What Would You Do?

I’m going to go out on a limb and ask you a personal question, and it’s one that, I suppose, could result in varying answers, and maybe even a few more questions. Who knows? Either way, I’ll do what I can to parse it out.

So, here goes…

What would you do if you visited a church, and by chance, no one greeted you?

Now, think about your answer for a moment.

In order to unpack the question and put its contents a little more on display, let me tell you what I wouldn’t do in such a situation.

First, unless someone met me at the door and was shouting at me and telling me I was unwanted, I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that the church is unfriendly. That’s far too big of an assumption to make of an entire collective of Christians who gather—with regularity—to receive Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins, and for familial fellowship with others they know, love, and trust because they believe, teach, and confess the same things. And along those same lines, what does “unfriendly” mean, anyway? That’s a loaded word these days. Speaking from experience, in the postmodern world in which we dwell, just about anything anyone says or does has the potential for being misinterpreted in ways that appear offensive and unfriendly, especially when it comes to theological things—church things. For example, when I explain to some visitors from other denominations desiring to commune with us just why it is that the LCMS isn’t in altar fellowship with their particular church body, I could stand there smiling, giving them crisp, clean 100 dollar bills, one after the other in cadence with each and every word, and they’d still tell me how unfriendly or unwelcoming I am and how our practice is offensive. No matter that the practice is clearly written in the Word of God (1 Corinthians 10 and 11) and is even explained by Saint Paul as being to the benefit of all who approach the altar of God.

Just saying a church is unfriendly could be saying more about you than the church.

You know what else I probably wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t make an effort in the greeting line after worship to tell the pastor (and therefore the others around him listening) how unfriendly his church is in comparison to my own—unless, of course, my purpose was to make sure he knew about that guy calling me names and shouting at me when I first came in. But assuming that didn’t happen, even if the church doesn’t seem as peppy as your own, how does it help during a tranquil and joyous time following a worship service to passive-aggressively and bluntly point out what you are assuming are faults of the congregation? Even if you are right and the congregation isn’t hopping over pews to greet you in the narthex or nave, offering you a cup of coffee and asking you out to lunch after the service, maybe it is for a very good reason. Maybe they’re maintaining a level of reverence and devotion that is fast-fleeting in many other worship scenarios. Perhaps they are taking the words of Ecclesiastes 5:1-5 very seriously. But whatever the reason, an email—or better yet, a phone call—to the pastor later that day would be a better scenario for expressing the concern and then having the right amount of time and dialogue to dissect it—much better than the greeting line, that is. And God willing, the whole time the conversation with the pastor is occurring, it will be important to listen to his response carefully and to do your best to remember that he’s the one man who probably knows the people of the parish much better than you ever will. He knows what’s happening in their lives. He knows many of their secret sorrows. He knows their joys and the things that make them smile. He’s seen them give of themselves to others without being asked. He’s been in their presence when they’ve offered a kind word of support. His eyes have widened and his heart has melted away when they’ve called to get the address for someone they don’t even know, someone who’s struggling, so that they could send a gift card and note of prayerful encouragement. With all of this, he probably knows them to be some of the friendliest and most loving people he’s ever met, and he probably loves them like family. Be ready to hear him express hurt when you try to tell him you see them as acting in deliberate unfriendliness. Listen for his genuine surprise. Be ready for him to defend them. And be ready to consider that you may be completely wrong about his church family.

Lastly, and personally, here’s something else I probably wouldn’t do. I probably wouldn’t wait around to be greeted. Which leads me now to what I would do, instead—and it’s really only one thing in particular.

I’d introduce myself to others.

In other words, I’d do my best to play my part in the fellowship of common humanity. I wouldn’t work from the perspective of expecting others to take the first step toward me, but rather I’d do what I could to take the first step toward them. I know it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do, but neither are a lot of things. With that, pray. Ask the Lord to give you the courage. And while you’re at it, ask the Lord to cultivate the hearts of the people around you toward receptivity. Imagine if people just did these kinds of things instead of taking offense at others who didn’t do what we really should be attempting to do ourselves. Still, even if I have to be the one to reach out, it would remain a grand connecting between people, and quite possibly the beginning of a friendship God worked through an act of genuine Christian kindness.

In the end, I guess what I’m saying is: Who really cares who greets who first? If you want to be greetable, be someone willing to step up and initiate the greeting, too.

Finally, and as a side note, once I meet and know someone in the congregation, I’m guessing that person will naturally become a helpful conduit for meeting others. In fact, if any assumptions are to be safely made, it’s that a member of the congregation should be counted on to help their visiting friends make the necessary introductions. That seems to be a pretty organic expectation.

So, to conclude, I just thought I would share this with you. It’s a little bit of practical analysis, and it isn’t in any way meant to say that the people of Our Savior are unfriendly. You absolutely aren’t! I hear from nearly every visitor just how kindly the people of this parish are, and with that, I’m often walking on cloud nine knowing that I get to be a part of this church family. Of course, there will always be those folks who miss the mark in grasping our identity, and with that, they’ll say hurtful things—which again, in my opinion, reveal more about them then anything about us. Don’t you worry about that nonsense. Let me handle it. I’m way past being slowed down by such simple things. Instead, rejoice in the knowledge that people are indeed coming in from the outside—people looking for substance—and they are discovering a parish that is, in many ways, unlike any other they’ve experienced in the community. They are finding a congregation that’s seeking to be faithful to Christ and His holy Word in all that we are—a congregation founded on Him, on His Word and Sacraments—the Gospel! Of course, in all of this, give all glory to God who, by His Holy Spirit, has made you His people and continues to strengthen you to be ones who are first to love and serve others rather than expecting them first to love and serve you!

God Will Plant the Seed Through You

The Lord is with you this day! I hope all is well, and that as you find yourself getting ready for the new school year, you feel refreshed from having enjoyed a relaxing summer.

Thinking on the term “refreshed,” I would encourage you to roll with the invigoration you’ve experienced and re-engage with your church family in the coming year. There will be plenty before us as we move forward together by God’s grace, working diligently by the strength He provides to bring His Gospel message to the world around us—and not just through our immediate mission efforts, but through each and every one of us as individuals in our communities, teams, neighborhoods, and families.

Proverbs 15:4 says so eloquently that the “tongue that brings healing is a tree of life…” Of course, all kinds of references to other texts in God’s Word could be considered when thinking on such a verse. Healing is God’s action, namely, the gift of restoration He gives by His abundant mercy. Christ Himself is the tree of life, and we being the branches, use our tongues to share His merciful action for the sake of rescuing us from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil.

In other words, a tongue that brings the restorative message of the Gospel, is attached to a splendid and blessed person born of the same message. And the message itself, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through it, gives not only the courage, but also the best words at the best time and in the best order. It may not necessarily feel like it, but trust that what I tell you is true. God will use you to plant a seed in order that, one day, it might grow to His glory and the salvation of the person.

Leaving Stuff Laying Around

I have an idea—two, in fact—and they relate very closely to helping connect people with the message of Christ through our identity as a congregation. Both are easy. And both, I think, would make a difference.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that when we are clear, straight-forward, and intentional in our efforts to communicate to our surrounding community that we are a congregation that appreciates the historic liturgy, does not have rock bands or screens, holds to the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, and immutable Word of God and the sole source for faith and practice, and subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of the Word of God—when we communicate these particulars to our community, we see a regular stream of “off the street” visitors. When we stop doing this, we stop the “off the street” flow.

We didn’t send out mailings this past spring. We didn’t see many visitors. We left the “Now enrolling…” message on the sign for most of the summer. We didn’t see many visitors. I changed the sign two weeks ago to what it says now (see the photo), and as I expected, we’ve seen a pick up in the flow of visitors.

I believe this is indicative of something we’ve already known for a while around here: People are searching, but they’re searching for substance. They’re looking for something more than what they can get in an entertainment complex or a movie theater. They are looking for something that doesn’t just look and sound like a church, but something that feels like a church—something that emits a sense of care and concern for holy things, and in so doing, provides a setting of reverence in the presence of the Holy One.

This is a comment I receive regularly from visitors with regard to our worship life: “You guys aren’t like the other churches I’ve visited.”

Sometimes that’s meant as a compliment, sometimes not. But whether it’s good or bad, its message is unmistakable. There are fewer and fewer congregations like us.

So, here are the ideas. The first is the easiest.

We need money for effective marketing of this message to the community. We don’t have any in our budget and we need some. If that’s something you feel like supporting, please do. Any time we receive funding for marketing, we always spend it well and it always produces results. I have plenty of leads on ways to do it, and I think I’m creative enough to fashion some decent messages to the community. So again, if this is something you feel like supporting, go for it.

The second idea is still easy, but it takes a little more intentional effort.

Remember all of the Kids in the Divine Service booklets we used to have in the pews but swapped out for the new ones? Well, they’re sitting in a box on the floor in the entryway to the church office. There’s about 150 of them. I don’t want to throw them out. I’d rather give them away. With that…

Another frequent comment from visitors is that these volumes are priceless for teaching, and often they’ll ask if they can take four or five copies with them to share with friends. That’s a great thing, because when they look inside, not only will they find substance regarding solid, Biblical, and historical worship, but they’ll find information about our congregation—a church that does it! So, if they’re looking for a congregation like that, they’ll know where to find one!

So the idea is this: Take some of the older versions of the Kids in the Divine Service booklets from the box—as many as you want—and leave them in places here and there throughout your day. For example, if you have lunch with a friend at Leo’s in Hartland, take a few in and leave them at the table before you go. When you go to the library, take a few in and leave them on a study table. When you visit a hospital or nursing home, take a few in and leave them in one of the waiting room chairs.

People will find and read things that people leave behind. They always do. You know how I know this? My son Harrison, that’s how. He went with me to Walmart a few years back and was walking around reading a proof copy (which is a copy that I and others use to edit the manuscript before the final print) of one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes. He got distracted and set it down, and then lost it. He couldn’t remember where he’d left it. About a month later I got an email from someone who’d picked it up and had read the whole thing. He loved it, and since I was local, he reached out to me through my website to see if I wanted it back. In the end, I told him to keep it, and then eventually I met him at the Fenton Walmart and signed it for him. Fun, huh?! And an introduction was made. Since then, I do this purposely with every proof copy of any of my books. When I’m done with it (as long as it isn’t chock full of embarrassing mistakes that make it unreadable), I leave it behind for people to keep and read. And like it was with the first time, connections have almost always been made. In fact, I’ll be doing an online radio interview with a smaller, up-and-coming podcaster in a few weeks, and it’s the result of one of the proof copies ending up in his hands.

Now, it might not always work out like this, but there’s also the chance that it will. And it doesn’t hurt to try, does it?

So, take those Kids in the Divine Service booklets and do the same. Let’s see what happens.

By the way, remind me to tell you about the conversation I had at Tim Horton’s in Hartland this morning.

On second thought, maybe I’ll just add it to the sermon. I think it fits well with Paul’s emphasis in the Epistle.

Christian Education: To Believe, Live, Pray, Suffer, and Die

And so the hymn sings: “The day is surely drawing near…”

Of course, the hymn is talking about the Lord’s return in glory on the Last Day, but it’s ringing in my head at this moment because I know that the school year is just around the corner, and with that, the empty hallways will once again be a flurry of activity—students, teachers, families, visitors—all gathering in a singular locale established by Christ through the efforts of His people here at Our Savior for the sake of extending His kingdom.

This is a good thing. It is an exciting thing. But it can also be a nerve-racking thing.

It can sear the nerves because it means personal schedules get ramped up in intensity. It means homework, field trip schedules, sick days, and everything else stirred by responsibility and dedication and love for an idealized goal.

To be completely honest, I rarely feel as though any project around here is ever completed—which is one reason why I’ll go into the church and mop the floor. It’s often my only chance to do something that has a beginning and an end that I can actually see and experience. In a sense, what we do here, at its heart, doesn’t ever end. It continues on until we breathe our last and are standing in the presence of Christ in heaven. Then—and only then—do the goals to which we labor and strive in this church and school truly find their completion.

This is important for our church and school families to know.

And there’s something else.

While most of us get the importance of the church, we need to know why it is important for us to continue to bother with a school, especially when current statistics report that for every Lutheran school that opens, five more close. In the past, in order to do this, I’ve usually tried to send time with the terms we use. For example, people will refer to us a private school and others will refer to us as a parochial school. What the difference?  Well, for the record, by strict definition, a private school is one that’s supported by a private corporation or organization apart from the assistance of the government. Most often, membership in the governing organization is required, and dues/tuition are required to support the school’s existence.

A parochial school is one that’s supported by a religious group. Its primary purpose is to integrate religion into its academic instruction. Usually, the school’s efforts are provided to church members as an afforded “right” of membership. Non-members often pay tuition. Of course, we’ve gone a step further with this by actually removing tuition for non-members. We are of the mind, for example, that when Saint Paul did his work in the public square, he didn’t let the local Christians listen for free while charging non-Christians a fee. The Gospel was given to all, and it was given freely. Our model stands on this very important Biblical principle, and it makes our school a truer thread of Word and Sacrament flowing into the community.

Still, we need to know another distinction—the academic distinction. With that, we consider the difference between a public education and Christian, namely Lutheran, education.

Again, in the past, I’ve typically shared with folks the two main schools of thought on public education. The first would say that the purpose of the public school is to create workers who have skills and personal styles to fill and perform jobs. The second is to develop active citizens who recognize their own capacity for personal achievement and contribute to the society.

Both of these sound great, and Lutheran Christian education, in a sense, contains both while being so much more. In his Treatise “On Keeping Children in School” which was written as a thorough oratory for keeping Christian education alive in Germany during the restlessness of the Reformation, Luther battled the root issues of this difference on three fronts.

First, Luther said that the issue of the value of Christian Education was a battle with Satan himself. Satan doesn’t care if your children are educated or not. What he will not tolerate is for children to be raised to know the true Creator and the details of His world—namely, to know Christ, the One who has redeemed us from this world. Satan does not want us cultivating a Biblical worldview in our children. He does not want us immersing our kids, day in and day out, in God’s Word and the faith that saves.

“Oh how that wretch of a Satan is now attacking us on all sides in this with force and guile.” (LW, Vol. 46, p. 217)

Next, Luther added that the battle extends to the parents as the devil gets a foothold with them in their indifference to the whole conversation. And be warned, Luther didn’t hold back here. He let loose and chided Christian parents rather sternly by saying that this was a “great and shameful ingratitude into which the devil is so craftily leading them.” (Ibid, p. 218). He then went on to say that God’s fiercest anger in this was most deserved:

“Ought not God to be angry over this? Ought not famine to come? Ought not pestilence find us out? Ought not blind, fierce, and savage tyrants come to power? Ought not war and contention arise?… Indeed, it would not be surprising if God were to open the doors and windows of hell and pelt and shower us with nothing but devils, or let brimstone and hell-fire rain down from heaven and inundate us…” (Ibid, p. 254)

Lastly, Luther said that the world of commerce had sown the seeds of materialism as the only reason for a school and that the truth of God’s Word in this life was being considered secondary, or perhaps even unnecessary.

“The run-of-the-mill miser despises such learning so deeply and says, ‘Ha, if my son can read and write German, do arithmetic, that is enough. I am going to make a businessman of him.” (Ibid, p. 251)

The purpose of our school is clear, and as you can see from the following mission statement, we don’t hide it:

“Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School is an extension of our church to teach the Word of God’s Law and Gospel. Our goal is that all of our students and their families will know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior within the setting of academic excellence.”

In other words, yes, we do what public schools do (and we are constantly striving to be better and better in the effort), but we also do what they cannot. We truly are holistic. The education here at Our Savior arises from the objective truth of the Gospel, the good news of the forgiveness of sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospel shapes our lives. It gives the only true alternative point of orientation to every plan from every culture for all aspects of life in this world. Quite simply, the children and families of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School are raised in the Christian faith which clings to Jesus Christ, thereby being shaped rightly and holistically, as Luther defined so precisely and ultimately, “to believe, to live, to pray, to suffer, and to die” (LW, Vol. 47, pp. 52-53).

Climb the High Dive

I was reading back through a letter I wrote to all of you. The letter was sent not long after our June quarterly congregation meeting in June of 2014. I thought I might re-send it, first, because what it says is along the lines of what I was going to say in this opening monologue; and two, because I heard a news item this morning on the way into the office about what the newscaster was calling “the happiness of time efficiency.” He said that happier people are those who can take a big job and somehow reduce the time it takes to accomplish that job so that other jobs can be accomplished. I don’t know if that makes sense, but what he said in addition is that often times people will spin their wheels re-creating something when much of what needs done is already in place.

Most of you know I don’t prefer to recycle, but having read through the letter, the words resonated with a freshness that I thought we could reconsider via this eNewsletter. Why? Because the words were important then and they’re important now. Sourced from God’s Word, they still meet each and every one of us in real ways right here and right now—especially since we just transferred $10,000 from our designated funds to cover payroll. But even with that happening, don’t be afraid. God is at work. And with that, keep reading…

At our annual “Getting Organized” meeting that took place back in January of this year, I presented the results of an informal survey I conducted. Essentially, I called the local Methodist, Baptist, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and two non-denominational churches and asked several questions, one of which was: “What is the process for becoming a member of your congregation?” Here’s what I discovered.

The two non-denominational churches I contacted are very similar to one another. Both encourage prospective members to choose and join one of several small groups they call “Life Groups”. These groups meet once a week for six weeks and are tailored to be “relevant” to the participants’ needs (newly divorced, alcoholics, even sports fans). Again, prospective members are encouraged to join one of these groups, but it is not a requirement for membership. They can join whenever they want.

Both the Methodist and ELCA churches offer a single, three-hour class. The class takes place as needed on a Saturday. Church leaders are present to meet the prospective members and to talk about the church’s structure and membership expectations. Church doctrine is not discussed, and membership is granted at the conclusion of the session if the participant desires.

The Baptist church does not offer a class. It expects prospective members to learn as they go. A person can join when they decide they are ready.

So, why am I sharing all of this? Because whenever a church starts to talk about money, the topic of attendance and attracting new members never seems to be too far behind.

At our recent quarterly congregation meeting in June, during the discussion surrounding our annual budget proposal, I found myself compelled to urge all in attendance to keep a few things in the proper perspective when it comes to money and membership.

First, I asked folks to consider how the Bible defines healthy stewardship. I offered some basics to show that we are indeed aligned with and practicing these truths. Do we have our struggles? Yes. Are they big? In my opinion, it depends on who you talk to. But big or small, should we worry that we are doing things in an “unhealthy” way as a congregation? Well, according to the Scriptures, no.

Second, I reminded folks that we cannot necessarily factor “faith” into the financial predictions necessary for preparing a budget. What we can do is identify those things that God allows to stand before us as demanding of our trust in Him – the challenges – or as Luther called them, “tentatio.” I pointed out that “tentatio” is a necessary part of growing as Christians. God uses it to test and refine His people. It isn’t necessarily designed to be pleasant, but God knows best and so He allows the ones He loves to be challenged in order to strengthen hope in Him (Romans 5:1-5). In other words, “tentatio” is a good thing!

Next, I asked folks to consider how the Bible says real Christians are actually made. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel, both verbal and visible – Word and Sacrament. I urged folks to consider that if they, as individual Christians, are not reaching out to folks around them with the Gospel, we should not expect our pews to fill up too rapidly. I affirmed that, yes, it is true that as the pastor I am called by Christ to this place to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s mandate, but I’m not the only one around here who is called to live and to speak the hope that lives within him to family, friends, or neighbors while I’m at Walmart, or the car repair shop, or Leo’s Coney Island in Hartland. And while I know for sure that there are others doing this, nevertheless, if there are only a few of us, then…well… I think you get the point.

Finally, I urged that we need to understand that our church is vastly different from the others in the area, which brings me back around to where this letter started. Once our visitors have reached a point where they are willing to invest the time and energy to become a member here at Our Savior, it takes more than a few hours on a Saturday. A typical new member class takes about fifteen to twenty weeks to complete…and it’s not shallow. Not only do folks learn the Biblical theology behind the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Christian faith and life, but they learn to discern objective truth by way of the Word of God. For example, they learn the difference between things like “norma normata” and “norma normans”, “exegesis” versus “eisegesis”. It takes a while to do this. But why is it this way? Because Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church takes very seriously our Lord’s mandate for making Christians. God has made it clear that the people who gather in fellowship together here must know what is taught, believed, and confessed at this altar (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

Now, having read all of this, take a moment and think about what it is that may be preventing you from consciously reaching out and inviting someone you know to church with you. What is stopping you from helping to fill the new member class? Is it fear? Is it doubt? Maybe you don’t think you’ll say the right words? Whatever it is, I’ll bet the following bits of advice will help. The first is a practical truth I find myself employing often. The second is a Biblical truth for all Christians.

1) Climb the ladder to the high dive and jump! When I was a kid, there was a public pool near my home. It was the rule that once you climbed the ladder to the high dive, the lifeguard would not let you climb back down. The only way down was to jump into the water. One day, I didn’t necessarily have the courage to do it, but somehow I forced myself to climb knowing full well that once I was up there it was out of my control. Think about someone you want to share the Gospel with and then climb the ladder to the high dive. Pick up the phone and dial the number for that person. Let it ring. Since most folks have caller ID, if you chicken out, you will have already passed the point of no return and they will wonder why you called…and surely you don’t want to lie. Write a letter, put it into an envelope and put a stamp on it and then drop it in the mailbox at the post office. You can’t get it out now. You’re stuck. Type up an email and hit “send” before your fear causes you to reconsider. You can’t get that email back. It’s now sitting in the inbox of someone you would love to see beside you in holy worship. Climb the ladder to the high dive because then you’ll have to jump into the water! And if you are like me, after a few jumps, it wasn’t so scary anymore.

2) Rest assured that it’s not your job to convert someone. It is the job of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 1:16, John 1:12-13, John 3:5-8). There really is nothing to fear (Psalm 27:1). Be faithful (Matthew 25:23). Be the Christian God has made you to be and simply give the message (Matthew 5:13-16, Luke 14:23). God has promised to work through that message to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 2:13). The results are not in your hands. If after you give the message, you find yourself in a discussion that you don’t think you can handle, just be honest. Tell the person you don’t know the answers to his questions. Offer to find out more. Or better yet, let me try! Pass along my phone number and email address. Let’s work together to make the introduction! And if after all of this you feel like nothing appears to be taking root, don’t consider yourself a failure. Remember, Christ Himself was often rejected, even by His own family (John 6:41-71). Instead, keep that person in prayer and be ready. You have given a powerful Gospel. It can change a heart and mind at any moment. Just look at Nicodemus, a devout Pharisee. He received the Gospel (John 3) and was later found defending Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (John 6)—even to the point of being ridiculed—and then at the tomb as a believer preparing the Lord’s body for burial at the conclusion of John’s Gospel account. While you are praying for the Gospel to take root, set your sights on someone else!

While we do have many seats in the Lord’s house that are filled, we also have quite a few that are empty. And while I can understand why people gravitate toward thinking that more members just naturally means more offerings, you really need to keep that as far from your heart and mind as possible. That is not the right connection to make. We’re not after money. Large structures, big budgets, plentiful staffing, many and various programs and activities does not necessarily mean a church is successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful Christians reaching out to the world around us with the sole purpose of introducing others to the One who gave His life for their rescue. While this is happening, those same Christians trust that God is faithful and will provide all that is necessary for this body and life!

If you are already actively reaching out to others, great! Keep at it. Your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). If not, pray that God would grant you the courage to start! If you need help, call me. I am your servant. Let’s work at it together.