The 12 “No”s of Christmas

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I totally love Christmas, but let me cut right to the chase: Christmas can be emotionally draining, physically exhausting and financially stressful. It is a time that we can feel pulled in every direction, even by people that we care about. 

That’s why I think we all need reminders that there is space for “no” at Christmas, and  I’ve decided to write about it.  Please embrace these “no”s on whatever day of Christmas they are needed.  

No to Gifts We Can’t Afford (or are just plain unreasonable)

I get it.  When our kids ask for something, we don’t want to let them down.  It’s especially hard if they answer: “But can’t SANTA get it?” No.  This year, our daughter wanted a gift that was well over our budget. When she pulled the Santa card, I simply said that in our house we aren’t allowed to ask Santa for such big gifts.  Parents, YOU CAN SAY NO. Setting limits is one of our jobs, even at Christmas.

This applies to lots of areas. A few years ago, a friend of mine was complaining about the high cost of stockings. I was surprised to think of stockings as something costly. I said: “We only spend about $20 on stockings.”  She was stunned. Her stockings had always included things like DVDs, books, and even jewelry, usually costing up to $100. I told her our stockings are things we need – socks, underwear, or new markers.  And that we don’t always “fill” them! She was excited to learn she could say “no” to $100 stockings!

Is the family “secret Santa” limit out of budget? You can say no.

Is the gift your child wants a piece of junk you don’t want to buy? You can say no.

Are you going to have to go in debt to afford a certain kind of Christmas? YOU CAN SAY NO.

No to Over- Giving

I LOVE buying my kids gifts at Christmas time.  It’s hard to resist sometimes, as I picture their excited faces on Christmas morning.  But here is a little tactic that has helped me keep giving under control. When I picture Christmas morning and it makes me want to buy ONE MORE THING so badly, I pause, and I picture January.  I picture that EXACT gift on a Tuesday in January. Where is it? Is it on a shelf somewhere? Has it been forgotten? Is it just added to a toy pile somewhere? This gives me pause and helps me avoid getting sucked into buying “just one more thing.”

No to Food you Don’t Want

“But I made these JUST FOR YOU!”  It seems like everyone has a reason to make you eat one more cookie.  If you want to, great. But if you are done eating, if you are full, if you want to eat healthy, if you don’t LIKE cookies (or pie, or turkey, or ham or candy canes) – you can say no.  (*Note: As someone frequently accused of “aggressive hospitality, I will also work on saying “no” to begging you to eat more of my food). 

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No to Endless Visits

I see a lot of people struggling in what I call the “Christmas sandwich generation,” quite common with people my age.  This is when people are still expected to do EVERY family tradition they did while growing up, even though they now have children of their own. They go to grandma’s on Christmas Eve, Great Aunt Sue’s for Christmas breakfast, hubby’s dad’s for lunch and Mom’s mom for dinner.  It’s even more tricky with people from blended families.

Here’s the thing – at some point, no one can do it all, and we shouldn’t be expected to. (Remember that in order for your MOM to have started the tradition of Christmas breakfast at her house, at some point she STOPPED going to HER mother’s).  I know it will be hard, but yes- you can say no endless visiting and say “yes” to days in pajamas!

No to “But All the Other Kids….”

Every other kid has an Elf on the Shelf.  Every other kid goes to the Santa Clause Parade.  Every other kid gets a new Christmas dress. Etc. Etc. Etc.  It doesn’t matter. Your family can do exactly what YOUR family can manage.  

No to “But It’s Tradition!”

If you have kids, you’ll hear this all the time.  You do something once, and for the next 10 years they’ll ask to do it again and whine “But it’s tradition!!!!” Traditions can be fun, but sometimes you start something you don’t want to do again.  If you can’t manage something this year, for whatever reason, it’s okay to say “no,” even if a tradition is broken.

Now this is where you might be saying.  “This is too much! You don’t know my family!  I’ll never be able to say no to these things!” That’s where the next one comes in.

No to Guilt

Do you need to say no to something this Christmas? You can do so – and you DON’T have to feel guilty about it.  This is true, even for the especially hard ones, like the ones I am about to share…

No to Having to Love Christmas

Not everyone loves Christmas.  Some people find Christmas hard.  Maybe you are grieving. Maybe you are going through a hard time.  You don’t have to love Christmas. If you’re sad, you can be sad. You don’t have to put on a happy face.  You don’t have to celebrate. You can be what you need to be.

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No to Making OTHERS Love Christmas

It’s not our job to fix Christmas for everyone who is struggling.  Give space to those who need it to be sad. This is especially true of people newly grieving.  If they need to skip a party, or step back from an event, let them.

No to Boundary Crossing

This is a sad one to have to address but it’s important.  Sometimes being with family for some people means being in a room with their abuser. Let me say this clearly:  You do NOT have to visit/kiss/hug/thank your abuser EVEN IF IT’S CHRISTMAS.  You are allowed to say no.

This also applies to your kids.  Please don’t make your children kiss or hug someone they don’t want to hug.  Say “no” to telling kids they can’t control their own bodies. In our house, we give three options: “Fist bump, high five or hug?”  We can say “no” to having anyone cross someone else’s physical boundaries. 

No

No to Emotional Manipulation

I know what’s going to happen when you say “no” to some of these things.

“But this could be Grandma’s last Christmas!”

“Don’t you care about tradition?”

“Everyone will be so disappointed if you don’t come!”

It’s hard, I know.  It’s hard to feel responsible for someone else enjoying Christmas. AND – it’s not your job.  You can say no.

This “no” works both ways – we need to be able to hear when people say no without trying to manipulate them into doing what we want.  It’s hard when our loved ones make decisions that change things for us – but we can respect their “no” and show them love by doing so.

No to ____________

This is your fill-in-the-blank for whatever you need.

No to sending Christmas cards, if it’s too overwhelming.

No to throwing a party, if it’s more than you can manage.

No to Christmas baking, if time is running short.

No to french hens and turtle doves and partridges in a tree if you don’t feel like getting stuck with a house full of birds.

No to THE THINGS THAT WILL STRESS YOU OUT INSTEAD OF BRING YOU JOY.

Say no, my friends.  Every day that you need to. 

And have a very merry boundary-full Christmas!

 

 

What a Week to Be a Woman!

My friends, this week there have been times that I have felt more discouraged and defeated about the state of the world than I have in a long time.  A few weeks ago, if you had told me the process of appointing a supreme court justice in another country would affect me so deeply, I wouldn’t have believed it. But then, how could I anticipate a week where we would have to listen to abuse and assault survivors feel a need to defend their own integrity?  How could we be prepared for a week when victims would be turned into villains? And, oh Lord, how could I be ready to hear that the majority of evangelical Christians in the United States would say that they believed that a man should be appointed to the supreme court EVEN IF he had committed an assault?   

There have been so many times I have prayed: “Come Lord Jesus, and take me with you.”

(And, also, “Could you leave a lot of these other guys behind? Because they scare me.”)

Interestingly enough, the news and social media weren’t the only places I heard stories of sisters sharing that being a woman can be just plain exhausting this week.  Two days before the hearings, I sat and listened to stories of other women who have had some uphill battles, when we gathered as a group of women pastors in my denomination for our first ever female clergy conference, hosted at my church.

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A group photo from the conference

A Dream for a Women Pastor’s Conference

It was something I’ve dreamed of for a while, ever since a season when I kept hearing the same story from a lot of my sisters who work as pastors:  “Sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes I need other people who get it.”

To be clear, these were not stories of abuse.  We work in a supportive denomination, and many of us feel this support even from our brothers who hold different views on our roles in the church.  These aren’t victim stories – but they are stories of women saying: “I don’t feel like there are places where my experiences are heard.”

So on Tuesday we got together.  There were over 50 of us! I have worked in this denomination for 13 years and even I didn’t realize how many women pastors there are (and we weren’t all there!).  But even though I didn’t know a lot of these women, I did know a lot of the stories – even without having heard them. I knew them because we all have versions of the same story.  

We heard the stories of not being sure God could call us to be pastors as women. We heard the stories of being afraid of what people would say about us, being challenged in our calls by our loved ones, and worrying we wouldn’t find a job.  We heard the stories of trying to negotiate taking maternity leaves and the sadness of going into ordination councils knowing there would be people who would oppose us before they’d even heard what we had to say.

But we also heard the story of Lydia, one of my favourite women in the Bible.

A Pastor Named Lydia

Some of us may have heard about her before – she is famous in the Bible for being the first person to become a follower of Jesus in Europe.  She is also listed as a “dealer in purple cloth.” This means that she was a successful business person, likely quite wealthy (since purple cloth was a luxury), and, I like to think, probably had a good sense of style. What is most significant about Lydia is that it says that after she decided to become a Christian, that her “whole household” believed and was baptized – and that later Paul and Silas (the missionaries who were part of her conversion), met in the “church in Lydia’s home” (Full story in Acts 16).  

Many have long understood this to mean that Lydia was the leader of this church –  since churches met in homes at the time, the church leader and the host of the home were usually one and the same. I think it’s a logical conclusion that Lydia was a pastor, in the modern sense of the term. This was the inspiration behind our conference’s title: “Lydia’s Daughters.”  Lydia set the stage for the calling and ministry of women like me and I believe women pastors continue her legacy.

lydias daughters

But, as Dr. Cynthia Westfall shared with us in her plenary address about Lydia, even I had not noticed the shaft that Lydia often gets in some Christian circles.  In the very chapter that she is mentioned, there is another, more famous story, when Paul and Silas are in jail and they start singing – there is an earthquake as a result, in which no one is hurt but they are freed from their chains.  Famously, the man who was guarding them, quite moved by this experience, asks: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul answers: “Believe in Jesus!” and it says that the jailer and his household are saved.

I love this story.  It is one of my favourites in the whole Bible.  But I had never thought about it before: If you have spent any time being taught about the Bible, it is quite likely that this story of the jailer’s conversion is well known to you.  We are often told about this man who asks how to be saved and how that leads to the conversion of his whole houshold….but what I hadn’t noticed (Me!  Who had named a whole conference after Lydia!) – was that THE EXACT SAME THING HAPPENS TO LYDIA!

She seeks salvation.

She follows Jesus.

She leads her household to faith.       

And yet in evangelical circles  we hardly ever talk about her – we talk about the man in the story, whose name we don’t even know.  We talk about the jailer, even though at the end of the story, it is Lydia’s house to which Paul returns for hospitality and care – not the home of the jailer.  We talk about how the man was the impetus for his whole house finding Christ, when the same thing happened to a woman mere verses earlier.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate this man’s amazing story – it’s a good one.  But how have we so long overlooked the woman’s?

The fact that we have done that, quite frankly, is why we had a female clergy conference this week.  

That fact that we have done that with countless women before and after Lydia is why so many women all around the world are angry this week.

We are tired of people not noticing, listening to, or believing our stories.

I don’t know any woman pastor who wants to downplay or take away the work of their brothers in ministry (in fact, when we were asked by the head of Baptist Women what ways they could further support us, our longest discussion was about if they could do anything to support our husbands. Bless).  What I know is that we don’t want to always feel invisible. We don’t want our stories to feel less important. We want to be heard and seen, the way we know Jesus sees and hears us.

Sadly, this doesn’t always happen when we gather with other pastors, because we may be the only woman in the room.  It doesn’t always happen because our stories have not been heard for a long time – and sometimes even when we share them, it gets flipped to be about how the MEN are affected by it all. And friends, we are just over it.  So sometimes – we need to talk to other women who do what we do.

That’s why this women’s pastors’ conference was a gift and I thank our Baptist Women and our denomination for making it happen.  This week was a good week to be a woman pastor in the CBOQ – which meant a lot during a week when it sure wasn’t easy to be a woman.

A Bigger Dream…

Maybe, men and women, if this week has been discouraging for you, and you’re looking for a way to respond: look for the Lydias in your life.  Are there women’s stories you have not heard? Are there women that need to get some air time in your life, in your church, in your pulpit? What would it look like to share these voices in a place where the response will be: “We are GLAD you shared. We WANT to hear you” ?  That’s my dream for the church.

My dream goes far beyond a day of gathering women pastors to hang out and get to know each other.  My dream is that the CHURCH can be the place where ALL women can say: “THIS is where my story is heard.”

THIS is where I am not afraid to speak.

THIS is where people will believe me, and help me heal.

THIS is where converted jailers AND converted business women can each lead as Jesus has called them.

THIS – the church – is a safe place for Lydia’s daughters, and all the daughters of God.

I’m hoping a women’s pastors conference can be one thing that helps make this dream a reality – but it shouldn’t be the only thing.

Let’s do this.

 

 

Why I Smile When I Remember 9-11

I remember staring at the television screen in disbelief and horror.  I was 23 and working as a youth pastor at a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001.  Someone came into my office and said to come to the television. The other pastors, the janitor, the church secretary, and the guy who shredded our paper stood around the TV in the church nursery as the towers fell.  I remember saying out loud as I watched people jumping to save their lives: “Those are real people.”

It was later that we heard that the planes were landing at our local airport, not very far from where we were sitting.   It was later that we found out that 150 people were coming to spend the night in our church gym, and we would need to get ready.  It was later that the day started to change in my memory.

Of course, I remember the devastation and the heartbreak.  I will never forget.

But, because I was living in a city in the most easterly part of Canada, where planes diverted from the U.S. air space were forced to land,  and because I was working in a large church, and because our church had a gym big enough to hold a lot of people, I remember a lot more about 9-11 and the days that followed, than the horror. I remember how people came together and created something beautiful, when it seemed like there could only ever be room for ugly ever again.

I remember the generosity.

I remember when we had to start asking people to stop bringing sleeping bags to the church that first night.  Our church was listed as a temporary shelter on the news, and within an hour, we couldn’t handle anymore blankets or pillows.  People just kept showing up with more, and more, and more. Everyone wanted to help. Within a couple of hours of being told we would have 150 people staying with us, we had set up 150 beds, each with air mattress, pillow, sleeping gear – all donated.

I remember walking through Sobey’s at 1 in the morning, the only grocery store in town open that late, buying breakfast for 150 people.  I remember that the next day, we had so much food donated that we didn’t even need what we’d purchased.

I remember walking into the church every day for the next five days that the plane people ended up staying  to tables overflowing with donations of food and clothes. I remember when a small town on the other side of the island donated a gourmet fish buffet hosted by a local restaurant for everyone staying at our church. I remember when the most expensive restaurant in town came and hosted a prime rib dinner, with their top chef carving the beef for 150 guests.

I remember  when a few people couldn’t sleep one night because of snoring.  I went to a Shoppers and asked if we could get some ear plugs for our church because we were hosting plane people.  They handed me over a box of 200 packs, no more questions asked.

I remember moments of joy.

I remember taking people around the city in a borrowed van.  I remember watching their amazement when they got to the top of Signal Hill and said “we didn’t even know this place existed in the world!” I remember walking into stores and tourist spots and being told everything was free because we had “plane people” with us.  

I remember staying up late with the stragglers and singing karaoke. I remember how much our English friends ended up loving Tim Horton’s, especially Tim Bits. I remember when one guy decided to dress up as Santa for the children.

I remember laughing until our sides hurt when a woman came to a group of us saying she couldn’t find her “nickers” – her underwear – which had been sent out for dry cleaning.  When she explained where the dry cleaning rack was,  one woman realized she had taken them thinking they were a donation.  “I’m wearing your nickers!!” she declared, to her shock and shame.  And we all cried we laughed so hard.

I remember friends.

I remember forming a group with six people that became our pose.  I remember one of the guys showing me the engagement ring he was carrying his pocket, ready to propose at just the right moment when they finally got to Los Angeles. I remember bringing one woman to my house so she could have a bath.  In our bathroom there was a little wooden sign that said, “Baths’ -5 cents.” I remember a few days later discovering a nickel left on top of the sign.

Yes, I remember the hard stuff too.

I remember the stares of people who didn’t turn away from the TV news.  I remember the never ending lines for the phones, those desperate to get home, the couple that missed their son’s wedding and the woman who sobbed on my shoulder because she was so tired and overwhelmed.  I remember how scared everyone was to get back on a plane. I remember crying together, often.

But I also remember…love.

Yes, it sounds cheesy, but I can’t think of a better word. It was a surreal time –  we had just witnessed the worst act of hate most of us had ever seen in our lifetimes, and I was living in a corner of the world where love was everywhere.  It was like we were surrounded by an anthem everyday: “Hate will not win.”  

Terror had happened, it was true, but we were still able to eat together, laugh together, cry together – and accidentally share each other’s underwear. 

It is one of the times in my life that I have felt the very closest to God.  God was everywhere it seemed to me, reminding us in our little corner that what seemed like the end wasn’t going to be.  Hate would not win.    

So forgive me if it seems a bit callous to say, but it is true that on September 11, even as I feel very sad, I can’t help but smile a little, too.  I smile because – I remember.  

  

 

I Want to Stop Being a Unicorn

I admit I didn’t notice it at first.  I went to church after church.  I shook hands. I met pastors. I heard good music and good preaching.

It was at about week twelve that I realized:

“I haven’t heard a woman preach in three months.”

A couple sang.

Some made announcements.  

Not one preached.

And I sighed a heavy sigh, as I wondered: “How is this still happening?”

As part of a recent Sabbatical leave I took from my role as a pastor, I had been visiting different churches to learn from them and experience worship in new ways.  I had gone to a couple churches who had theological positions that wouldn’t allow women to speak, but most churches I visited did not fall in that category. This is what made it so shocking when I realized that I had managed to go several months without hearing a woman preach.

What was even more shocking?  When I realized, with even more sadness, that in that time I had only seen one preacher who was a person of colour – a guest speaker at Hillsong New York.

In fact, by the time I got to the end of my season of visiting, with the exception of the guest mentioned above, I had only heard the Bible taught by white men between the ages of 35 and 60!!!  IN FOURTEEN WEEKS AND FOURTEEN DIFFERENT CHURCHES!!!!

My friends, this is a problem.

Before everyone freaks out at me, let me say to my Caucasian brothers: I love you.  I’m thankful for you. I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing. Please keep preaching and sharing about God.  We need you.

But we need more than JUST you.

The family of God is diverse.  And we live in a diverse country.  With diverse churches. We NEED the voices of people from different ages, and genders, and races.  Different voices speak from different eyes that let us see things in new ways and, I would argue, let us see the fullness of God and God’s Word in ways that we can’t if we only ever hear from one particular cohort.  I would go so far as to say that when we DON’T hear from these range of voices that we will actually MISS things God has to say to us. Seeing the fullness of the family of God represented in preaching also says to those of us often in the minority: “Your voice matters in this family. You can do this, too.”   

I can only speak as a woman, as I am not a person of colour.  But as a woman, it matters when I see people like me do what I do.  I can forget how much it matters sometimes. I was reminded again when  I spoke at a youth conference this spring. After I shared, I lost count of the number of girls who came up to me saying: “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a woman pastor!”  And it mattered to them.

Men, can you imagine being 18 years old and never hearing anyone like you preach? EVER?  Can you imagine what would happen if you did?

Now, I’ve heard the arguments about the “feminization of the church,” and how too much female leadership “turns off” men, etc. etc, blah, blah. A couple of years ago when I published a blog that mentioned that our church’s three pastors were all female, an angry commenter talked about how this was what was wrong with the church and why men don’t go to church anymore.  I laughed out loud. I didn’t bother to respond, but if I had my response would have been: “I think men will have no trouble finding churches with male pastors.” For example, they could attend ANY OF THE CHURCHES I VISITED IN FOURTEEN WEEKS.  

But where, angry commenter, might you suggest I go, or my sisters go, or my daughter go, even once in a while, to hear voices like our own?  To remember that God has also called us, and wants to use us and that the word of God can be spoken through our lips?

(Of course, women are welcome at our church, but we only have 220 seats and our city has half a million people, so we may need more than MHBC as an option…)

We need to do something about this.  We need to make space at the table – by making space at the pulpit.

This starts by giving women the chance to speak.  This is as simple as adding women to your preaching rotation (and please, please, please don’t talk about how you “can’t find” any women to preach. Look harder.  We haven’t had a lot of chances, as you know, so you may need to take a risk or two, but we have to start somewhere). In my church, with its all female staff, I consciously make sure to have men speak when we need guests, because having different voices matters to us.  I realize that we have not done a good job with diversity in our speakers in terms of race – I name that that needs to change.

Obviously, this message isn’t relevant for churches that don’t allow women to preach for theological reasons.  I’m not trying to address that here. If I had only attended complementarian churches, I wouldn’t be writing this post because it wouldn’t make sense to do so.  But I didn’t. Most of the churches I attended fully ordain women because they feel convicted by Scripture that it is right to do so. And still, I didn’t see any women preach in four months.  I know you’ll all be able to give me examples saying “You should have went here!” or “There’s a women at this place!” Before you do that, stop and see the point. When I didn’t go specifically looking for women preachers – I didn’t find any.  

No wonder girls at conferences keep treating me like a unicorn after I speak!  For many I really do seem like a mythical creature that they had only hoped was real until I prance across the stage.* (Note: I don’t prance).

This is why of all the things I will take from visiting fourteen churches, one of them will definitely be the conviction that I have got to keep doing what I’m doing. I need to keep preaching, teaching, and speaking, because God has called me to do so, and because I want other women to see that God can call them, too.  If I must be the token woman at events, conferences, and workshops, so be it. I’ll token away until we don’t need tokens anymore.

And when I get a little weary, I’ll look at this picture.  My daughter drew this a few months ago. It’s me, doing what I do almost every Sunday. I’m preaching.  And she is sitting in the front row, listening. Learning. Seeing she belongs. I’ll keep doing it for her, and every girl and woman that may sit beside her.

preaching

But please – don’t make me do this alone.  

Brothers, invite your sisters to the pulpit.  Pastors, build up women with the gifts of teaching.  Conference leaders, do the work to find women you can invite to share at your events.  It’s time for women preachers to stop being surprising.

We are tired of being unicorns.      

This is my fourth and final post in my series on what I learned from visiting churches over four months.  You can read the previous three posts on this site.  

We Need to Stop Sucking (or, if I’m Being Polite, “Time For New Wine Skins”)

Dear Church,

We need to stop sucking.

This is part three of my series on things I learned when I spent four months visiting different churches, and, frankly, it’s the one I tried to convince myself I didn’t need to write.  

I don’t aspire to rock the boat too much on this blog, so this one is a bit hard for me, especially since I LOVE churches and I don’t want to sound critical, or self righteous, or like my home church has got everything figured out.  But I can’t shake the conviction I need to write this one, so here I go, with no small amount of trepidation.

“What did you learn as a pastor from visiting fourteen churches over four months?”

I learned that we have GOT to do better.

(Or, if I’m really being honest and saying what I’ve actually said when people ask me this in person: I learned that we have got to STOP SUCKING).

don't suck

I don’t mean that we need to have higher quality musicians for music or that we need to hunt for a preacher that will draw the big crowds.  

If you’ve ever been to my own church, you’ll know that our music is led by volunteers and that this preacher hasn’t attracted too many masses over the last thirteen years.

I’m not talking about adding smoke machines or bigger parking lots or flashy websites or fancy production teams to create swanky slides and graphics.

When I say that we, as the church, often SUCK I mean that we struggle to do the one thing every church is called to do: Make a space where people can meet Jesus exactly as they are… and not as we think they should be.

My time visiting churches made me wonder if most of us are willing to do that.  

Over the last four months, I visited lots of wonderful churches that I would recommend to any Christian.  However, I did not find many churches that, in good conscience, I could send someone who was new to church, discouraged by faith, or trying church again after a long time away.  This is not because I went to bad churches. It’s because most churches have language and customs and ways of doing things that no one explains to people who are on the outside.

More than that, our pattern as churches these days seems to be to keep doing what we have always done and HOPE that people will jump on board with doing things the way WE like them so we can keep doing church that way that makes US comfortable.

And then, when we find that our churches are shrinking in size, or our kids and grandkids are totally disinterested in doing church with us, we blame THEM.  We blame SOCIETY. We blame the WORLD – because that’s easier than looking at ourselves.

When I visited a large cathedral on my travels in the United Kingdom I got talking to one of the volunteers who was offering tours.  She explained that she was a member of the church and that the only way they could afford to keep running the building was through the donations of people who came for the tours.  She explained that their membership had shrunk from thousands to just a few hundred and then said: “But what can we do? No one goes to church anymore.”

Well, I didn’t say this to this very sweet lady, but I wanted to say:  “Well, you can do SOMETHING.”

Friends, do not believe the lie we tell ourselves as church goers that people don’t care about God anymore.  It’s NOT TRUE. It literally only takes two hours and one glass of wine with any of my friends who aren’t Christians for the conversation to turn to faith.  They WANT to ask about God. They WANT to talk about their questions and what really matters in life and how it all fits for them. Yes, sometimes they are angry.  Yes, sometimes they are cynical. And almost always they don’t want to “go to church.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t want God. It doesn’t even mean they don’t want some form of church.

It means they don’t want to stand and sit at certain times and sing songs they don’t know.  They don’t want to get up early on a Sunday morning. They don’t want to hear lessons on topics that have nothing to do with their lives.  They don’t want to recite words they don’t understand. For many, this is all that church is to them – a boring hour of something they might have been forced to do as kids, that they may or may not be willing to attend at Christmas time to make their Grandma happy.  Often, if people are blunt, they will say: “I went to church and it kind of SUCKED.” Well, after visiting fourteen churches, I can say that sadly there were times I had to agree with them.

There were times no one talked to me, there were worship practices I didn’t understand that made me feel lost and teaching that had nothing to do with anything in my life.  There were times I kept looking at my watch waiting for it to be over. I’m not trying to be mean here, but, can those of us who are church-goers reading this agree that we really don’t want someone who is looking for God to feel that way if they work up the nerve to try church for the first time?

When Jesus came to earth, he shook things up.  When people pushed back on what he was teaching, this is what he said to explain what he was doing: “No one buys new wine and puts it in old wine skins.” Wine skins were pouches used to store wine. Obviously, after a while a pouch could become brittle or stretched, which made it prone to bursting.  No one would put GOOD wine in something like that, right? Basically, he was saying that if you’ve got something amazing, you’re not going to put it in something that might burst and ruin it all.

I think sometimes what we do as churches is like putting new wine in old wine skins (or a broken bottle, or rusty container, or a glass with holes in it or whatever more modern analogy makes more sense to you).

We’ve got this amazing thing we have found in Jesus and often we try to deliver it in something that just isn’t working…and then when no one wants the wine we blame the PEOPLE instead of the wine skin!  “Oh, people don’t want WINE!” we tell ourselves. “What could we possibly do about such a thing?…” And we wring our hands and plan another fundraiser to fix the roof.

Well, we CAN do something about this situation.  We can try a different kind of wine skin, because I promise – people still want wine.

I’m not saying this means all churches need to use praise bands or throw out liturgical readings or try and be like any other congregation.  

What I am saying, after visiting fourteen totally different congregations is this: let’s not be scared to try some new wine skins.  Let’s make space to be innovative, open, and engaging.  Let’s be willing to try some things that might not work until we find some things that do. Let’s listen to thirsty people about what kind of wine skins would make sense to them.  Let’s be open to tweaking things, and open to overhaul. Let’s be willing to try new or go back to old. Let’s start small if we have to. Let’s not see it as “giving up” or “losing” when we ask ourselves what ways we can do things differently.  

So what can we do?  

There are lots of things we can do!  There are a few ideas to get started.

We Can Explain Things

We can tell people how to find things in the Bible if we are asking them to read along, and we can give the backstory for passages that might not make sense and we can use words that are logical to people and explain why we do things like collect money and baptize people and sing songs together.  I have friends who attend an Anglican church that has a formal, tradition service that I have loved attending. They have beautiful booklets they hand out to everyone with the service printed in it, and in a column alongside the service are descriptions of each part of the service and why they do it.  They have put some thought into how they are delivering the wine. It’s fantastic.

We Can Change Things

Sometimes it’s time to look at some new ways to deliver that wine.  Sometimes that is a change in music styles. Sometimes it is a change of when the service happens.  Sometimes it is getting totally innovative and having “church” at coffee shops or in people’s homes or in places where people feel safe asking hard questions.  

We Can Relax About Things That Don’t Matter That Much  

This may be hard to believe, because it still shocks me, but do you know one of the BIGGEST things that almost EVERY SINGLE new person that comes to our church says made them feel welcome?  “I liked that I could bring my coffee into church.”

That’s it.

I have been to churches where I have seen people asked to throw out a coffee before they can come inside.  I went to a church where the FIRST THING the minister said when they welcomed everyone was: “A reminder to please use your cell phones for reading Scripture only and not to be texting or reading email in church.”  Listen, if someone is at church for the first time, and they want to send a text, is it a big deal? And if we have to clean up a coffee spill, would it matter all that much? (And if you want to say right here “But people should show respect in church by not drinking a coffee!” please just go back to the beginning of this post and read the whole thing again.  Please).

Let me be honest in saying that my church hasn’t got it all figured it out. I know there are lots of times people have experienced things at our church that have made them say “That SUCKED!”  We do not have the perfect “wine skin.”

But, as I go back to pastoring after four months of experiencing life as someone on the “outside” of a church, I feel even more certain that we have got to keep trying.

So we will.

How Could I Go to Fourteen Churches and Still Miss Church?

This post is PART TWO of a series entitled: “That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months”

Four months ago, I began a Sabbatical from my role as a pastor. One of the things I did during this time was to visit different worship services. I was really excited to get a chance to go to church services that I wasn’t leading.  It would be nice to go to church and show up five minutes before the service started. It would be nice not to spend a whole service checking the order for what came next so I could prepare. It would be nice not to preach for a while!

And it actually was really really nice.

I attended fourteen different churches, and what I can say with confidence is this: There are lots of great churches out there.  I hear a lot of people say they can’t find a church and I get that it’s hard. But most churches I attended were places where it was obvious people were really trying to be faithful.  They loved God. They wanted to help people. And there are so many different churches! if you aren’t finding one church aligns with how you feel most connected to worship, there are many many others who are doing things differently.  Don’t like praise bands? Great news – there are LOTS of churches who don’t use them. Want a church that is modern and not using liturgy you don’t understand? There are churches doing that too.

I had some truly amazing experiences at churches I got to attend.  I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard when I visited my sister’s church near Vancouver.  One of the churches in Hamilton I visited had an amazing 11 piece worship team that sounded like a recording. I absolutely loved the readings in one small church I attended, where someone had clearly thought about every word that we would read.  I heard really cool stories and met amazing people and learned about ministries I had never heard about before. A few weeks into my visiting cycle, I said to my husband: “I LOVE going to different churches so much! Every week is so interesting and different and there are so many good things happening all around us!!!!”  

A couple of weeks later I said to him: “I’m over it.”

What happened?  

It wasn’t that I started going to “bad” churches.  It was that I was encountering something that I had always known, but never really experienced – church is more than attending a worship service.

I realized I had never actually gone more than a few weeks without having a “home church.” I have always made it a priority to settle into a church pretty quickly in new cities, even when I was a student.   I really believe what one woman told me someone said to her after she became a Christian: “No church is perfect. So find a Bible believing church near you and stick with it for six months, and then it will probably feel like home.” (Thirty years later, she’s still at our church, and ten years after she told me that story, I still think it’s one of the wisest things I have ever heard).

So at about week eight of my fourteen-week rotation, even though I was technically “going to church” every week, I discovered I was missing CHURCH. I was missing my family.  I was missing my home.  After a few weeks of loving learning new songs, I was missing singing the ones I knew best.  After a few weeks of being welcomed as a visitor, I was missing being welcomed as an old friend.

I wanted church. I wanted to know how people were doing. I wanted to see faces I knew. I wanted to celebrate the ongoing stories of people with whom I had journeyed.  I wanted people who asked me how my family was doing and commented on how tall my kids had grown and who told me how they had been praying for me. I wanted to be doing this church thing with people – not just standing beside strangers for an hour on a Sunday and never seeing them again.  I wanted small groups and Bible studies and picnics and potlucks and prayer updates on facebook. I even wanted all the little things that annoyed me about my own church. I missed living in the imperfections of a church of real people figuring out faith together. I wanted CHURCH – not just a service for an hour on a Sunday (no matter how great the sermon was).

I do wonder if, on the journey to find a church, we are so busy looking at what happens for one hour on a Sunday that we never really get to experience all that church is, in its messy, complicated far-from-perfect glory.  I do think that it’s little surprise people say “I can’t find a church” if all they see is one or two Sundays at a time, because, quite frankly – that’s not church.

Church is the family of God, and all the relationships, life AND worship that we do together.  I wonder if we gave more time to a community if we might discover we could find a church after all?…

Either way, I could hardly wait to go back to my church this Sunday after four months away, and it did not disappoint.  Our worship team was stripped down for the summer.  We went a little over schedule.  We were short helpers in our Sunday School. It wasn’t perfect; it never is. But it felt like a breath of fresh air to experience all of church again – family and friendship and learning faith together.

One hour each week just wasn’t quite the same.

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That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months

Part One:  “Would I Go Back?” 

“Um, can you tell me where the bathroom is?” I asked the friendly person who welcomed me as I walked into church that day.

“Sure!  It’s just downstairs.”

I found the stairs tucked away in a corner, and began to walk down. As I got near the bottom, I hesitated.  I had entered a basement that was PITCH BLACK. I could barely see a hand in front of my face. I fumbled around on a wall and found a light switch.  When I turned it on, the room flooded with light, and I realized I was in what seemed to be a nursery full of children’s toys. Still no bathroom. It did seem I was in the basement, so I kept wandering.  

After walking through two more rooms, I found it.  As I settled in my seat later, I thought to myself:  “What would that experience have been like for me if I wasn’t someone used to church?  Would I have felt comfortable looking for a light? Would I have been willing to wander through the nursery until I got where I was going?  Would I have felt welcomed, or lost?”

Would I have wanted to come back?  

It’s a couple of weeks later.  This time my daughter is with me when we go to a church on a long weekend.  It’s a big church, with high energy and great music. When we walk in, the person at the front tells us that if we fill out a card with our information we will get a Tim Horton’s card!  My daughter looks at me with excitement. “Can we fill out a card?” I am a little hesitant, because we already have a home church and I feel this gift can be saved for others. But my daughter is excited so I fill it in.   After the service, we go to the “visitor’s table,” where we’ve been told to drop off the card. There’s no one there. Finally, someone sees us. “Oh hi!” they say. “You have a card?” “Yes,” we answer, handing over our completed visitor’s card.  She takes a long minute to scan the card to make sure we’ve filled it all in. “Okay, let me see here,” she says as she rummages around, and hands me a gift card for $3 to Tim Horton’s. My daughter is happy as we leave, but as I get in the car I realize: She didn’t even ask us our name.

Would I have wanted to go back?

A few more weeks pass and we are at a small church on the English seaside.  As we walk in, a woman’s face lights up as she sees us and she comes to shake each of our hands. She bends down a little as she says hello to the children to reach their eye level.  She explains to us that since it’s hot, there are some glasses of cold water available we can take into the worship service. She apologies that they don’t have a Sunday School since they are so small, but points the kids to some activity bags with colouring sheets they can use during the service. We enter and we are the only people there that we can see under the age of 50.  Most people seem to be over 80. Several more people come to say hello. One man does a coin trick for our son, and he is delighted. “Where are you from?” everyone asks over and over. “All the way from Canada? So wonderful to have you!” After the service, a couple offers to walk us to their fellowship hall where tea is being served and then shows us their community garden. As we are walking through, he laments his worry for their church.  “We are such an old congregation,” he says. “I don’t think any young people will ever want to come here.”

I smile, and politely disagree with him.  “I would love to come back,” I tell him.

And I mean it.

My Church-Visiting Adventure

While I was on Sabbatical from my role as a pastor over the last four months, one of the things that I wanted to do was visit other churches for their worship services. I wanted to see what God was doing in other churches, get new ideas, and experience different traditions.

bulletins
Me and my new collection of church bulletins and welcome cards

I also wanted to learn what it was like to be attending a church for the first time.  I realized that I am always hoping visitors would come to our church, and encouraging our members to invite their friends.  But do I understand what it’s like to go to a new church where I don’t know anybody? As I stepped into the role of “church visitor,” I also tried to consider the perspective of someone who would be attending church who wasn’t used to “going to church” at all.  “How would someone new to church feel in this experience?” I often asked myself.  

In total, I visited fourteen churches, with a range of traditions, sizes and worship styles. I  learned a number of things from this adventure, which I’ll write about over a couple of posts, but one of the things that stood out to me most was something I thought I already knew:  

Welcome Matters. 

It matters even more than I thought.

I did not always attend churches that were “cool,” not by any means.  The church we attended in England that I mentioned had music that was truly painful, and no one our age and I can honestly say that I would go back. Why?  People were warm, friendly, and kind. It didn’t have to be showy or fancy – they simply said: “It’s nice to have you here.”  They noticed we were new and reached out. They showed us where to find tea.

I did not experience this at all churches, sadly.  There were (thankfully, few) several churches where it was so obvious I was the only visitor, and that they weren’t used to visitors, simply by the stares from people as I walked in. There were times that I sat by myself as the “greeting time” started and people shook hands and gave hugs and had conversations with people all around me while one or two gave me a quick hand shake before turning back to friends.  It didn’t make me eager to continue, and I couldn’t help but think: “If I am a MINISTER who is about as comfortable with church as any human being could be, and I’M uncomfortable, how on earth would someone new to church feel?” I’m sad to say – they would bolt. And I wouldn’t blame them.

It also really struck me how much feeling welcome is about so much more than a greeter saying hello, being asked to fill in a welcome form, or receiving a gift.  I was very sensitive to insider talk, jokes and stories. They made me feel on the outside. As churches, we need to remember that PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT.  They don’t know where the “fellowship hall” is where everyone is heading afterwards. They don’t know who “John” is so they can talk to him after church about the upcoming barbeque. When you say “we all know we have been praying for Katie…” – a visitor doesn’t know. Many don’t know how to find things in their Bible or how to recite the Lord’s prayer or what to do when you pass around baskets asking for money.  It is so important to talk as if there is someone new among you. This is a sign of hospitality.

This can be easier than we think.  If we talk about someone who needs prayer we can simply preface with “if you are new you won’t know this person, but we have been praying for them…”  Don’t start Bible verses and wait for the congregation to finish the end of the sentence (how would a new person feel who couldn’t do this?). Have people at the front introduce themselves. Explain where to find things and get people to wave if they are being referred to as someone to go talk to later.  When you are tempted to say: “But everyone knows that!” remember what you are really saying is “everyone already at this church knows that.” If your hope is to make space for people NOT already at your church, your language matters.  Helping people feel like they are in a safe place matters.  Sometimes it even boils down to little things like making sure the lights in the basement are on so people can find the washroom!

Yesterday, after three weeks in the United Kingdom, my 8 year old daughter said, out of nowhere: “I can’t WAIT to go to our church on Sunday. It is my FAVOURITE church ever.” 

Now of course I am thrilled when my daughter says she can’t wait to go to church, but I know her saying we are her favourite has nothing to do with her ability to discern doctrine or music or Sunday School programs.  So I asked her why her church was her “favourite.”

“Everybody knows me there,” she said.  

We are not going to get everything right as churches.  We won’t all have the best preachers or most talented worship teams.  But we can work to create spaces where people say: “That place is my favourite.” Not because we are swanky or polished or always get it right, but because we are TRYING.  And we are WELCOMING. And we say, with our words and our actions,  “I see you – and you can belong here.