Posted in church, memories

They closed the church

My brother emailed me a few weeks ago to let me know that the church where we grew up, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania had closed. He thought the building was sold or given to an Ethiopian congregation that had been renting space there. The closing of the church feels like the loss of a close friend.

I was eight years old when our family moved from northeast Philadelphia to Ridley Park in 1965. We attended that church on Sundays because my aunt and grandmother lived in the adjacent apartment building, and that was their church. That’s how I became Lutheran.

When we first began worshiping there, the congregation met in a fairly small building that had a preschool and kindergarten wing on one side. I only have one memory from that older sanctuary. It’s from an Easter Sunday morning worship service. The pastor’s son, a few years older than me, was singing with the choir. He had a solo verse in a piece called, “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden.” He had a wonderful voice and sang well, but felt faint and passed out after his solo.

The congregation built a new sanctuary that I think was dedicated in 1968. My brother remembers going there with my dad to do things during construction, but I have no memories of that. The new sanctuary had two rows of 22 pews with a red-carpeted aisle between them. I know the exact number because I dusted them all many times when I worked there as a janitor while in high school. I have two vivid memories of the dedication worship service. From the loft the organ and piano played “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It was the first time I had ever heard that piece, and it too my breath away. The robed choir processed up and around the nave several times during the first hymn before ascending to the loft.

Our family always sat in the third pew from the front on the left hand side in front of the pulpit. My mom and dad never left us three kids there alone when they went up for Holy Communion. They went separately so the other could stay with us. A wise strategy. I didn’t find church all that exciting. The cross in the front consisted of many stained glass stones. We sat there and tried to count them all many, many times.

We never missed Sunday worship unless one of us was sick. I heard a lot of sermons from age eight until I graduated from high school. There is only one thing I remember from all my pastor’s sermons. He would preach about those who were on a “rolley-coaster to hell.” I’m not sure what that was, but I sure didn’t want to be on ride!

After high school, I went to college and then to work in New Jersey, only worshiping there when I was visiting my parents. Both mom and dad had their funerals there in 2005 and 2019 respectively. Over time, pastors came and went and the church went into a slow decline until her final service on May 9, 2021.

Over it’s seventy years, the church educated so many children on Sundays and during the week. It spawned four pastors that I know of, including my brother and I. It served it’s community in many ways.

If you grew up in the church, then you know there is something about the church you grew up in that makes it different than any other. When I grew up and moved away, it was hard to find a new place to worship. No other church ever really measured up.

Posted in Stories

We’re in good hands

So I’m preaching. And the sermon is going well. My points are on point, my stories are connecting and my attempts at humor coax a hint of a smile from the most staid and serious congregants. So far, so good.

Suddenly, there’s a groan. Then a gasp. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see him go down. A few folks rush to see what’s wrong. Someone is already on the phone. Still another is out front waiting to direct the EMTs.

Now what? Bring everything to a halt? Just keep going? When in doubt, pray. Make the ultimate call for help. Done.

Now what? Sit there an do nothing? The silence is overwhelming, so we’ll sing. I call out a number of a familiar hymn. The organist introduces it and we work through the verses as the EMTs arrive to assess the situation. Before you know it, before the song is over, they’ve wheeled him out on the stretcher and pulled away in the rescue truck.

Now what? Well, where was I? As I reenter my sermon, I know that what we’ve just experienced is the point. This is the story. This is what should put a smile on our faces.

We’re in good hands, both human and divine.

Posted in Moments of grace

We went back to church today.

It felt familiar. It felt strange. It felt like home. It felt uncomfortable. It felt warm. It felt cold. It was a morning filled with contrasting sensations.

After seven weeks of “sheltering-in-place” virtual worship, we opened the doors of our church last Sunday morning. For an hour, the distance between members of the congregation shrank from miles to six feet. A thoughtful set of precautions reminded us of the pandemic. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs reminded us of God’s powerful healing grace.

My mind vividly recalls these sounds and images of our first week back together:

  • For many, getting ready for church includes putting on a mask. Wearing gloves to church? The resurrection of an old tradition! Ushers and elders wore them for certain tasks. I wore them to distribute communion.
  • We did not pass the offering plates. Tithes and offerings were left at the door. Many were given electronically. Some were given by text.
  • We removed all the hymnals, bibles and visitor cards from the pews. Their absence made the church look even emptier. Until the worshipers began to gather…
  • …but the back rows were not filled! We sat on the aisles in every other pew, so many got to experience Sunday morning more “up close and personal” than ever before.
  • The little ones did not race to the chancel for a children’s sermon. I brought it back to them, to the place where they sat with their families.
  • The communion rail remained vacant. One person at a time came forward to stand at the altar and receive the sacrament.
  • My iPhone was perched on a tripod off to the side, live-streaming the service to many who were not yet ready to join us in person. Who knows how many actually worshiped with us on this day?
  • The sanctuary was filled with sound! It wasn’t just me speaking and singing and praying in an empty room. It was dozens of voices together, thanking and praising and praying. It was wonderful.
  • We had first time visitors in worship. The Spirit still gathers His people together.
  • Vigilant volunteers wiped down pews, door handles and chancel surfaces after everyone else left. (The filthy rags revealed we should have been doing this a long time ago.)

I can’t help but wonder if this is the new normal. Will we ever revert completely to how we gathered before? Will handshakes and hugs, kisses and high fives ever return to our assembly? Will we ever feel comfortable sharing books again? Or will we now always be hyper-conscious of the unseen germs all around us?

It’s only been one week. We’re learning as we go. I doubt we will soon forget how something so small can keep us apart. I just hope we never forget that someone so small – “to us a child is born” – can bring us together, too.

Posted in church, future

The future of the church

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

You have no doubt heard someone at church say, “We must have a strong children’s and youth ministry.” Why? “They are the future of the church!” Many hours are spent discussing how to attract younger families with children. A United Methodist congregation in Grove Cottage, Minnesota decided to shut down one of its campuses and relaunch that church to reach a younger demographic. Part of that process included asking the current members, most of whom were older, to attend another church for twelve to eighteen months. The approach and the reaction made national news.

The many different sides of that story does prompt the question, “Who is the future of the church?” I think it depends on the context. While children and youth may be the future of the Church, they are probably not the future of our church. You see, they grow up, go to college and move to where they find employment. We pray that they will be a part of the Church at large, but they will not grow up to be a part of our congregation.

Many of the people moving to Florida and our community are older. They are retired. They are tired of northern winters. And they are the future of our church. They are the new members, leaders, voices and teachers in our congregation. Yes, there are young families who move to our area, too. It’s an affordable place to live. But they are not necessarily the majority of the folks who come to visit and join our churches. That’s just the way it is here.

That is not necessarily a negative thing. In the pages of scripture, we find God staking the future of the church on a variety of people of different ages. Abraham was 75 when he got the call to move. Samuel grew up in the church. Moses was 80 when he was told to go to Pharaoh. David was a young shepherd when anointed the king of Israel. Josiah ascended to the throne when he was eight years old. Jeremiah had a job before he was born! Noah was 500 years old when he built the ark.

I love the babies, children and youth of the church. Yes, I am in my element when holding the infants, playing with the toddlers, teaching the middle schoolers, serving alongside the high school youth and praying the graduates off to college or the military. But I am also grateful for those who come with a lifetime of managerial, financial, educational and musical experience that fund, lead and drive the ministry of the church.

It’s ironic that some churches with a strong youth emphasis shuffle their young off to nursery and children’s church. It’s also ironic that those who want young families in church get irritated when the little ones get squirmy, noisy and leave Cheerio crumbs in the pew. Don’t you know how Jesus responded when the disciples tried to keep the kids away?

The future of the church will always be the gathering of people who need to hear the gospel, receive God’s forgiveness and be equipped to take that blessing back to their world. There are no age, height, income or experience restrictions on that experience.

Actually, the future of the church is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-11).

Posted in church

A new, modern church

Daytona Beach First Baptist Church

I attended a required Child Evangelism Fellowship workshop today so that I could continue working with the Good News Club at a local elementary school. The workshop was held at the new campus of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, which recently moved from its historic location closer to the heart of the city. I looked forward to seeing their new site.

On the way there, I missed the turn into the church entrance. After I turned around, I turned into a mile long drive into a gorgeous acreage with the two new church buildings. A friend of mine commented, “That drive must have cost at least a million dollars.” I believe he was on target.

But as I pulled into a parking space, I was underwhelmed by two very understated buildings. I felt like I had pulled into an industrial park rather than a church complex. OK, take a breath. Just walk in and see what they have done here.

I walked into a space that was designed to be a coffee shop, restaurant and gathering area. It was very nice, and I quickly recognized others from my Good News Club. We sat together with coffee and bagels and caught up since our last time together.

The opening session was in the adjacent building, the main worship space. I tried to keep an open mind, but to tell you the truth, it felt like a warehouse rather than a church. The audio/visual technology was spectacular, but with a back wall of garage doors, exposed ventilation ducts and exposed walls, I did not feel like I had stepped into a church. I know that this design was intentional, but wow, what a difference from what this church used to be. Our breakout sessions were in very nicely appointed classrooms with very homey appointments.

So many thoughts went through my mind. Is this what a church looks like in the 21st century? Am I old enough to feel uncomfortable in a contemporary church? Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Jesus never went to church. What would he have to say about our churches? I am so glad he is merciful and abounding in love!

The dais, screen and stage
Posted in annoying people


Yep, it happened again. Been there. Done that. And it won’t be the last time, either. But now, I have a word to describe the experience: ghosted. You’ve been ghosted when someone you know suddenly breaks off all contact with you and disappear, like a ghost.

My most recent experience was with an older woman who worshiped with us for about four weeks. A few weeks gets you a phone call and a post card. Three or four weeks, and I call to thank them for coming and ask for a visit. this person, pretty quiet on a Sunday morning, was hyper-talkative when I called. I learned so much about where she’s lived, her husband who died about nine years ago, and her recent experiences with churches that prompted her to visit us. She had grown up Lutheran, felt at home, and asked me, “Can I join the church?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’d be glad to have you. I’ll see you Sunday.”

That was the last time I talked with her. She never returned to worship. Did not answer phone calls or reply to voice mail messages. I had been ghosted. Just like that.

Her elder said to me, “I talked with her. She isn’t interested in coming to our church anymore.”

On my side of the equation, I was puzzled. Confused. Annoyed. Okay, I’ll admit it, angry. Why would you say that? Why would you do that? If you don’t want to worship with us, that’s fine. Go where you feel comfortable. I’m OK with that.

Maybe I need to imagine myself in her shoes. Her last church hurt her. We were her “rebound” church. Nice for a time, but certainly not for a lifetime. We were just a rest stop in her spiritual journey.

And that’s OK. We are here to proclaim, to serve, and to minister to all sorts of people looking for hope, light, peace, forgiveness or direction. They may stay for a long time. They may just stop in for a moment. We may simply be a stepping stone. A motel.

Some church will be blessed because we preached the gospel, we made her feel welcome, we recharged her batteries for her next endeavor. They will be blessed by her presence, her worship and her prayers. It’s like an assist in basketball or hockey. People keep close track of those things, because you can’t win without them.

Posted in church, Ministry, worship

Sorry, we’re closed.

A local fitness center closed its doors last week without any advance warning to employees or clients. Just a note on the door saying informing all they were out of business.

This got me thinking. What if you arrived at church one Sunday morning and found a note like that on the locked front doors? I’m not in any way suggesting that’s going to happen. I’m just curious. What would you do? What would I do?

Would you call someone? Who would you call? The pastor? Your elder (you know who your elder is, right?) The president of the congregation? The friends you usually sit with?

Would you stick around and wait for others to arrive? Maybe someone else will know what’s going on.

Would you find another worship service to attend that day? Or would you just shrug your shoulders and go to breakfast? I know that’s sounds kind of harsh. I’m just working through some of the possibilities, even the absurd ones.

Would you make an effort to find out what happened? Did something happen to the pastor? What happened to all the money? Would you contact the district or the synod offices to ask if they knew anything?

What would you do in the weeks or months to come? Would you find another church to attend? Would you band together with other members to reopen that ministry? Or would you feel betrayed and just give up on church altogether?

Even though the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, local congregations do close. And I’ll bet some of them close suddenly, permanently and without notice. And we never even find out why. If you search the internet for info on church closings, you’ll learn that about 100 close their doors every week in our nation.

We all take it for granted each Sunday morning that when we arrive, we’ll walk through the doors and everything will be prepared for us to worship. Have you ever thought about your role in that reality? Or do you leave that for someone else to worry about? What part do you play in making sure that sign is never taped to the front door of your church?

Posted in Ministry

Day and night, night and day

It was as different as night and day. I preached to the big Christmas Eve crowd last night and to a much smaller gathering this morning, Christmas Day. I grew up always going to both, but most worshippers choose one or the other.

Those contrasting moments feel very different to a preacher. On the one hand, I hope for the “full house” on Christmas Eve. I accept the fact that worship on Christmas Day isn’t even on most people’s radar. The temptation is to be pumped up for the eve crowd, and not put as much effort into the day attendees.

But you can’t do that. Some of those folks came a long way and carved out time to be there. It’s been a long time since they’ve been together as a family. And they are because of the story. A story that remains the same, even though much has changed in the past year.

While the one feels exciting, the other is more intimate. At the one you look at a crowd, but at the other you can look into their eyes. At the one there are many strangers; at the other I’ve met everyone as they’ve arrived.

Which do I like better? It’s hard to say. I really like both. I like to tell the story and I like to hear it, too. It pumps me up and settles me down more than the size of the crowd.

I love the sea of candles in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve. I also love the rays of sunshine that stream through the windows first thing on Christmas morning.

Thank you, Lord, for the best of both worlds!

Posted in church, Life, Ministry

How many people have you killed in church?

andrew-dong-387371It hasn’t been three days yet since Devin Patrick Kelley walked into First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX and opened fire during Sunday morning worship, killing 26 people and injuring about 20 more. You won’t browse the web, watch TV, listen to the radio or talk with family and friends for long before hearing about the incident. Though more information rolls out hourly, there are still so many questions.

“Who was this guy”
“How did he get a gun?”
“Why did he choose this place to kill?”
“What could we have done to prevent this?”
“What should have been done to prevent this?”

We could go on and on. Experience tells us it will take a long time to sort through all the information and unravel the mysteries behind this and so many other shootings.

Of course, we also have to ask, “Could this happen here? Are we safe when we gather for worship?”

I’m a math guy, and I believe the math gives us perspective. There are about 350,000 churches in the United States. Most meet on Sunday mornings for worship. How many had a shooting? Just one. Doesn’t sound like we need to worry about security, metal detectors and locking doors just yet.

On the other hand, 18,000 people are injured and die at home every year. Sounds like you better get out of the house and get to church, where it is much safer! But walk, don’t drive. 3,000 people die in car crashes every day!

Are we safe when we gather for worship? Of course not! “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Don’t you think he knows where to find prey on a Sunday morning?

But that’s not where the greatest danger lies. To discover that, we ask a more penetrating question: how many people have you killed on Sunday morning?

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell'” (Matthew 5:21,22). That’s terrifying. Our worship services, bible classes and council meetings are filled with serial killers.

I know Jesus is right, because I’m guilty of anger, gossip and name-calling on a weekly basis. So are you. And my attitudes and words aren’t just killing others. They are killing me. The wages of my sin is death.

What was the first sin outside the Garden of Eden? Murder. Cain kills his brother. Why mess with little sins? If you’re going to sin, you might as well make it a big one.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. How does God respond to this tragedy? How does God respond to the first mass murder? Think about it: Cain kills 25% of the earth’s population. God asks a question, “Where is your brother?”

God knows. He knows Abel is dead. He knows Cain killed him. What does God want? An admission. A confession. Why? Because if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:8,9). Because God doesn’t despise broken and contrite hearts (Ps. 51:17). God doesn’t want the wicked to perish. He want them to turn to him and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He wants us to turn to him and live.

A church sanctuary might very well be the most dangerous place to gather for worship. Despite it’s name, it will never be our safe place. You see, our refuge isn’t a place. “God is our refuge” (Psalm 46:1). Only in the arms of his mercy and grace are we safe.