Abilities for the Church

Since I last wrote about using talents for the good of the Gospel, I started thinking about how to get this message across. In more established congregations, members may not be the most hyped up people when it comes to community outreach. Here at St. Matthew’s, we’re the same. A lot of our members are older, closer to retirement or wanting to move closer to family in other parts of the country rather than doing outreach here in the greater New Milford area. Others just haven’t done this type of work in the church before and they don’t know how to do it.

As I was pondering the importance of becoming a church whose core is bringing Jesus to people, it hit me: Not everyone is equipped to do this type of work, but they have other skills and abilities that can support and grow the church behind the scenes. In reality, a church doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have an active support group willing to do things to make the church stronger for new people and those already part of the church.

The important aspect of the wholeness of the church is that it works together to make discipleship essential. No one is greater than another. We are all equal in the eyes of God. Everyone has skills and talents that strengthen someone else’s faith and comfort level. Leadership doesn’t mean lording abilities over others; it means providing a vision and a dedication to make sure that all people inside the church are using their best abilities for the growth of God’s House.

Let’s say that someone in the church is great with kids. How can this person use this talent to help grow the church? People in the church can be terrific cooks or bakers or musicians or craftspeople. Others have great people skills or can come up with great ideas to enhance worship or the various ministries inside the church. Can these types of skills be used to make people feel comfortable and welcoming to new friends and potential disciples in the church?

Just because someone is not ready to outreach doesn’t mean they aren’t a vital part of the church! The individual talents we’re given can be used favorably for the spreading of the message of hope in Jesus Christ. Every ability each of us has can do just that! 

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Gifts Of and For the Gospel

Over my 13-plus year ministry, I must have said it several thousand times – I love to write.

Yet, during my ministry, I’ve had fits of writing block and fought bouts of “my grammar stinks, I am not writing.”

In the faith, we believe God has given us gifts that we are supposed to use to bring Jesus to people. Some are amazing teachers – they take that gift of teaching and teach Jesus to young and old, in the church or outside of it. Others are amazing with their hands – they use their gifts to repair broken down furnaces or leaky pipes in the house of the Lord and for the people who fill the church. And even others have strong outward personalities – these are the type of people who could sell ice to Eskimos in Alaska, but instead, tell the story of Jesus in and through their professional and personal lives.

They use their gifts to help bring people to Jesus.

For some reason, I’ve stopped using this gift of writing for the betterment of the faith and the growth of the church. Instead, I’ve become the “same old’ pastor” people expect.

There are untold ways I could use this gift to reach out to people, but I haven’t.

In a pastor’s life, the struggles we see others having lay heavy on our hearts. Whether it is visiting the sick or dying, the aged who can’t leave home, those battling depression or addiction, pastors carry that collective burden. When churches are struggling, it is pastors who try to make a go-of-it and focus on the Gospel, preaching it so worried hearts in the pews can feel a bit of relief.

Yet as I look back over the past couple of years, I feel I’ve missed the boat. There have been too many times – on visits, in what I’ve written, in what I’ve preached – where the burdens of everyday pastoral life have guided me. I put the cross on the sidelines. I’ve let those God-given gifts wilt as I went on my everyday pastoral life.

This really hit home on Wednesday. A longtime member, Anna, passed away at 96. She was in a nursing home for a number of years, battling physical and mental issues. When I heard about her passing, something she said to me a while back popped up in my mind:

“When I die, just drop me a hole.”

She didn’t want a church service or even a funeral home visitation. All she wanted was to be left alone in death.

At the end of the funeral, as her family left and Anna’s body was lowered into the ground, I walked back to my car and started to cry. I know, I’m not a miracle worker who could change everyone’s heart to not just believe in Jesus but to trust in Him, but I felt that I missed out with Anna. Even as a faithful believer in Jesus, she had both a family and a church, but Anna still felt alone, at times hopeless.

I could have done more for her.  She wasn’t very hopeful about life or about others. Couldn’t I have done something to make her see that the people at church did care for her, that she wasn’t alone? She did like what I wrote – she even told me that I was crazy for things I’ve written. But she liked that no matter what I wrote, she found Jesus in it.

And over the last few years, that writing gift has languished. Could I have used it more for Anna, to show her that life is more than just aches and pains, but is truly centered on the living hope we have in Jesus? He knows our pains and our concerns, and He has promised to get us through them.

However, a gift is empty if it is hidden and not used.

With Anna, I could have visited her more, read the Bible to her more than I did, and prayed with her more. But I also could have been encouraging, using the Gospel to bring hope. See, the gift of the Word of God is something that all of us have been given. We all need to incorporate it into our lives better, enveloping our very beings with the preciousness of the living hope we have in Jesus.

Essentially we need to take the Word of God and use it through our God-given gifts to show discipleship. Since we’re saved through the blood of Jesus, we shouldn’t let the gift of the Cross stay inside the church so we can use it only on Sunday mornings.

The Cross needs to lead us in all that we do.

Everything in our lives needs to be built around the living hope we have in Jesus Christ. No matter our vocations or our lots in life, it is the cross that leads us.

I’ve failed at this.

But God doesn’t look at me as a failure. He sees me as one who is redeemed!

The redeemed life smacked me in the head this morning like a lightning bolt from heaven. Listening to Christian Radio on Apple Music, the song “You Say” by Lauren Daigle came on. Granted, I love this song and could listen to it several times a day. I sing along to it while driving in the car, or when I’m out walking, or just sitting down in the living room. But this morning, that heavenly lightning bolt hit me and for the first time, I listened to the words Lauren Daigle wrote.

The only thing that matters now is everything You think of me
In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak
And You say I am held when I am falling short
And when I don’t belong, oh You say I am Yours
And I believe, oh I believe
What You say of me
Oh, I believe

Taking all I have and now I’m laying it at Your feet
You have every failure God, and You’ll have every victory

No matter how many times I’ve heard this song, I missed its meaning. Our Father in heaven doesn’t look at us as failures, but as His people, His children for eternity.

And as His people, we are loved, built up strong in Jesus, and are His forever!

We are not alone. He’s right there with us.

Therefore, I – or I should say “we” – need to take up the cross of Jesus in our lives and show others what it means. As we build our future church here in New Milford, we’re doing it with Jesus leading us! He wants us to be these leaders in the faith for others who don’t believe and are outside the fellowship of believers.

As we take up the cross, we use our gifts to bring people to Jesus.

No one ever said the life of faith in Jesus was going to be easy.

But Jesus has called us to serve…to be leaders.

We use our talents for Jesus to help bring others to Him.

It’s 2018, Not 1978

When I was a kid, there were two ways in which my family knew what was happening at church.

One, we attended church every Sunday. By being in church, my mother talked with people and heard about everything the church council and the pastor were doing. She wasn’t on the church council, but by being in church every Sunday, she was able to gauge what the important issues they were tackling.

The second was through the mailbox.

St. John’s mailed a lot of stuff. The pastor’s regular monthly news article. The church schedule. They even mailed home those cardboard Lent change calendar folders where you put a quarter in the folder for each day of season and then brought it to the church on Palm Sunday (or at least that is when my mother brought them back).

They didn’t make a lot of phone calls unless someone died. But when someone died most people knew about it because every family seemed to take out an obituary in the local Herald Statesman newspaper.

Through the years, the “how” we communicate in the church has changed. Physical newspapers are dying. Obituaries are found on websites instead of on page 13 of the daily newspaper. With the advent of smartphones and tablets and the entire range of mobile computing, it is easier to send a text or an email than to pick up the phone and call someone. Social networking through iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., can get information out very quickly. Even church websites – those that are kept up to date, that is – are ways in which quick messages can be posted and information can get out.

The struggle of the small church today is how to make that transition.

We’ve been struggling here at St. Matthew’s with how we communicate church business with everyone. When you’re in the process of relaunching the church, selling church property, and trying to schedule meetings to discuss the future, our communication has failed.

Our emails are not going out regularly from the church.

Our news page on our website is terrible.

And we don’t spend money on sending monthly meeting notices through the mail anymore.

So what to do?

Part of the future of the new church, I believe we must commit to establishing a new way of communicating that is regular and clear.

  • A church app is needed. We can get information out about meetings and what we’re doing and all a member or a friend of the church has to do is tap the app and read it on their mobile device.
  • Additionally, a church app will provide a clearinghouse of worship video and audio that will promote Jesus and our weekend messages. Our bible studies can be available at any time someone is moved by the Spirit to study.
  • Oh, and an app is expensive.
  • Consistency with weekly emails. We need to ensure that church information is sent out every Thursday to help people prepare for weekend worship. There needs to be a clear message that is delivered to email inboxes, messages that can be easily be shared with others not on our list.
  • We need to establish texting program in church. Yeah, this is going to cost money, but sending out immediate texts regarding any emergency, important happenings, and worship events is important in 2018.
  • We need to improve our social media presence. This is a given.
  • With an improved social media presence, we also need people to take pictures in church and share them. Showing people what is going on is a more powerful message than just writing about it.

No church is perfect. No congregation is perfect.

The only thing we can do is pray and move forward to accomplish the goals of better communication. The living hope we have in Jesus should be our great motivator to be touch the lives of our members more vibrantly.

Election Day

Going out to vote is an important civic duty.

All of us should take the time to exercise this duty today.

However …

Yours or my voting has nothing to do with the church.

You can be a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or socialist.

None of it matters in church.

The church only cares that you know Jesus.

And not only that you know Him, but that you also understand His love for everyone.

Jesus doesn’t give us lists of people to vote for or against.

He just wants you to know Him.

To love Him.

To believe in Him.

As we build our new church, one principle that everyone will know is this:

We don’t care who you voted for.

We only care about your soul.

The 24/7 Steward

As a pastor, stewardship should not be relegated to November discussions. It needs to be something that we’re talking about all year. In fact, it is something we should challenge ourselves to do every single day!

What is Christian stewardship? It is using our lives for the growth of the Gospel. How are we taking those God-given talents every one of us has and making them useful for showing the Gospel in our daily lives?

Every one of us has impressive abilities even if we don’t consider the things we’re good at “talents.” Our goal is to use our strengths to make the story of Jesus relevant to others.

As an example – what if you are an amazing baker? Could you bake cookies for the family down the street who may be going through some hard times? Of course, you can!

When we think about stewardship, sadly our first thought when that word is raised in the church is money. Let’s be honest: Money is an essential part of the life of the church. I find it difficult to talk about money. It makes my stomach churn, and not in a good way.

Yesterday, Pastor Matt Peeples of Bethlehem Church in Ridgewood reminded me that when we look at the words of Jesus, our Lord speaks a lot about money. He was never afraid to mention money and how it is used to help people. As an example: A few weeks ago in worship, we read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus asking Him how to attain eternal life. What does Jesus tell Him? To keep the commandments, first, and then to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Being comfortable with his wealth, the rich man walks away. He liked his stuff.

While pastors like me are generally afraid of raising the topic of money in church, Jesus never was.

We all need to do a better job at how we budget our financial and Christian lives. As we move ahead with our re-launch of our church, we need to be honest with ourselves about our talents and how we’re using them for the growth of the church.

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.

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