Monday, July 7, 2008

Church Review

I indicated last week that we planned to visit a Fundamental, Independent, KJV Baptist Church, located only four minutes from our house. We did indeed visit, and as much for my own benefit, I want to review the positives and negatives. You might recall that I indicated we were going into it with open minds and hearts? If I don't sound open enough, please give me a piece of your mind!

We both had met the pastor when the boys attended their VBS program a few weeks ago. I found him friendly and engaging, with an easy confidence that didn't edge toward arrogance. He was humorous and kind to the boys. Timmy, in particular, found him quite hilarious. Don, as well, liked his personality, and found him easy to talk with.

It was painfully obvious that he's eager for new members. Since most small churches don't offer a generous salary, perhaps the hope of a better one accounts for some of this pastor's eagerness to see new faces? No, that's probably not right. I'm just being unfair and jaded - sorry. Presumably, the house located on the church grounds is part of the living offered to the pastor; a nice perk for him, if that's the case.

The pastor had asked about our home church, and hearing that we were limited to a Sunday evening service, he interjected that his church offered one, at 6 p.m. I inquired as to whether it was a regular service, and he responded affirmatively, although hesitatingly. Turns out, it is not a repeat of the Sunday morning service, but instead functions more like an extra dose of Bible teaching. It entailed about ten minutes of hymns, led by the pastor, accompanied by a pianist. Next, testimonies were shared, by about four of the twenty to thirty people in attendance. Following this segment, the pastor gave a Titus sermon. I noticed he watched the clock carefully, which is always a plus, especially for evening services. We arrived at 6 p.m., and were back home getting the children into their pajamas by 7:30 (they got baths before service). That's a huge improvement over the Sunday evening mega-church schedule, which didn't have us home until 8:30.

Regarding the pastor's spiritual gifts, my honey and I disagree. I feel he absolutely has the gift of exhortation, and possibly the gifts of leadership and teaching. Don doesn't agree about the teaching gift, and is rarely drawn in by gifts of exhortation. Personally, I love to be exhorted (probably not a word), but Don feels beaten up by it, especially if it spills over into extra-Biblical issues. I can remember a sermon at my aunt's Pentecostal Church in which the pastor pleaded with the congregation to shut off their TVs for a week. While neither my husband nor I are TV watchers, Don still didn't appreciate the pastor's passionate, preachy plea; I thought it had value and was non-offensive.

A discussion about the pastor's gifts led to both of us clarifying how important the pastor should be in our church-finding mission. Don's favorite thing about attending church is the sermon, while mine has always been the music. Truthfully, the best thing I can say about the music in this church is that it only lasted ten minutes, and I didn't need ear plugs; the best thing Don can say about the pastor's speaking ability is that he knows how to keep it concise. Despite being our favorites, we don't see these issues as deal breakers, and we don't feel the pastor should be the main focus of our decision.

We've surmised over the years that the oratory skills of a pastor seem to be what makes a church steadily grow, at least initially. Secondly, perhaps, is the appeal of the music, across generations. Surely, oratory gifts vary considerably; some people are gifted at speaking to small groups, while others can draw in large crowds, and still others fit in between these two extremes. Unfortunately, still others struggle to effectively address any group, regardless of size. The extent to which this pastor has an oratory gift can't be determined through one sermon, in all fairness. He could have been fatigued, given that he already spoke and taught in the morning. Further, if he also has to give a sermon on Wednesday nights (they do have a midweek service), he is clearly overloaded. Three sermons a week, plus Sunday School teaching, which I presume he is involved with, is a whole lot to expect. There's no question that everyone performs better with adequate rest.

Regardless, I'm beginning to believe that loyal, small-church attendees are people who have made a commitment to the church, rather than to the pastor. Indeed, the small-church phenomenon reminds me of the ideal Christian marriage, in which one makes a commitment to God to stay in the union, rather than a commitment to the spouse. Humans, being imperfect, will always disappoint; God never does. If one makes a commitment to God to stand by one's church, it matters less what the pastor is like, provided he is honorable.

In my initial conversations with this pastor, I got the impression he believes the mega-church phenomenon isn't necessarily a positive. While not directly saying so, he gave the sense that different types of Christian music aren't as God-pleasing as hymns, and that in using alternative Christian music to draw in crowds, churches are compromising something. Well, we don't agree that God prefers one type of Christian music. But, going beyond my conversation with him, there may be some truth to the argument that mega-churches try too hard to be entertaining. They employ means such as drama skits, mime, professional concerts, and cafe-style improvisation, to draw people. It works, unquestionably. We've seen it in both California and Ohio, and Don saw it in PA. Is entertainment something that we, as Christians, should look for in a church home? Can it go too far, creating church goers who merely want to receive, rather than give? Can it distract church visitors or seekers, making it less likely they will come away with a clear Gospel message (an argument I've heard)? Probably not, if it's truly a Gospel-preaching church. It is definitely true that 10% of the church body does 90% of the work. While this unfair ratio has perhaps always existed, the entertainment component of recent large churches certainly doesn't help shift these ratios any.

As in everything else, there needs to be a balance. It is unfortunate that this pastor appears to be rigid; that's never a good thing when it pertains to extra-Biblical issues, such as music style. I'm thinking, though, that there's value in having a pastor who is not swayed by trends, or weakened by outside pressure. It remains to be seen if the value of this pastor's grounded nature outweighs his rigidity. I'm reminded that on the flip side of every weakness, one finds a strength, and vice versa.

Pastoral ministry is exhausting, and one of the most challenging jobs around. The pressure to increase one's attendance numbers is enormous. I'm not sure what God expects of his ministers in this regard, but the earthly church sure expects growth. We got our feet wet a little in paid ministry when Don worked a quarter-time Children's Director position for a year in 2006-07. He was expected to participate in many other ministries, and we barely saw him, despite the fact that he was employed for just a ten-hour position. Having gone through that, we can fully appreciate the challenges faced and the sacrifices involved in pastoral life. Those who stay in the field deserve our appreciation and respect, above all, and our prayers, always.

The church Don worked at began to experience in-fighting, leading to the pastor losing some of his richer tithers. As a result, Don's position had to be staffed by volunteers; the church could no longer afford paid staff, for some areas. We didn't stay after that, as the church was 35 minutes away, and we found the in-fighting really distasteful. It was something we hadn't experienced before as a couple, though Don had seen it in his youth. At the center of it was the pastor's desire to reform the church in the fashion of Rick Warren's (California) Saddleback Church (he's the author of The Purpose Driven Life). The reforms didn't go over well with many of the church members.

Anyhow, it would be easy to say that this new little church won't work for us, since at least initially, it appears that neither of us would get what we most want. Choices are few, however; we did some searching upon first moving here in 2005. It might be that more commitment and long-suffering is required of us. I'm obviously going to have to listen to my beloved Christian praise music in my own home. And Don will have to involve himself in Christian teaching, in the form of Children's Church and Sunday School. He happens to love Christian teaching; he sees involvement as a way to give back, and as a way to lessen the sting of mediocre pastoral sermons. We've found that if you're involved in teaching at a church offering only one service, you have to miss a fair share of them. That's not such a negative if you don't love the pastor's oratory skills.

Lest I forget, I found it a positive that one of the members happens to live three houses down from us! She seems about my age, and she has a delightful teenage girl, fifteen, and a twelve-year-old boy. She's friendly and gentle. Both times I spoke with her at the church I noticed her husband wasn't around, so perhaps he doesn't share her Christian faith. At any rate, having a nearby Christian woman to fellowship with would be so rich!

Another factor to be considered is that children's classes aren't offered on Sunday night, excepting nursery care. My boys don't sit still for an hour-long service, so thankfully they were offered nursery as well, which made it easier for Emily to accept leaving us. I will have to either take the boys to church on Wednesday nights for a class, or on Sunday mornings, or both. Otherwise, they won't have any fellowship opportunities at this church. We teach them Bible studies at home, so that part isn't as crucial, but given that they're homeschooled, they would definitely benefit from having other teachers in their lives.

Oh, my! I've done a whole lot of rambling! Sorry about that. I'm trying to organize my own thoughts, so I know how to pray about this issue.

I want to write a part-three post, to finish up my Greatest Priorities post, but I'm still gathering my thoughts on confidence. That will come together soon. Meanwhile, I'm trying to write often enough to keep the literary juices flowing. While I absolutely love writing, and find that it's something I MUST do, being concise, smooth and engaging is hard. Depends on the topic, strangely enough. Only practice will work out the kinks - or at least that's what professional writers claim. I used to tell my students the same thing about both reading and writing. Now, at 42, I'm taking my own advice. LOL

1 comment:

Mama P said...

Well you've obviously thought this through a lot. I admire that. I'm not like that at all when it comes to church. For several reasons, but I'll name two, one which is good and one not so good.

1. I don't care so much about the pastor.

2. I don't care so much about the pastor.

To me, as long as a pastor isn't a criminal or con artist, and can teach relatively well and is good with people, most of the work comes from me.

Granted, I'm Catholic. We hardly have what's called an engaging service.

But at the same time, it is quite lovely with its quiet focus. To get something out of it, you have to really really give. And that is crucial.

I believe most non-Catholics always say that the word of God is more important than some priest telling others what to do. So with that advice back at you, I'd say find what works for you in terms of God, not just the pastor. And in doing so, with your heart in the right place, it won't matter if the preacher has great music, gross music, bad sermons or great ones. You'll be there with your family with your minds on God and it's a win win all around.

Hope that helps.