Lenten Prayer: Simple Reminders for These Complicated Times

Some congregations have a forced-pleasantness code. It quietly insists that worshipers show up with only smiles and sunshine. It invites prayer for “concerns.” But not agonies or deep laments. It tries to rescue God (and us) from dealing with profound pain by not naming it.

If so, the Psalms remind us that it’s a failed, unnecessary strategy. God seeks our honesty, not our protection. So we leave worship with a relationship, not a game face . . .

The Big Worship Word We’ve Forgotten

. . . This challenge isn’t the failure of small congregations. It’s the mismatch of aesthetic cues. . . . Small congregations have been sent off to quietly chase a Performance Aesthetic. Like it’s the goal, the ideal, the one-right way. And this has stunted explorations of a Participation Aesthetic that could unleash local gifts in unexpected, beautiful, fitting, powerful ways.

Ash Wednesday: Downloadable, High-Participation, Small-Setting, Intergenerational Worship Stations

Love comes for us–not because we have the right friends, the right look, the right political views, the right stuff, the right credentials. It comes for us because we are nothing more than temporary gritty specks. 

Ash Wednesday sets up grace. Everything else that follows in the Christian year shows what God is willing to do for those gritty specks. How far God will go to call, pursue, and rescue them. Us.

In the Downloadables this week, there’s an Ash Wednesday script for this work of the people . . .

Seven Worship Advantages for Small Congregations: No More Just-ing

Our scripture insists that God is all up in the business of unlikely people and backwater places. Divinity does some of its best work with ragtag groups of formerly-enslaved nobodies. Just-a-boy. Only-a-virgin. An illiterate fisher with ADHD tendencies. Or a desperate, bleeding woman lost in a crowd. The Holy blasts past boundaries of size, power, credentials, and authority like flame through Pentecost haircuts. 

So it should not surprise us that God has some important, distinctive gifts for small congregations.

Participation Starters in the Real World: Stories from Sandy

For some folks, the Worship Participation Starters (1/10/22 blog) sounded . . . well, extreme. Like well-intentioned ideas that would never work in the real world.

But not to Sandy. She knew these things worked. And emailed me right after that extreme post. To remind me of what can happen when small congregations heighten their messy participation. 

Then she called. And it took me six pages of fast notes to capture all of the recent real-world ideas, examples, transformations. To share with you . . . 

The Wounding of Small Congregation Pastors

By now you’ve heard that pastors are part of the Great Resignation–that wave of workers leaving their jobs out of frustration and weariness. The Barna research group reports 38% of Protestant pastors in the U.S. considered leaving ministry in the past year. For pastors under 45, the number jumps to 46%.

It’s an astounding number of faithful, don’t-need-much, send-me, all-in folks. Ready to leave.

But the ready-to-leave impulse also seems different somehow among small congregation pastors. Perhaps because their jobs are so different.

Each is a jack-of-all-trades and a staff-of-one. A peculiar mix of set-apart-for-ministry and my-personal-pastor. Each is a direct phone call away from everyone’s living room and anyone’s hospital room. Each serves in the kind of intimate setting that allows for both close relationships and deep wounding. And the result can be a kind of pastor-isolation that takes the courage right out of courageous-vulnerability. Leaving only vulnerability behind.

This isn’t something that can be solved with five easy steps. Or maybe even fifty. But my plea is simple . . .

Part 3: Five Practical Starts for the Participation Advantage

It’s easy for the pastor and a sole lay leader to make everything happen. Sometimes they dutifully lump lots of little tasks into one big job. Sometimes the excuse is that one person just does things best. Or more efficiently. Sometimes the excuse is that no one else will volunteer. Because in small congregations, job assignments last until Jesus returns. And no one wants to get stuck.

But this pattern of bigger-jobs-by-fewer-people undermines your superpower. It turns other worshipers into passive observers. Your goal is smaller-jobs-by-more-people. And this requires breaking down all the lumpy work. So there’s something for all the people. Not just the proven, long-term members. The visitor. The kid next door. Everyone.

So . . .

Part 2: The Participation Advantage–A Small Congregation Superpower

It’s this. Big congregations are forced to maximize predictability and minimize participation. In order to calm the anxiety of big groups, the possible contribution by any worshiper must be dialed down. Or eliminated. So the event occurs exactly the same way whether or not any particular person is present. And so the event can be repeated effectively at 10 and 12 o’clock.   

But this maximized-predictability-minimized-participation comes with significant costs. Both practical and theological. 

Practically, it strips the tools of robust, embodied participation. Ask any educator or neuroscientist. Participation is a powerhouse of formation. Passive observation is a distant second-choice. To make up for this distance, large congregations have shifted to a certain kind of performance excellence. With experts designing, coordinating, producing, speaking, and leading.

But the theological cost may be even greater. 

Our incarnational good news often speaks clearest by maximizing participation. Especially the participation of folks who aren’t experts. Like that rude roadside beggar. Or that uppity anointing woman. Or the curious kid who ignored the grown-ups-only rule. Jesus’ ministry is chock full of interruption, mess, and unlikely bodies who changed—and were changed by—an unexpected encounter. In holy, unpredictable ways.

Part 1: A Plea for a Different Way–The Blog That Will Get Me into Trouble

Here it is. We have normalized big-congregation practices and expectations. We have made them the ideal, the goal. And we have disregarded small-congregation differences as mostly irrelevant. Or generally unpromising. Or signs of failure.

It’s the kind of thing that can happen when excellent resources get developed in large congregations, for large congregations, and by pastors who have served only . . . large congregations. A particular kind of excellence limits other possibilities.