Sunday, May 9, 2010

Multigenerational Catechesis in the Smaller Church

This is a proposal for coordinated, intergenerational learning in small membership churches. Luther’s Small Catechism will motivate a three-year cycle through the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. This cycle repeats giving children three or four cycles before adulthood, and the adults learn the catechism as well. The generations work together to find lively ways to learn, practice, and celebrate these treasured texts. Small churches with their informal and relational ways may be ideal for such an approach to intergenerational learning.

Small churches with fewer than 100 members are qualitatively distinct from larger churches. The size of a church has direct bearing on the quality of relationships within a congregation. In the smallest churches with fewer than 35 members it is possible for each member to know each other member directly. They are highly relational and may be compared to a family. As the numbers increase it becomes increasingly difficult for each member to know each other. Above 100 members this degree of connectedness breaks down. Churches in the size of 35 to 100 have been described as pastoral. At this size a single pastor can serve the congregation and have direct relationships with each parishioner. The culture of smaller churches can be distinctive. A church may have one or two prominent families with three or more generations present. The church may understand itself primarily in terms of its history. Traditions stemming from that history may be quite robust for good or not so good. Communication in a smaller church can be less formal such as gossip. Everyone seems to know everything about everyone. Likewise decision-making can in actuality be less formal. Though a church may have formal decision-making bodies, the real influence and conversation may take place elsewhere. Resources may be more constrained in a smaller church, but this is often compensated for in part by higher participation of members and higher giving per member. Some congregations may have quite limited physical space, while others may be burdened with a building larger than they need and costing more to maintain than they can afford. Smaller churches can be small enough to personalize and adapt to specific needs. Some smaller churches specialize in just a few ministries. Often food is involved whenever the relational church gathers.

These characteristics pose challenges and special opportunities for Christian education. The relational nature of smaller churches lends itself to intergenerational sharing and caring. A smaller church may have difficulty supporting and filling a Sunday school program with narrow age bands, but this is also an opportunity for more personalized attention to the needs of each child and tighter connections with and between adults. It may be difficult to find and pay for suitable curricula for churches with only a few children in each conventionally narrow age band. Also churches in smaller building may have physical constraints on how narrow to set age bands of Sunday school classes. What is needed is a curriculum that matches the smaller congregation’s flexibility and wide age bands, even a curriculum which could serve the entire multigenerational congregation. Perhaps such a curriculum is the work of a small church itself. It may draw on its own stories and traditions while illuminating the scripture, stories and traditions of the larger denomination to which it belongs. That is, a smaller church can build its own congregational theology together. It may pursue an integrated and comprehensive approach to education which sees all its activities and relationships as opportunities for learning, be that what happens in worship, homes, or special events as well as in classes, small groups, and bible studies. Even a potluck diner becomes an occasion for witnessing the church’s call to fellowship and the sharing of individual gifts. A leader can bring this to educational focus by communicating these deeper purposes and meanings, perhaps by reading passages such as 1 Cor 12:12 or Acts 2:42. With some intentionality, the same message can resonate in worship, classes, small groups and family life.

I would like to explore further how a congregation may pursue this sort of integrated curriculum, taking on the particular challenge of teaching the catechism, and I will do so within the context of the Lutheran tradition. Typically, Lutheran congregations will teach Luther’s Small Catechism to middle grade students in a two year confirmation class. Such a class may meet at a time other than the Sunday school hour and involve extra assignments and activities that go beyond typical Sunday school classes. Smaller churches, even moderate size congregations, may encounter problems with this model: they may not have enough middle graders, they may lack for confident and trained catechists, and such a program does not address the needs of adults and youth beyond the confirmation age. It may be worth noting that, when Luther developed his catechisms, he was concerned about whether adults understood the basics of the Christian faith. Catechism at its best is a family process and not merely a program for older children. So I would like to outline a framework integrated, multigenerational catechism. I believe that such an approach will make good use of the relational, family-like disposition of the smaller church.

Luther’s Small Catechism consists of teaching three central texts, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, plus the Sacraments and daily blessings. We might visualize the catechism as a pyramid. Knowledge of the scripture and church history provides a broad base to the pyramid. The three texts—Commandments, Creed, and Prayer—form the middle layer of the pyramid bringing into focus Christian teaching. And the Sacraments and blessings form the top layer. This pyramid draws us through broad knowledge of scripture and tradition up through the experience of God in the Christian life. In the Ten Commandments year attention can be given to all the ways that God calls us to holiness, justice, and mercy. Personal integrity and social justice can both be explored. In Luther’s theology this is Law. The Creed year provides an opportunity to clarify our beliefs and better understand the God’s gift grace. It is a time to do both personal reflection as well as congregational theology. Again in Luther’s theology this is Gospel. In the Prayer year, the congregation gives attention not only to the Lord’s Prayer, but to the very life of prayer. This is a good time to strengthen spiritual practices and to learn how to pray with others.

The three texts give us particular lenses for scripture and sacramental living. I would propose, then, that a congregation may give special attention to one of the three texts each year in a three year cycle. This can be a broad theme for the year that energizes and directs many activities of the church as they seek ways to better understand the text, celebrate the text, and give it expression in their life together. A three-year cycle such as this means that, as children and adults develop and mature, they have the opportunity to revisit the same text every three years. How a nine-year-old can approach and process, say, the Ten Commandments will be different then how they understood it when they were six. And how they will understand it at ages twelve, eighteen and beyond will be yet different. Multigenerational learning facilitates this sort of revisiting a text at different ages. The six-year-old may learn that her church believes in the Ten Commandments which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The nine-year-old may focus more on the specific words, even committing them to memory. The twelve-year-old may begin to question and analyze the mean of the words. The eighteen-year-old may struggle more with an authentic life application of the commandments. And on into adulthood, the Commandments may take on wider and deeper meanings not just for self, but for the family, church, society and world. A text such as the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer can grow with us over the years and take a lifetime to exhaust its meaning. For children who grow up in the church, the congregation has about twelve years to convey the meaning of the catechism, and adults who did not have such a formation as a child or youth can gain a basic understanding of the catechism in a three-year cycle.

Scripture and the sacraments also fit into this three-year-cycle. As a foundation, scripture and Christian history are studied throughout the cycle. A church may elect to follow the lectionary both in worship as well as in Sunday school classes and bible studies. This provides coordination of texts across the age groups. There may be other texts which coordinate with the year’s theme such as portions of Exodus, the Sermon on the Mount or Micah 6:8 coordinate well with the Ten Commandments year.
The Sacraments, of course, are observed in worship throughout each year. Baptisms provide a natural event when teaching about baptism is appropriate. It is wonderful especially to include young children in an infant baptism. They can stir the water and welcome the new friend. Baptism and the sacrament of confession and absolution fit naturally with the Ten Commandments year wherein we learn about our sinful condition. The Sacrament of the Altar may be celebrated regularly in worship. The Creed year may be a particularly good time for the church to reflect theologically on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Finally the daily blessings of morning prayer, evening prayer and prayers over meals finds natural affinity with the Prayer year.
In many respects, the church is its own curriculum. In each year, the congregation may be challenged to find new ways to learn, practice and celebrate the theme of the year. Both the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are used regularly in the liturgy. The Ten Commandments could also be put to liturgical use in its year. Alternative texts may include Micah 6:8 or Matt 22:36-40. The liturgical use of these texts can be made more reflective by allowing a time of silence for meditation. The congregation can use its talents to develop creative elements for worship such as banners, songs, poems, dramatic sketches, dances, etc. New groups and ministries can be formed or renewed according to the theme text, for example, a particular social action group in the Commandments year, a bible study or discussion group in Creed year, or a prayer circle or spiritual practices group in the Prayer year. Such ministries may well last beyond the theme year. The church can dream of special events inspired by the theme year such as a VBS program that tells the Exodus story or an experiential prayer event. And of course, Sunday school time can be used to reinforce the theme text. These classes can be intergenerational, have wide age bands, or be organized in some other way. It is up to the older participants to find ways to give expression to the text and share it with the others. For example, in the Creed year, arts and crafts can be used to depict who God is to me. What a five-year-old creates may be just as powerful as what a fifty-five-year-old makes. And finally, there is the hope that, with all this coordination across all age groups, discipleship in the families will be encouraged. For example, in the Prayer year, a family may start a practice of praying over meals at home.

The possibilities for making the catechetical texts come alive are endless. The smaller church is only limited by its imagination. Over the years, the three-year cycle may come to feel repetitive, but this is an opportunity to imagine and ponder more deeply. One would hope that at the end of a particular year, participants would have new ideas that could be used three years later. There can be a systematic approach to gathering these suggestions and other feedback for future cycles.

Where does confirmation fit into this? By the time a child has reached eleven or twelve, they will have gone through two or three cycles of the catechism. This minimizes the amount of catechetical material that confirmands will need to learn in a confirmation program. Rather, confirmation can focus on the commitment that the child is to make and the welcoming of that child into spiritual adulthood. It can be more of a time of discernment and celebration. It should matter less that there may be only one confirmand in a given year as the catechetical foundation has already been laid through multigenerational engagement.

Smaller congregations can be the right size for intergenerational learning. Luther’s Small Catechism provides an outline that can coordinate learning activities over a three-year cycle. The congregation is challenged as a whole to make this material come alive in worship, fellowship, special events, classes and the home. There is no particular need for programs. The catechetic texts only suggest a theme. The approach to that theme can be informal, adaptive, relational and creative. Children will grow up with three or four cycles through the catechism addressing them at different stages of development. Adults, too, will deepen their understanding of and commitment to the basics of our faith. Exploring the catechism can be like a spiritual potluck without missing the essentials.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Adult Christian Formation and Congregational Renewal

An idea for congregational discipleship

This is a proposal for a multi-year program for adult formation and congregational renewal. Each year the congregation organizes its learning ministry, especially among adults, around one of four themes: our shared faith, the liturgy and sacraments, Christian living, and prayer

These themes are broad and interconnect with all of the Christian life. They are, in fact, drawn from the great catechetical tradition of the Church. It is believed that the ongoing and lively catechesis of adults within a congregation will also enhance the church’s effort to educate and confirm children and youth.

The annual themes for Christian formation and congregational renewal are broad enough to allow virtually any topic to be taught or discussed. They emphasize basic lenses for entering these topics and connecting them with the whole of Christian faith. For example, social justice is typically address from the viewpoint of responsible Christian living, yet one can consider the role of prayer in working for just or how a congregation’s observance of the Lord’s table addresses solidarity with the poor and oppressed or how Christ’s redemptive work applies to structural injustice and human deprivation as a consequences of sin.

Four themes for life-long catechesis

Christian formation, or discipleship, is a life-long process. Our confirmation class provides a systematic presentation of the Christian faith, a catechism, to our youth, and yet many of our adults have not gone through a comparable process. Even so catechesis does not end at Confirmation.

As adults we need to return time and again to the fundamentals (as ordered in Luther’s Small Catechism): the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments. Put into more contemporary language, these themes of renewal are

  • Knowing our shared faith (the authority of Christ & the Creed)
  • Celebrating the liturgy and sacraments
  • Walking our life together (sanctification & the Ten Commandment)
  • Living our prayer (the Lord’s Prayer)

These are themes of congregational and personal renewal. Each time we take a fresh look, we discover new insights into who and whose we are. We learn new ways to understand, share and live our faith. The Spirit leads us into new dimensions of life and deep connectedness.

Christian formation is not an individualistic endeavor. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church. As a congregation, we called to discipleship and empowered for this task. Consider the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

The Great Commission

Themes for Formation & Renewal

And Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been give to me.

Knowing our shared faith involves understanding the authority revealed in Christ and professed in the Church.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Celebrating the liturgy and sacraments involves connecting the gathered body of Christ and drawing others into the sacramental life of the Church.

“and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Walking our life together is a life of obedience to Christ, living in the freedom to do God’s will through the Holy Spirit.

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Living our prayer means remembering Christ in all things and dwelling continually in his presence.

Where we go from here

This is an incomplete proposal. How do we put this into practice? How does this truly lead to congregational renewal? I hope to develop these ideas further, but I need your help. Please post your comments, ideas, suggestion or simple encouragement. Let's have a discussion.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Make Me a Sanctuary: becoming a priesthood

This discussion series is on the priesthood of all believers and our work in building a dwelling place for God on earth, in our place, time and culture. Allow five to eight weeks to work through the whole series. If you wish to use this in your church please contact me and give credit. Nicely formated Word document is available. –James Hilden-Minton,

Make Me a Sanctuary: becoming a priesthood

April 2008

Discussion series by James Hilden-Minton

Developed for Adult RE at

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta

Key Text: Exodus 25:1-9

1 The LORD said to Moses:

2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering;

from all whose hearts prompt them to give

you shall receive the offering for me.

3 This is the offering that you shall receive from them:

gold, silver, and bronze,

4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen,

goats' hair, 5 tanned rams' skins, fine leather, acacia wood,

6 oil for the lamps,

spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense,

7 onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece.

8 And have them make me a sanctuary,

so that I may dwell among them.

9 In accordance with all that I show you concerning

the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture,

so you shall make it.


What does it mean to us today in this congregation to say that we believe in the “priesthood of all believers?” In what ways do we practice this priestly service within the church, also in our homes, work and places of learning? These are the questions we wish to consider as a congregation.

As we learn in Exodus 19:4-6, Israel was called to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Indeed this is why God took them up from Egypt, saying, “I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.” The Church too shares this same priestly call as stated in 1 Peter 2:9.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

In this course, we will look at the latter portion of Exodus to see how the Israelites—in the midst of their wilderness wandering—fulfilled this call to priestly service in the construction and sanctification of the Tabernacle. This was a communal and incarnational work. We shall see how God empowered them to make a dwelling place for YHWH among the people. Again 1 Peter 2:5 extends purpose to the Church.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Discussion Series

Discussion 1: Thunder on the mountain and earthen altars (1-2 sessions)

Discussion 2: The elevation of our gifts and ourselves (2-3 sessions)

Discussion 3: God’s presence dwelling with the people (2-3 sessions)

Discussion 1

Thunder on the mountain and earthen altars

We often think of God as up there and us down here. On one hand this verticality gives the spiritual seeker an upward aspiration, the path to holiness is taken to be an ascent up a mountain or a ladder. On the other hand, up/down imagery also reinforces elitism, social hierarchy, and injustice for those at the bottom.

How are we to understand up and down in the book of Exodus? Clearly the first half regarding God’s liberation of Israel speaks powerfully against any unjust hierarchy. Pharaoh was judged and condemned, his elite servants suffered the plagues, and his army was drowned in the sea. This is the work of a God who favors the poor and week.

Let’s consider two passages that stand just before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. These passages contrast the “up” of the Lord who thunders on the mountain with the “down” of the people who may only make altars of earth.

The apocalypse on Mt. Sinai

Exodus 19:16 - 20:1 16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. 20 When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish. 22 Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them." 23 Moses said to the LORD, "The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, 'Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'" 24 The LORD said to him, "Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them." 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

  1. How does YHWH reveal Godself to all Israel?
  2. For whose sake were limits set around the mountain?
  3. Would you rather ascend with Moses or remain safely in camp?

Earth-bound worship

Exodus 20:18-26 8 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: "You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it."

  1. What limits has God placed on worship? Why?
  2. How does chiseling a stone profane it? How does ascending steps to an altar expose our shame?
  3. Where is God? Who is YHWH? What’s the difference?
  4. What is earth-bound worship?

Discussion 2

The elevation of our gifts and ourselves

YHWH descends to the top of Mount Sinai and calls Moses to come up higher and draw near. So Moses enters the dense cloud at the top of Mount Sinai where God is, and they speak “face to face”. Remaining on the mountain forty days and forty nights, Moses receives the Words of Instruction, the Torah and. He is given a vision of the tabernacle, haMishkan or “dwelling place.” This is a vision of the LORD coming down further to dwell among the tents of Israel. The God who had so terrified the children of Israel with his thundering and fiery display, the same LORD who had killed all the first born of the Egyptians by passing through the land, this One is to dwell among the people in the center of their camp.

Not only is Moses given this vision of a God who wills to descend, even to be in way incarnate among the people, but he is given precise designs and command as to how to build the sanctuary and all its furnishings. God tells Moses to command the Israelites to make this tent and veil for God’s dense presence.

Exodus places this in high contrast with the sin of the Golden Calf. In that episode, the people lose patience waiting for Moose (and God) to come down. They pressure Aaron to make a god for them. They take up a collection of gold and Aaron fashions it into a calf. He declares that this is the God that had brought them out from Egypt and will continue to lead them. Moses finally returns with the two tablets. Approaching the camp, he hears the sound of their dancing and singing about their own god. This is the very sin that he had so strongly warned them about. Sensing the anger of YHWH, he casts down the tablets and calls for the extermination of the idol worshipers.

How is God to dwell in the material domain with the people without becoming an idol or being confused with an idol? The priestly work of the people is to sanctify, set apart, a place for God in such a way that boundaries between the sovereign Lord and idolatry is maintained. And yet the “curtain” between the holy and mundane is to remain thin and approachable. The architecture of the tabernacle with the Tent of Meeting screened within it gives expression to this delicate work of priestly service. And the people are given the honor to offer freely their material goods and skill. In the Hebrew, the word for offering, terumah, derives from the verb to uplift. In providing for and constructing the Mishkan, the people are sanctifying the earthly and uplifting themselves. This is what a priestly people is called to do.

Inaugurating the work

We will look at Exodus 35 which is a pivotal chapter. What precedes it was the vision of the tabernacle and what follows it is the fulfillment of that vision. In chapter 35, Moses speaks to the people. They respond by bring in their gifts so that the artisans may begin the work.

Exodus 35:1-3 Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. 3 You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.

  1. Why is only the Sabbath commanded here?
  2. What does it mean to “kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day”?
  3. How do we understand Sabbath and commandments in our congregation?

Exodus 35:5-19 5 Take from among you an offering to the LORD; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the LORD's offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats' hair, 7 tanned rams' skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece. 10 All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the LORD has commanded: the tabernacle, 11 its tent and its covering, its clasps and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the curtain for the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance, the entrance of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin with its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests.

  1. The command is to take up an offering. Is giving optional only for those of “a generous heart”? Why?
  2. What symbolism or connections do you see in the material and objects listed?
  3. How is the offering a part of our worship?

Responding with materiality of life

Exodus 35:20-29 20 Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the LORD's offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. 22 So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the LORD. 23 And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats' hair or tanned rams' skins or fine leather, brought them. 24 Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the LORD's offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. 25 All the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; 26 all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats' hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the LORD had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.

  1. Where do the gifts come from? Why were they so eager to give?
  2. Why does materiality matter, why not just gold or just spirituality?
  3. How might our Stewardship committee use this?

Artisans filled with the spirit of God

Exodus 35:30-35 30 Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen, or by a weaver-- by any sort of artisan or skilled designer.

  1. If Moses had a detailed vision of all the tabernacles, what was left to “design”?
  2. What are these gifts? Where do they come from?
  3. How do the arts and the Spirit interconnect in our congregation?

Discussion 3

God’s presence—dwelling among the people

In this final discussion, we will follow the presence of God in relation to Moses and the people of Israel. There is a duality in asking where God is and where we are. Tracing the presence of God in our own lives—both as a congregation and as individuals—can reveal where we are spiritually. We may discern within Exodus narrative multiple spiritualities, multiple postures with respect to God’s presence.

In our first discussion we looked at YHWH’s thunderous display on Mount Sinai within the sight and hearing of all the people. A boundary had been set on the mountain between God and the people with penalty of death to anyone who might transgress this perimeter. This is a spirituality of fear and distance. Moses leads the people out of the safety of the camp to the foot of Mount Sinai, to the “between place” just on this side of the boundary. The people, however, shrink back to the safety of the camp. The challenge to this spirituality is to move from fear that falls back into reverent approach, transforming boundary into meeting place. In other words, we allow life to push us out of our safety zone and embrace our edges. Ultimately, for the Christian, this represents our encounter of Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection.

In our second discussion we looked at God’s command to lift up a freewill offering and our skills to make for God a dwelling place among the people. The God, who touched down to the top of Mount Sinai and so frightened the people, now expresses his desire to descend further and actually dwell in the midst of the camp. Moreover, the entire congregation of Israel enjoined to provide the materiality of God’s incarnational intention. The artisans are said to be filled with “the spirit of God with wisdom, insight and knowledge. This corresponds to a spirituality of offering ourselves in our substance and action. Ultimately for the Christian, our gifts trace back to the gift of the Holy Spirit. There remains the temptation to offer our substance and gifts to things which are not God or godly.

As Moses descends Mount Sinai, what was a vertical spirituality is to become a horizontal spirituality. YHWH wills to descend to be among the people, but the questions remain whether God will pitch his tent in the center of the camp or outside and whether Israel will move centered about this tabernacle as the pillars of cloud and fire lead the camp along each stage of its journey. In our final passages we will see Israel and Moses enter a third, even a fourth kind of spirituality.

Far from the camp

Exodus 33:1-7 The LORD said to Moses, "Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your descendants I will give it.' 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." 4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.'" 6 Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward. 7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.

  1. What was Israel’s sin? What was the penalty?
  2. What does the tent of meeting represent?
  3. Does God pitch his tent within the center of our congregation?

As the LORD commanded Moses

Read responsively.

Exodus 40:16-33 16 Moses did everything just as the LORD had commanded him. 17 In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up.

18 Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; 19 and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

20 He took the covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above the ark; 21 and he brought the ark into the tabernacle, and set up the curtain for screening, and screened the ark of the covenant; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

22 He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the curtain, 23 and set the bread in order on it before the LORD; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

24 He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, 25 and set up the lamps before the LORD; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

26 He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the curtain, 27 and offered fragrant incense on it; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

28 He also put in place the screen for the entrance of the tabernacle. 29 He set the altar of burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and offered on it the burnt offering and the grain offering as the LORD had commanded Moses.

30 He set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, 31 with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. 32 When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

33 He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work.

  1. What was the order by which Moses set up the tabernacle? Why is this punctuated with the refrain, “as the LORD had commanded Moses”?
  2. What elements connect with your faith journey?
  3. What is significant about the statement, “So Moses finished the work”?

And the glory of the LORD

Exodus 40:34-38 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

36 Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; 37 but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

  1. Where are the people? And what is the presence of God among them? What is at the center? What is fixed and what is moving?
  2. Why was Moses no longer able to enter the tent of meeting? What sort of spirituality does this demonstrate?
  3. What does all this mean for our congregation? How is the movement of the Spirit before our eyes at each stage of our journey?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Keeping up with the prophetic voice

Well, I thought I could keep up. As our adult Sunday class worked through "Claiming Our Prophetic Voice," I wanted to blog on each discussion. I had big plans for capturing a "congregational theology," but I couldn't keep up, at least not on my own.

Ten months later, two concepts stand out for me: congregational discipleship and welcoming space.

Someone asked, what discipleship means for us as a congregation of some means? The idea of congregational discipleship came out of this. We came to see that the demands of discipleship, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and so on, really cannot be met by an isolated disciple. But a whole congregation can do all that we are called to do. This has fundamentally changed my view of discipleship. It is not an individual pursuit, just me and Jesus. Rather it takes a whole and healthy body of Christ.

When we come together to worship, we are the gathered body of Christ. In our gathering is the full presence of Christ and the Church. Though our numbers are limited, we fully participate in the whole. We can be the presence of Christ right here, where we are. In fact, the Spirit has strategically placed us right where we are so that Christ's love may be present here, now, in this culture. Recognizing this purpose of the Father, we follow Christ in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit to work out our discipleship together.

This is both freeing and demanding. I am freed from feeling like I must personally do everything or even participate directly in everything. Instead, there are times when I can simply witness what God is doing through others in my congregation. This witnessing is--I think--a form of worship. We can praise God for what God is doing in our midst. In fact we have open announcements right in the center of our worship service. This is also when we take two offerings; a monetary offering for the work of the church and a food offering for Intown Community Assistance, which works with the homeless in our community.

Why should announcements and offering break the "continuity" between the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments? There may be a deeper continuity. It is the living of the Gospel before our neighbors, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit in service to each other and our wider community. Between Word and Sacrament is Living and Service.

But congregational discipleship is also demanding. I do have a call to certain works. I too must live and serve in this discipleship. I can't simply sit on the sidelines or in the pew and content myself that "congregational discipleship" is happening. Neither can I act without accountability. I must personally be apart of this shared discipleship. I have particular roles to play and gifts to offer as the Spirit has given to me.

What is welcoming space? It can be contrasted with the traffic metaphor. Early on this metaphor illuminated for us so much of what holds us in bondage. Our lives become busy traveling always from point A to point B, points that seem constantly to be moving. And we find ourselves stuck in traffic. So many other drivers are simply in our way, and they disregard us a being in their way. We are mutually strung out along strips of pavement. The fantasy of the automobile is driving carefree in wide open spaces. The reality is narrow confinement and endless traffic.

This is pretty much the opposite of welcoming space. Welcoming space is spacious, not constricted to a few lanes of travel. Here we encounter each other in a positive and affirming ways. We welcome each other. We are not strangers stuck in traffic together. The gathered body of Christ forms a holy space--a temple really--where we can encounter God and each other. Our ministry to the community is to safeguard this space for its wholesome purpose and to keep it ever opening and welcoming to the stranger.

In practice, St. John's provides a variety of hospitality. Not only do we have space for our own religious meetings, but we provide space at little or no cost to other groups in the community. This is a particular ministry. We also have retreat facilities at our church, and we provide rest and growth opportunities to the wider church. For example, each summer several youth groups come for a week-long Urban Immersion programs where they can learn about the challenges and ministry opportunities before us in the Atlanta area. We like to have an evening with each group where we can draw them into our drumming circle and reflect together on the Word. The space we share is not just physical but spiritual as well.

Ministry happens in the space we open to each other and to God. Welcoming space gives us a view of who we are as St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta. Tending and expanding that sacred space is our shared discipleship.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What I did in traffic

Discussion 2: What I did with the Egyptians

Today we discussed the question, what wears you out and leads you to doubt God's presence in the world? We are, of course, talking about sin--sin, not so much as the moral failings of individuals, but shared sin that entangles all of us in bondage.

In our present context of fast-paced living in the consumer class, we often find ourselves desensitized to cries for help. We are too weary. We are stuck in traffic, as Laura Crowley suggested in our discussion.

We distance ourselves. We are culture of commuters. We drive in and we drive out. We lock the doors, roll up the windows, and consciousness goes somewhere else. We are enclose in our own vehicle and count others as in our way. Or at least we feel that others regard us only as obstacles in their way. We must all, however, move along with the traffic. We are driven to make it to work or to wherever it is we must go. But we get nowhere. Hours on the road, and we have little left for others, our families, communities, or strangers. We see the good there is to do, but we do not do it. We stifle our humanity every time we drive past the wounded in the street. We train our eyes on the green light. We are told by so many advertisements that we are in the driver's seat, but we are not. Our souls cry out. We ask where is God in all this.

Please share your thoughts by posting a comment. Blessings all, James.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

You have seen

Discussion 1: A Time for Reflection

“You have seen…” ~ Exodus 19:4a

We got off to a good start this morning. I was amazed to learn so much about St. John's.

I was particularly struck by the memory that in the 1960's, St. John's was one of the first churches in the Atlanta area to become a racially integrated congregation. While many of our members today may be unaware of this history, the actions of 40 years ago continue to shape who we are.

We have long embraced a vision of an inclusive Gospel, that Christ's table is wide and welcomes all. Though we may have national visibility as a congregations that welcomes the LGBT community, we are about much more than that. Even this year, we are returning to the task of breaking down racial boundaries. We still have a dream of being a racially integrated congregation.

Inclusiveness and welcoming runs much deeper than concern for social justice. It is expressed in all the ways we open ourselves to each other and to the community. We are willing to be vulnerable and to take risks as we reach out. The gospel is proclaimed in simple gestures such as knitting a prayer shall for a family in grief or just being friendly to visitors after church.

A gospel of vulnerability walks the way of healing. Accepting each other in our own weakness opens to wholeness. Ultimately wholeness is wrapped up in finding ourselves restored to loving community, knowing that we lovable as we are. In welcoming each other, we welcome the presence of Christ among us, and we make ourselves vulnerable to hearing the Gospel anew and willing to follow the Holy Spirit.

These are some of the themes that stand out for me. What comes to mind for you. Please leave a comment to post your stories and thoughts.

Blessings in Christ, James

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Claiming our prophetic voice

Claiming our prophetic voice:

a congregational theology

Discussion Series by
James Hilden-Minton, member
St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta


Prophetic voice depends on being

  • a people of memory, mindful to the ways God has led and redeemed in the past;
  • a people of covenant, faithful to God’s voice and deeply aware of our present situation; and
  • a people of hope, caught up in God’s compassionate vision for the world.

In this discussion series we will explore how a congregation, our congregation, is called to live out a specific and concrete a prophetic mission. Prophet ministry is not abstract or timeless, it is embodied and timely. Consequently, we will listen to each other and the stories we share. Together we will discern the unique vision of Christ that is emerging in our midst, in our time and culture.

Congregational Theology is

  • Contextual: We are aware of our time, place, culture, and community.
  • Narrative: We see God in the stories we share, the sacred memory we cultivate.
  • Congregational: We gather as a worshiping body with specific needs, gifts and aspiration.
  • Theological: We share in the discovery of God and the confession of our faith.
  • Missional: We work and bear witness together, partners in the Gospel.

A word at the foot of Sinai & our journey

4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. ~ Exodus 19:4-6a

Discussion Series

Discussion 1: A Time for Reflection

“You have seen…” ~ Exodus 19:4a

Just as God revealed Godself through the stories of the Israelites, God is at work within our congregation. At the base of Mt. Sinai, God in words given through Moses directs the Israelites to consider what they had seen God do for them.

What do our stories tell us about God and God’s presence with our congregation?

Encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai, Exodus 19

Call to memory – God rescues and leads

Call to covenant – God forms a people for faithfulness

Call to service – God’s vision of a prophetic and priestly people

Doing congregational theology–culture, church tradition & the Gospel

Listening to all our voices

Gathering resources for reflection–stories, reflections, creative works, etc.

Taking it all in and appreciating the tensions

Seeing the Gospel anew

Finding our congregational voice

Overview of the discussion series

For next week:

Throughout the week keep running list of things that wear you out and lead you to doubt God’s presence in this world.

Discussion 2: The Cry of the Culture

“…what I did with the Egyptians,…” ~ Exodus 19:4b

So what are we doing in our Egypt? Even in our culture of abundance, souls groan in misery, and we despair thinking nothing will change. Mostly we cope by distraction and desensitization.

What social forces lock us in and compel us to participate in cycles of violence and oppression? How do we as a congregation address this? What of our experiences and practices open us to seeing our own pathos and that of all our neighbors?

For next week:

Bring some object that reminds you a time when God drew you near and carried you.

Discussion 3: Rescue & Redemption

“…and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

~ Exodus 19:4c

God rescued Israel from their bondage in Egypt, only to leave them lost and bewildered in the desert or so it seemed. Yet God was drawing them near to Godself. In a way, they wanted to be rescued but not fully claimed by God.

What are our congregational stories of redemption? In what ways do we both long for and resist full redemption? What practices help us to deepen our trust both God and each other?

For next week:

Select some Bible passages that have been meaningful to you, especially ones you remember from childhood.

Discussion 4: Faith & Formation

“Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant…”

~ Exodus 19:5a

In the Exodus story, the Israelites literally followed the Spirit in the form of a pillar of clouds and fire.

We often speak of “following the Spirit.” We like to claim the fire and spirit of Pentecost as our own. Others will remind us of the rigors of discipleship, the place of Scripture, and the true teaching of the Church. Can we trust both the Spirit and Scripture to lead us into a fresh vision of Christ?

How does our congregation discern the authentic voice of the Spirit from our own fears, fancies, and other self-serving projections? How well are we as a congregation both empowered by the Spirit and disciplined by the Word?

For next week:

Throughout the week keep a running list of little things God is showing you or whispering in your ear.

Discussion 5: Treasure & All Creation

“…you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine…” ~ Exodus 19:5b

On one hand, Israel as a people of covenant is a special treasure of God, but on the other hand, all the peoples of the world are God’s possession.

How are we of particular value to God? In what sense are we treasured, in what sense common? As a congregation, how do we practice being both welcoming and distinctive? What is God’s vision for the world?

For next week:

Identify three people in your workplace, school, or community: someone you feel good about, trust or enjoy; someone who really irritates you; and someone you’re not particularly close to. Pray daily for each person. Pay attention to what might be Christ’s presence within them wherever they may be in life and matters of faith.

Discussion 6: Priestly Service

“...but you shall be for me, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

~ Exodus 19:6a

God’s ultimate vision for Israel was that they be a priestly and holy people. Not simply that Israel would have some priest and some “holy men” or prophets, but God’s call was to the people as a whole.

As Christians, we too believe that God calls us to holy and priestly service. A key issue in Luther’s day was to re-assert the priesthood of all believers. What does this mean to us in our generation? In what practical ways does our congregation live out a prophetic or priestly call? In what ways does our congregation authorize us for ministry?

For the weeks to come:

Live the presence of Christ.