Summer is fast approaching, and one of the more mundane things preachers worry about is the slump in attendance and giving.
Sunday School is not in session. Many weekend activities compete for family time. What can the church do to make summer worship more compelling and family-friendly?
This was the question our staff asked as we started planning for the summer. We usually preach the lectionary, but a brief look at the lectionary options for this summer left us unfocused until we noticed the alternative first reading. During the time after Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary Year A provides an alternative semi-continuous reading through Genesis and Exodus. These are wonderful stories that we do not often hear read or preached about in worship. We began to wonder what a summer series would look like based on these stories. After getting all four pastors on staff to agree, we decided to base our sermon series on the beloved hymn, "I Love to Tell the Story."
People love to tell and hear stories. We are homo narrans, story-telling people. Our world is shaped by the stories we tell, stories that help us make sense of our daily lives by giving us a larger metanarrative within which we can locate ourselves. Storytelling is one of the ways we bear the image of God. There is a wonderful quote by Elie Wiesel from his novel, The Gates of the Forest, where he says that God made man because God loves stories. Our love for stories comes from God. And as the hymn says so well, God's story "satisfies my longings as nothing else would do."
The stories presented to us in the semi-continuous lectionary are some of the most beloved from our family storybook. The thought of preaching and retelling these stories get our juices flowing. Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph--these are the superstars in our summer blockbusters. Fortunately for preachers, there is no dearth of commentary on these texts to help us interpret them for our congregations. These stories give rich fodder for exploring common family dynamics: discerning God's will in an uncertain future, finding an appropriate spouse, issues of infertility and pregnancy, raising children, and dealing with sibling rivalry. Amid all the family dysfunction, God's faithfulness is steadfast. The message of these stories is clear: God is a promise keeper.
This preaching series also is an excellent opportunity to address some of the larger issues facing our world today. What insight does the story of Noah bring to concerns of global warming? Abraham is a common ancestor to three major world religions. Bruce Feiler has written sensitively about the way in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have viewed these stories.1 Including some of the insights from other faith traditions enriches our understanding of these texts, and gives a timely reminder of the ways they bring us together.
In addition to the sermon series, we are offering a creative retelling of the story to our children each week. As the children come forward for the children's message, we will sing our theme song, "I Love to Tell the Story." One week the children will gather around a rocking chair and read the story from a Children's Bible storybook. Another week will be a puppet show, a reader's theater, or a skit. We plan to invest as much time in preparing a creative children's message as the preacher devotes to the sermon.
As we brainstormed how to let these stories set the agenda for our worship, we began to think about other ways the congregation could engage them during the summer. We decided to create a trading card for each Sunday to hand out to the children. The front will contain an image from the story, and the back will offer a few questions as family conversation starters in the home.
In our church, we often cut back on the number of education opportunities during the summer. We began to think outside the box. Why not offer an adult forum each week to further explore the story? A brief search found a good DVD series on Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers for PBS. Vision Video offers another DVD series on Genesis hosted by Anne Graham Lotz. With accompanying study guides these resources will be helpful tools for hearing these texts in new ways and require minimal preparation for the staff. Consider the resources in your community. We have invited one speaker, involved in mission to Muslims for many years, to speak on Abraham as the common ancestor to three religions, and to help us understand these other religions and the roots of the conflict between them.
What makes this summer different from all other summers? These stories from Genesis have given us renewed energy "to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love."
1Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York, Harper Perennial, 2002).