Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Felton Bible Church

A little girl handed Pastor Randall Kay the box. He opened it and pulled out a small tea cup. "This is from the film 'Beauty and the Beast'. I believe this character's name is 'Chip,'" Pastor Kay talked to the kids about how many times we feel like we're not good enough. We feel like we're not smart enough, athletic enough or good enough looking. We feel like we have a chip. But if you filled up that cup with water, he said, the water would flow out through the chip. When God fills us up with His grace and love, many times it's through our 'chips' that God's grace and love flows out.

Like a magician who points out, "There's nothing up my sleeve," let me note that Pastor Kay never knows what's in the box. The box is sent home with a different child every week. The child puts something in the box and Pastor Kay must then come up with a little sermonette about whatever he finds. Usually kids bring something they love, but on occasion they bring something they believe will make the morning difficult for the pastor. He consistently comes through.

Children's ministry has long been an important focus of the ministry of Felton Bible Church. Every summer their Vacation Bible School, offered free of charge, ministers to hundreds of children of the San Lorenzo Valley. Every week of the school year the church's Awana program draws dozens of elementary school students.

But this Sunday there were only six children who came forward for "What's in the Box?", the weekly children's sermon. I served as a youth pastor at this church, leaving fourteen years ago. When I first came to the church and during the years we were there, many more children came forward -- some Sundays as many as two dozen. There were several babies in the church this Sunday, but I only saw a couple of teenagers.

Pastor Kay -- and church members we  met for lunch after the service -- said that the church has been facing the challenge of declining numbers, particularly young people and families. The leadership has been discussing this challenge with the congregation and prayerfully considering actions to be taken in the future.

Felton Bible Church is obviously not unique in dealing with this problem. They have still been able to meet their financial obligations. They still are providing a number of important ministries for the community. For instance, every Sunday the church bus transports  a number of seniors from local care facilities and senior communities. There were quite a number of seniors in the service, and most of them also attended a Sunday school class. The seniors heartily sing along with the hymns in the class (choruses predominated the music in the service). Ministry to seniors is a very important part of the church, but again, it does raise questions about the church's future.

The church facilities, including a sanctuary that is one of the largest meeting rooms of the area, a quality kitchen, and a full-sized gym, are made available to the community. The church reaches out to serve the community in a number of ways, but the outreach doesn't necessarily lead to people attending on Sunday morning or becoming part of the regular life of the church.

Discussing these things with a friend after the service, he mentioned the idea that the decline of the church might have more to do with the culture than with the particular ministry of FBC. "Just as the church has declined in Europe, perhaps the same thing is happening in the United States," he said.

There certainly is something to that, but this year, Mindy and I have seen churches in California flourishing greatly. It does seem that some areas of this state particularly challenge the viability of churches. I have a friend who once said that if you can't plant a church in Southern California, you can't plant a church. But in Northern California -- and particularly in the Santa Cruz area -- there is indifference and even hostility to the Church that makes for a very difficult environment. I was encouraged to see that the leadership of the church recognizes these challenges and is working to take the steps necessary to continue to serve Christ's church in the area.

The church has much to offer: warm, friendly people, Biblical preaching, and a highly visible location in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Recognizing the "chips" in the ministry, I'm sure that God's grace will flow through those chips into the San Lorenzo Valley.
-- Dean
Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes          
Sermon Length: 32 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Greeting time during the service , special visitors (family members, former members) particularly recognized from the front
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 97
Probable Ushers' Count: 115
Snacks: coffee on table in foyer before worship, donuts and coffee on each round table in the fireside room after worship with donuts and coffee on serving tables and water and lemonade on a separate serving table in the same room. The food and coffee on the round tables makes it easier for people with mobility challenges to enjoy the fellowship time without needing assistance.

Musicians: drums (male), bass (male), piano (female), three vocalists (female)
Songs: My Hope is in You
            At the Cross
            Jesus Messiah
            In Christ Alone
Miles to place: 148

Total California Miles: 12,994

Monday, September 28, 2015

Four Things I Remember about Felton

Dean's family camped here a lot while he was growing up, and it's the place we've camped most as a family. When we lived in Felton, the day-use entrance was half a mile down the road, and we often walked on the trails, in the river or beside the main road to play in the river, look for deer, or follow the shortcut to church. Walking to the observation deck (a three mile hike from the entrance) was Dean's almost daily exercise.

We participated in Ohlone Day there several times (it's an annual celebration of the local culture), listened to the coyotes howl on moonlit nights, and marked time by the sound of the Roaring Camp trains whistling from the tracks that ran through the park to Santa Cruz.
Roaring Camp's steam engines pull trains up a mountain or down to the beach, and the grounds include an 1880s main street.

When we moved to the area, we weren't sure where we'd find housing in the four communities that make up the San Lorenzo Valley, so we enrolled in SLE. Our son got bored while waiting for me to fill out paperwork, so he pulled the fire alarm on the wall above where he was sitting. It was a memorable introduction to the school all three kids would attend for the next five years.

It's the main road through the SanLorenzo River valley, and if you live there, you probably drive, hitchhike, bike, or walk along it daily. The section from Felton to Santa Cruz, periodically closed for landslides or construction, is beautiful and a little terrifying if you're not used to sudden changes from sun to deep shade while driving a narrow, twisting road with steep drops to a river bed on one side. North from Felton, rainstorms -- or earthquakes -- can mean road closures with detours miles long to get from one end of the valley to the other.

The park contains the tallest covered bridge in the United States, and it's a lot of fun to run through while yelling to hear echoes. But that's not all! There's also a playground, and for our family, it's where we've celebrated birthdays and had my favorite family portrait taken.

The smell of  damp redwoods and bay laurel on a warm day.
-- Mindy

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Concord Bible Church

Free. Initially, they weren't thinking free, they were thinking a nominal charge, but Pastor Jeremy Cook felt God was telling them it should be free.

Five years ago Concord Bible Church wanted to do an eight week summer program for neighborhood children. The inspiration for the program was a desire to imitate the ministry of Jesus -- He responded to felt needs: giving sight to the blind, strength to the lame, food for the hungry, etc. CBC believed the people of the neighborhood needed child care in the summer, but after looking at church finances, it didn't look like something the church could do without charging for it. But Pastor Cook (or "Pastor Jer") believed God would provide. God did, of course. This ministry has proved of benefit to people of the community. And it has led to families being introduced to the Church.

I served as a youth pastor at Concord Bible Church a couple of decades ago. At that time the church was also serving children in the community. Mindy used to load up carloads (amazing how many kids a nine-seat station wagon will hold) of kids and take them to the church's weekly children's programs (and Vacation Bible School as well). Weekly children's ministry continues at CBC in many ways, including AWANA.  

We noticed something else that's continuing: old friends who are still active in leading and serving the church Pastor Jeremy's was not one of those faces, though he's been at CBC for almost ten years. But Jean Peters was not there. Jean and her husband Rawley were pillars in the church for the four years we served there. Rawley passed away a few years ago, and Jean passed away unexpectedly a couple of days before we visited. Many folks were visibly shaken by the loss. Jeremy dedicated the morning's sermon to "Saint Jean". The sermon was about a worthy walk in Christ -- not a perfect walk, but a worthy walk.

There are a number of other "worthy walkers" still there from back in the day. The "Egyptian contingent" continues to grow. Years ago (before our time!) a number of families and individuals from Egypt gathered to study the Bible together. Someone in the group (Philip and Magda Bedros?) discovered Concord Bible Church and invited others to come. The group still has Bible Study together regularly at the church (in Arabic).

During the announcements Jeremy mentioned that he had been invited by the Evangelical Free Church (of which Concord Bible Church is a member) to be a speaker at a conference focused on multicultural ministry. I'm sure the Egyptian contingent were part of the reason he was invited, but not the whole reason. Looking around during the worship service, Mindy and I noticed a variety of ethnicities, reflecting the community.

To highlight that diversity, Jeremy asked all who would be classified by the U. S. government as "non-whites" to say, "Amen". (A good number responded.) "Would all those who would be classified as 'white' say, 'Amen'?" (Again, a good response.) "Would all who are part of the Kingdom of God, say 'Amen'?" (The best response of all.)

Along that theme, the time of prayer (focused on the loss of Jean Peters) was led by an Egyptian American, a European American, and a Mexican American, each in his own first language.

Something that was different from our time at CBC was the lack of children in the room. My memory is that kids were in the first part of the service and then dismissed to children's church. (Mindy was no help at all with this because she remembers always being in the nursery.) All the children this morning were in Sunday School for the entire time of worship.  This was only the second week of Sunday School after a summer break. There had been a longer break in Sunday School. Jeremy told us that for a time during his tenure he had to cut Sunday School classes because there weren't the kids there and the leadership was stretched. But they were back at a place where there were plenty of young families with young children and enough adult leadership to meet their needs.

Another project the church is working on, particularly for kids and youth, is building a sports center. In the bulletin,  a graphic showed a little hoop that almost, but not quite, had reached the backboard. I would assume the school that shares the property, Ygnacio Valley Christian School, would also benefit from the project. The church is already involved with sports in the community, hosting AYSO (the American Youth Soccer Organization).

A different aspect of the church's concern for children is in the promotion of a banquet for the local Crisis Pregnancy Centers. In his announcement regarding the banquet, Jeremy said that the church needs to step up and care for women with unwanted pregnancies.

Frankly, the most exciting thing about visiting Concord Bible Church was seeing some of my youth group students all growed up. Some of those former spitball shooters are still at CBC, now providing leadership in the church and bringing children of their own to the place. The words "blessed" and "cool" would both apply.
-- Dean
Service Length: 1 hour 19 minutes
Sermon Length:17 minutes
Visitor Treatment: A staffed welcome kiosk just outside the sanctuary entrance has information and bulletins (programs), and we were offered name tags. Guests were encouraged to fill out attendance cards and leave them in a designated box near the door.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (we did have a long conversation with Jeremy and Jeanine Cook after church)
Our Rough Count: 90
Probable Ushers' Count: 110
Snacks: donuts and coffee cake, coffee, tea, water
Musicians: acoustic guitar (male), drums (male), keyboard (female)

Songs: Blessed be the Name
            My Hope is Built on Nothing Less/Cornerstone
            In Christ Alone
            Blessed Assurance
Miles to place: 75
Total California Miles: 12,712

Monday, September 21, 2015

Four Things I Remember about Concord

1. We loved living in Kenwal Apartments. The patios had short little fences that all faced the pool so people would come by and chat; at least half of the apartments were families with kids; the manager and her husband had grown up in the next town over from where I went to college; and when I looked out the windows at the palm trees by the pool or up at Mt Diablo covered with snow, I felt like I was on vacation.
2. The Solano Drive In was a great place to watch movies with youth group kids (I remember sitting in the bed of a pickup truck to watch "Speed" with a bunch of youth group kids when I was about seven months pregnant. Not exactly comfortable at the time, but such a happy memory) and with our own kids. I even sold homemade foam lizards at the flea market one time.

3. I remember feeling sad and a little desperate a lot of the time due to lack of space, lack of sleep, and lack of money. I also remember mostly happy experiences with church and community friends. Kindness is a very important memory of Concord. I don't know if we've had as much support from any other church.

4. We lived about a mile from church, and the easiest way for me to walk there with Bret and Paige (who were babies or preschoolers) was through what I called the wasteland...a dirt path along one side of a creek (which I don't remember ever noticing). It was always dusty, never really a pretty place to walk, but walking through took just enough time to tell a story about Moses with God's people in the wilderness. When I looked at the wilderness this week, it's quite a pretty place.

-- Mindy

Friday, September 18, 2015

Church Libraries

You'd think I'd be a great librarian. I'm addicted to reading, and possibly to acquiring books (we once lived in a house with a library room and everyone was happy). But sadly, I am not. (Humans of New York posted this recently. I do admire real librarians!)

I've spent a good chunk of my life in libraries (especially this one: hi, Bo!) I've gotten to work in four libraries: two in schools, one in a Bible publishing company's donated books room, and the library at Healdsburg Community Church. I was pretty bad each time, and with the church library, I gave up completely on the checking in/checking out of books. I figured that if somebody wanted a book and forgot to return it, what difference did it really make? All the books were donated, and it was better for a person to enjoy the book than for the library's records to be accurate. As I said, I'm not a good librarian.

Many of the churches we've visited have libraries. At some churches, it's obvious the library is used, maintained, and appreciated. Some church libraries are in a room set aside for that purpose, while some libraries are in common spaces with high visibility.

Not all churches have libraries -- some can't, some shouldn't. If we've learned one thing in our church touring so far, it's that different churches serve different people. But this weekend we saw a church library that was amazing.

The library shares space with The Well, a coffee and pastry shop. So there are chairs and tables that have adults and children eating and drinking. The room flows from the cafe area into the library, which has book stacks like any real library (or bookstore, for that matter). It has a real checkout counter, with real librarians (maybe some are just book-loving volunteers, but Val, who's in charge, definitely knows her stuff).

We offered her some Bill the Warthog books we happened to have with us and made plans to get her a couple more. Meanwhile, the other man working in the library (TWO people working in a church library, and neither of them were nice retired schoolteachers) helped a few other people find and check out books.

The books on the shelves looked fairly new. They looked tidy and well organized. Sections were labeled by category. There were places to sit and read. It wasn't a dim, quiet place. It was wonderful.

Later, I looked at the library section of the church website. It felt like looking at a really good school library website, with "top ten books" and "newest arrivals" and a searchable catalog. Wow. And I noticed that the library is listed in the "connect" section of the site...so the library is considered an important, useful part of the church's ministry.

Not all churches have the resources, of course, to have a church library website. Most churches don't need them, and lots of churches don't need a library. And different church libraries can serve different needs, but somehow, by combining location, atmosphere, organization and content, a church library should be a useful place that shares useful resources in a way to further the Kingdom of God.

I wonder how I could have made a difference in the opportunities I've had so far. How can I do it now? What good are the books and other media in my house doing?
-- Mindy

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

EvFree Fullerton

We counted about 50 people (not that numbers matter, of course) in the 8:30 "community group" called Joint Heirs.  During the 10:00 am worship service, there was an announcement for an upcoming day of prayer and fasting ("Usually with a prayer meeting we might have 50 people attend, but this time we want to need to open up the sanctuary doors."). And at 11:30, we went to another community group, Encouragement, Inc. (a group Mindy and I helped establish nearly thirty years ago), and counted about 90 folks.

Looking over the attendance numbers at churches we've visited over the last few months, I found these numbers: 24, 20, and 30 adults (with 4 children and 2 dogs). That's for worship services. Our daughter in the Seattle area recently visited a church where she was one of seven in the pews. In the 10:30 worship service at Ev Free Fullerton I was spit-balling 1500 in worship. (I wish to make it clear I was not shooting spitballs during worship because, of course, Mindy was sitting next to me.)

I grew up in a church that usually had a few more than a hundred people every Sunday. That's about the same number of people in the churches I attended in college and seminary. It was quite a change when I began my internship at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, which had 5,000 people on the membership roll. The leader of our internship program, Paul Sailhamer, told me at the time that in a church that size I would, in a year, see almost everything that might take place in a small church over ten years.

I bring all this up to point out that the size of churches can make for very different kinds of ministries. Some people long for the sense of community found in a small church. A friend of ours recently mentioned that his sister began attending a megachurch, and he was concerned she would get lost there. But large churches can offer some valuable elements besides name speakers and state of the art facilities (which are nice, of course).

For instance, a small church must decide on one worship time. Some people may prefer an early time to free up the day, others a later time for sleep. Fullerton has three Sunday morning services in the main sanctuary at 8:30 am, 10:00 am, and 11:30 am, as well as more traditional worship services that meet at the same time in another building (many large churches share the sermon via closed circuit television in a second venue, but Ev Free Fullerton's conditional use permit with the city doesn't allow for that. The city of Fullerton's attempts to control the growth of Ev Free Fullerton has been a point of contention for many years.) There is also a Sunday evening worship service at 5:00 pm.

Small churches must often decide whether to have Sunday school for children and youth during the worship hour or at another time. At Ev Free Fullerton, nursery care and Sunday School for elementary aged children is offered at the same time as the three morning worship services. During the third worship time, junior high and high school groups each have their worship/teaching time. Junior high and senior high students are encouraged to attend the main worship service during one of the other worship times or to assist in the nursery or Sunday school classes.

Through the years, we've witnessed the frustrations faced by the parents of kids with special needs. Sometimes they've been told by a church (sometimes by implication and sometimes quite directly) that they weren't welcome; their child was too much of a disruption. (This is more of a challenge for small churches, but often even large churches often don't handle things well.) We learned from a young woman named Becca that Ev Free Fullerton has made real strides in this area of ministry. Becca said a parent of a special needs kid was never asked to stay with their child, and a parent wasn't to be called out of worship. This would be a huge blessing for many parents.

Of course, the small church always has an advantage in greeting new people because everyone can see who is new. Therefore, it's important for a large church to offer opportunities outside of the worship hour. Among other programs, the church is starting a ten week program called "Rooted," intended to help you see "how your story fits into God's story." The church makes a real effort to help people join smaller groups to encourage fellowship and accountability. I liked the idea of groups called Six Packs. Men from six decades (a guy in his twenties, another from his thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies) meet on a monthly basis. Accommodations would be made, I assume, for men in their eighties and nineties.

One of the great challenges of a large church is to see that people aren't merely spectators of a worship show, but truly part of the Body of Christ. It was a pleasure to see that after all these years, the staff and leadership of Ev Free Fullerton are ably taking up that challenge.
-- Dean

Service Length: 1 hour 6 minutes
Sermon Length: 38 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We saw information tables at all available entrances to the worship areas along with people in black polo shirts labeled "guest guide," and welcome brochures on seat backs along with connection cards to be filled out and put in the offering basket (or wall box, which we did, since we didn't notice them until after the offering time was over). Each of the "community groups" also recognized and welcomed visitors. However, none of the guest guides volunteered help while I was hovering around the information tables looking at brochures. When I asked for help, though, it was quick, kind, and accurate.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: Three emails on Monday regarding different activities we might be interested in (including a luncheon for visitors that happens one Sunday each month). In addition, the librarian we talked to (more about that tomorrow) followed up on our conversation via email as well.
Our Rough Count: 1,500 in the worship service, 58 in Joint Heirs, 88 in Encouragement, Inc.
Probable Ushers' Count: 1,500 in worship service (or whatever room capacity was; there weren't many empty seats in the room)
Snacks: Community groups had coffee, tea, iced tea, water, fruit juice, oatmeal, various pastries, apples with honey (for Rosh Hashanah), Concord grapes and donuts. Coffees, tea, hot chocolate and pastries were available for purchase between worship services on the Plaza walk and in "The Well," which shares space with the library. Water and lemonade were available (free!) in several places around the campus.
Musicians: 2 drummers (male)
            2 singers (female)
            1 keyboard (male)
            1 acoustic guitar (male)
            1 electric bass (male)
            1 electric guitar (male)
Songs: He is Faithful
            Great I Am
            No Other Name
Miles to place: 469
Total California Miles: 12,562