More Than Just Sunday

When I released my overview plan to transform St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church into a mission center – a plan that I believe will change the direction of small churches in our church body – I did so to begin the discussion of one simple question: What is the Church today?

What the Church Was

At one time, most of our now small churches were vibrant, worshiping lots of people every Sunday. They were places where Sunday Schools were overflowing and ministry efforts were strong. And, most of these Lutheran Churches were ethnic at their core. German, Swedish, Chinese, you name it – many established Lutheran Churches had an ethnic component at their founding. For example, if you were German and Lutheran living in the northern New Milford area in the 1900s, you went to St. Matthew’s because it was a German Lutheran Church.

As time has gone on, the ethnic make up of neighborhoods and communities change and the numbers of people attending church every Sunday dwindles. Newer neighbors who have no connection to a Lutheran church are less inclined to attend, even if the church is around the corner from their house.

The challenge for these churches is to begin and sustain a real outreach effort to not just new neighbors but to families in the region. It is here where churches have stumbled. Outreach efforts cannot be sustained if there aren’t enough bodies in the pews or if the bank account is small. In small churches, they begin to look inward instead of outward.

Sunday Morning Church

In small churches, institutions that worship with less than 50 people per week, just because of the smaller attendance and weaker financials, church is Sunday morning. The focus of church leaders, including the pastor, is to make sure that the doors are open and the lights are on come sunrise on Sundays. Small churches, by their very nature, retract from daily ministry simply because “there aren’t enough bodies to get the work done.” When church events come up, there are always complaints that the same small group of people are doing the work. And as membership grows older, the numbers of people doing the “church things” drops, putting pressure on the remaining members to keep the doors open on Sunday morning.

An Idea

I believe that if we are to change the direction of small churches in our Synod, the first realization that all small worshiping communities have to come to is that there is no grand Daddy Warbucks coming to drop a ton of cash into the bank account. The Synod and all of our individual districts don’t have the resources to pour endlless amounts of dollars into helping keep up small churches. They’d go broke just trying.

Small churches have to realize that in order turn things around, they have to take the first step. They need to take a deep look at their ministry (if it even exists) and make a commitment to change.

Change is hard.

After doing the church thing one way for decades and decades, to admit to yourself that it is not working for the greater church is off-putting. It hurts. You’ve liked coming to that particular building for years and years. You’ve loved singing the same hymns week after week. Maybe there are even times when you like the pastor’s sermon. It is your church.

Admitting that change is needed – dramatic and soul-rattling change – is scary. We love our comforts. When doctors tell us to change our diets, no one wants to stop eating the foods that we like.

Yet to change the direction of a church, this type of change is needed. It means taking a serious look at the entirety of the church and making a true estimate of the effectiveness of the ministry. If at any time during your assessment you start looking inward at yourself and at your comfort level, stop. The assessment should be about how your church is doing and what direction is it headed.

If small churches take this assessment truthfully and without emotion, then they will say that change is needed.

We all have to remember two important aspects of our Christian lives: Churches are not buildings. Churches are the people of God.

Today in many of our small churches, the struggles of ministry and membership and finances are real. If we are to turn things around, we need to commit to major change. Churches need to be more than just a Sunday morning appointment on your calendar. Souls are at stake.

Focusing on Life

From the time I was sick back in 2011, I’ve been a relatively good follower of a whole foods, plant-based diet. “Relatively good” is a qualifier term meaning there were times when I fell off the wagon and ate fatty, non-animal things that were not healthy. For example, those amazing burgers made by Beyond Meat called “The Beyond Burger.” They look just like a real hamburger and taste terrific, though they are not meat.

Some of the nutritional makeup of these non-burger burgers:

  • Calories: 290
  • Fat: 22 gram
  • Saturated Fat: 5 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 grams

I’m glad that there is no cholesterol in these things (compared to a regular hamburger that contains at least 80 grams), and a reduced amount of saturated fat (5 grams as compared to a regular hamburger of 0 grams). It is great that these are plant-based burgers (no cows were slaughtered to make them). However, when reading the ingredients, there are three forms of oil contained in them: Canola, Coconut, and Sunflower. As a doctor once told me, oil is evil. It packs on the pounds, the fat, and makes your health poor. Stay away from it.

Hence, in the times when I’ve fell off the plant-based diet that was strictly low fat, all plants and grains and beans and legumes, I’ve purchased items like the Beyond Burger and all those mock meats found in the frozen section of the grocery store. In my mind, since they were still plant-derived, I didn’t feel bad. I was following a plant-based diet; it just wasn’t with a lot of real plants like green leafy vegetables and fruit.

Late last year, I fell off the wagon. I bought the Beyond Burger at Shop-Rite here in town simply because I was surprised they were selling it. The first bite made me circle the drain. I started buying fried eggplant sandwiches at the local deli on a white roll. For some reason, non-dairy almond milk creamer for coffee found its way into my basket. I started drinking vegan protein powders that replaced meals. And the cheese – the Daiya cheese – and all kinds of vegan yogurts and spreads became staples of morning breakfast. I ate tofu crafted into “scrambles” topped with non-dairy cheese. Dinner became those mock meats with grains.

Last month, I wanted to kick myself when my doctor told me that my blood work was fine, but some of the markers to bad health were up. Cholesterol – total, LDL, and HDL – were up over my last test. Though lower when compared to someone eating a standard American diet, the numbers alarmed my doctor to check on my diet. After telling her, she exploded and told me that I was dumb to fall back to these “vegan comfort foods.”

Ordering me to “straighten up” my diet, I started really focusing on what I’ve eaten. Sticking to a low fat, whole foods, plant based diet since July 22nd, I’ve noticed some good things. I’m sleeping a bit better. My daily blood pressure is down, as is my resting heart rate. I’ve started to exercise again, though I will not win an award for intensity or length, as of this morning. My weight is down some 13 pounds since the morning of July 23rd, which is surprising because after battling anemia due to my previous chemotherapy treatments in 2011 and 2012, I’ve struggled with weight gain due to the medicine that helped fight the anemia and the virtual impossibility to drop the weight after treatment.

Finally, I am more focused on all aspects of life. I want to accomplish tasks, though my issue of wanting to do everything without help when it comes to my professional and social life is still very much a problem.

I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of coffee I drink. When in the very recent past, I would make a pot of coffee and drink three-quarters of it, now I am down to a cup in the morning. One cup. There are times when I will drink one or two additional cups throughout the day, but I’ve found that this is limited to my church’s Bible Study Time on Thursday. In coffee’s place – green tea.

Years back, my doctors who were treating me told me the most important part of life for me is to do everything that I can to prevent getting sick again. Encouraging me to forego the standard western diet based on animal products and strictly focus on plants for nourishment, they explained that eating in a healthful way would promote good health. One of the doctors explained that she hadn’t had a cold since she moved over to a low fat, whole foods, plant based diet. Describing her immune system as running at maximum goodness, she was able to fight off the cold viruses and flus that roam around the hospital where she worked. Oh, it was more than a decade since she had a cold or the flu.

For a tiny bit less than a month I’ve been more strict to what I’ve eaten. Good things are happening.

As my congregation contemplates what it means to be a church focused on missions’ work, one of the areas I believe we can serve our community is through the promotion of health. Our bodies are called temples of the Holy Spirit. Should we not want these temples to be the best that they can? Should our goal of offering a healthier spiritual life be combined with a healthier physical life? I think it should.

As California Burns, Lutherans Care

California is on fire.

Since mid-July, a group of complicated and ever-changing wildfires have destroyed the landscape and property in their paths, notably the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties and the Mendocino Complex Fire covering Colusa, Lake and Mendocino counties…

Several LCMS congregations have been affected directly by these fires. Trinity Lutheran Church and Early Learning Center in Redding, Calif., is only two miles from the flames of the Carr Fire.

Read more at LCMS Reporter: As California burns, Lutherans care

Comfort Zones

For more than a century, St. Matthew’s has been like nearly every other traditionally Lutheran Church: in a comfort zone.

All of us like what we like and we are comfortable liking it.

Nearly every Lutheran Church is the same. This doesn’t make any congregation that is in the comfort zone bad or out of touch – it makes them comfortable, relaxed, and happy that their church is open on Sunday mornings.

I believe it is time for a change, where we are not in a comfort zone, but are excited at possibilities of what bringing the Gospel to people means to our Christians lives. Excitement for the Gospel means we’re being led by the cross in all aspects of our church and outside-of-church lives. Hope in the Gospel is experiencing the true meaning of God’s love and forgiveness with others. 

Comfort zone church is history.

It is the time of living hope.

A Living Hope

This morning, I spoke with a leader at St. Matthew’s about our future. He talked about his frustration with a perceived lack of progress regarding the future of the congregation now that we’ve made the decision to sell our property and become a new mission church. Since we took the step in early June, not much has happened publicly regarding any plans for the future. The frustration is that it looks like nothing is happening.

Many people will look at the calendar and say, “Hey, it’s the summer. No one is around.” While people have gone on vacation and to their summer homes, the church is still open. We still hold worship on weekends, Saturday at 5 PM, Sunday at 9:30 AM; Wednesdays at 7 PM; and Morning Prayer at 7 AM. We’ve held Vision Team meetings and Elder Meetings from the date we decided to become a new church. I’ve been around both at church and the parsonage. It is not that there has been no time to meet as a congregation to discuss future plans, but we just haven’t.

People can get frustrated, I know. And we should meet sometime soon.

Since early June, I’ve been working on plans for the mission church. It is not something we can just start without doing research. There needs to be planning and talking and reviewing the landscape of starting over. I’ve been talking with pastors and leaders in the LCMS on ways in which our new mission can be supportive of the overall Lutheran presence in Bergen County. I’ve been reviewing demographic changes to our area in Bergen County and how this has moved the Church to change how it worships and serves people and then taking what was learned and asking people who know something about demographics on how to tackle this new environment. I’ve met with marketing people to discuss how to market a new church. I’ve talked with fallen away Christians and non-religious people to see how they view the Church and why. I’ve asked people what they would like to see a new church tackle in terms of serving the community and being a beacon of hope for the disaffected in society.

All of this is helping form a ministry plan for the new church.

I believe that it was more prudent to set up a ministry plan that would scope out what our new church can do and be before coming together to put “flesh on the bones” of the plan. If we met during the last eight weeks to discuss a new church, we’d just flail in the wind, throwing ideas on a board and accomplishing nothing. Instead, if we have a general plan offering options for ministry directions, we can build from there and start something wonderful. Without having a ministry plan in place, we’d accomplish little and that would set us back.

I am finishing up my mission plan for the new church and I will talk about it starting this weekend at our joint worship service at Holy Trinity in Garfield (worship begins at 10 AM). This weekend, both congregations are starting a new sermon series called “Living Hope,” where we look at God’s Word and how it drives us to be Christians with a heart of mission. I encourage all members of St. Matthew’s and Holy Trinity to join us this Sunday as we embark on a real and vibrant discussion of what it means to be a Christian in 2018 and into the future.

I believe that God has placed us in a unique position at the perfect time and place to launch a new church. We have options before us and vast opportunities to serve people who don’t know Jesus. And we have people at St. Matthew’s who are looking forward to a new church. Let us pray to our Lord above that His cross leads us into a new and vibrant future where we bring the living hope of Jesus Christ to people, where we with God can turn sadness into smiles, an emptiness of spirit into a powerful force of optimism, and fear into empowerment.

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faithinto this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

$81.10

Yeah, I laughed as I checked out at CPH ordering the 2019 Pastoral Desk Diary. Imagine, paying $81.10 for residential shipping. Granted, I’ve made fun of CPH’s shipping charges in the past, but to see a cost of $81.10 to ship a relatively small and light book made my day.

#HolyCow

#FiveBucksShipping