Dear Anonymous…

If you are a pastor, you more than likely have received an anonymous letter/note from someone or you are likely to receive one at some point during your ministry. They can be deflating and frustrating and really most of the time they hurt. Hardly ever do anonymous notes/letters contain words of encouragement or blessing, rather they often contain words about what you are doing wrong.

I got my first ever “anonymous letter” yesterday in the mail. This wasn’t my first interaction with an anonymous note, but it was the first time I received a letter that was anonymous. No return address. No signature. Just words:

Dear Pastor Justin-

Please keep your sermons to 15 min long. 25 min is way to long. We know you can get your message out in 15 min. We know people who stay home if they know you are going to preach.

Now I am not bothered by someone thinking my sermon was too long. It probably was for some (I couldn’t go back and check because the videotape is already to the cable company), and because of their words I did go back and look at my previous two sermons and they were 20 minutes and 17 minutes. It is probably safe to say that my typical sermon is between 15-25 minutes. However, worship doesn’t go over the usual time it ends when the other pastor preaches so in the end the person is spending the same amount of time in worship. That leads me to believe that it isn’t the “time” that is the issue but that they might have some other issue with my sermons, etc. (like “they are boring” or “you say the same stuff over and over…get to the point”) Unfortunately, I am unable to have a discussion with this person or the people who “stay home if they know I am preaching.”

That is the problem with anonymity: anonymity hinders growth. The anonymous letter writer may have some valuable pointers and insights into my sermons that could help me become a better preacher but I am unable to learn from them or the people who stay home because I don’t know who they are. I also cannot discern whether there is a larger issue with me as a pastor or my sermon because I can’t be in conversation with them and it makes me sad that we can’t honestly and openly talk to one another and grow.

In case “anonymous” might be reading this, here is my serious heartfelt reply:

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your note and I want you to know that I will be reflecting on this as I prepare for future sermons. What I am wondering is, do you have any advice as to what I could “cut out” from my message? Was there something that was missing? Did I repeat myself when I didn’t need to?

I will admit that I do not prepare sermons based on how long they will be but rather I focus on the message from God’s Word that might benefit the community and the individuals who are a part of this faith community? Do you feel that I am not doing this?

I would love to have a conversation with you and with the other people you know of who don’t come when they know I am preaching so we could learn from each other.

Know this, I have immense respect for those who address me with constructive criticism when I know who they are. I don’t think less of them and I value their insights even if I disagree with them. If you feel moved to contact me please know that I will not harbor any resentment or anger towards you for your note.

In Christ,

Pastor Justin

Will "we" have that?

So today at lunch time I went down to the Guild Hall at Central UMC and had dinner with those invited to the “Golden Years Celebration” (read that as those 65+). It was a good time of food and distracting myself by texting the youth that were helping by serving the tables.

At the end of the meal they did a variation on a Hymn Sing. It was a variation because it really wasn’t an open hymn sing where those gathered choose the music but rather was already planned out. Not surprisingly though many of the hymns included in the sing probably would have been chosen by those gathered. As I sat there singing with them and joining the tunes that I grew up hearing my mother play on the piano as she practiced for Sunday worship, I started to ask myself the following questions:

“What will be my generations “hymn sing”? Will there even be such a thing for us or even those a generation before me?”

Now I realize that there is a chance that some “praise” hymns could take the place of those old-time hymns, but I wonder about the staying power since none of the instruments used for “praise” hymns (outside of the piano) seem to have the same staying power as “the organ.” Then I started wondering if we have lost our connection between music and spirituality. Personally, I don’t think that connection is lost. There are so many songs I have heard by what some would call “secular” artists that explore the human condition and navigate the condition through relationship to God in some way. These songs feed my soul, but you know what they aren’t part of “worship” within the church building and to be honest they weren’t written to be sung by “all.”

Have we as a society moved so far away from the corporate task of music in worship that all we have is the “old” hymns or hymns created within the “old” medium to help us join together in song? Obviously this isn’t fully the case as many churches have other mediums than the organ and piano upon which they corporately join in song, but even when that occurs I can’t help but have a feeling of passive reception.

I don’t know if I will ever figure it out. This question is just one of the many questions I have been having about worship lately. As I myself seek to enter into authentic worship that comes from celebrating the presence of God in my life and the community around me, I can’t help but wonder about what worship will be when I am in those “Golden Years.” Will my authentic response to God within the medium of Worship evolve and change as my life changes? I have to believe it will. When I was 17, I had a better chance of connecting with God by interacting with those who had music that connected with the my teenage angst, but now I connect more with the mellow reflective music (granted I still love punk but only in smaller doses)?

Which leaves me with the following question to ponder: When we stick in one pattern of worship to we cease to authentically engage with the presence of God within the work of worship?