Advent 3: “Love” Face-to-Face Gatherings

The lessons focus on significant words of the season. They are arranged: 1. Hope, 2. Peace, 3. Love, and 4. Joy. However, feel free to rearrange them according to the Advent practices of your congregation.

Prep

Ready the videos; gather an Advent wreath with candles and matches; provide Bibles and refreshments, paper and colored pencils. Provide a pail, water, and towels.

Getting Started

Welcome all guests. Conduct a brief time for introductions of new participants.

Briefly review the scope of the study and The Bible Project. Revisit expectations regarding group dynamics, such as honoring one another with respect.

Offer an opening prayer. Light three Advent candles.

Prompt discussion: When you hear the word “love,” what comes to your mind? What feelings or memories are evoked?

Digging In

Make available paper and colored pencils and invite participants to doodle or draw as they watch the video.

Introduce the video: The word “love” is one of the sloppiest words in our language, as it primarily refers to a feeling that happens to a person. In the New Testament, “love” refers to a way of treating people that was defined by Jesus himself: seeking the well-being of others regardless of their response.

Watch the video.

Following the video, note key ideas such as the Greek word “agape,” meaning self-sacrificial love; the love of God and the love for one another are entertwined; we receive God’s love through Jesus and give it away to others. 

Invite participants to offer comments and observations on what they saw and drew. Discuss: Love is a spiritual practice and not something you fall into. It is through loving that we experience the love of God. You can’t love others until you truly love yourself and acknowledge that God loves you with a love beyond anything you can imagine.

Introduce Deuteronomy 10:17-19a. The covenant people are in the last stages of preparation before they enter the land of promise. God through Moses extols the people to make love the law of their new homeland.

Invite volunteers to read Deuteronomy 10:17-19a. The people were to be like the Lord who shows no partiality, accepts no bribes, defends the fatherless and the widows, and loves strangers and immigrants, giving them food and clothing. After all, they had been aliens in Egypt.

Discuss: What does love mean for the Lord? Why do you think love is focused on actions and behavior and not feelings? How does being like the Lord compare to the creation story where God creates human beings in the image of God? What obstacles do you face when trying to love others as God loves us?

Invite volunteers to read John 13:34-35. These words of Jesus follow the footwashing. First he shows them what it means to love one another and then tells them. What does it mean to live like Jesus in love, not just feel it or talk about it? How does loving one another show the world that they are his disciples?

Watch the video “Foot Washing” from Chuck Knows Church:

Concluding Options

1. Discuss: What if, instead of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the church observed a footwashing during worship services?

2. Brainstorm ways you can be signs of love in the world. Choose a project to live out your commitment to love.

3. Wash one another’s feet. Provide a pail, water, and towels. For those squeamish about showing their feet, wash each other’s hands. Say aloud John 13:34-35 as the group participates: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Prayer

God of love, open our hearts and hands to extend your love to all the world, starting with those who are near. Thank you for sending Jesus because you so loved the world. Amen.

Advent 1: “Hope” Group Video Chat

Sankofa Bird

Prep

Imbed the video and photo of the Sankofa bird into your video conferencing software. Watch this video to learn how to share video on your Zoom call. Create a screen with the text for Isaiah 40:1-5, 27-31.

Getting Started

Welcome all guests. Conduct a brief time for introductions of participants.

Briefly introduce the scope of the study and The Bible Project. Speak about expectations regarding group dynamics, such as encouraging questions and comments. What video conferencing protocols do you need to agree on?

Offer an opening prayer.

Prompt discussion: When you hear the word “advent,” what comes to your mind? What feelings or memories are evoked?

(“Advent” means “coming,” describing the church’s expectations for the return of Christ and his kingdom come in its fulness.)

Digging In

Introduce the video: In the Bible, people who have hope are very different from optimists! In this video, we’ll explore how biblical hope looks to God’s character alone as a basis for trusting that the future will be better than the present.

Watch the video.

Following the video, note key ideas such as two Hebrew words for “hope” (“to wait for” and “tension in waiting”); waiting for God, whose past steadfastness leads to trust; optimism is different from hope; Greek word, elpis, a living hope in which we and all creation are reborn.

Invite participants to offer comments and observations on what they saw and drew. Discuss: How are hoping and waiting like hearing thunder in the distance? What is difficult about waiting for someone or something? What tensions have you experienced in waiting?

Introduce Isaiah 40:1-5, 27-31. The covenant people are in exile in a foreign land, a condition the prophets said had resulted from their disobedience to God. Now, the prophet announces the people’s rescue because of God’s steadfast love and trustworthiness.

Display the screen with Isaiah 40:1-5, 27-31 and ask volunteers to read aloud.

Discuss: What does it mean to wait for God? How does knowing what God has done in the past give us hope for tomorrow? What is it about God’s character that evokes trust in the human heart?

Display the photo of the Sankofa bird from West Africa: The symbol is based on a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backwards.

Say: People of faith can learn from the Sankofa the truth that to move forward into God’s future, it’s crucial to know the past and what God has already done. God’s character is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. So we can hope that the God who liberated a people from slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon and who raised Jesus from the dead will one day liberate creation from sin and death and raise all of us to new life.

Concluding Options

1. Invite the participants to talk about their attitudes about the future. Identify people who have nurtured their hope in God. Honor these harbingers of hope by creating and sending Advent/Christmas videos or making a contribution to an organization in their names.

2. Listen to “I Shall Be Released” by Bob Dylan (or various other artists. Check out Nina Simone’s version!). Connect the song’s lyrics of longing and waiting with prison and social justice. Wonder together what makes Dylan’s song a fitting Advent song for our times.

3. Invite the participants to share the story of an experience when the strength of hope in God’s future pulled them through a difficult time.

Prayer

O God, you tell us to hope in your faithfulness, yet when we look at the world, all we see is sin and sadness. Strengthen our resolve to be for the world witnesses to our living hope, Jesus Christ, your son, our savior, In whose name we pray. Amen.

Sunday school, Yes or No?

I’ve been thinking about the problem of Sunday school as two related yet distinct realities.

It seems to me that the original Sunday school was more of a tutoring strategy than a school as we imagine it. It was a wonderful strategy for teaching street children and others how to read (the Bible). Poor children who worked six days a week could not attend day school, so Methodists created SS.

Over against the SS as a strategy is the so-called schooling model. The first half of the 20th century saw the church’s dedication to the schooling model, including teacher professionalization/certification, school accreditation, parent commitments, and so on. With a nod to the scientific method, churches adopted the broad contours of the schooling model without full-on adopting the model. In other words, the 20th century Sunday school was never a school. The burgeoning SS classrooms of post-WW II had little to do with progressive trends in education being adopted by the church. Yet today, many SS persist with little consideration of the latest advances in childhood education, with so many seeking resources for entertaining their children instead.

So as a model, the Sunday school is dead for the most part. Where the Sunday school persists, it either exists in large churches whose budgets and volunteers still prop it up or as a strategy that hearkens back to its earliest days. Some churches have found clues for the SS strategy’s fruitfulness from its early days, namely teaching children how to read. Literacy, cultural literacy, reading the times, and practicing ways to respond motivate the SS strategy. 

How might recovering the SS as strategy, tutoring children and others how to read—how to read their lives, the world, and the Scriptures—affect the church and its prophetic call?

Jesus’ Joke

I’ve been reading Luke 15 lately, doing some research. Luke 15, for a lot of folks, is the pinnacle of the Gospel. It includes three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son. In worship services, these three stories are rarely read together and that’s a shame. Luke positions these teaching stories just so to show Jesus’ comedic side.

Story tellers know that classic jokes follow the law of three—1) there’s a setup; 2) there’s a second event that follows the first in form and tone, setting up expectations; and 3) the punch line breaks the pattern set by the first two parts. The Three Little Pigs is a kind example; a less kind example is “A priest, rabbi, and minister walk into a bar…”

So, Jesus tells three stories with similar construction—there is something or someone lost, which is found, resulting in joyful celebration! Let’s look closer for the comedic triad.

In the first two stories, the sheep and the coin are lost, which leads to the shepherd and the woman dropping everything to find their respective possession. The “finding” corresponds to repentance in each story. So, in the third story, after the younger son takes his money and runs, we expect someone (the father?) to drop everything and search for him. Once found, we expect the son to repent. That’s the pattern. But it doesn’t happen!

No one goes in search of the younger son!!! Let that wash over you for a few seconds!

What might this mean for us?

Many churches today wring their hands about “the lost” and devise evangelism programs to search for them. For the most part, those efforts have been judged futile. Whether the “nones” or the “dones,” they’re not coming back because of our efforts. The “punchline” of the three parables suggests that those efforts are wrong-headed. What we in the church are called to do is to be ready when they come back by the movement of the Holy Spirit (my interpolation).

The joke’s on us. Replace your evangelism committee with a party committee that is always at the ready!! Be prepared to welcome any and all who enter your community’s life with rejoicing!

Give me a call or send me an email if you’d like to talk about what Hinds Coaching and Consulting can do for you!

Knowing and Believing

“…once upon a time there was a man who had a vision and began pursuing it. Two others saw that the first man had a vision and began following him. In time, the children of those who followed asked their parents what they saw. But what their parents described appeared to be the coattails of the man in front of them. When the children heard this, they turned from their parents’ vision, saying it was not worthy of pursuit.”

What do we learn from this?

As Jacob the Baker says, we discover parents who believe in what they have never experienced and children who deny what they have never experienced.

Let me invite you to see yourself in this story. Imagine that you are the one pursuing the initial vision. How exhilarating to catch a glimpse of life’s deepest meaning and to know in the depths of your soul that it is within reach! As you pursue the vision and begin to make sense of it, you undoubtedly bring the sacred texts of your tradition to bear. These texts help to lend a vocabulary and definition to your search. Over time, you hear these texts in new ways—it’s almost like a veil has been lifted and you see your life as if for the first time. What a liberating, empowering experience!

Now, you notice others following you. These students have been drawn to you, to learn from you. What is your responsibility to them?

You may be tempted to try to recreate your experience in your students’ lives. But you can’t do it! Your vision, your experience of grace was a result of God’s initiative—both your vision and your ability to discern the vision are God’s gifts to you.

What can you do?

Parker Palmer says that the primary task of the teacher is to create a space for learning in which obedience to the truth may be practiced. This space is characterized by a particular mood or tone—openness and a willingness to entertain different, even opposing views. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the teacher to the learning space is the willingness to testify to his or her personal relationship to the truth.

Consider knowing. Every good teacher asks two basic questions: what is worth knowing and what is the best way to teach and learn the known? Is this only a question of imparting information, dates, and data? If a teacher’s personal relationship to the truth is a significant aspect of the learning encounter, then knowledge must be more than information. The Hebrew language gives us a clue—the word “yada” (to know) has a deeply intimate connotation. “Adam knew Eve and they bore a son.” Biblical knowing is personal, intimate; God knows us intimately and comes to us personally, in the flesh. Knowing and believing entail more than head knowledge. They indicate a relationship of trust and a willingness to be vulnerable with your students.

Notice how this changes the way we talk about teaching. As the teacher, you have probably been assigned a meeting location and time. Your first thought might be that you have a certain amount of time to cover the material in the lesson. Think about what that phrase—“cover the material”—means. When we cover something, we hide it from view. Is it possible that the teacher’s dutiful attention to following the lesson plan provided in the time and space allotted actually hides the truth from view? Might that result in learners who believe in what they have never experienced? How would a teacher “uncover the material”?

Uncovering the material is related to the teacher’s own vulnerability. Perhaps you can best prepare your students to hear the truth of the Gospel by modeling a trusting openness—by uncovering your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Offer this relationship to your students not as a technique to adopt or an achievement to admire. Simply invite them to make themselves vulnerable before God and to trust Holy Spirit with their questions. As a teacher, uncovering the material may mean that you have to sidestep the lesson plan to provide the space required to practice obedience to the truth.

Does your church want to assess its educational ministry? Send me an email at hindscoaching@gmail.com.

It’s All About the Follow Through

Why invest in a program or consultation that will end up collecting dust on a shelf? Invest in a coach to help your congregation accomplish its goals and move into the future God has for you.

The leaders of Trinity Church were excited about participating in the latest church growth strategy offered by their denomination. They had tried other programs before but this one was different. This one would be the program to transform their ministry and grow their membership.

For six months they worked tirelessly to promote full participation by all their members. They followed every program strategy and worked closely with their denominational consultant. At the end of the process, they were handed a beautifully packaged report filled with qualitative and quantitative data and reasonable and exciting recommendations.

With the report in hand, the church board voted to accept the recommendations and put a committee in place to oversee their implementation. They sent a letter of thanks to the denominational consultant, who wished them well and offered to give them further advice should they need it.

Fast forward six months. The members of the implementation committee are frustrated and tired. They complain that they do not have enough direction and help to do the work they have been given. They lost one of their most energetic members when her family moved. Others are talking about stepping down because they have too many other obligations. The report sits on a shelf in the pastor’s study collecting dust.

What went wrong? The denominational program energized the congregation. The recommendations that came from the program seemed realistic and attainable. The board was fully committed. And yet the program never got off the ground.

Unfortunately, this scenario happens in too many organizations. It is not that the programs and consultants are not helpful. Instead, they are incomplete. Once the program is over and the consultant has departed, the already busy congregation is expected to implement the recommendations. Without someone to assist them and keep them accountable, they can too easily get stalled and frustrated, or simply lose interest and motivation. As a result, congregation members get angry with the board for doing nothing with a program for which they spent a lot of time and money, and the board feels disenfranchised and incompetent.

Having excellent recommendations for change is useful only if they are implemented. People need to not only envision the organization’s goals, but they also need to see movement toward those goals. Marshall Goldsmith writes, “We don’t just need specific targets; we need to see ourselves nearing … the target. Anything less is frustrating and dispiriting. … Progress makes any of our accomplishments more meaningful.” (Triggers, p. 112)

The key to making the most of any program or consultation is FOLLOW THROUGH. The best way to ensure follow through is to retain a coach to work with your implementation team. A professional coach skillfully guides an organization to accomplish its goals. They offer the team direction, encouragement, resources, and accountability. Coaching is action-oriented, which means the coach’s goal is to help the team overcome obstacles to reaching their desired outcomes in a timely manner.

Contact me for a free consultation to learn how I can assist your congregation.

To Be Let Go

Congregations and denominations talk a lot about mission. It is a broad term that can mean different things to different people. We also like to create mission statements that define our unique calling.

At its root, mission means to let go or to send. The Church has a mission. In the Great Commission (commission meaning to give authority to represent), Jesus directed his followers to go into all the world. Since its beginning, the Church has been a “sent” people.

What the Church has paid less attention to is the notion of being “let go.” What does it mean for a congregation to be let go? From what are they being let go, and for what?

In a recent interview with Faith & Leadership, Sister Maryanne Stevens talked about the turnaround at St. Mary’s College in Nebraska where she serves as President. She spoke about the importance of knowing your mission:

My philosophy of leadership is to focus on what’s core to your mission and make sure people are well-versed in that so they can choose whether to give their all or else, basically, to go away.

What a bold statement! Know your mission, get on board with it, or leave. It seems to be working for St. Mary’s and Sister Maryanne.

Unfortunately, most congregations are unable to be this bold. They create broadly focused mission statements with which everyone can agree. They explore mission possibilities, then choose those that make the most people happy or satisfy the squeaky wheels. Very few congregations define their core mission, proclaim it, and invite people to get on board or leave.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order states that the “Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (F-1.03). Sometimes taking the risk to be faithful means letting go of programs, policies, and people who hold a congregation hostage and prevent it from being who God calls it to be.

I recently worked with a congregation with a desire to do something different to reach out to their community and grow their congregation. As I listened to church members’ many hopes and frustrations, I realized that they would never discern their core mission because they were afraid to take risks. They were fearful of offending members or losing what they have.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique case. For a people who should be emboldened by faith, fear cripples many.

What would it mean for your congregation to risk losing its life to be faithful to Christ’s commission? Are our buildings, budget, and programs more important than our proclamation? Are we so worried about losing who we have that we cannot reach those who need to experience the love, mercy, and acceptance of God? Can we let go of whatever is preventing us from being sent?

How Coaching Is Like Coaching

Long before I became a professional life and congregational coach, I was a professional tennis instructor and coach. People who know my history will ask if life coaching is anything like tennis coaching. My answer is “yes” and “no.”
Yes, life coaching is similar to sports coaching, so similar that corollaries are helpful to draw. No, they are not exact, so the comparisons are only suggestive. The following characteristics and behaviors are indicative of sports coaches that I consider exceptional. Good life coaches can offer similar benefits to their clients.

  • Coaches care about their players. Exceptional coaches care about their players as people. Life coaches genuinely care about their clients, and want what is best for them.
  • Coaches want each player to be the very best s/he can be. Exceptional coaches care about their players and want them to succeed in all aspects of life, not just in the game. Coaches strive to strengthen and develop players’ character as much as their skill. Life coaches have the same goal.
  • Coaches want their players to succeed. Exceptional coaches, particularly those who work with young people in academic settings, want their players to develop into healthy, productive and intelligent adults who contribute to the well being of the world. Life coaches also focus on holistic growth so that clients reach their full potential and discover where their passion and the world’s needs intersect.
  • Coaches help players improve their skills. Exceptional coaches work with players to discover their abilities and build on their strengths. They also help them learn how to be team players. Life coaches help their clients discover their inner passions and build on their own wisdom and abilities to have the life they want and to be effective work colleagues and leaders.
  • Coaches motivate players. Exceptional coaches are encouragers and challengers. Life coaches do the same for their clients.
  • Coaches and players work toward mutuality and symbiosis. Exceptional coaches cultivate with their players a particular rhythm in practice and in play that is unique to that relationship, and they have a shared outcome. (Think of Coach Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.) When a person finds the right life coach, the same thing happens. Coach and client have a unique relationship, and the give and take of the coaching session is like a dance. Coach and client have a shared vision for the outcome of coaching, and they work together to reach that goal.
  • Coaches win when players win. Exceptional coaches and smart players embrace mutuality. Shared goals and shared practice lead to shared win and a shared celebration. The goal of a life coach is to help the client win—that is to reach their desires goals. When the client does this, it is a shared win and a shared celebration.

Smart players know they need a good coach to help them improve their game and their win percentage. Whether playing an individual sport like tennis, or a team sport like basketball, coaches are essential to success.
Do you want to improve your life, and your contribution to your work or the world? Do you want to have a high “win” percentage? Consider finding the right coach, and make an investment in yourself.

An Object Lesson on Hospitality

When I ask congregants to tell me their church’s greatest strengths, one answer is always “we’re friendly.” They like to think of themselves as welcoming, hospitable and kind. Closer to reality, church folks are friendly to the people they know. They greet visitors with a forced smile or a handshake, then leave them to go chat with other members or their own family.
Businesses understand the work that goes into welcoming visitors. Their livelihood depends upon staff showing hospitality, or as they call it excellent customer service. Anyone who has ever been in a store where the salesperson is grumpy or rude appreciates a respectful, smiling customer representative. Hospitality has the power to determine the kind of experience people have and whether they will return.
Congregations could learn a few things from corporations like Starbucks and Apple.

Have you ever been to an Apple store? They make hospitality a priority.

1.     It is easy to identify who works at an Apple store. They are dressed nicely in matching shirts and equipped with technology to communicate with one another. What if congregations had hospitality teams that were easy for visitors to identify and equipped with the tools they need to make folks feel welcome?

2.     The staff gathers before the store opens to go over responsibilities and get pumped up to serve customers. What if church leaders and greeters gathered before the church doors opened to get ready for the days’ activities and pumped up to serve visitors?

3.     Someone is assigned to meet you at the door with a smile and a welcome. They also find out what you are looking for and connect you with the person to help you. What if trained church greeters were at every entryway and in the parking lot to welcome and direct visitors.

4.     At our local Apple store, the greeter not only welcomes those who walk in the door, but also smiles and speaks to people walking by. What if churches had greeters outside the building just to say hello to folks passing by. (This is a great idea for urban congregations that have a lot of foot and bike traffic.)

5.     The Apple greeter connects customers with a specific person to serve their need. This person stays with them for their complete visit. What if congregations had people trained to stay with visitors through the complete visit to help them find their way around, follow the order of service, and get information they want about the church?

6.     Apple employees always ask customers if they got what they needed and thank them for coming. Thanking people for visiting is not just the pastor’s job. What if the church had specific strategies for thanking people for coming and following up with them?

7.     Space matters as well. Apple stores are modern, well-lit, clean and well-staffed. What if churches put a lot more thought into their space like companies do? What message does the space give visitors – warm and cozy like a Starbucks, or bright and energetic like an Apple store? Congregations have plenty of people to help with hospitality because every member can participate.

There are many ways to show hospitality, and true welcome does not stop with the first visit. To be truly hospitable means to show people the kindness, grace and love that Jesus shows us. It means welcoming all, especially those who may not fit in to our cultural expectations. Before we can practice this kind of extended hospitality, we need to get past the first step of welcoming the visitor. How is your congregation doing?