Frederica Mathewes-Green: How to Revive a So-called ‘Dead’ Church

The author writes from the perspective of the Orthodox Church but what she says is easily true of Lutheran, Reformed, or any other. They are wise words about something that is immanently practical as well as spiritual. Please read it to the end. Also, a theologian might have some qualms about some of Frederica’s points, so be aware she is speaking from a perspective that may not be your own. Still her points about not being judgmental, seeking out people whom you think are positive and are involved in worship, prayer, and outreach, and of course speaking with the pastor, these are all bound to be effective, and who knows, God may use your efforts to breathe life into a ‘dead’ church.

How to Revive a “Dead” Church

By Frederica Matthewes- Green

 

Here’s something I hear from time to time: “I’d like to join the Orthodox Church, but I visited a local church and it just felt dead.”

When I hear this it’s about Orthodox churches, but that needn’t be the case. It could be any church or denomination; it might sound good on paper, but the local church on Sunday morning feels empty and drained.

It’s tempting to say, “That shouldn’t make any difference. Focus on your own prayer life.” But, actually, I know what these people mean. Sometimes, when you visit a church, something just feels “off.” It makes you really eager to get out of there.

I’ve puzzled over what this is, exactly. It seems like, anywhere the same people gather regularly—a school, an office, a church—a hard-to-define quality develops, an atmosphere or a mood. Even though I know that quality or mood shouldn’t affect me, it does. I can’t just ignore it.

The first impulse, when that happens, is to get out of there, and look for a church that feels more alive. But there’s another possibility: a “dead” church can be revived. There are things you can do to bring a church, of whatever denomination, to life.

Go back to that moment when you were looking around the congregation and feeling dismayed. It’s been said that 20 per cent of the people in a church do 80 per cent of the work. When you first visit a church, most of what you see will naturally be that 80 per cent. It seems like they aren’t really engaged with worship; maybe, you think, they’re there for social reasons, or just out of habit.

But the 20 per cent whose faith is strong, the ones who pray and read the bible, who sincerely seek the Lord—they’re there too; they’re just not as visible. In every congregation, there is a hidden “starter set” of committed people.  Your task is to find them, band together with them, and begin to fan the flame.

You’ll find, no doubt, that the pastor is on your side. A pastor’s life isn’t easy, and it doesn’t pay well, either. People take up the calling despite this because they sincerely want to help others deepen and strengthen their faith. If things feel “off” in church, if there’s a vacant feeling, a rattling-around chill, it not because that’s how the pastor likes it. So, if you want to understand this church, listen to him. He knows the people in the congregation better than anyone else does, and he knows what prayer groups or book studies have been effective in the past.

Now, where are you going to find these more-committed people? One place is mid-week services. People who take the trouble to go to church when it isn’t Sunday morning probably have a motivation similar to yours.

Say you notice somebody who comes regularly to mid-week services, or arrives early on Sundays and stays late, or carries a well-worn bible (or prayer rope, in an Orthodox church)—any kind of tip-off. Take the initiative and make contact. On Sunday, look around for them during coffee hour, and go over and start a conversation. Find out if you are reading the same books, or mention something in worship that you found meaningful. Build bridges.

This next part might be shocking, so brace yourself: these people might not be the same age you are. They might not dress in ways you find attractive. They might not read as much as you do, or not read the same things. If you walk with them to their car, you might see a bumper-sticker you don’t like.

Don’t let these things throw you off. As you become fond of someone, the very things that were initially off-putting can transform and become endearing.

It’s likely that some of these people will literally be little old ladies. That’s OK. Someone who’s had decades of experience with prayer might be just what you need in your life right now. Also, sometimes old ladies turn out to be interesting. I know because I am one.

If you attend a liturgical church, you can also remind yourself that, even if the church’s atmosphere dismays you, you are still receiving communion. The Prophet Elijah, alone in the wilderness, was sustained by ravens who brought him bread. In the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Spirit gives you the Bread of Life; ultimately, that’s all you need.

Remember also that bitter, discouraged Elijah was less alone than he thought he was. He complained that he was the only faithful person remaining in the land, and the Lord revealed that there were another 7000 who had never abandoned the faith.

Here’s another practical suggestion: Pray through the church directory, a page or two every day. When you get to the end, start over. Invite your church-friends to do the same, praying for each person by name. Don’t pray for God to change them; just call them to mind, remembering them, as St. Paul did (“I remember you constantly in my prayers,” 2 Timothy 1:3; “I remember you in my prayers,” Philemon 1:4). Just lift them up before the Lord; The Lord knows better than you do what they need.

If you know of specific needs, for healing perhaps, of course you can include those requests. Let the pastor know that you and your friends are glad to pray for any needs he thinks it right to share.

This habit of praying through the directory has the practical benefit of teaching you the names of everyone in the church. It will help you remember who’s married to whom, which kids go with which families, and so on.

In time, this habit of praying for all the congregation by name will change something inside of you. The worshippers will stop seeming like a mass of indistinguishable faces. They will be revealed instead as what they always were: unique individuals, each of whom is thoroughly known and loved by Christ. The congregation is not a block of stone but a mosaic, composed of countless faces.

That’s so often the way with spiritual growth: you realize something was true all the time. Christ was already present, already working in these lives, long before you walked in the door. He was already loving them and calling them into a closer relationship with himself. And, fortunately, they’re people who are already in the habit of coming to church. A line in a hymn, a scripture reading, a sermon illustration, may be just the spark they need. Your role is to pray.

There probably are more prayerful and faithful people in the congregation than you’ve been able to see. Superficial factors, like clothing and age, may be rendering them invisible to you. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil teaches a young devil how to corrupt his “patient.”

“Although the young man in question has started going to church, it’s not necessarily a lost cause, because of his preconceptions about what the Church should look like. When he gets to his pew and looks round him, he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on [God the Father’s] side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to [the Devil], is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”

As time passes, and church members who are prayerful and intentional find each other, a kind of chemical change takes place. They find that they constitute a living community within the congregation. They sense that they are upheld by each other’s prayers. When they come to worship, the do so prepared to love and serve God.

A quality of warmth and illumination accompanies them, and it begins to pervade worship. This is something others can sense—even those people you’d written off. Christ is Life, and everyone seeks life. The warmth of faith is attractive in the sense that a magnet is attractive, and it draws people forward. You are moving toward a tipping point, in which the Light of Christ becomes so perceptible that the feeling of worship on Sunday morning is transformed.

If you think a congregation you visited while looking for a church is “dead,” you have an option besides going somewhere else. Where Christ is, there is resurrection. By finding and befriending other church members who are prayerful, by following the pastor’s vision, and by giving prayer support to the work God is already doing in worshippers’ lives, you can help bring a congregation to life.

Frederica Mathewes-Green
www.frederica.com

Photography: Freeze Framed

Frozen Windshield  by Gunnar Simonsen

A carefully composed fine art photograph, or a lucky point and click? Good question, but not as important as the plea from the photographer for everyone to open their eyes to the beauty all around us.

 

The House of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honor and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam,
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Christmas Carols: O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep the Angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Christmas: the Infinite becomes an Infant

Infinite, and an infant. Eternal, and yet born of a woman. Almighty, and yet hanging on a woman’s breast. Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms. King of angels, and yet the reputed son of Joseph. Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.

Charles Spurgeon

The Small Catechism of Martin Luther by Philip Hoppe

Pastor Philip Hoppe has made a very nice use of Prezi to introduce people to the Small Catechism. Any Lutheran will find handy uses for this with fellow church members, family, friends, online acquaintances, and others.

Transcript of The Small Catechism

The Small Catechism
A book of questions and answers that answers briefly the question, “What does the Bible teach?”
Written by Martin Luther because he found most people did not know the basics of the faith.
Written for fathers and pastors to teach their familes and flocks.
What is the Small Catechism?
Shows how God’s people are to live.
Reveals that we do not live as we should.
Leads us to despair of earning our own salvation.
Leaves us in need of a Savior outside of ourselves.
The Ten Commandments
Reveals to us our Savior God
Reveals to us that he is Triune, three persons in one God.
The Father creates, The Son redeems, The Holy Spirit sanctifies

The Creed
Teaches us about life with God.
Teaches us how to talk to our Heavenly Father.
Tells us what is important in this world and the next.
Teaches us how God first brings us the salvation Jesus won for us at the cross.
Reveals that our old man has been killed.
Reveals that a new man has been raised up to live a new life.
The Sacrament of
Holy Baptism
Reminds us what to do with the sins that continue after Baptism
Reminds us that pastors are given to us in order that forgiveness might be delivered to us so that we can live with a clear conscience.
Confession
Assures us that Christ comes to us in his Body and Blood
Reveals to us why weekly gathering to receive this gift is critical to faith.
Proclaims Christ’s death until He comes.
The Lord’s Supper
Daily Prayers
Morning
Evening
Asking a Blessing
Returning Thanks
Table of Duties
Pastor and People
Government and Citizens
Husbands and Wives
Parents and Children
Bosses and Employees
Youth
Widows
Everyone
Christian Questions
with Their Answers
A series of questions that leads one through what the catechism has taught them about faith and life in preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Prayer

 

HT, T.R. Halverson, lutherancatechism.com

Christmas Carol: The Holly & Ivy


Holly’s prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries show the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows, reminding people to cling to God for support in our lives. Like Christmas trees, they both keep their green leaves into the winter unlike much of the vegetation in the northern lands, which reminds people of everlasting life.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to do us sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.