This Sunday marks the end of my sabbatical leave. It’s been everything I had hoped it might be – a time out, a time off, and a time away. But as the old saying goes, “All good things must come to an end,” and now the time is up. Truth be told, I’m ready to get back. The rest and renewal have most definitely been a gift and I am thankful to the church for the opportunity and to our staff for the outstanding work they did in the interim. As I had hoped at the outset, I have come away with some lessons that I hope to implement at MBBC, lessons I don’t know I would have learned if it had not been for this summer leave.
In the first place, I have learned that sermons seem to be lasting too long. I had been hearing about this trend in clergy peer group conversations, but because of my weekly pulpit responsibilities I had not really experienced it. If you think I preach lengthy sermons, suffice it to say that while away, I heard more than my share of forty-five minute sermons, all of which could have been concluded ten to fifteen minute sooner without sacrificing anything in content or inspiration. Much of the lengthiness was due to poor preparation and gratuitous sideroads on the preacher’s part that led to nowhere. I will say, however, that the best sermon I heard was a twenty-minute masterpiece by a female Episcopal priest, who preached on the Good Samaritan, a frankly difficult text because of its familiarity. What impressed me most was how she interpreted the text and prophetically addressed the topic of neighborliness in our current cultural context without offending anyone’s political sensibilities. Her male colleagues could learn much from her, but I doubt they would see it that way because of their theological bias toward women in the pulpit. But I learned something, and so I will resolve to preach shorter sermons, or at least I will try.
Secondly, I learned that churches reflect their openness to newcomers in a variety of ways, from the ease of access into the facility to the warmth of the welcome guests receive when entering to the language used in worship, which (probably) unwittingly delineates “insiders” from “outsiders.” Upon reflection, all of the churches I attended were open to new folk, for which I was most grateful since I was one. Because I have a church I go to regularly, I had forgotten how painful it is to walk into a new place for the first time, even for an extrovert like me. But as I was going to a new church, if I knew where to enter and was greeted sincerely and not treated like an intruder, then the awkwardness of the new setting was lowered dramatically. All of the places I attended worship received a passing grade in this regard, and I return to MBBC even more committed to making our church’s worship a “user-friendly” experience for guests so that they will feel led to return.
Lastly, I was reminded that good worship music is good and bad worship music is bad, regardless of the genre. You can’t hide quality behind screens, lighting, and hand-raising. On the other hand, good music engages the congregation, draws them in, inspires them to participate, and prepares them to hear God’s Word. I am grateful to be in a church where all of our music results in these outcomes.
In fact, I will return to our church even more grateful for how we approach worship and service. We are a blessed fellowship in terms of our gifted staff and committed membership. In fact, I honestly can’t understand why everyone in Mountain Brook not already locked into a local congregation wouldn’t want to attend our church. I say that to encourage us to continue to show faithfulness to the Spirit’s leadership so that in the days ahead the people who come our way might find God’s rest and peace and leave more strengthened and encouraged for whatever time in life it is for them. Only then will they know that the good things God does through His people are eternal and never really know any end.
“I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint” (Jeremiah 31:25).