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Recently I've been reading The Trellis and the Vine, an old classic by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It may be old, but for me, reading it for the first time, it was a breath of fresh air in the clarity with which it expressed many of the experiences and observations I had from my personal experience of serving in a church for many years.
Many of us start our Christian life with a Biblical, but admittedly vague, desire to "serve in church". Despite the good desires and motivations we have, we tend to oversimplify it into the concrete actions of helping to move chairs, turning up at events, tithing, and volunteering. But to take these actions as the sum-all of our duties, as an end in itself, is inadequate. All too often it fizzles away into burn-out, discouragement, or a dangerous complacency that hides a deep lack of spiritual growth in our part, which the hum of activity and the feel-good satisfaction of being useful lulls us into not recognizing.
I've had my own fair share of all these, and yet I never really could articulate why, or what was wrong.
It was with great thankfulness that I read the exact same description of what I'd experienced, with an explanation! Feeling like a patient who had finally gotten diagnosed, I pulled out my posted notes (to this day I still can't bring myself to write on books; maybe those awful Hawpar Villa scenes warning about the fate of those who deface books had some subconscious imprint on my pysche) and knew that there would be gems to collect from this book.
The book begins with an introduction of its central analogy: the vine--the actual work of the Gospel growing and changing people; and the trellis--the structures and activities that support it--which are present in a church.
"We will be arguing that structures don't grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift--away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ."
As such, a church's primary focus is always its people. Its ministries should be built around them--to meet their needs and utilize their strengths.
This thought, simple and obvious though it may be, should immediately make us re-examine our motivations and reasons for running each of the programs in our church. Are we having them simply because it feels right, because we have a hazy idea that the more "happening" and lively our church bulletin is, the more fruitful and impressive it seems?
"The growth of the gospel happens in the lives of people, not in the structures of my church."
This sentence stated it very clearly. For me, it was a huge encouragement, because we tend to measure growth and success by concrete, external improvement in our structures--more programs, more people turning up, a big congregation, a church building etc. Coming from a small church that has struggled with ups and downs, fluctuating congregation size, the only constant being the same persistent problems of manpower shortage, it's easy to compare ourselves to where we were five years ago and feel as if we haven't made any "real" progress.
Yet that's not true. There is quiet proof all around me of the lives that have been changed, the individuals that have grown spiritually, the people whose hearts have been transformed. Even in myself, having been nurtured and shepherded in this church all these years. And that is the important part, the real progress, the vine work.
As such, our attitude to people should be "not as cogs in our wheels, resources for our projects, but as individuals each at their own stage of spiritual growth." The church's role, then, is to be the trellis supporting their spiritual growth, training them to become stronger, more fruitful, to branch out.
What does training mean? In contrast to the Bible-college-seminary academic connotations we have of that word, training is something that every Christian needs. Not just the pastor. Not just the elders and deacons and Bible study group teachers and youth leaders. Every Christian needs training; to produce a "quality of character and behaviour based on the sound doctrine of the Scriptures." This is a brief explanation of what Jesus meant when He called us the 'salt of the world,' the 'light.' Salt and light, by their very essence, by their very presence. Who we are, and how that influences how we live our everyday.
Not just the few hours we spend in church on Sunday; in contrast, those few hours are supposed to help guide and teach us how to live our lives the rest of the week.
This kind of training, though it certainly requires focused study of the Word, is also "inescapably relational." We can take all the Bible study courses and programs, but never apply the head knowledge to our lives, if we don't have it modelled for us, if we don't see and struggle through the messy process of applying it.
Just these two foundational concepts already put into motion a whole train of thought on my part. Reexamining how I see my own service in church. My goals for my spiritual life. My purpose for being in church, "participating." The mindset with which I approach ministry, especially to others. When I'm tempted to complain, get discouraged, or get frustrated with others.
What really should be happening in me, and to those around me? And how am I contributing consciously to that growth?
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"The church might need to relearn what it means to BE church rather than simply to DO church."
This quote from the "Pandemic Reflections" editorial by Shiao Choong embodied the mixed feelings I've been having recently in response to the changes that the pandemic has made to our lives. We haven't been able to meet for church, for months now. Online Zoom meetings are the norm, we fumble to mute/unmute ourselves and discuss what's the proper etiquette--to turn on video camera, or not? All of a sudden routines that stood fast for years disappeared and a sense of disorientation took place. Sundays had always been frantically busy for me, with all the things that needed to be done. Suddenly all that was replaced with this unfamiliar lull.
What does it mean to be a Christian, to be part of a church, once we take away all the activities we associate (and often, equate) with it?
This reminds me of Luke 10: 38-42, where Jesus rebukes Martha for her blindness in pursuing the wrong priorities. Like Martha, we are so often "distracted with much serving," so much so that we even neglect Him, the reason for all our activity in the first place.
It is tempting to rely on activity as a concrete way of assuring ourselves that we've done our part, that we're growing spiritually.We have a sense of satisfaction when we see the results of our labour. We have the approval of others who watch us. We feel like we've achieved something. Progress packaged in a nice concrete way; the more activities, the better.
In contrast, Christ reminds us that "one thing is needed."
Do we as a church, as an individual Christian, only know how to be a Christian in terms of what to do and what to attend? It's much easier to busy ourselves with the concrete actions--nice, tidy little jobs that can be finished and put aside like housework or assignments--instead of dealing with the messier, abstract, and often more uncomfortable nature of spiritual growth/health. Dealing with that habitual sin or trial you're struggling with. Acknowledging and repenting of sins which distance you from God or bad habits which prevent you from growing. Going to God each day for forgiveness and strength. Seeking to live out faith and humility, and love. These are the things that we can neglect without anyone realizing even when we attend church faithfully and serve in multiple ministries, but these are the things which are of utmost importance in Christ's eyes.
If we neglect this, not only are we neglecting the "one thing needed," we will also eventually burn out in our serving.
It's only natural to feel disoriented with all the changes from this pandemic. But I will take this period as a chance to examine myself for any wrong attitudes towards serving, to remind myself that being a Christian is foremost my individual everyday walk with God, and to seek Christ's presence as the most important thing, as Mary did, and find my refreshing there.
In the absence of activity, are we lost? Even when we can't do, can we still be?
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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.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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