Stones from the River – Celebrating Faith Milestones
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”
When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the promised land, Joshua told one man from each tribe to take a stone from the middle of the river. They took those stones and put them in a pile on the spot where God had dried up the Jordan River and the people crossed safely to the other side.
Setting up markers to remind themselves who they were and what God had done in their lives was important to the people of Israel—and it’s important to us too. As a church, celebrating corporate and individual “faith milestones” reminds us how powerful and faithful God is and gives us an opportunity to celebrate moments in our congregation’s faith journey.
These celebrations help build up the body of Christ and create visual reminders to both children and adults that we travel together as a community.
We already celebrate some milestones together, usually baptism or profession of faith. This is a good start, but here are some other milestones your church might consider celebrating:
- birth or adoption of a child
- first day of school or church school
- beginning a new midweek program
- completing a year of school
- marriage or anniversaries
- years of service to the church
- becoming an elder or deacon
- death of a loved one
Churches have found a number of different ways to celebrate these important events in the lives of members. When planning your church’s milestone celebrations, you’ll want to keep these four principles in mind:
- Celebrate milestones at significant church gatherings such as a worship service. While some of these milestones might seem more personal than corporate, celebrating them with your church family is important and reminds the community of God’s faithfulness.
- Be specific about which milestone you are celebrating. If possible, give it a name.
- Make a presentation speech. (See specific examples below.)
- Give a small gift to mark the occasion to help create a meaningful memory of the occasion.
Here are examples of some milestone celebrations:
Immediately after a child is baptized, the pastor or a member of the congregation comes forward and lights a candle. This candle is presented to the child’s parents, along with a short meditation on the covenant, such as this one for a baby boy named Reuben:
In the sixth chapter of Judges we read about Gideon. Gideon has always been one of my favorite Bible characters because he seems so unsure of himself. Yet God used him to lead the people of Israel from oppression. When the Lord asked Gideon to assemble the army of Israel and take on the army of Midian, Gideon didn’t jump up and say, “Anything you say, Lord. I have complete confidence!” No, he wasn’t really sure how things would work out.
[The pastor briefly relates the story of the signs, and then continues as follows.]
That same Lord who spoke to Gideon and gave him a sign of his continued presence is here with us this morning. Baptism is also a sign of God’s continued presence in Reuben’s life.
As a congregation, we want to be present in Reuben’s life too. As a reminder of that, we would like to give you this baptism candle. I invite you to light it on Reuben’s birthday, on the anniversary of his baptism, or any time to remind Reuben of his baptism and of the promises we heard this morning. The Lord will be with Reuben just as surely as he was with Gideon.
Entering Third Grade
As children enter third grade, some churches mark the milestone by giving them a Bible. Ahead of time, the pastor chooses a verse for each child and writes it in the front of the Bible, along with the child’s name, the church’s name, and the date. During the worship service, the pastor explains why the Bibles are presented at this time. After calling the children to the front, the pastor or children’s ministry director says a few words about the Bible, as in this example:
The Bible is a book that is different from other books. You know lots of Bible stories, but it is important to remember that the Bible is also one big story—the story of how God works in the lives of people. It is God’s story—but it is also your story. Let me give you some examples. Have you ever tried to tell adults something and they didn’t believe you? That happened to Rhoda when Peter came to the door one night after escaping from prison. You can read about that story in the book of Acts. Have you ever felt nervous about doing something? Gideon was nervous too. His story is in the book of Judges. Moses felt like he couldn’t do what God was asking him to do. He told God that he couldn’t do it but God told him he could. Moses did so much that it takes four books to tell about what he did; Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Bible is full of stories of people just like you. It’s your story too.
Then the pastor calls each child individually, reads the verse picked out for that child, and presents the Bible.
In one congregation, everyone who has completed any form of study in the past year, from preschool to graduate school, is invited to line up along a side wall during a June worship service. Beginning with preschoolers, graduates state their names and what grade or degree they have completed. Then they walk across the church stage to be presented with a certificate of congratulations from the church. (The certificate can be rolled up and tied with a ribbon so that it resembles a diploma or it can be some other token of remembrance.) The pastor addresses the group along these lines:
When our family takes a road trip, we always make a big deal of entering a new state. We watch for the sign that says “Welcome to New Jersey!” and when we enter a new state we all yell and make celebratory noises. We’re still in the car. The scenery hasn’t changed. We’re still driving. Even so, we mark this event and have a little celebration right there in the car. Because that’s important to us—you can’t get to where you’re going without passing some milestones along the way.
Today we are happy to mark one of those milestones in your life. We are excited about what you have learned this year and the distance you have traveled. We’re excited that we get to travel with you on this journey. We recognize God’s work in your life and your accomplishments.
We want to take a moment to stand at this milestone and remember that God is faithful. He was with you when you started this journey, and he’s still with you today. And in a year, when we celebrate another set of learning milestones, we will say that he is still with us. But today we want to celebrate with you. So, “Welcome to New Jersey!”
Leaving the Church for a Time
When someone leaves for college or a service project or perhaps to serve in the armed forces, the church may present him with a devotional book as a reminder that the prayers of the congregation go with him. Here is an example of what the worship leader might say on that occasion:
In 2 Chronicles 20 we read about what King Jehoshaphat did when a great army came upon the people of Israel. Jehoshaphat gathered all the people together and prayed to God for guidance and protection. He ended his prayer with these words: “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
As you head off, you too will face situations in which you do not know what to do. When that happens, keep your eyes on God. As a congregation we want to give you this devotional to help you do that. Read it. Pray about the things that you will face this year, and keep your eyes on Jesus. We will be praying for you.
Baptism of an Adult
When an adult professes her faith or is baptized, the church may present a book to remind her that the faith journey is not over. She is still on the path, just as her brothers and sisters are. Here is sample of a presentation (adapted from Charlie Peacock’s book New Way to Be Human):
The artist Doré was traveling through Switzerland when he was stopped by some guards and asked for his passport. He did not have it with him, but said, “I am Doré.” The guards knew of Doré but were unsure if this man was truly who he claimed to be. So they said “Prove it.” At that, the man took out a sketch pad and began to sketch a picture of some peasants who were standing nearby. “Enough,” they said. “You are Doré.”
It is wonderful to say that we belong to Jesus, but it is much more powerful to live our lives so that people recognize that we are his. This church is full of people who are trying to do that. We are thrilled to have you join us as we strive to reflect the light of Christ. We hope this book will serve as a reminder of your profession here today.
These examples of milestones are simply that—examples. Each church will find its own milestones and its own ways to celebrate. The important point is that we can use milestones to remind us of God’s faithfulness in our lives and in the life of our congregation. Now that’s something to celebrate!