Scripture: Hebrews 10:24–25
The fellowship hall of the First Self-Righteous Church was a loud cacophony of voices. It was a Thursday morning, and the Thursday prayer group was setting up for their weekly meeting. Whether they knew it or not, this crew of women and men had a name that others in the congregation called them behind their backs: the “Perfect Attendance Patrol.” For whenever the doors of the church were open, they were there:
- Most of them were in the same Sunday school class, and held perfect attendance pins for not years but decades running.
- In worship, their spots on the pews might as well have a “reserved seating” sign. The ushers would make a point of showing up early, just to watch what happened when a visitor made the mistake of sitting in one of their spots. Miss Eunice had sent more than one visitor out the door crying the way that she insisted that this was her spot and if you showed up more often you would know that!
- The “Perfect Attendance Patrol” was back every Sunday evening for Bible study, because as they liked to say “half-members show up on Sunday morning…real members show up on Sunday nights.”
- Monday and Tuesday mornings they split up: Monday the men would gather at Hardees for bad coffee and greasy biscuits and talk about who wasn’t in church on Sunday…Tuesdays the women would gather for the same conversation as they made baby blankets. Never mind the fact that there were already three old Sunday school rooms filled with baby blankets and whenever someone suggested they give them to the hospital or women’s shelter, they received a lecture about how those were saved for children of those who bothered to show up to church.
- Wednesday night was for prayer meeting and church dinner, and the Patrol was there week in and week out.
- And now they gathered on Thursday for prayer and potluck. The potluck usually consisted of seven varieties of baked beans, four types of corn casserole, and thirteen variations on jello and fruit (except for Miss Eunice, who still insisted on putting carrots in her jello, even though no one ever ate more than a polite bite or two). The preacher dove into the devotional from Hebrews: “let us…not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some….” What followed was a rather blatant calling out of those who had not been in church that Sunday, or in various church activities, or even those who had missed the Thursday prayer meeting. Before the meeting was over, names would be named, assignments would be handed out to make sure that they were called by the end of the week, and reminded of Hebrews and the iron-clad demand to be in church whenever the doors were open.
Anyone else know any members of the Perfect Attendance Patrol? We don’t really have one here at First Baptist, but they have been an immovable force in other congregations I have known. And the problem with this attitude is not the desire to be in church, but the way that they have turned being into church into an obligation. Which is a curious thing to me. There has been this curious historical oddity that took place after the Baby Boom after World War II. Church attendance swelled, and participation basically mirrored the war effort. In the same way that the country organized and institutionalized the fight against fascism, the church world organized and institutionalized their way to record attendance and church participation. Never mind the fact that most of the Church, through most of its history, has been a smaller, more organic body. The post-war institutional model of the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, followed by the corporate church growth model of the 80’s and 90’s and early 2000’s, took this verse from Hebrews and turned it into a Holy Guilt Trip. If you were not in church for every activity possible, and if churches weren’t stuffing activities in to every corner of the week, you were relegated to that category of “as is the habit of some” from Hebrews. But the Holy Guilt Trip has had more of a negative effect than a positive one. I am convinced that part of the rise in the “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation—is a direct reaction to a church culture that requires exhausting and Spirit-void busy-ness. Many who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” I would suggest, are simply weary of a church culture that equates busy-ness with religion.
But then COVID happened. I already talked last week about the concern that many churches have that attendance and participation—which dropped during the pandemic—will never recover. And obviously, we want people to participate in the ministries of the church, but what if the Spirit was at work in a surprising way? What if the pandemic helps us move away from the “Perfect Attendance Patrol” and their Holy Guilt Trip? This morning, I want to take another look at Hebrews, and hopefully move these verses out of the realm of guilt trip, and perhaps into something more meaningful. Fred Craddock has some helpful wisdom from his commentary on Hebrews that might be meaningful to us today.
I think the first key to understanding how to apply this verse comes in the first three words: “let us consider.” The author of Hebrews has a couple of examples—here and in chapter 3—to “consider” something together, mutually, as a community. According to Craddock, what Hebrews means here is what we have been doing together over the course of the last year. This time last year, the Spiritual Leadership Team began engaging with the ReShape initiative, as a way to respond to the volatility of the pandemic. We had meetings with consultants, talked to other churches in the same cohort, and starting praying about how the congregation might respond. Then, we opened the conversation to the whole congregation, opened the door to Sunday night conversations, and Sunday school classes and small groups created extra space for these discussions. It all sounds like what the author of Hebrews is inviting her or his reader to do: communal, mutual consideration.
Hebrews moves on, with this great phrase: “…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” Craddock suggests that this word really means “provoke.” Or “irritate.” Or “pester.” Provoke us out of the status quo, or our own apathy, into something new and different. New conceptions of “love and good deeds.” Likewise, ReShape is a way to shake off old assumptions and ideas and consider something new. “Pestering” each other to love and good deeds, with thoughtful and prayerful discussion.
Finally, the third phrase that is meaningful—the one that the Perfect Attendance Patrol misinterpreted: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Of course, the language of Hebrews is not about a guilt trip, about keeping track of who isn’t showing up, in some obligatory way. Instead, the passage drives toward the key phrase “encouraging one another.” The reason for churches to meet in this way began with good intentions, but became something else. How might we reclaim that sense of encouragement, without the obligation and the exhaustion, and the busy-ness just for the sake of being busy?
That has been the question at the heart of the work of the “ReShaping Wonder” team. Again, last week I mentioned that we are going to spend four weeks talking about four different initiatives that have risen to the top of the conversation out of these ReShape discussions. The SLT took all of this raw data and took hours culling through and asking what ideas we heard most often. We met for a long retreat in which we asked what this would look like to enact some of these ideas. And it might not surprise you that the top four fit into our Four W’s of Welcome, Worship, Work and Wonder. So, early this summer, we created four ReShaping teams, one for each of these areas. Last week, I talked to you about the work of ReShaping Welcome. This week, we talk about ReShaping Wonder. Pastor Cristina has gathered together several congregation members, asking how we might rethink and reshape the way that we engage with each other during the week. Here are the results of that work:
First, we have recognized the need for new models of Bible study. Here at First Baptist, we like our Bible studies and spiritual formation studies: Sunday school, ABY, Two-way, Lunch and Learns, Book Club, Earthworks Purple Team book studies. We see the value and need for these discussions, and see how it is part of the work of encouragement from Hebrews. But I regularly have folks tell me that they wish that they could be a part of this discussion, or make it to that meeting, or they would love to discuss that book, but they just don’t have the time. So, the SLT asked the question, “can we bring the study to them?” Are there ways to record those sessions, and make them available after the fact? Well, of course there are. The same is true already for our worship services, which many folks watch after the fact. And many of you listen to podcasts, which are recorded sessions of a handful of participants discussing a topic. The SLT asked, “why don’t we do the same?” It’ll take some experimentation, and of course, we will want the participants to opt into such conversations, but I think it is an exciting idea. So stay tuned for First Baptist podcasts, available to you as church members, or to share with a friend who might be interested.
Second, the pandemic has taught us the value of mid-week check-ins. I am going to brag on one of our Sunday school classes for a minute. As soon as the pandemic hit, one of our Sunday school classes—the Sojourners—wasted no time moving to Zoom classes. But not only that, but they added a mid-week Zoom option, which they called “Fireside Chats.” These were less formal than Sunday morning lessons, and really just gave people a chance to check in with each other. From what I understand, it has been a valuable part of their small group community, and helped to actually grow the class during the pandemic. And I suggest that these Wednesday night meetings worked because they were consistent, informal, and easy. I would encourage other classes and small groups to consider something similar: creating informal, consistent, and easy-access relationship-building options. Maybe on Wednesday nights as a mid-week option. Sunday school guru Josh Hunt talks about “giving Friday nights to Jesus” as a similar informal meet-up. Pastor Cristina is doing the same thing with youth: offering to buy them ice cream and share a conversation during the week. And not wanting to get left out, I am stealing the idea! We love our Holy Grounds coffee ministry on Sundays…I want to invite folks to join me for what I am calling “Humpday Holy Grounds!” If you are interested, I would love to meet with you on Wednesdays, early or late or the middle of the day, for a cup of coffee (or tea, or you know, ice cream isn’t just for youth!) and I would love to hear about your life. No agenda or plan, just a conversation and maybe a prayer. Send me a text or an email and we’ll set it up!
The third opportunity requires some more explanation. One of the wisest realizations of the ReShape process is that churches cannot simply add and add and add. We are already weary and over-busy as a people; we cannot just keep adding more stuff to our calendars. So, the ReShape process includes asking the question “what will we stop doing?” One of the answers we heard over and over again through the process was that Wednesday night programming needs a break. Which was becoming clear before the pandemic hit. We have been losing money on the meal for a while now. Competing with other activities for young people is a losing battle. Attendance for adult participants was down before the pandemic. It became clear over these last months that one of the things that needs to stop is a full slate of Wednesday night activities. And yet, every time that conversation came up during the ReShape process, someone would say, “yeah, but the meal is so good.” Not only is the food (brought to you by Chef Neal!) so good, but the fellowship around the table, the catching up on the week, the informality of the meal, seems to really be what Hebrews is talking about when it mentions encouragement. So, the third suggestion of the ReShaping Wonder team –first suggested by the youth at the ABY ReShape session—is that we continue that valuable fellowship in another way: Third Sunday Fellowship Lunches. Every Third Sunday of the month, right after worship, beginning in August, we will gather around the table for an informal time of fellowship. Chef Neal Purvis has agreed to head up the meal preparation, and I am sure we’ll need your help down the road for set-up and prep. But put it on the calendar—third Sunday lunch, to enjoy and encourage and share a meal. We will be thoughtful about serving and safety and sharing physical space, like we were at the church picnic last month. As we can do it safely, get ready for Third Sunday Fellowship Meals!
Fourthly and finally, one last thing needs to be mentioned. While we are adjusting and changing the way that we do a lot of Spiritual Formation, a lot of what we do will not change. Pastor Cristina and the youth team are already thinking about ABY in the Fall. Children’s and Youth Sunday school is full steam ahead, and Pastor Cristina is working on integrating children’s music into that time, in order to provide opportunities for our children to learn to worship and lead worship in that way. Adult Sunday school is working out this alloy method of study—some in person and some virtual, often at the same time—and are aiming for a Promotion Sunday start in August. The Two-Way will continue on Sunday afternoons, as a way to involve more folks (not to mention make it easier for people to remember what the sermon was about!) As we shift and change the way that we engage with and encourage each other, the pandemic has taught us that we really miss and value some things just the way that they are. Those things will continue.
Miss Eunice looked at the next name on her list. It was a single father who had a teenage daughter and a toddler, and who had missed church more often than not. It took a couple of missed calls and voicemails to make contact, and by the time they connected Eunice was ready with her Hebrews speech! But the voice on the other end of the phone sounded so weary. As the conversation unfolded, it became clear that this dad was doing the best that he could to get the kids to church once or twice a month…anything else would be a miracle. His daughter wasn’t sure what she thought about faith, and the toddler acted out too much for some of the nursery workers. Before Miss Eunice could launch into her speech, she found herself saying she understood how hard it must be to get them to church. Instead of a guilt trip, she offered to swing by and pick them up and take them so that dad could get a few errands run. She even wondered if his teenager would be open to a trip to McDonalds with an old woman like her. Before the end of the conversation, both found themselves open to a movement of the Spirit, provoked to love, and engaged in a Spirit-filled work of mutual encouragement.