Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Change Is Hard

May 2, 2018

It is.

Not just convincing people to change, not just getting them to go along with it.  But actually helping them to see the possibilities, the beauty, the potential, the danger, so that they don’t just agree to it but demand it, insist on it, and stop at nothing to accomplish it?

That’s hard.

Like many traditional denominational congregations, we struggle.  We’ve grown.  We’re financially stable.  But our population is overwhelmingly post-retired age.  Active involvement and engagement in ministry to and with people outside of our doors is very limited.  Not just by age and energy and the other challenges of aging, but perhaps at a fundamental level just by forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness, perhaps, about what it feels like to be engaging new people and inviting them into our lives both privately and as a corporate entity.  Forgetful about how we can still be a part of that sort of community regardless of our age or health condition.  Forgetful that people need to be invited in.  Not always to church, but certainly always into relationship (on that topic, this is a great little appetite-whetter !)  Forgetful that there’s more to look towards to than making it through the week, making it to church on Sunday morning and maybe Bible study during the week.

Those are good things.  Necessary things.  But as we get older we focus on those touchstones, on those milemarkers, on those accomplishments.  We focus more diligently on being careful, watching our step, not doing anything that might lead us to our final breaths any faster than absolutely necessary.  We focus on preserving what we spent our lives building and creating and accumulating.  And perhaps we forget to look up.  Look around.  To see that there are people in other stages of life and other situations – stages and situations that we once were in ourselves, and that they’re just as self-absorbed in their moments, their challenges, their reality as we are in ours.  It’s easy not to realize unless there is change, intentional, desired, persistent change, we continue in our circuit of habits and routines and preferences and they in theirs and never the two shall meet.

I’m frustrated and irritated with my denominational polity because of their emphasis on planting new congregations rather than standing with the ones who are already here.  Struggling, but still here after decades and sometimes (like ours) after a century and more.  I’m frustrated that they find talk of new churches more exciting than grappling with how to help the ones we have.

Like ours.

But I understand at another level, too.  At one level, planting new churches is a focus, a direction, a kind of change to rally people around.  Or perhaps to rally the larger congregations around, since most smaller congregations (which are the overwhelming majority in our denomination) don’t think about planting another congregation when they’re trying to save their own.

And I understand better and better that the statistical wisdom that it’s far easier to start something new than change something existing is very true.  Very real.  Very tangible.  That you can’t want and pray and model and wish and dream people into change easily or quickly.  Sometimes you can force them, which most times still ends in failure.  But it’s hard to inspire it.  To cast a vision that people are willing to risk things for – their comfort and routines and traditions – like they did earlier in their lives when they threw themselves into building campaigns and other initiatives.  When they could better see the connection between what they hoped to achieve and the risks and change necessary to stand a chance of reaching it.

It undoubtedly is easier to start from scratch.  But for everyone out there struggling for change, for something different, for a vision bigger than just to keep on keepin’ on, don’t give up.  We’re blessed in that, despite our sometimes stubborn insistence and nearsightedness to the contrary, we aren’t in this alone. Not by a long shot.  God is loose in the world and not even the most regimented routines or cherished traditions can stand against the Holy Spirit.  Keep loving people.  Try not to confuse confusion or uncertainty for stubbornness.  Keep trusting that change can happen.  That odds can be defied.  That trends can be bucked.     It happens.  Not often, perhaps, but it happens.  By the grace of the wild, boundless Spirit of God at loose in creation, it happens.

And I’m praying for that, personally and for the people I serve and love, and for the people who need to hear, or hear again, or hear correctly about the God who made them and died for them and calls to them now.  All of that – all of them – are worth changing for.

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YFA – December 24, 2017

December 24, 2017
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday: Reflect on today’s sermon & service
  • Monday: Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 61:1062:3
    • What is the primary reason we should praise God (v.10)?
    • Where should righteousness be sprouting up (v.11)?
  • Tuesday: Epistle Lesson – Galatians 4:4-7
    • How would you explain or interpret the fullness of time (v.4)?
    • Read Genesis 3:15.  Why does Paul emphasize Jesus’ human origins?
  • Wednesday: Gospel Lesson – Luke 2:22-40
    • How old is Simeon?
    • What is the revelation the Gentiles are to receive through Jesus (v.32)?
  • Thursday: Psalm – Psalm 111
    • What should our response to God’s wonders be (v.2)?
    • How does God’s wisdom compare to our own knowledge (v.10)?
  • Friday: Luther’s Small Catechism – Fourth Commandment
    • How does Luther extend the scope of this commandment?
    • Why might God link this commandment to the promise of long life?
  • Saturday: (LSB #366) It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
    • How might angels still be singing the good tidings today (v.1)?
    • How would you interpret or explain the ever-circling years (v.3)?

 

 

Don’t Get Cute

December 21, 2017

Someone – someone I’m not sure I even know – sent me a hard copy of this missive today.   What a great Christmas present.

Because of course pastors are stressed out about Christmas Eve service.  As my buddy notes, there is an added pressure to this service, perhaps more so than any other service the entire year.  Additional people present.  And not just extended family of current members, but others as well.  Perhaps estranged former members of the congregation.  People that had a falling out with a pastor some years ago – or perhaps with me! – might show up for some reason they can’t even define well themselves.  People injured by the Church in the past, stepping their toes back in the water after years or decades away.

To have the perfect message – witty, sparkling, engaging – could mean so much for these people and my congregation!  Old faces returning and new faces showing up on Sunday mornings.  Is there a better feeling as a pastor to be told that you’re the reason that someone has decided to return or come to church or the faith?  The monstrous pride that lurks within many preachers and pastors, sometimes masquerading as pious humility – that monster gorges itself on those sorts of comments.  It’s not that the comments are bad, or shouldn’t be shared.  It’s just that the sin within me wants to lead me down dangerous, dark roads of self-congratulatory ego-caressing.

But the perfect message isn’t mine, it’s God the Holy Spirit’s.  And while the Holy Spirit deigns to work through imperfect pastors that fall out in different places on a dizzyingly broad spectrum of speaking skills and writing mastery, the message that counts is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The baby in the manger and the God on the cross.  I should care about delivery and about making it enjoyable for the people festively attired in the candlelit pews, but only towards the end that the Holy Spirit’s Word might penetrate the heart, might strike the lethal blow that leads to the death of the old Adam within us, and raises up a new creation in Jesus Christ.  I can’t do that, only the Holy Spirit can.

So I will endeavor, as I like to think I always do, not to be cute.  To make sure the full message is delivered, and that the results of that are to God’s glory not mine.  On Christmas Eve and during every other worship service of the year.

Drunk Confessions

October 3, 2017

I often joke with my colleagues that theology is best done over drinks.  People become a lot more honest after two or three drinks.  A lot more comfortable.  A lot more real.  This is true of applied theology as well, namely confession.

Last night I’m hanging out and shooting pool as I often do on Tuesday nights – at a bar.  There is a cross-section of players and friends from various teams around the league and we’re enjoying ourselves moving in and out of rotation on the one table there.

And soas not to keep you in suspense, yes, I won frequently :-)

My nickname in the league is The Preacher.  Ironic given that I never preach when I’m shooting pool (I haven’t been asked yet).  But I do a fair amount of listening.  One of the women there likes to call me Preacher, and comes from a Southern Baptist background.  I think she’d had a few drinks by the time I started talking with her.  Which began a roughly 30 minute conversation, or more like monologue, wherein she shared a lot about where she grew up, her grandfather the Southern Baptist preacher, and a little bit about her own religious leanings.  She expressed an interest in coming to my church despite the fact that I told her she’d find us pretty Catholic-looking and that I wear a dress.  I think I want to find a way to encourage her to do some more conversing rather than just showing up randomly to a church service.

Towards the end of the evening I’m watching a game when another woman starts talking with me.  We don’t know each other well but we see each other pretty often on practice nights (usually Mondays).  I know she’s not a Christian, but again, after a few drinks, she’s comfortable talking about relationship stuff.  But the tricky part about drunk confessions is that they aren’t necessarily repentance-oriented.  People need to talk, but they don’t necessarily really want advice, and they aren’t necessarily saying what they’re doing is wrong.

So I keep listening, and praying that somehow there will be an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel clearly.  Those opportunities come up, they just seem very few and far between.

Maybe I need to actually start preaching while I play.

 

 

 

Who to Promote

September 20, 2017

I was raised with solid middle-class, middle-America values.  Children should be seen rather than heard.  Or maybe it was heard rather than seen.  Frankly, the preference was probably that we were neither seen nor heard.  In any event, the idea of self-promotion of any kind has always been anathema to me.  It isn’t that I don’t crave recognition.  I do.  But perhaps as a means of controlling that monster inside of me I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight as much as one can do from the front of a classroom or the front of a church.

I dreamed of being a writer but have abandoned that in a post-literate age where anybody can get published inexpensively.  Some of the folks that follow this blog seem to do so out of a concept of mutual self-promotion that eludes me.  I hope for fame, but expect that I won’t have to be the one telling people how awesome I am in order for that to happen.  It will just, someday, but broadly recognized and I won’t have to push for that recognition.

Is that too hard to ask?

My job is not to promote myself –  my job is to promote Christ, to make him known to as many people in as many different facets as He gives me time and opportunity.  But in order to put his name out there, it can be easy to be put mine out as well.  Given time and a bit of temptation, the desire for my name to be glorified can quickly eclipse the desire that his name be glorified.  On the flip side, excessive self-deprecation and equally result in his name not being shared as broadly as possible.  I’m wondering how to put out his Word without necessitating the inclination most people have (not entirely incorrectly) to want to know more about the messenger.

I’m being asked more and more to share my preaching and teaching with expanding audiences, particularly via the Internet as well as more localized outlets such as pre-recorded and live radio options.  It’s something I’ve been hesitant to do  because crafting a message for an audience unfamiliar with me, my congregation, my theology, etc. is a lot more complicated than just videoing a sermon and putting it online.  In a day where it’s customary to take things out of context, I want to think carefully about what I say before facing criticism either from those who don’t share my belief, or those who think they share my belief to a greater/stronger/more accurate extent than I do.

It’s also a lot of work, and being basically lazy, the idea of taking on additional work is unattractive.

But more and more I’m being led to see that this bears investigating further.  I went to lunch today with a gentleman who had the main intent of convincing me to think more seriously about radio and podcasting and other means of speaking to a larger audience.  Of course my ego loves this, and I have to try and put that down while still hearing what is being said and considering it as objectively as possible.  We have such Good News to share with a world that is so incredibly hungry for good news.  If we need to be reconsidering and reevaluating how we do Church in a rapidly changing culture, I can’t simply say that I’m not willing to consider other avenues for sharing the Gospel and helping people to understand it better.  Prayers are appreciated!

Hope Isn’t Expedient

June 27, 2017

In my line of work I hear a lot of difficult stories.  People moving through hard experiences.  Illnesses.  Family difficulties.  Broken relationships.  Unexpected adversities.

I’ve realized over time that the people who tell me the storytellers break down into two basic categories – those who want hope, and those who want help.  While these two things often are found together, they aren’t necessarily always.  But often the distinction is driven by the person speaking – I am either someone who conveys real hope, or I am someone to help them with a particular situation.  I am part of a bigger story and picture filled with hope, or I am an expedient means to an end.

The people in my community are in the first category.  Maybe they’re members of my congregation.  Maybe they’re regulars at Sunday Happy Hour.  They are present in community aside from any particular need.  Needs arise, to be sure, and when possible the community gathers around to try and meet the need.  But when the need passes or is met they continue in the community, seeing that community and their place in it as part and parcel with having their needs met but also as a source of hope and strength and comfort.  They see their needs as part of a larger picture that can best (and I would argue only) be met through intentional, consistent Christian community.

Community teaches us that struggles come and go.  Joys arrive and depart.  There remains a steady underlying reality that contextualizes these things and makes them respectively easier to bear and more enjoyable.  Our troubles are less overwhelming in some degree because we are a part of other people’s lives and know that they have troubles as well.  Our joys are heightened as we are able to share them with people who know us and care for us.  One day we are helping someone in need, the next day we are the ones who are being lifted up in care and prayer.

Other people I meet randomly are only looking for a temporary fix.  They need help with their car insurance, or this month’s rent, or groceries, or a bus pass.  Many of these are to some degree workable.  I’m blessed to serve a community with some assets set aside to help and care for people in need, and it is a wonderful experience to be able to do so.  Whenever it is appropriate, I encourage these people to join us for worship.  I ask if they have a community of faith or another support network that they can draw strength and encouragement as well as tangible help from.

Overwhelmingly the answer is no.  Not only is it no, they don’t want this.  They won’t come to church.  Won’t go get help at a shelter.  What they see is a very limited and specific need and what they want help with is that particular need.  Perhaps I can and will help them or perhaps I can’t or won’t, but they aren’t interested in hearing anything that extends beyond that particular need to the larger picture.  Despite the fact that my community is willing and able to help them, they don’t see any value in the community itself, only what that community might provide them at a single point in time.

Recently our community provided a young family in need with $1500 in a matter of three days.  All from members who desired to be a blessing and help.  The family isn’t part of our church, and from my limited talk with the guy, not a part of any Christian community – though desirous of one.  In the three days between their request and me delivering the check he was in constant contact.  Sending pictures of his daughter, etc.  As soon as he received the check, he cancelled the appointment we had set up for the next day.  For the last month he’s talked about rescheduling but something always comes up.

We didn’t help this family so they would join our congregation (though of course I’m always hopeful!).  But we did help them out of love first poured out into our lives from the Son of God.  We did it in faithfulness to how God wants us to live, and out of love for this family as part of that witness of faith.  And, we did what many individuals and even other communities could or would not do.  It baffles me that this man wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about and getting closer to our community.

The objective reader may point out that we’ve simply been taken advantage of.  Scammed.  Used.  Conned.  And this is of course possible (though for some compelling reasons I don’t think so in this particular case).  I’ve certainly helped other folks that I was sure were feeding me a line of bull  But even if that were the case, wouldn’t a con artist be interested in learning more about a group of people so willing to give of themselves?  To be sure, I don’t want con artists in my community.  Not if they’re insistent on remaining con artists.  But I do want con artists in my community so that the Holy Spirit might actually change them.  The early Christians were noted for their love and care for one another in adversity.  Now people are hopeful or even expectant of such love, but they see it only in terms of a particular need at a particular time, not as something which might transform their lives through the power of God the Holy Spirit.  And for those who aren’t con artists, who are really in need, I want them in our community to see the power and love of Jesus at work in tangible ways.  I don’t think you can experience that and not be affected by it at some level.  St. Paul and St. James clearly think you can’t.

Perhaps that is, in part, what keeps some people from community and the hope of real change and improvement.  Perhaps change isn’t really what some people want.  They simply want expediency.  This particular need met.  When the next particular need arises, they’ll figure out how to handle that.  But this issue here and now, and nothing more.  Not hope.  Perhaps they are so beleaguered are entrenched in their ways of thinking and being that it isn’t possible to even imagine something more or better.  Which means I should probably be praying more for them, that they would recognize what their greatest and deepest need truly is, and who alone can provide them not simply with help, but with hope.

 

Comfort

June 25, 2017

I don’t wear my clerical very often, depending on your definition of often.  In general, I wear it no more than a few hours a week, on Sunday mornings.  While I’ve gotten far more comfortable with wearing it publicly, I don’t see that it offers the same blessings to those around me that it might have a few decades ago.  As the tragic hero Malcom Reynolds of Firefly/Serenity observed, in post-modern, post-Christian culture, “Men of God make everyone feel guilty and judged.”

My Sunday morning ritual is to pick up a bagel and tea for the final morning preparations before worship.  Which means that I arrive at the coffee shop in my clerical.  I’ve been going there for years.  They know my face and they know my order.  They know my profession.  But that has been the stimulus for startling few conversations about faith or God over the years.  The owner once confided to me when his daughter passed away, but hasn’t mentioned it since.  He talks with the language and nuances of vague Eastern philosophies, so I’m fairly certain he’s not Christian.

This morning I was placing my usual order.  They know what it is as I walk in and are already starting to get it ready.  The one hiccup is the new computerized system they use to log orders and record payment.  The particular type of tea I always order is singularly difficult for them to find in their.  Every.  Time.  Maybe I’m the only one who orders it.  Given the somewhat silly name of Jasmine Fancy Black, perhaps others are too embarrassed to order it.

This morning it came out that the reason nobody can ever find it in the system is that it is mislabeled.  Instead of Jasmine Fancy Black, it has to be searched for as Black Jasmine Fancy, a state of affairs created by the owner himself who mislabeled it in the system.  Finally we all understood why this was always such a problem!  He proffered mock apologies for his role in the confusion.  He’s only human.  We shouldn’t hold a simple mistake against him.  Then he glances at me and says “God will forgive me, right?”

What do you say in that situation?  To a person who very likely doesn’t believe in forgiveness or God in any Biblical sense of the words?  He was just kidding, but instantly I felt like I couldn’t just laugh it off with equally vague assurances and commendations of God’s unilateral forgiveness.  I responded with “Quite possibly!”, which caught him off guard.  He laughed and responded with partially feigned surprise “Possibly?!”

The young woman putting the bagel in the toaster responded “You have to ask him for forgiveness,” a very salient insight from an unexpected quarter since I don’t assume that she’s Christian either.  But it was encouraging that she understood the basic concept – there is forgiveness in God, but that forgiveness has to be received.  It has to be recognized as not just appropriate and desirable but actually necessary.  Until the moment of actual guilt and actual repentance, forgiveness is a nice theory, an intellectual construct.  But it is not actually received.

It isn’t forgiveness that is uncertain.  That’s an objective reality created by the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  But whether that forgiveness becomes mine or not, that’s the subjective part.  Will I receive it?  Will I recognize my need for it?

Universal (Catholic) Wisdom

June 22, 2017

A great article which I would argue encompasses all those who consider themselves Christians, not simply Catholics.  These are problems endemic throughout American Christianity (yes, even among conservative Lutherans!), and they are dangerous to people eternally as well as here and now.  How many of these are you guilty of?

 

Opportunities

June 17, 2017

I’m in the process of planning a weekly radio show on a local talk radio station.  The intent is to give people with questions, issues, concerns, etc. about the Christian faith a forum for dialogue with the Biblical Christian witness.  It’s not a Christian station because I’m not interested in arguing with Christians about doctrinal differences.  Rather, I hope to engage people outside a formal community of faith, whether they consider themselves Christian or not.  The station theoretically has a listener base of about 18,000 people.

Each week I’ll hope to have listeners calling in with things they want to talk about or hear the Biblical response to.  While the sales rep for the station cautioned me that call-in shows are rare, I think I have some good contacts in the community that could help supply at least 2-3 calls per show if not more.  We shall see.  Other folks have asked about me doing a podcast instead – a pre-recorded digital audio (or audio and video) show that would be hosted online somewhere.  The problem is that podcasts rely on self-marketing.  I have to find ways to make people aware of the podcast and encourage them to go and stream it or download it.  With a relatively small base of people – many of whom are less than tech-savvy, this seems like a slow way to proceed.  I’m considering putting together a podcast as well, but it would be supplemental to the radio show.

Of course, this is a pay-to-play arrangement.  It will cost us money every week and month for a one-hour live show that is rebroadcast three other times during the week.  Our congregation can afford this ministry, and I think there are folks who will step up to continue to support it if it proves to be effective in reaching people (not necessarily in bringing in new members).

An alternative is to try and get a time slot on a public station run at the local university.  There is an information meeting this Tuesday evening, a mandatory meeting if you hope to get a shot at a time slot.  I’m praying that I will, and I’m curious to see how it goes.

 

Eclectic Community

June 13, 2017

Every Sunday evening for over a year we have opened our home on Sunday evenings to whomever wants to join us.  There is no format or agenda.  We provide simple snacks (homemade popcorn, veggies & homemade ranch, crackers & cheese, etc.) as well as cocktails (all part of my master plan, assuredly).

Over the last year, the group has grown from one or two Westmont grads.  Friends invited friends.  Friends invited roommates, bandmates, volleyball buddies, former roommates.  International students living with us pop in and out.  Our kids look forward to the event, helping to prepare (Our oldest son has gained wide-ranging respect for his popcorn skills.  Our younger two handle the cheese and cracker setup and some of the finger veggies).  Our oldest who just turned 15 has gone from slipping away to play XBox games to sitting in rapt enjoyment of the wide-ranging conversational topics that fill the air.  Economics, politics, education, culture, love, life, music – no two weeks are the same.  We have anywhere from three to a dozen or more people who come and go over a two to six hour period.   We’ve started broadening the scope, inviting home-schooling friends and other folks who don’t fit the post-college, early-20’s landscape that predominates the evening.  But there’s a core of people who clearly indicate that this is a priority for them, week in and week out.

I wish I had a genius explanation for that.

It’s eclectic.  We don’t have much of a community after seven years of living here.  The community we have found at times keeps moving away in search of less expensive living.  Our beloved congregation is mostly post-retired folks well into another stage of life, and we find that the younger folks that gather on Sundays are definitely in yet another stage of life.  We balance in the middle as best we can.  We’ve helped support two wonderful young women through traumatic relationship crashes, and celebrated with one of them as repairs were made and the relationship renewed.  Despite the presence and enjoyment of cocktails, we support and include and encourage a young man celebrating his first full year of sobriety in close to a decade, as well as one young woman who always wants to try what others are drinking despite the fact that she hates the taste of alcohol.  Sometimes people contribute things to the mix like snacks or baked goods or mead.  Often-times music forms a portion of the end of the evening as the guitar or ukuleles scattered around the house or brought in by our guests emerge to coax voices to life.

I feel guilty sometimes that there is no plan or agenda to Sundays.  Our culture – and particularly our culture in the area where we live – defines success in terms of how busy we are.  How many things are we juggling?  How little time do we have for ourselves?  Wow, you must be really successful if you’re that completely overwhelmed!  None of which we buy into – or we purchase as little as we can.  We’re convinced, if for no good reason, that there is a value in simply being that is missing in our culture, and that it is not only possible but actually healthy to just be for a few hours.  That idea has been echoed by those committed core members that come faithfully every week, not because they have to but because at some level they want to.  It’s helpful and important to them in ways we might not be able to articulate, but we can certainly enjoy.

I think that this is our faith at a fundamental level.  Many – but not all – of the people who come Sunday are Christians.  It’s a reality that undergirds the evening without the need to be preachy.  Sometimes the music that is played and sung to is worship music or hymnody.  Sometimes it’s the Beatles.  People who may not call themselves Christian are never made to feel awkward, but they sometimes get to hear us talking about our lives of faith, and I trust the Holy Spirit will use those exposures to his glory.  It isn’t worship, but the idea of worship is never far from who we are in Christ.  It is the echo detectable at times in our words and actions.  The shimmering, mirage-like reality that leads us on from day to day on a journey to eternity, never disappointing but always reminding us what awaits ahead.

We are called less to do than to be.  But not randomly to be, but rather to be His.  Created.  Redeemed.  In the process of being made better and perfect but a long way from that final state.  Which means not to be alone, to be in the presence of others and not just those that are the most like us, so that we all might look and inquire and wonder and test, and that they might find the one who has made them to be and calls them to be his.  Eclectic.  If there’s one word that describes the communion of the saints, I trust and hope and pray that this is it!