I Am Dreaming of a “Flat Christmas”

There is a Christmas song that goes, “Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat!” Too often for some pastors it feels like Christmas is coming and my church is going flat. Christmas somehow can become a routine that feels like a rut—a “flat rut” to mix graphic metaphors. The joyful celebration of the incarnation, the seed of the woman, and the birth of Jesus can become a mandatory performance on the annual local church calendar. If you think about it, Christmas celebrations in some churches can be the crown of a problem.

Listen to what one pastor told us.

He used that word “flat” to describe his church.  Over the past five years, he said, there was no growth or loss, and only a few people replaced those who had gone through the back exit. They paid their bills; in fact, they had paid off early an addition from 10 years ago.  Nevertheless, the five years had seen a flat budget, not even keeping up with cost-of-living increases.  In only a few years, hard choices would need to be made “if something didn’t happen.”

Worship, he continued, is OK, but has fallen from routine to rut with no real joy, let alone the old energy that is now but a memory. The mercy ministry was becoming a burden with more and more needs, both in and outside the church – a diaconate decline that could be compared to the canary in the cold mine.

A foray into an ESL ministry only showed this pastor and his people that educational, economic, and ethnic differences make it hard to connect with the students.  After three years of the ministry, none of the students were attending the church.  Ten years or more had passed without an adult baptism and profession of faith.  They had not been able to attract new leadership for elders or deacons.  The high school students just seem to disappear after graduation.

These tragic examples of decline among what should be thriving, viable marks of a worshipping community of Jesus Christ are the hallmarks of – in the words of this tired, beleaguered pastor – a “flat” church.

Helping to move churches from flat to revitalized is both the goal and the mission of Metokos Ministries.  In our process we focus on church ministry and life in three areas – worship, discipleship, and mercy.

Worship.  Probably the first thing that comes to mind when American’s think about “church.”  Crowds of varying sizes coming together at least once a week for – something.  What should that “something” be?  What should that “something” look like?

In the words of the late Robert Rayburn, worship is “the activity of a congregation of true believers in which they seek to render to God that adoration, praise, confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and obedience to which He is entitled by virtue of the ineffable glory of His person and the magnificent grace of His acts of redemption in Jesus Christ.” (p. 21 of  “O Come, Let Us Worship). Professor Jerram Barrs, in an online course of worship from Covenant Seminary,  https://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/resource/courses/christian-worship-barrs/   adds to our understanding when he points out that worship must be “God-centered, Christ-focused, Spirit-led, and Spirit-filled, according to the Word of God, and also filled with the Word.”   Our worship is a response to the God who loved us first and his revelation through his Son and Scripture.  Revitalized worship is the expression and experience of a congregation of the sense of God’s love and God’s presence as revealed in Scripture.  Or, as Bryan Chapell writes, “Worship is about the renewing and deepening love for Christ.” (p. 143 Christ Centered Worship)

Historically, worship enfolds two of the three marks of the church – preaching and the celebration of the sacraments.  John Calvin, in fact, counted only these two as marks of the church.  In the living church, or the revitalized church, the weekly worship service is the public communal highlight of that week.  The congregation of the living church, or revitalized church should prayerfully look forward to that highlight.  Highlighting Professor Barrs’s words again, the congregation looks forward to and prays for a time of worship that is/will be “God centered, Christ-focused, Spirit-led, and Spirit-filled, according to the Word of God, and also filled with the Word.”

Where on God’s continuum does your church sit?  Does it exhibit the definitions and examples I’ve highlighted, or is it flat?  Take a quiet, honest look at your “public communal highlight.”  For instance, I would suggest that a flat church service often tries to do either too much or too little.  I do not mean to be vague or fence-sitting here.  A worship service is a patchwork of elements and styles depending on the local resources.  Sometimes churches listen to the “spirit of the day” and allow the use of technology to move from support or enabling to center stage – at a cost that just keeps growing with each new must-have component.

In its assistance, Metokos uses surveys to help congregation members to understand their view of their own congregational experience of Sunday worship, with the ultimate goal of finding or identifying areas that need attention.  Without a doubt, it is possible to address these areas of a congregation’s expressed needs for their worship gatherings.  Though working on this area of worship is possible, let’s be honest as we face that it is a core area that is one of the hardest to change.

Working on perceived needs, whether hard or not-so-hard, is aided by a strong point of the ministry of Metokos.  Those surveys —  from administration to visible results – are a strong point of Metokos because local people – members of the congregation – are the ones who shape the way forward. The session appoints the group and the pastor serves as the adviser to the group.  Metokos is not an outside organization or a one-size-fits-all plan that comes in and does a presentation and tells people what to do.  Metokos gives tools to local people who know the church and who can create their own plan with their local resources under the supervision of the elders.

Working through the process, the question is always before us as we rephrase the words of Bryan Chapell – Does the service renew and deepen the congregation’s love for Christ and fill each of them with a sense of the presence of the true and living holy God who brings joy to the worshippers because of His grace and mercy?

There will be more to come later on other core areas of the living church, discipleship and mercy and their relationship to church revitalization.  Please share this blog to help spread the word about Metokos Ministries.

I will close by wishing Happy Christmas and a Blessed New Year from Metokos Ministries to all of you and your congregations.

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