I’ve written several posts about the Upper Room, the kid-friendly space in our sanctuary balcony where school-age children go during the worship service. There they take part in quiet crafts, books, and other activities, all the while listening and participating in the worship service in their own way. It’s always gratifying to hear about a child asking her parent about something she heard while puttering around the Upper Room. Children listen.
You can read about some of our new challenges and growing pains here. It’s all good and natural stuff as we seek to be hospitable to our young friends upstairs in the balcony and our young-at-heart friends downstairs in the pews.
But I wanted to share a BIG cause of joy—the Upper Room is getting a mural! One of our folks has contacted an artist, Kate Cosgrove, who generously and graciously allowed us to use her work to adorn our walls. Nancy, the mother of two of your little ones, did the outlining based on Kate’s work, and the kids are filling in the color.
The idea is that the children would work at various times before and after worship, but last Sunday there was so much joy and momentum that, well, they kept going during church itself. Yes, things got a bit boisterous. But the photos of this masterpiece-in-progress speak for themselves:
What’s inside? The collective wisdom and inspiration of the people of Tiny Church.
Pastors well remember that Christmas fell on a Sunday two years ago. In some traditions, a Christmas morning service is par for the course, but it’s not the norm for Presbyterians. What to do?
At Tiny Church we had a “come as you are” service in which people could wear PJs or other casual wear. We did not have a printed bulletin, which gave our administrative assistant a break from the copy machine during a busy time of year. Instead, I announced each element of the service. We read the psalm for the day from the pew Bibles as the call to worship. And the hymns that morning were the organist’s choice.
For the sermon/proclamation time, I had prepared a series of questions, each of which was printed on a slip of paper. These I placed in a Christmas-themed gift bag which people passed around. They were invited to pull out a slip of paper and answer the question, or choose a new one, or they could pass.
It was such a fun, low-key mode of worship that we did it again last year, and we’ll do something similar this weekend. (This time around we have the new “Glory to God” hymnal that has ready-made liturgies in the front!)
The gift-bag “proclamation” will be an experiment—Sunday is December 29, and it could be a good-sized crowd, much larger than Christmas Day two years ago—and people may come expecting an actual sermon. I may preface the sharing time with a short story or poem. But one of the great things about Tiny Church is how willing they are to do different things in worship.
Below are some of the questions I’ve used in the past. Have you done something similar? What questions would you add?
This Sunday’s gospel text is about Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous paranoia. We’ll be hitting that story harder on January 5, but if I use this text on Sunday, I’ll need to supplement these questions with some tougher ones that tease out the incredible sense of danger and drama in the story.
Tell about a favorite gift you’ve received—tangible or not.
Tell about a favorite gift you’ve given—tangible or not.
What is your most beloved Christmas carol and why?
“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ____________________.”
Which character from the Christmas story do you most admire and why?
Tell us about someone you think of especially this time of year.
Tell about a great surprise you have received. (not necessarily at Christmas)
Tell about an important Christmas tradition, now or in the past.
“For me, the Christmas season tastes like _______________________”
“For me, Christmas season smells like _______________________”
Jesus is the “prince of peace.” What’s one situation (personal, or global, or in between) in which you’re longing for peace?
Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? Why or why not? If so, will you make them this year?
There’s a lot of talk about what kind of staff the “next church” will need to have. As budgets and membership rolls shrink, fewer churches will be able to afford a pastor, and more pastors will work part-time. Programmatic and support positions will shrink and be taken over by volunteers. The hope is always for churches to have the right-sized staff… and it’s not the staff’s job to do the ministry of the church, but to support the members and friends of the community as they engage in ministry.
At Tiny Church, our staff is minimal: part-time pastor, part-time administrative assistant who works two half-days a week, organist/choir director who works Sunday mornings (plus preparation time), and a custodian. We also have two nursery workers who look after the kids on alternating Sundays during worship. I’m thankful for every one of these folks, all of whom do this work on top of other full-time jobs.
As a small church, the largest share of our congregation’s budget goes to staff, which can make the budget tricky to interpret for folks. This year during stewardship season, we decided to have a little fun while highlighting all the behind-the-scenes work our staff does. We riffed on the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the alternate universe in which George Bailey had never been born? We put together a story (accompanied with photos) in which the the church suddenly found itself without any staff. Here’s a small taste, but suffice to say that hijinks ensued!
For example, without a nursery worker, things got a little out of hand.
How did James pull off that naughty expression so effortlessly?
Without a pastor to preach, other folks had to fill in as they were able.
(This one should and does happen from time to time, by the way. Indeed, I sometimes think the pastor is the most expendable person on a church staff…)
But without an administrative assistant, the mail got all messed up and the electric bill didn’t get paid. Brrrr!
Then there was the missing organist. Well, you can see people made do the best they could:
In a church our size, money is always a topic of conversation. We are trying to have the mindset of a rich church rather than a poor one. Part of that mindset is to approach these topics with a light heart. On a personal level, I’m tickled that these people (and more who are not featured here) were willing to get their pictures taken doing silly things, often without knowing why.
The Spirit descended from heaven like a dove… or from the balcony like a piece of paper.
I wrote several months ago that Tiny Church has done away with Sunday School as we know it. Many of you were interested in our Upper Room ministry, so much so that the post went viral… as much as a post about churchy stuff can go viral.
So how’s it been going? I wanted to check in about this, since I know others (especially those in small congregations) are considering alternatives to Sunday School. As we think about “what’s next” in our churches, we need to share not only the ideas, but the successes and failures of those ideas, and they ways they get tweaked. Tangent: check out the Paracletos Project through NEXT Church, in which two congregations engaged in revitalization will work with a coach and share their learnings.
Well, it’s been mixed. Regarding the Upper Room: We are very fortunate to have a member of the church who’s offered to come up with a simple craft option most Sundays, but coordinating that is a challenge—ideally the activity would tie in to the sermon or theme for worship. And it also has to be as silent as possible! (Check out my Upper Room Pinterest board.)
The Upper Room is also a victim of its own success: a few Sundays ago we had 11 children up there. Wow! How wonderful… but that’s really too many with only one adult, especially considering that some of them are on the young side. We need a backup adult there too.
We also have a few new extroverts in the mix. What to do with them? We’re trying to educate parents and kids that this is not communal time—that children are there to listen to the Spirit through the worship and through “their own work”—but it’s not easy.
My original post also mentioned a few other ideas. We’re trying to figure out how to equip parents as faith educators. I’ve been previewing the Vibrant Faith materials; I get the weekly email and wonder whether it would be something we could share with families. I absolutely love the stuff at the Practicing Families website.
My time with the children during Sunday worship has been more thematic. In September I was guiding the kids through the different parts of the sanctuary and what they mean. Next I think I will try a stewardship theme (including stewardship of creation and the body), then it’s time for Advent and Christmas.
In our meeting with the parents last spring, we talked about having “pullouts” from time to time. Instead of Sunday School every week, which has been hard for a church our size to sustain, we’re looking at, say, four to six weeks in the fall and again in the spring for a specific purpose. Our choir director has offered to prepare a choir piece with any children who are interested. I’d like to give that a look in November and/or early December, so the kids can present something in worship during Advent. This also gives children a break from the Upper Room, which keeps it from getting stale.
We’re still feeling our way. The day we had 11 kids in the Upper Room was a little rowdy. As I preached I would would hear these random sounds and shushes from up there and think, Maybe this is a crazy idea.
I wondered again during the sharing of joys and concerns, when one of our folks who works at the Navy Yard was sharing a prayer request about that situation. As he spoke I saw one of the younger children come to the balcony rail and drop a piece of paper over the side. I watched as it fluttered down and landed directly behind the man, in the lap of a quiet older woman whose husband we’d just buried a few weeks before. The horror.
I’m sure my facial expressions were a complete non-sequitur to this poor guy, who had no clue what kind of “death from above” antics were going on behind him. I braced myself for a backlash after worship along the lines of kids today need to learn how to behave.
Instead, later in the service the woman raised her hand, held up the paper and said, “I just have to tell you all. This landed in my lap a moment ago. It’s a picture of Jonah and the whale, and here’s what that means to me today.” She concluded, “‘A child shall lead them’ after all!”
Seems like failure is everywhere these days. (And no, I’m not talking about Congress.)
Parenting blogs bemoan a culture in which kids are endlessly praised and competition and challenge are scrubbed out, and beg us to let our kids fail once in a while. Leadership journals talk about the perils of playing it safe in an organization. I’m on board with all that. The NEXT Church strategy team is meeting today in Minneapolis (I had to cancel my trip because of a pastoral emergency at Tiny), and part of the energy of that conversation is toward experimentation and risk—which opens us up to potential failures as an organization.
What’s often missing from these discussions is exactly how to do this. We need practices in our organizations, schools, churches, and families, moving us from a safe existence in which the sharp edges are sanded down to a culture that accepts failure as an inevitable and worthwhile by-product of doing new things.
Soon after arriving at PBS, I called the digital team into a conference room and announced we were ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and adding a new metric.
With a twist: “If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,” I told every staffer, “you’ll be downgraded.”
Because if you’re not failing enough, you’re playing it safe.
The idea was to deliver a clear message: Move fast. Iterate fast. Be entrepreneurial. Don’t be afraid that if you stretch and sprint you might break things. Executive leadership has your back.
The last sentence is probably the key to the whole thing. I have a pastor friend who told me about a member of her church council, who told his colleagues, “We need to give Pastor S. permission to fail. She should be failing at least yearly; otherwise she’s not challenging herself or us nearly enough.”
I shared this at Tiny’s leadership retreat a few weeks ago, and we chuckled at the idea of having a quota (“OK, that’s your failure for the year!”)… but I hope a seed was planted, in my mind as much as anyone’s. I’m a first-born perfectionist Presbyterian, after all; my default is to see failure as just poor stewardship.
Back to the article. Seiken found it’s not enough for us to have one another’s backs:
With the team taking risks and being rewarded for doing so, we set to work institutionalizing the new culture, adding the day-to-day processes of a lean startup.
Our development team went Agile. We began formally recognizing staffers who took risks, such as the design director who landed several impressive applicants by replacing a traditional job posting with an infographic about the position.
Crucially, we redefined success. When our first foray into web-original video production, a safe, TV-type series called “The Parent Show,” launched to fairly good reviews, we resisted the temptation to declare victory. Instead, the team challenged itself to risk breaking the PBS mold by creating a truly YouTube-native show.
I’m fascinated by this agile stuff and have spoken to groups about how we might implement it in congregations. (Come to the Oasis in October!) We lean towards agile at Tiny. Rather than having committees, the session sees itself as “dispatchers” that help call people to specific ministries to get the work of the church done—whether it’s as individuals, folks working in pairs, or a task group that meets for six months and then disbands. It’s messy, and we’re still relying on the same people too much. But it’s so much better than what we had before, which was an organizational chart that listed 11 committees, many of which hadn’t met in years.
I just reviewed our church’s October newsletter, and for a church with a worship attendance that hovers around 50, I’m excited and nervous about how chock-full it is. In the next several weeks we’ve got a blessing of the animals, a congregational breakfast, a viewing of the Place at the Table hunger documentary, CROP hunger walk, a community-wide bone marrow registry drive and health fair… not to mention the groups and studies that are ongoing. It may be too much. In fact, some of these initiatives may fail. But the failures, we trust, are information that help us refine and pursue our mission. It’s encouraging to me that each activity has a different group of people at the helm. And each is excited and energized by the work they’re doing. So on we go.
This failure stuff really hits home, though, as we think about a capital campaign to upgrade our building. Our aging facility is starting to impede our ability to minister effectively among ourselves and in our community. The numbers we’re needing to raise sound doable but ambitious. It’s fine to fail on a small scale. But there is such a thing as a catastrophic failure.
I initially felt called to Tiny four years ago because I saw such potential in this little congregation. I still do. In those early days I kept saying to myself, “This place is going to take off or die trying.” And that was a theological statement as much as anything else. Yes, we have to be good stewards of our time, resources and legacy. But a church that doesn’t risk itself for the sake of the gospel isn’t much of a church at all.