven.
But do we agree?
Many of us, far from seeing Christian community as a blessing God gave to us and a foretaste of heaven, associate it with legalism, unlovingness, miscommunication, and failure to give us what we want or need (more on that in another post.)
In Ezekiel, however, the Messianic kingdom emerges, not as a place, or a system, but a community. Its first defining feature is the perfected unity of God's people; a true and lasting unity for eternity.
Likewise, in What is a Christian Worldview? Phillip Ryken points out that the New Heavens and the New Earth are described as the City of God. Why not garden? Or world? City implies and foregrounds community. The most basic defining characteristic of a city is people, living together in close proximity. One of the main elements of God's New Earth will be Christian unity, perfected. If we shirk from Christian community, if we like to emphasize that our spiritual walk is something exclusively between God and ourselves, we might need to reconsider just how ready we are for the City of God.
There are so many possible reasons, some passably legitimate if not taken to an extreme, others downright disturbing. And only we know which one is ours--if we're being honest with ourselves.
We're unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable and accountable to others. Perhaps there are petty sins and unhealthy habits we're reluctant to acknowledge or confront.
Being critical and intolerant of differences/weaknesses/mistakes constantly prevents us from loving others, as we always decide that they're lacking or undeserving of our effort and involvement.
We're pathologically afraid of getting hurt, perhaps from some past traumatic experience (whether in the church or outside.) We don't want to get too fond of anyone or feel obliged to anyone, and we view any attempts to grow closer with suspicion and wariness.
We make excuses that there's no one "compatible," as if this were a dating site. Different personalities, different backgrounds, different opinions--too much to handle. We believe that the answer lies in another denomination, in the next church, in a better pastor or Sunday School teacher, in a demographic group or income bracket more like our own, in a dress code, in a more vibrant and spiritual-minded youth group or a more participative Bible study group (this was me years ago.)
Our crippling insecurity and need for validation--and our unwillingness to admit it--makes us too proud to make advances. So instead we wait for others to approach us, feeling entitled to their initiative, because otherwise doesn't it reflect badly on this church, that they're "unloving" and "self-centered?"
Granted, the unity and relationships we experience here on earth cannot escape from being tainted by sin. We will experience betrayal, heartbreak, disappointment, miscommunication, bitterness, loss--as with any other relationships between sin-stained humanity on this sin-stained earth. But that very process, as so much else of what we experience in life, is part of God's plan for our sanctification. We persevere, looking forward to the New Earth and the City of God, where these relationships will be perfected, and we will experience unity as God intended it to be.
Christ's love for His church is something we would do better to emulate, out of all the many areas we seek to emulate Him in.
image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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