Lessons learned when the church is in decline

graph-chart-down-downward-dip-plunge-recession-depressionFor years, the congregation I currently serve enjoyed relatively easy growth. The main reason was the explosive growth of our community. We were in the fastest growing county (percentage-wise) in the country. New homes being built everywhere, new families moving to town, new people seeking churches, Lutherans seeking Lutheran churches. With 3-4 visiting families at each and every worship service, the challenge was to keep up with follow-up phone calls and visits.

We added a third Sunday morning worship service. We began a Wednesday night education for youth and adults. We designed and built a new sanctuary. We had a vicar for three consecutive years. I learned a lot in those years as our modest congregation pretty much doubled in size. Continue reading

For some, this is church (part 2)

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Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

For me, the “church” has always been church. But there are other gatherings that function as “church” for them and their families.

It was quite a while ago, but I vividly remember a conversation with some visitors to our church. They only came the one time and wouldn’t be back because their children were involved in a youth hockey league. But they were OK with that, because in their words, “Hockey teaches our kids the same things as church: teamwork, loyalty, sacrifice and hard work.” For them, the hockey experience was church.

In another conversation, an on and off attender explained that they got more support, inspiration and fellowship from their lodge than from the church. Church for them had been filled with conflict, controversy, and contradiction. Their lodge encounter was everything that they thought the church should be. For them, that was church.

Yet a third person found church in a group that met at a coffee shop each week. There they could talk openly about their struggles, and the others would listen. There was no condemnation, only affirmation. The group was loyal, dependable and supportive. Since they found everything they needed right there over a cup of coffee, who needs church. Their coffee-shop group was church to them.

Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook can provide the support and purpose that people seek through online groups and communities. His mission is to bring people — 1 billion people — together in this way.

I know that the church is about more than just a support group. But why do some churches seem unable to provide the connection, support and therapy that many desire and find elsewhere?

Maybe Satan doesn’t care if you invest your time and energy into a team, a lodge or coffee. But he’ll do his best to make your church seem like the last place you’ll find what you are looking for.

 

Unexpected, but welcome, guests at church

American_Ambulance_-_6357dfIt’s never a dull day in church when the EMTs show up!

It was a muggy summer day, inside and out. The air conditioning wasn’t at full capacity, so this preacher had worked up a sweat long before the sermon. I can see everything going on from my vantage point in the chancel. Nothing out of the ordinary until I saw some movement towards my left, in the front few pews. At first it looked like one of our youth leaning against her mom. But as a few nurses and elders made their way over, I could see that she had passed out.  Continue reading

Paths of grace: Gratitude

(Transcription of Sunday, August 27, 2017 sermon.)

August 27 cover picSo here we are talking about gratitude and it’s not even Thanksgiving!

Maybe you think I’m pushing things a little too fast, but I think this is good. By the time November comes you’re going to be so occupied thinking about travel, celebrations, food, family gatherings and all the things Thanksgiving involves that it’s really hard to focus. Everyone is telling you how much you’ve been blessed and how you should donate to people who don’t have as much. So much gets lost in all of that. But now here at the end of August we’re not worried about any of that. We can take a good close look at the path of grace our Lord leads us down today, that path of gratitude.

Using the word of the week, I want to ask you this question: “What is that eclipses gratitude in your life?” What is it that casts a shadow over your thankfulness? You wouldn’t think we would have to ask this question. We have so much. We have so much wealth, so much food so many clothes, we have nice homes to live in. There are so many things to be thankful for.

But you know how it works. You only need to see one person who has something that you don’t have or one person who you thinks looks better than you do or one person who seems to be having a better time than you are, and you are a little bit jealous. And now you’re not content. You wish you had what they have or you could do what they can do or you look like they did. Suddenly, that blocks the things that we should we should be thankful for. Just like the moon blocks out the sun and all of a sudden you can see very clearly the corona around the edge. Things like jealousy, greed and covetousness get in the way and suddenly we see what we’re really like. We’re not nearly as thankful as we probably should be.

And I know that bothers you. I know that grates against you. It really bugs you when somebody is not thankful. When they don’t seem to be grateful for the things they have or the things you’ve done for them.

I love the story of grandparents who loved to send gift to their grandkids for birthdays and holidays. But they never got an acknowledgement that the gift had been received. No phone call, no text, no thank you, nothing. Finally they decided we’re not sending anything else until they get some kind of feedback. You’ve been there. There are people you know you want to grab by the scruff of the neck and say, “Why you ungrateful little…” (You can finish that sentence as you please.)

So we know this is a problem. It’s very interesting that the path of gratitude our Lord reveals and leads us down doesn’t take us past pantries filled with food or garages filled with cars or homes filled with things. No it takes us in a whole different direction. The path we’re going to follow today is a very interesting story from the Old Testament that has to do with the ark of the covenant.

You can read more about this in 1 Chronicles chapters 14-16. The ark of the covenant was that very special chest that God had commanded Moses to build. It was fairly big, covered with gold, gold angels on top, with poles in it so the priests could carry it everywhere they went. Inside was the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron (he was to be the high priest for God’s people.) And so they carried that chest with them. It was a reminder that God had come to be with his people.

He was living in the midst of them. When they arrived where they were going to stay they set up the tabernacle around it, the ark was in the holy of holies, the presence of God filled that place and they knew that God was going to take care of them, provide for them and lead them, a very real powerful reminder.

So we’re going to jump into the story at a time after God’s people have come into the promised land after the time of the judges but before they have a king. During this time, Israel as Israel tended to do was always fighting battles with the Philistines. That’s their classic enemy. All kinds of skirmishes all kinds of battles. They could never quite get the best of them.

One day they had this great idea. We’re going to take the ark of the covenant into battle with us. We’re going to take the presence of God with our armies and then we can’t lose. We’re going to have God right there to win the battle for us. It didn’t quite go as they planned. In fact, they lost that battle and they lost the ark of the covenant. The Philistines actually took it, captured it and took it back home.

What a great trophy to bring back home! So they take the ark home and they put it their temple of their god, Dagon. So now they have this statue of their pagan God and they have the ark of the covenant right next to it.

That didn’t work out they way they thought. Every day their priests went into the temple and the statute of Dagon had toppled over. It happens often enough that pieces start breaking off. The hands break off and the head breaks off and around the place where the ark is everyone is getting sick. Everybody’s got these tumors growing on their body. The Philistines finally said we can’t take this anymore. We’ve got to get rid of this thing. It’s killing us. Nobody wants it because they know it’s bad news. They decide they are just going to send it back to Israel.

They put it on a cart, hitch up a couple cows, crack the whip and it’s on the way down the road. Imagine that you are one of the tribes of Israel, working in the field and here’s a cart with the ark of the covenant just walking it’s way back to Israel. They didn’t know what to do with it. So they put it in someone’s house, in a place called Kiriath-Jearim. It’s there for a while.

In the meantime, God’s people insist on having a king. You’ve got King Saul and then King David. David has consolidated the nation of Israel and they have a capital city of Jerusalem. David says, “We’ve got to bring the ark to Israel. The ark of the covenant has to be in Jerusalem.” They send for the ark of the covenant. They put it on a cart, hitch up some oxen and they are going down the road. Now their roads aren’t as nice as our roads. Lots of potholes, rocks, it’s pretty rough going. The oxen are slipping, the cart is rocking back and forth, and the ark starts to fall off the cart.

A man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark, and drops over dead. You don’t touch the things of God. You don’t get near the mountain where God is. You don’t get near the ark, unless you are one of the priests. You just don’t mess around with a holy God. Understandably, David is afraid and angry. He leaves the ark right there, in a guy’s house. His name of Obed-Edom.

While the ark is in his house, he is blessed. His flocks are growing, his fields are abundant, everything is good for him.

David goes off, and he is still waging war agains the Philistines. But David does it differently. Everytime David goes to battle, he first talks to God. He inquires of the Lord. “Should we go into battle?” “How should we fight them?” “Is this the right time?” God would say, “Yes, go into battle, you’ll win the victory.” David does. So he learns over the next few months that he can trust God. That God is going to protect them. That God is with them in a very real way. He has learned that he needs to deal with God on God’s terms, not his own.

So we’re going to get the ark and we’re going to bring it to Jerusalem, but we’re going to do it the right way this time. We’re going to have a better cart, and we’re going to fix the road and there’s going to be priests involved who are supposed to handle these things. And they get it back to Jerusalem. It’s a marvelous celebration. It’s an amazing day. There’s music, there’s a parade. David is dancing for all he’s worth as they bring it into Jerusalem.

And that is when David appoints thanksgiving to be sung in the Old Testament lesson today. He orders the people in charge of the music

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered (1 Chronicles 16:8-12).

David is commanding that thanksgiving be given to God because of his wonderful presence and power and protection among the people.

In the Psalm today we hear a similar command for thanksgiving.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:4-5, 11-12)

Listen to that. The motivation for gratitude has nothing to do with clothes, food, possessions, houses where they lived, anything that they had or didn’t have. Their entire motivation was God who showed up and turned their lives around, so that they enjoyed his gracious favor. He turned their sadness into gladness. And that is what led them down that path of gratitude.

Now for us, it’s not all about the ark. Now it’s about Jesus, who is the ark of God’s presence and power and everything that God is for us. You could say that it was the ark who typified who Jesus would be. In Jesus all the law is fulfilled. In Jesus we have a great high priest who goes on our behalf to God. We have Jesus who is the bread of life. Everything that was in that ark is in Jesus.

And Jesus takes the anger of God on the cross for just a moment, that one short time, so that we might have God’s favor and forgiveness for a lifetime. There was mourning when they wrapped up Jesus and put him in the tomb. But in the morning, there was joy, when they discovered that he was alive. Suddenly we realize that Jesus has come to turn everything around. There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be sadness. There’s going to be pain. But he’s the one who brings the dancing, the gladness, and the praise and everything for which we give him thanks.

In fact, Jesus himself is the one who leads us down that path of gratitude. When he fed the 5,000 with just a few loaves and bread and fish or when he fed the 4,000 in the gospel today in Gentile territory with just a little bit of food. Or when Jesus sat around the last supper with his disciples with a little bread and wine. He gave thanks. Not because there was a whole bunch of food there. But because the presence of God was there to save his people. And he was it. He was the one who was there to save.

And that’s what motivates us to be grateful and to give God thanks. That’s something that never changes. Everything else in life changes but that never does. Our Lord comes, he comes to us, so that our lives are filled with gratitude. That’s why we stand for the holy gospel. Our Lord is talking to us. We kneel at the altar. This is our Lord coming to us to save us. That’s why we pause at the font and we remember the new life we have in our baptism, and the new clothes he gives us, clothing us with gladness.

That’s what the path of gratitude is all about. Jesus took that path to come to us, so that we too can follow him down that path of gratitude.

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My children’s sermon, with a scale model of the ark of the covenant.

 

Live from Palm Coast: Confirmation Class!

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 10.01.36 PMBecause of the busyness, schedules and distances involved, I’ve got my weekly confirmation classes on Facebook live each week. The technology makes it very easy to do, and those who miss class for one reason or another can watch the feed later.

It is, however, a bit surreal watching myself teach. It’s interesting watching my mannerisms, listening to the interactions, and observing the dynamics of the room. I don’t often listen to or watch myself. But when I do, I hear and see much that reminds me of my brother and my son. I’m always surprised at the timbre of my voice. I know I’m a tenor, but my voice doesn’t sound as high in my head as it does on the video. I love the energy in the room. From where do I summon ninety minutes late on a Monday afternoon? And I love the laughter. My own and theirs. Obviously, I’m still having fun doing this. That’s right, in a room full of middle school students!

I also observe what I’ve always known. The biggest benefit is the relationship I build with the students. Two years of weekly interaction at that level builds a bond I don’t have with many in the congregation. We pray, we eat, we wrestle with hard questions, we laugh, we create, we grow and we change. Few get to enjoy that dynamic with young people. In that room, the rubber meets the road, and the Holy Spirit works through God’s Word to make a powerful impact.

Before you know it, in the blink of an eye, they’ll be in high school. Everything changes when that day comes. Youth in high school have all the answers. Middle school students have all the questions. I think that’s what makes it so rewarding.

Since it’s on my Facebook page, I’ve gotten over 100 people tuning in to watch at least part of the class the past two weeks. People from all over the country, people I haven’t heard of for years, and people I forgot I was even friends with. I don’t know how long they stay. How much zaniness can any one viewer stand?

This year’s class is live on my Facebook page every Monday (except holidays) from 5:30 – 7:00 pm. 

Is anger a sin?

Film Title: The Incredible HulkA couple of Sundays ago, my Church 101 membership class was challenged with the question, “Is anger a sin?” Along with that was the observation that Jesus was angry when he cleared the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem. So the follow up question is, “Is there such a thing as righteous indignation (or anger?)” Continue reading

“Will you do my daughter’s wedding?”

Paster-Orr-CeremonyI will probably get in big trouble for this post. But you know what? It just might be worth it. I’m pretty sure that the parties involved will not see this post. So here goes…

A few weeks ago I got one of those anonymous emails asking, “Would you do our daughter’s wedding in Saint Augustine? We are Lutheran, but we live out of the area.”

Sometimes I simply ignore these requests. But for some reason I was intrigued and replied, “What church do you belong to?”

I heard back from the mother quickly,  “We aren’t actually members right now, but we have attended (she went on to name some South Florida churches)”. Hmm. Interesting. Should I keep the discussion going? What the heck. Let’s see where this goes.

OK. I am available. When and where is the wedding? They replied with a date and a time. OK, I can do it. Let’s set up a phone conversation.

The phone conversation went surprisingly well. Nice folks. We’re three weeks out from the wedding, so we better get to work. I sent a copy of a typical wedding ceremony, asking for their input as to what scripture they would like me to read. I also gave them some suggestions.

About a week later, I hear from the bride-to-be. “I looked at the service. Can you make it less biblical?” Hmm. I replied, “I’m not sure what you mean. I am a Lutheran pastor. Just about everything I do is bible-based and Christ-centered.” She replies, “Some bible is OK. But you didn’t say much about things like the relationship and love and life.”

Here is what I emailed in reply:

I’ve give some thought to your request, but I’m struggling to come up with anything.

I could talk about how love is patient, kind, and enduring. I could say something about how you were created for a relationship like you and your fiancé have. I could explain how we actually find what life is all about when we give it away to someone else. Unfortunately, all those truths are biblical (1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Genesis 2:18-24; Luke 9:24).

I’m a pastor. I’ve been charged with preaching the word (the bible) — that’s from 2 Timothy 4:2. Rather than myself, I talk about Jesus (2 Cor. 4:5). I have no doubt that the only way my own marriage has lasted over 33 years is because of God’s gifts of mercy, grace and forgiveness (Eph. 2:8-9). All the things that make my relationship with my wife possible — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control — are all the gifts of God’s Spirit for us. This too is biblical (Galatians 5:25-26).

So you see, that’s all I’ve got. I will not offended if you and your fiancé decide to find someone else to officiate at your wedding. However, I will do my best if you would still like me to perform the ceremony. Either way, I pray that you and your future husband will experience the joy and blessing of being husband and wife for many, many years.

So what do you think? Did I reply appropriately? I really believe that mom wanted a pastor to officiate the wedding, but the kids weren’t really into the church thing. It’s been a few days and I haven’t heard back. I’ll let you know what happens…

It’s time for confirmation classes!

ringing-alarm-clock-28496894It’s that time of year again. There must be some sort of internal alarm that goes off in the minds of parents who have children entering 7th grade. It’s not a bell or a chime, but a voice which insists, “You better get your child to confirmation class!”

Parents who were somewhat raised in the church, who attended classes leading up to their confirmation, may not have been especially faithful in bringing their own children to church or Sunday School. But come hell or high water, “You are going to confirmation class.”

So here is what I’ve been wondering. What does it do to a young person’s faith when Mom and Dad suddenly make you go to confirmation class? Or youth group. My youth leaders started off their year by asking those who came to the first meeting, “So why did you come tonight.” Some youth answered, “My mom made me come.” What will be their memories of youth group?

Do you have any idea what it’s like to face a room full of middle school youth whose faces broadcast, “I would rather be anywhere but here”? I have to get and keep their attention, earn and keep their trust, and build a pastoral relationship from scratch.

So basically, parents brought their kids to be baptized, stopped in from time to time to worship at Christmas and Easter, and now hope that I will be able to prepare their children to confess their faith and commit to being faithful unto death. That is a daunting task. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’m up to it.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth follow when I tell them they need to do sermon reports. Which means you have to come to church and listen to a sermon. Suddenly mom and dad have to get up and come for worship, too. Ouch. And there is memory work to do. What? Are you serious? Yes, I am.

This is when I am humbled and discover exactly where I rate in this world. If the coach says, “You have to be there,” you are there. If the band director says, “You have to be there,” you are there. If the scoutmaster say, “You have to be there,” you find a way to get there. If the dance teacher says, “You must be there,” you go. If the pastor says, “You must be there,” you say, “Well, the [coach, director, scoutmaster, teacher] said I have to go [to practice, to rehearsal, to class]. Sorry, I can’t come this week.”

Sigh. You have spent eleven years teaching your children by example that your faith is not really all that important to you. I thank you for your confidence in me. But I am also sorry; there is little I can do to undo that.

OK, this is not always the case. In fact, this year my three second-year students come from families who have been faithful in worship for years. I have known these young people since they were very young, and it is a joy to teach them, encourage them and learn from them as they boldly confess and live out their faith.

It’s not a perfect process, but I am so blessed to be a part of it!

 

A letter to the person who stole from our church’s offerings.

offering_plateFirst of all, I forgive you. I know that not everyone in our church agrees with me, but as a pastor, I was called to the forgiveness business. I don’t know your story. I don’t know why you did it. I don’t know how desperate you were. I don’t know how long it had been since you were able to buy groceries for your kids. I don’t know how hungry you were. I don’t know how scared you were about being evicted. I just know that Jesus died for your sins, and there is forgiveness for you.

Second, how did you do it? How did you get into the safe where the offerings were put each Sunday? I don’t even know the combination to the safe. How did you know which offering envelopes had cash in them every week? Did you think no one would notice. How did you convince your conscience that this was OK to do? How do you sleep at night?

Third, if you were in a tight spot and needed help, why didn’t you ask? You knew that we help people all the time, no questions asked. You knew that we wouldn’t let you go hungry or homeless. You knew we would help you just as we would help Jesus himself. Why didn’t you just ask?

Finally, I am sorry. I let you down. You are probably someone I know. I should have known and I should have helped sooner. Please forgive me.

(In 2016, someone took about $2,000 from our church’s weekly offerings over a period of several months. We have changed our procedure for handling contributions, but I have also recommitted myself to helping anyone in need.)