It was on August 20 to 24 that we had our annual Vacation Bible School at St. Martin’s, with the theme of Daniel’s Captivity in Babylon. The curriculum only covered the morning and so during the afternoons we did different activities like going to the playground, playing games, visiting the Fire Hall and crafts. And one of those crafts was Perler Beads.
Perler Beads are one of those crafts that seems like a great idea but soon one discovers there are many hidden pitfalls – something like clothing staining acrylic paint or the impossible to get rid of glitter. The beads are small, meant for tiny hands, and go onto small pegs on a plastic tray and are ironed until they melt together and form a mosaic like picture. They are beautiful when finished but the beads easily scatter onto the floor – I would not be surprised if there are still beads scattered across the church today – and the plastic trays are easily upset causing 30 minutes to an hour’s work to be undone in an instant. So why do I put up with Perler Beads? Because they cause children to be relatively quiet and in one place for a long period of time. But they also have another effect which is to cause children to be close to each other and still enough for long enough that they have time to talk to each other and get to know each other. Later on, I will tell you about a particular experience that happened VBS week with Perler Beads.
I returned from my three month sabbatical on August 7. What I studied during that time was not Perler Beads but was small groups in churches. Small groups are something like Perler Beads – they are a way to get people in one place at the same time for long enough to talk to each other and get to know each other. Last year when we were blessed by the ministry of Brian Walton, he started a few small Spiritual Conversation groups that met weekly four or five times to discuss the scripture readings from the Sunday worship services. We all benefitted from these groups as Brian had a place to test and refine his sermon ideas but those who were in those groups found a place where they could get to know people better. Sometimes it was people who didn’t know each other at all and sometimes it was people who knew each other for years but who hadn’t ever had a deeper conversation. These groups were quickly formed and there was a great demand for them.
But what do these groups have to do with a church? Why should the church put its energy into these discussion groups? The scripture reading from the Acts of the Apostles today (Acts 2:43-47) gives a picture of the earliest form of the church. This is the Garden of Eden for the followers of Jesus. Just after Jesus gave his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, and just before the group of the followers of Jesus gets too big that it needs to be organized, this is the ideal form of the church. Gathering together to eat and pray and learn about Jesus. Seeing good things done every day. Sharing everything so that no one had too much or too little. No wonder that it says that every day more and more people joined them.
And what are the hallmarks of this Garden of Eden? Food – which we always do well in the church. Prayer – which we do every Sunday and strive to do every day in our lives. Good deeds – which we encourage every week. Sharing – an offering every week at worship and donating to the Mission and Service fund for projects in Canada and across the world. Learning about Jesus. And holding it all together – spending time with each other.
Spending time with each other was not a new idea with the new church. It was there from the very first. Jesus called his disciples to walk, eat, learn and live with him. There are only a handful of cases where it says that Jesus was away from his disciples for some time. They spent time with each other, learning about each other and about God.
Spending time together was good enough for Jesus and for the early church. It is for us as well? I think that it is an important part of being a church is spending time together – and not just in worship. Believe me, I think worship is important, but more is needed. There are few of us extraverted enough to share about ourselves in a church service. And if we went around the church asking about how everybody’s week was we’d have a service hours long. I love worship – but not that much! We need a smaller group with whom to share.
These smaller groups used to be a usual part of the United Church. Many of the women used to belong to one of the United Church Women units. These still exist of course and provide great support and encouragement to those who attend. There were frequent bible studies, young people’s groups, social mixers and the hugely successful Family Camp. And there were informal groups that formed when couples invited other couples over for dinner and talked about their faith and their families. Some of these things still exist in different forms and it is good to see the Outreach committee resurrect the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner idea to great success. But our young families are being squeezed for time more and more and find it hard to even make time for their extended families, much less for strangers at the church. Heck, it’s not just young families but all of us who are busier and more distracted than ever before with the 24 hour news cycle, more immersive entertainment and more opportunities than we could have imagined before. Our lives are good and full, but we don’t always get the meaningful relationships that we crave.
But we can have these meaningful relationships. Those people who are part of the choirs or Band, know that their co-singers are not just singers but friends. Those who attend the St. Martin’s Book Club know that they talk about more than books, those who go to the Card and Board Games group know that they don’t just play games. There are ways to experience that life together that Jesus wishes for us, that he led his disciples in. I want to be part of making that life together part of our experience at St. Martin’s. I want to be part of it because I have seen what happens in children’s lives when they live life together.
We have not been seeing quite as many children here on Sunday mornings as we once did at St. Martin’s. But that is not unusual for any church. On my sabbatical I went to North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the biggest churches in the United States with some 12,000 people attending worship over the weekend. Andy Stanley is their pastor, son of Dr. Charles Stanley. They are securely located in the buckle of the bible belt. And yet their church has been seeing decreased Sunday worship attendance over the past couple of years. But they aren’t worried because they still have thousands of people in their small group ministry, learning about God, eating together, praying together and living life together. Being together in following Jesus is more important than worship.
As I said, we don’t have quite as many children here on Sunday morning but the children are here in the Professional Development Day program and in the Vacation Bible School programs and the Messy Church program. This year at VBS we had the most enrollment ever since I’ve been here and many of the children were there for the first time. But not for the last time. Many were interested in the PD Day programs. And from the PD Day programs many of attended one of the two Messy Church events I led last Spring. This year we are having a Messy Church worship once a month and I expect to have even more. This is because during those days of VBS or those PD Days there is time for the children to get to know each other and be known, to know that they are loved and cared for, by me, by the other children and by God. The time spent together learning about God, eating, praying, playing and living.
Now for my Perler Bead story. Perler Beads are messy things that are hard to get together but when you do get them together it is beautiful. Kind of like people. So when we were on our last day, Friday afternoon, we were doing this Perler Bead craft and one of the girls had a little cat doll with her, talking to it and playing with it while doing the craft. Well soon one of the other kids made a little Perler Bead mat for the cat doll to lay on. Another kid made a water and food dish for the cat. The cat even got a little Perler Bead toy mouse to play with. I don’t think any of those children had met each other before this week, certainly they didn’t meet each other before this year, but they knew each other well enough to delight in doing something special for each other. Doing something together.
This is what I see in children’s ministry. And I don’t want the adults to be left out. Not that I’m going to make you do Perler Beads together. But I want you to be able to know each other and be known. I will be calling a meeting soon of people interested in this kind of a ministry. If you are interested, please let me know because I can’t do it alone. But we can do it together, with God’s help. Amen.