Church · Gospel Life · Living Hope

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.

Culture · Gospel Life · Living Hope

It is About Jesus

Yesterday morning, I realized that I ran out of apples. Maybe it is an autumn-thing, but I tend to fill the fruit bin with the kitchen with enough apples to make an apple orchard-owner smile. Thursday morning? The bin was empty of apples.

My favorite apple? Macintosh. I fell for them when I was younger at the church I grew up in. A family in the church owned an orchard that grew red delicious and Macs. From September through Christmas, all they sold were Macintosh apples. They would bring brown grocery bags filled to the top and sell each bag for five bucks. They were amazing, both the family and the apples.

But Thursday morning, my fruit bin choices included a pear and an orange. Making a mental note that sometime during the day I needed to get to the Farmer’s Market on New Bridge Road to pick up some fruit and vegetables, I picked up the orange and went about on my day.

Late in the afternoon at the Farmer’s Market – not an actual “farmer’s market,” but a fruit and vegetable store – I picked up a small trove of Macintosh apples and stood online (or inline, depending on what word you use to describe checking out of a store – where I’m from, it is ‘online.’ Yonkers, NY – also where sandwiches from delis are ‘wedges,’ not ‘heroes’). The line was long, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

I wanted the apples.

”You’d think they’d put in a 10 items or less line in this place,” said the man standing in front of me as he turned around to face me. He had a few items in his basket.

”Yeah, but then how do you think they’d sell these massive bags of fruit near the checkouts if the lines were short?,” I replied.

He said his name was Jose and he was visiting his mother who lived in Bergenfield. He lives in Queens with his wife and son, but always finds time during the week to come over the two bridges (Triboro/RFK and the GWB) to visit mom and do some shopping for her. Mom apparently is a big fan of plantains (I’m guessing because he had a bunch of them in his basket).

We talked a bit – I told him I was a pastor who lived in New Milford; he said he was a manager of a KFC restaurant; we both are fans of the NYCFC soccer team and the New York Knicks; and we both go to church.

Jose attends a Pentecostal church in Queens, or as he described it, “a couple stops on the F train.” Growing up in the Bronx, his family attended a Roman Catholic Church. After his dad left his mom, she decided to move closer to her sister in New Jersey. By then, Jose was old enough to live on his own. He moved in with his girlfriend who became is wife. College was too expensive, so he went to work to earn money to pay for it.

Only problem was that he loved working. He worked at several fast food places and ended up working at a KFC where he is now the manager. Not that he’s let his dreams of a college business degree die – he’s attending college, mostly at night. His wife is a teacher in the NYC Public Schools.

As he put the plantains and other items from his basket onto the counter, I asked him what attracted him to the Pentecostal church he attends.

”Chicken wings.”

What?

”Every Sunday after church, Rosa in the congregation makes these chicken wings for lunch that are out of this world good.”

”So, you started going to church because of the wings?”

”Yeah. But I stayed for Jesus.”

Since there are so many theological differences between the Catholic Church and Pentecostalism, to me that seemed like a big leap. Jose said it wasn’t about theology or hymns.

“It is about Jesus.”

He attends a storefront church with 200 of his closest friends where they sing praise to Jesus and learn all about him and how Jesus changed their lives. It is not about laws or fancy clothes.

As he said, “It is about Jesus.”

Oh, and apparently the wings.

We both checked out and walked outside. I told him it was great to meet someone with such a strong faith. Jose asked if he could say a prayer because that is what his pastor says people in the church should do when they meet a God-fearing Christian: Stop wherever you are and pray with them. And he did.

I shook his hand and we both went our separate ways…in the name and in the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Church · Living Hope

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.

Church · Culture · Gospel Life · Living Hope

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.

Church · Gospel Life

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.

Uncategorized

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.