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May, 2014


A Tale of Two Congregations


In a growing church, there once were two congregations, each of them thriving in its own way. The building could have accommodated both groups at once – in fact, there were sometimes joint services. But you couldn’t have that too often. Oh, no: the styles of worship were too different. The late morning group was quite pedantic about following proper liturgy and was used to smells and bells; but the early morning group was of the happy clappy persuasion. And let’s not talk about the evening service, designed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t get up early on a Sunday. After all, it is meant to be a day off, right?

taleoftwoPhoto credits: Wikimedia users Rafael Faria and Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, used under CC license

And so joint services, when they happened, were a matter of compromise: we’ll have some modern music, but we’ll also read off Common Worship. And we’ll robe up, but we won’t use the kneelers for communion. Elements for the high church congregation, elements to give a spiritual high to the late morning group. And while everyone could see the other group needed to be accommodated in joint services, it didn’t mean they liked it. Or that they could engage with worship very well.

While each congregation was left to enjoy its particular way of worship, they experimented more and more into each direction, until visitors would believe there were two different churches meeting in the same building.

It is easy – relatively speaking – to satisfy the expectations of a congregation in terms of how the service is ordered, when those expectations are broadly similar across the board. It is even easier to avoid the particular tidbits that you know will annoy a specific individual within your congregation – for instance, blacklisting a hymn on non-theological considerations. We don’t sing about the wrath of God because so and so doesn’t like it and will kick up a fuss if we do.

It is much harder to satisfy the expectations of a mixed congregation.

But if that’s what we’re trying to do, our focus is wrong: it’s a primary focus on the congregation. Of course, the congregation is important, but what matters more is who we worship. Hopefully, this is a given and the purpose of the services and the ways in which they are ordered all point to that; but where disagreements arise, they lead to the largest headaches and end up, inevitably, becoming the focus of attention. Instead of Christ. The same Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine, is not a compromise between humanity and divinity. He is not taking this part of humanity at the expense of that one, he is not accepting this attribute of divinity at the expense of another one. He is both at once, in a kiss between heaven and earth.

If we can accept this meeting place, then our services can also reflect that. We can order a service drawing elements from both styles of worship – not in order to try to please both, but in order to enrich our worship of Christ. Not in order to be inclusive, but in order to reflect this joining of the human and the divine.

Then, it won’t matter whether it’s more high or more low church. The joint service will be a celebration of the diversity of God’s people, meeting together as Christ’s body, and becoming fully high and fully low at the same time. And slowly, all services will be joint services, and the unity of the Church will be made visible.

Of course, this is easier said than done. There are specific rules that should be followed for high church services under canon law (as far as I know, but do correct me if I’m wrong), and until there is a change in how we view Common Worship and other ASBs, it will not be possible to incorporate elements from all congregations in a meaningful way.

Making youth ministry exciting

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Youth ministry has dramatically changed in its format over the past few decades, because ministry as a whole has changed.

It is no longer assumed that people are churched throughout their lives, and so introduction to Christianity courses have had to be made available to adults and students. The Alpha course and similar curricula aimed at seekers have taken an ever larger importance in modern churches. Their story is one of (at least perceived) success. I think the reason behind that is simply that the purpose for these courses is clear and acknowledged: introducing interested people to the core beliefs of Christianity. Both clarity of purpose and acknowledgement thereof are missing from Sunday youth ministry.


Original photo: Peter Mercator, reused under CC License

Are youth ministers meant to provide a broad Biblical education, telling the young ones about a variety of Bible stories (but carefully avoiding Song of Songs or Ezekiel 23)? Or are we meant to provide the spiritual milk that will then allow the young ones to feed themselves? As preachers have stopped assuming the congregation know the Old Testament backwards, the former aim loses relevance, but keeps on being followed because there has been little transition from the former model to a hypothetical new one.

In order to ease that transition, two facts are worth remembering.

1. Youth ministry is not a glorified children-minding service.

That means two things: firstly, that when we approach youth ministry, we shouldn’t ask ourselves how to fill the schedule with things to do for every week. Rather, we should look at this time as an opportunity to do something with the youths. It might be worth taking an Alpha-like approach to youth ministry and have medium-length series to go through. Say, 4 weeks to explain sin and forgiveness; with that cycle repeated as many times as necessary as new youngsters come along; and studies going deeper, still in short or medium-length cycles spanning more than one week.

Secondly, the provision of youth ministry for all, week on week should not be a given. The default should be for children brought to church to stay in church rather than be taken away as soon as the service proper starts. Because unless there is a true purpose to going away with groups, then the children might as well stay with the adults. That way, at least, we might all learn something from what they say. So, say we’re in the third week of that 4-week series with a group of youngsters, and a new family comes to church – or a regular absentee is here for once. There should be no stigma associated with suggesting that they stay in the service rather than go away with the groups.

Similarly, there should be no stigma associated with adults wishing to join in the module (as long as it is from the start); although things such as age-appropriateness and group dynamics need to be kept in mind.

2. What we’re talking about is, in and of itself, exciting. (aka: there is no call for gimmicks)

In educational research, there’s a lot of talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The aim is generally to teach students to do maths because it is enjoyable and interesting of itself, not because there is a good grade in it for them at the end of it. Now, it is difficult to be excited about the use of a protractor, or about surds or Bidmas (although it is, I’m told, possible).

But what we’re talking about in youth ministry is exciting. It is because it is exciting that we chose to talk about it and share it with the young ones. I love talking about Gideon because I find that I relate to his story a lot and that through it, I find out about my relationship with God. Because I do, I don’t need to start with a silly game when that story is the topic of the week, but I can share this passion.

When we are structuring our session on three tenuously linked pillars – game, chat, God stuff – of course, the latter will appear slightly less fun; and so it will look as though we are ashamed to talk about God (especially if we feel like child minders…). But if the core of the session is the subject matter, then that becomes visibly worth it in itself!

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for games and chats. Definitely. And this blog has tons of great ideas. But these should only be used when they have a purpose that fits in with the rest of the session: making a specific point more memorable, or explaining a particularly difficult point. Not simply for the sake of making the session more exciting.

Let me put this a different way: if, while planning, I’m asking myself “How do I make this exciting?”, then I’m doing it wrong. What I should be asking myself is “Am I excited about this?”. If not, then I have no place teaching about it. If so, then the planning question is “Why am I excited about it?”

No gimmicks, but personal conviction: that is the way to make youth ministry exciting.

10 ways stripping wallpaper is like getting rid of sin

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If you’ve ever redecorated, you’ll probably have had to go through the tedious experience of removing the garish wallpaper left by the previous tenants or by yourself. In many ways, this is like getting rid of sin:


1. Some of the wallpaper you remove will have been left as an inheritance: not all of it is a result of your own personal poor taste. However, blaming it on the previous owners/tenants will not mean it’s not there: it needs to be removed even if it’s not there through your own fault.

2. In some spots, the old wallpaper may come away very easily in huge strips. Yet in other spots, you need to use the scraper and work at it more. It would be rather pointless to only remove the wallpaper where it comes off easily. There are some obvious habits that are easier to get rid of than others.

3. In those particular spots where the old wallpaper had been too well glued, it comes away little bit by little bit, through repetitive motion. It’s a slow process and it can be tiring and frustrating, especially when you don’t see the results coming in as fast as they did when that huge pane just came off. But while progress is less visible, it is still there and you gotta keep at it.

4. It is greatly helped by the application of water. But simply applying water, with no resolve to then apply the scraper, is rather useless. This application can come in a variety of forms (steamer, sponge…) which are sufficient to the removal of the stubborn wallpaper.

5. It is easier to do with outside help – friends, family, professionals. Yet this does not mean that you should go into other people’s homes and strip their wallpaper without their say-so, no matter how well-meaning you might be!

6. The whole process is made far more enjoyable with an ample supply of tea. (Come on, this is Ed’s Slipper after all). More seriously, though, removing wallpaper does not have to be sad and solemn: friends, music, conversation: all these can help!

7. Getting rid of the old wallpaper shows the wall to be bare and rough and imperfect. It can reveal some deeply hidden secrets, some glorious, some shameful, and some we weren’t even aware of. If the wall had feelings, it probably would feel exposed and vulnerable.

8. This bare state is not an end in itself: it is preparation for the application of new wallpaper – for a new identity. But it is necessary to remove the old – and to remove it thoroughly – before the new can come in and stick. Otherwise it’s no more than a facade!

9. Once the old wallpaper is removed, there is no point in keeping the strippings as though you were going to reapply them! The old wallpaper is gone, once and for all: no point being sentimental about it!

10. It is a process that is easy to put off until “you have time to deal with it”, or until “you have the right equipment”. So enough with spiritual procrastination already!