Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Life of church goes on, even in the summer

Well, not quite. “Miss Smith” in the cartoon is probably a retired schoolteacher whose sacrificial giving keeps that parish going and the minister employed! Still we are in the season of lower attendance, in an era of lower attendance. So, as a retired minister I know says, the preacher often looks out at “lots of lumber,” that is, those uncomfortably empty pews.

Now, lest you think I am complaining, think again. I enjoy the more leisurely pace of summer as much as the next person! My work is easier, too. Besides, parsons surrendered the right to demand “perfect attendance” from their congregations the minute they accepted vacations as regular parts of their call. I get more time off than most, and I am grateful for it.

My parish in Chicago used to print a notice in the weekly bulletin that went something like this: “Summer months offer us frequent opportunities to be away from the city in delightful surroundings. But while we are gone, the life and work of the church goes on in worship, service, and mission, and it cannot wait until we get back…”

That meant, of course, “Pay your pledges,” and there were people who would drop off their envelopes with the receptionist on Sunday mornings (the church was not air-conditioned). So while we sweated in the Lord’s service, those good members were out to cooler climes. I got my chances, too — but I still have not figured out how those “advanced” Chicago churches could eschew air-conditioning, with which even the humblest country church in Mississippi is now provided.

The truth is a sermon can be preached just as easily to one as to a thousand, and since we Presby-terians more or less still believe in “predestination,” I comfort myself that those who are before me on Sunday are the ones the Lord has called that day. Besides I do not believe that one’s place in heaven is ascertained by the amount of “bench time” we log — I take it that care for the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the naked, and the sick is the standard of measure, and on that score, I can only point the way, for I have accomplished little in this regard.

At such points the temptation always arises to “bring them in.” There are two methods: either by “beating the drum” and engaging in hokum that dishonors the gospel, or by browbeating people with “the guilts.” I cannot imagine that either bears fruit for the long haul.

Instead there is an ebb and flow — a regularity to small-parish life that a minister is well-advised to tune in upon. Frankly it can be tedious. But as our seminary professor said: “If you want all kinds of excitement, don’t be a small town minister.” The word pastor does not derive from the word “shepherd” for naught. (In some cases the minister is needed, but it is often the same dilemma as a funeral director who asked me if it was right to pray for an increase in business.)

The Book of Order of the Presbyterians has a paragraph entitled “The Great Ends of the Church,” and while this may not be constitutional law for your church, I doubt many would disagree with these words, so permit me leave to note them down in this space:

“The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

On a balmy summer Sunday, I am content to do my bit for “the maintenance of divine worship,” and I like to think that our seemingly small enterprise is one of the “Great Ends of the Church.” I like a little company in the task, but I also recognize the Old Testament roots of the Sabbath in “a day of rest.” I’ve taken mine already, so God willing, I’ll be right here. The sermons may not be as scintillating as I would wish, but the door will be open and the life of the church will go on.

I do think fondly of Andy Mitchel, a good church deacon of Shelby, Miss., down in the Delta. Mr. Andy used to have the little church at Shelby close for the month of August, “so the organist could have a rest.”

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