When I was a child at family gatherings, I was always glad when my father asked me to help him put the leaves in the dining room table. To me, a larger table meant a higher likelihood that I would have a place there. I loved being allowed to sit at the “grown-up” table. I remember how much I enjoyed hearing my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents in animated discussion. It remains a treasured memory for me. Whenever I was sent to the “kids table”, I always had the sense that I was missing something valuable. In fact, I was.
This week marks an important anniversary for our church. A year ago Sunday, our church invited our children to the table. By that, I mean we removed all age-segregated structures from our worship services. We were concerned that we not unwittingly absolve a parent from their duty by doing for them from 9:45 to 10:30 on Sundays what they are called to do all week long. Convinced that no one loves a child and is better suited to disciple that child than his or her parents, we abandoned a long-held methodology.
No more Sunday School.
No more nursery.
No more finger paints.
No more cookies and Kool-aid.
No more “quarterlies”.
No inflatables or climbing walls.
When we gather, we are together. That transition has been monumental — more so than we could have realized. And mercifully, God is allowing us to see fruit.
Like most churches, ours is diverse. We have young families and older saints. We have college students and widows. Some dress up. Some don’t. Single men and women worship alongside couples married many years (one recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.) Educational choices vary. Our church is a friendly climate for homeschooling, though we have families in public and private schools. We have found that no one stereotype seems to fit. (Though many folks garden, to our knowledge, none of our families churn their own butter!) One quality, though, does fit the “family-integrated” stereotype: we value togetherness. We love sharing a hymnal with our children. We believe that allowing families to build a whole catalog of worship experiences together more than compensates for the additional stress of having children in the auditorium. This commitment we share: no longer can we exclude those we treasure most from the most sacred thing we do. Our children are welcomed to the table.
As I’ve given thought to how this past year has unfolded, I wanted to share some of what God is teaching us in hopes that it might encourage churches and elders that are considering putting a few leaves in the table.
These are some reflections on our church’s reformation, one year removed.
1. Family is not the point of family integration.
John Calvin has taught us that the human heart is “an idol factory” and nothing can so quickly supplant the best thing like a good thing. We love the family, but do not worship the family.
We are gospel people. We celebrate the cross. We are a church. We value doctrinal precision. We fear God. We treasure the Scriptures. We love the catechisms. We preach. We do not exist chiefly to encourage parents. We exist to glorify God by communicating the gospel, maturing believers and equipping them for Christ-like ministry.
There are some wonderful homeschool support groups in East Tennessee, but that’s not what we are.
We gather to sing, pray, encourage one another, receive communion and fellowship. Our prayer is that nothing, not even a good thing (like family), would obscure our view of Christ. When we went family-integrated, we were studying in the third chapter of Romans. A year later, we are in the ninth chapter. We could not abandon the systematic, expositional preaching of Scripture for a little homily on family life. The gospel must remain central. Family integration has been aptly described as simply a delivery mechanism. Nothing more.
2. Churches need leaders.
One the great privileges of my ministerial life has been serving in leadership with my friend, Rick. He embodies so much of what I admire in godly, humble, bold leaders.
During the Winter and Spring of 2009, drawing from the experience others, the elders were coming to a fuller understanding of family-integration and became increasingly convinced that this was an important step in our growth as a church. Our decision to make this transition was driven by a protective, pastoral impulse. We were surprised, therefore, when we encountered resistance. I was privileged to witness up-close as Rick patiently sat through lengthy meetings late into the night, read and re-read articles, asked clarifying questions, leading with grace. After all that, he acted courageously on behalf of our children and grandchildren.
At that point, the church did not need men who would assess the political climate and get out in front of the crowd. (Had that happened, we would have certainly remained exactly as we were.) We needed leaders. Rick modeled this beautifully, and I’m convinced, generations will thank him. We are currently evaluating potential leaders. As our body of elders grows, I pray that the same boldness will mark the men who will occupy this vital office.
3. When the bar is raised, people grow.
For centuries, the sub-four-minute mile was the “holy grail” of middle distance runners. No one, it seemed, could accomplish that coveted (and seemingly impossible) goal. Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Banister, a student at Oxford University, became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Six weeks later, John Landy broke Banister’s record. A year later, three men in London accomplished this on the same day. Within 10 years, Jim Ryun became the first high school student to run a sub-four-minute mile. Steve Scott has done this 136 times. While still a noteworthy accomplishment, it has now become the standard by which middle distance runners are measured. Banister raised the bar and the four minute mile won’t do anymore.
In the same way, when the expectations are heightened in regard to family life, people respond. Whereas, for years, dropping your children off for Sunday School qualified as responsible parenting, when the bar is raised, new ground is gained. Men who had never developed a habit of leading their families in worship are now taking up that challenge and, as a result, their wives and children are thriving.
Some months ago, a father shared that before last Fall, though they were active in church, he had only worshiped with his children four times in their lives. His children are now asking for copies of the ESV so they can follow along during the morning service. He has since developed a reading plan leading his family through the New Testament each year. He intends to keep up this practice each year and envisions receiving phone calls from his grown children years from now discussing that day’s reading. I’m praying that happens.
4. “Reformed” and “Family-integrated” ≠ “inward”.
We can point to many examples where worshiping together has served our church family. This structure, we believe, encourages a climate where (as we saw recently) one might see a University of Tennessee student bouncing an infant while visiting with several older fathers. While this kind of inter-generational contact happens in other settings, we see it as valuable enough to encourage and plan for. It is not uncommon to see boys and girls serving families on Sundays and young moms getting encouragement from ladies further into the parenting journey. The benefits are many. But if all our focus ended with our benefit then a large part of the church’s mandate would be neglected. We have work to do in the world.
To God’s glory, we are seeing God awaken us to the duty and joy of spreading the gospel. This past weekend, some of our church family joined others from across Tennessee in sharing the gospel at Bonnaroo, the huge music festival in Manchester, Tennessee. Each week, we hear stories of others sharing the gospel with neighbors and co-workers.
God has used the Kyle Blaze family to expand our focus globally. This Spring, the Blazes relocated to East Tennessee and based their mission work out of Basswood. The church family, to God’s glory and with very little prompting, have given sacrificially to support Kyle and Misty’s work in Southeast Asia. In a few short months, God has supplied 2/3 of their projected annual need through their brothers and sisters at church. On June 27, we will tearfully lay hands on them and see them off to spread a passion for the supremacy of Christ for the joy of the Asian people. One unexpected by-product of doing church together has been to see the relationships develop throughout the church with Kyle, Misty and their two precious sons. Basswood will not have to be “guilted” into “praying for the missionaries”. We know them and love them. Our sons and daughters have held their children during church. We’ve shared many meals together. They are part of us, and we are thrilled to partner with them in this noble cause.
5. Change is here to stay.
Though infrequent, we’ve learned to smile at the occasional impromptu contributions our children make. Some time back, while teaching, I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question regarding man’s purpose. As soon as the words left my mouth, a young boy’s enthusiastic, Pavlovic response gave testimony to responsible parenting: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever!!!” He’s right.
In the same way, a church’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. That requires change.
The German reformer, Martin Luther, called churches to embrace change as a necessary and expected norm with the Latin phrase, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda — a church reformed, yet always reforming. We are learning that reformation is less an event and more of a lifestyle — it is progressive and ongoing. We are asking God for a culture of reformation. It is our prayer that God will continually show us areas of neglect and provide grace to humbly repent. It’s been said that those who never change are either perfect or stubborn. We certainly are not the former, and pray that we not become the latter.
As we reflect back over God’s kindness to us over the past year, we are overwhelmed with gratitude. We praise God for His work among us. He has been good to us in spite of our evident weaknesses. By most any measurable standard, we’re stronger. While we are amazed at God’s faithfulness in areas like finances and attendance, we have been more encouraged by the less visible benchmarks. We pray more. Early every Tuesday morning, men gather to pray for families, for the lost, for our church. One request surfaces often in our Tuesday gatherings — “God, protect your church.” This past year has been one more in a whole succession of reformations over the past few years. And if God will mercifully show us where growth is needed, we can be sure that we will look completely different next year. That is our fervent prayer.
As their pastor and friend, I am grateful to worship alongside people with a heart for reformation, people willing to put an extra leaf in the table, scoot over, and make room for the whole family. Our children (and theirs) are the beneficiaries.
Teaching Pastor, Basswood Church