One of the things I enjoy most about my calling in ministry is being a resource to others. One of the things that drew me to the Lutheran understanding of faith is our connectional polity. Churches aren’t designed to be individual islands in the ELCA. We are connected to each other. We are connected to our neighboring churches in Houston, we are connected to our sisters and brothers across the Gulf Coast Synod, we are connected to all the other ELCA churches around the country, and we are even connected to other Lutherans across the globe. One of the most common signs of our connection is when we share resources. I really enjoy being helpful to others and supporting the work of the church both near and far.
I was asked by the ELCA worship staff to write some Frequently Asked Question articles for their website. These are common questions the churchwide office gets asked, and my responses are meant to be helpful, guiding suggestions on how to address these concerns. Last month, seven of the articles I wrote were published on the ELCA’s website. Here are some excerpts:
“In general, the postmodern worship practices of emerging churches are reactions against the pragmatic, baby boomer-oriented, seeker-sensitive movement. Instead of “services” of worship, emerging churches frame their assemblies as “gatherings” that are not afraid of a return to more liturgical forms. The gathering is highly experiential, focusing on the participation of those assembled, often through stations that guide people to interact with prayer, scripture, art, poetry, and other spiritual exercises.”
“Music for worship provided by a worship band must be done with the same sensitivity and care as any other type of sacred music. The worship band must frame their role in worship leadership as subservient to the assembly’s voice.”
“As a core function, video projection should be used for enhancing the environment for worship. In serving the liturgy, it should not be distracting but aide the space for worship as the body of Christ gathers.”
“The pace of technology can be difficult to grasp. Technology that at one time cost churches thousands of dollars to utilize now would cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of technology continues to diminish. At the same time the performance of technology continues to increase.”
“There are many options when it comes to the video projector component. Generally the most important specification will be the light output of the projector, measured in lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector will be. It is necessary to take into account the brightness of the room in which the projector will be used.”
“Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the reader, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.”
This is a new worship song I came across called, “Every Table is An Altar.”
If I were going to use this song, I might arrange it leaving the Bridge section out. An 11 minute ballad isn’t for every church. I think the song is lyrically strong enough without the Bridge. Especially if you use the Pre-Chorus in place of the building Bridge section.
The lyrics are striking. I’m drawn to them because they connect the tables of our everyday lives to Jesus’ radical table fellowship. They remind me of the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts…Let us give thanks…”). They also recall the Emmaus Road story:
Every table is an altar
Every breath is a gift from you
Every moment is a treasure
Every day is a kiss from you
So let our hearts
Be awake, be awake
Break the bread, pour the wine
Let our hearts, come alive
In your presence, in your presence
Let our fear, fall away
Let our faith, rise today
In your presence, in your presence
Every stranger has a story
Every story’s being told by you
We’re all children on a journey
Jesus only you can lead us through
Advent is that season of expectation and preparation that leads us into the incarnational reality of God tabernacle-ing among us. Or as Eugene Peterson put it, God “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).
Advent is also the kick-off of the new liturgical year. Even though not every church follows the Christian calendar religiously, there is something about Advent in which even contemporary churches can find hope. The intentional pause and reflection is highly sought after in our breakneck society. Advent plays well in churches trying to craft fresh expressions of the faith. But how do you make waiting fresh?
Here are some of my favorite creative resources for the season of Advent. Explore the links to learn more:
Sing to the King, words and music by Billy Foote and based on an older hymn by Charles Silvester Horne. This song captures the eschatological themes of Advent well. I actually include an additional original stanza that is left out of Foote’s version: “Souls will be saved from the burden of sin, doubt will not darken his witness within. Hell has no terrors, and death has no sting; love is victorious when Jesus is King.”
Immanuel, or as I like to call it, “From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable” (taken from the first stanza). Words and music by Stuart Townend, who has had some controversy lately stemming from the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal. The four stanzas of this song give you a great narrative sweep of Christ’s birth, life, death, and return. I exclusively bring this song out every Advent. However, I do feel that the theology in this song needs a little tweaking to fit in our context. In the final stanza I change “hope of heaven or the fear of hell,” to “heav’n joins earth where God will dwell.”
BlueFishTV.com’s “The Life of Mary” is a four part video series (perfect for Advent) that features teaching by Margaret Feinberg. These videos are perfect if you want to build an Advent series around Mary.
Advent Conspiracy is a campaign designed to help us all slow own and experience aChristmas worth remembering. There are lots of resources: messages, videos, a book, and small group curriculum.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “God is in the Manger”is a devotional book with daily readings for the season of Advent. Last year we developed it into a four week message series with accompanying small group discussion questions.
Advent WreathYou can be pretty creative with how you represent the Advent wreath. Consider how lighting can be used to create the effect of candles. This wreath was constructed out of corrugated plastic (the same stuff they make yard signs out of).
Advent banners can be cool. Don’t sell them short. They can add color and depth of meaning through the use of symbol and metaphor. Just search for “Advent banners” on Pinterest and put your creative people to work.
Recently at Faith we made an upgrade to the technology we use in worship. The desire was to make possible the live web streaming of our services. We wanted people away from church on Sunday, either traveling, or ill, or homebound, to be able to tune in and follow along online. It also gives us the ability to share baptisms, weddings, and funerals with people across the globe.
During Holy Week in late March we launched the web streaming of our worship services online. It took us a few weeks to get some of the bugs fixed, but we are increasingly improving the quality of the broadcast every week. We were blessed with a very generous gift from one of our members that made this additional technology possible.
For those that are a little on the geeky side, the project included two new key pieces of equipment. The first was a Sony BRC-300 video camera and the second was a Roland VR-5 video mixer. The Sony video camera is mounted on the edge of the choir loft and has powerful zoom capabilities that can hone in on the chancel area. It also can pan all around the sanctuary and has six preset scenes that allow us to pick key areas in the room we want the camera to record often in the service (like the pulpit, table, lectern, and choir loft). This camera is a significant step up from the consumer grade handheld camcorder that we used previously. The Roland video mixer takes the signal from the Sony camera, and the signal from our video projection computer that displays words and videos during the service, and mixes those two together. Other new equipment is listed below.
Behind the scenes we have a volunteer whose job it is to mix the video and audio signal and ensure that it gets broadcast to the website successfully. You can watch the live broadcast online every Sunday at 9:00 and 11:15 AM. The address is live.faithbellaire.org (you can also find the link on the homepage of our church website). We are already having viewers tune in from around the world. We had five viewers watch the services online on Easter Sunday (our first Sunday to try out the new technology). We’ve had viewers as far away as France and the Caribbean join us online on Sunday mornings.
We are excited about this new technology and the opportunities for reaching more people with the ministry of worship at Faith.
I’ve been experimenting with some simple environmental projection at our Wednesday evening Taize services at Faith. Opposite of the screen (which is a loop of icons of Jesus), I put a huge flickering candle on loop. It is projected on to the wall which has raised bars. Environmental projection is simply the idea that you project images and loops on some surface other than a screen. The railing and table are full of votive candles, so the large projected candle ties in with the rest of the room. I’ve also added two LED lamps throwing purple light beneath the cross.
The video screen has become the new stained glass in 21st Century churches.
We live in a visual culture. The common currency for communication has shifted from text to images.
“It’s not either image, or text. It’s both/and, image and text. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was a man (image) living among us. He was also text (the Word become flesh).” ~ Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks
Don’t just throw a Times New Roman font on a white screen! Creating beautiful slides is intensive and time-consuming.
Don’t overload the slides with content (MAX: 6 lines of lyric, 6 words to summarize point).
Limit your font choices to 2. Choose fonts that are easy to read and use the styles consistently throughout your presentation.
Not distracting, but not too simple.
Choose a background that will attract the viewer’s eye to the words. If your background requires the words to have an outline and a drop shadow to be readable, it is no longer attracting the viewer’s eye to the words.
Use the negative space (Dark background/light text; light background/dark text).
Use imagery that tells the story of the text.
Avoid clipart at all costs. Use stock photography or artwork.
Acts 2:42-47 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Robert Putnam wrote a book in 2000 called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In this book, Putnam puts out a simple premise: “Americans need to reconnect with one another.” He chronicles that many of the civic organizations that were started and thriving in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s have begun to collapse. Bowling leagues and garden clubs that had popped up and continually been replenished with new members, suddenly stopped growing. In the last 20 years, many of these groups have ceased to exist. The church hasn’t been immune either. The days when it was assumed that everyone would belong to a church somewhere are gone.
However, in the passage from Acts 2 we hear the story of the early church – the followers of Jesus that formed communities immediately after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This passage presents a paradigm for church membership that includes four main actions: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (v. 42). These four main actions are expounded on in the verses that follow (vv. 43-47). These four main actions synthesized the new faith of these Jesus followers.
The first action was that they “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The teaching is specifically related to how the apostles worked “many signs and miracles” (v. 43). In the modern mindset, it can be very difficult to link these two things: teaching and miracles. The Western, Post-Enlightenment, rational mind tends to view teaching favorably and miracles with questioning. However, in ancient Eastern cultures, as well as in many developing cultures today, miraculous events are seen as modes of authentication. At one time in the church’s history, theology was naturally linked to miracles, spirituality, and mystery.
The next action that the earliest followers of Jesus remained faithful to was “the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). The Greek term used is koinonia which is also translated as “the community.” Specifically, the fellowship practiced by the early church is elaborated on by their familial sharing of possessions. They “owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (vv. 44-45). Actions such as these were the signs of a deep connectedness and humility toward one another. Jesus’ teaching that one should “lend without any hope of return” (Luke 6:35) was being actualized.
The third action that the early church committed to was “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). This action is expanded on with the description that they “met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared food gladly and generously” (v. 46). It is worth noting that the Eucharistic practice of the early church occurred during the sharing of a larger, common meal (known as the agape). When the early church had communion, it wasn’t in a continuous assembly line! It was in the context of the common meal the blessing and thanksgiving over the bread and wine would take place. Eventually the practice of the common meal fell out of use and the rite of giving thanks that Jesus instituted remained. It is clear from the language in Acts 2:42 that the common meal was the practice in the context of Jerusalem. The sharing of food generously speaks to the context of the larger agape meal. The breaking of bread, however, is more specific language that Luke previously used when Jesus shared a meal with some disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:35). When the disciples broke bread together, it was more than an ordinary meal. The breaking of bread recalled the death of Jesus, the mighty acts of God’s salvation fulfilled in Jesus, and the hope of his return. For Jewish believers, recalling Jesus’ death through the breaking of bread was more than detailed memory. It was the truth, fully alive and come to life before their eyes.
The fourth action to which the disciples committed themselves was “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The disciples’ faithfulness in prayers related to how “they regularly went to the Temple” (v. 46) and “praised God” (v. 47). Just as the final parts of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem took place within the context of the Temple, so the apostles and early church continued to gather there for prayer. Despite the persecution and uncertainty that surrounded them, the early church was characterized by their praise of God.
These four main actions of the early church remain essential in the church today. It is vital to remain connected to the apostolic teaching and witness to Jesus’ life and ministry. Being bonded together with other Christ-followers in fellowship and commonality is also important today. Continually remembering, giving thanks, and looking forward to Jesus around the table are still central symbolic actions in the church. Jesus has also established his church to be a house of prayer and continual praise. These four actions provide the framework for membership in the New Testament church. These four things are still central to our church here at Faith today.
Today we are honing on one of the four actions from the early church in Acts 2: Fellowship. In our church we say, “Faith belongs.” The word “belonging” is such a fascinating way of thinking about fellowship and membership in the church. When we join a church – or I would suggest instead of saying “when we join” it is actually “when the Spirit draws us into a church” – it is more than signing your name on a line or attending a class. You are actually belonging yourself to a group of people. They belong to you, and you belong to them. And that is something that the world and culture around us is thirsty for – an authentic community. There is a brokenness in our culture, and it stems from our individualism. We prefer to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We wear earbuds everywhere (work, shop, and exercise), we’ve got man caves (private dens of testosterone), we work in cubicles (usually wearing headphones). We see our world through an individualistic lens. Lead actors and actresses. Sports stars. Solo artists. Top chef.
The new covenant that Jesus established – Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, opening the gate for belonging to the people of God (no longer race-related, no longer born into it, but available to everyone/everywhere) – The new covenant was instituted and is renewed in the context of fellowship, specifically in the act of table fellowship.
New research from Robert Putnam: He suggests pastors: “Spend less time on the sermons, and more time arranging the church suppers.” In a new Gallup-Healthways poll with more than 676,000 participants it was revealed that the more church friends a person has, the happier he or she is. “Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” “We have some hypotheses, but we don’t know for sure.” The researchers found that non-church friends do not provide the same benefit in terms of well-being, and that other measures of being religious — like belief in God or frequency of prayer — do not serve as a reliable predictor of a person’s satisfaction with life.
A meal is a real, valuable act in a church. It takes attention, the food has to come from somewhere, and it all has to be planned, prepared, and afterwards cleaned up. There is really good work, as Putnam indicates, for pastors (and other church leaders) to do in arranging church suppers, both for the act of fellowship and the friendships that will be nurtured around the table.
“People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall but because they have more friends in their congregations,” And churchgoing alone without making friends does not improve well-being, they found.
Putnam said, “In short, sitting alone in the pew does not enhance one’s life satisfaction,” Only when one forms social networks in a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of life satisfaction.”
The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices but the friendships that are nurtured there. Or perhaps it’s that developing friendships isa religious practice. There is a spirituality to being woven into the fabric of community. Sharing life, sharing possessions, sharing joys and sorrows.
Let me encourage you: Don’t be a “lurker.”
Belong to Faith – find a group of people that you can belong to and that they can belong to you – Faith Family Fun Days, Learning Groups, Congregational Events/Meals, service opportunities.