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.

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.