Is Your Congregation Struggling to Survive?

Crucifixion Picture

Many congregations are moving through challenging times these days.

Immediately after World War II, the “builders” got to work; and church buildings, some of them quite large, popped up everywhere. Many church buildings were filled to capacity in the 1950’s and some congregations even needed to put chairs in the aisles on special occasions. But, as we moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, things began to change. People became suspicious of institutions of every kind. But, even in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many church buildings were still almost full because the “builders” kept coming to worship and were incredibly faithful in both their attendance and financial support.

But things continued to change. The “builders” began to age and even die. Congregations began to see worship attendance falling and budget deficits rising. And congregations began to respond to that change in two different ways: (1) Some congregations turned inward and chopped away at their ministry to save money, and (2) Other congregations turned to God in prayer, sought spiritual renewal, and searched for new and exciting ways to engage in mission and ministry.

In the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet two very different men.

One of the men hanging on a cross beside Jesus cried out in desperation saying: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” This was a cry for survival. Maybe the man on the cross was asking for one more day to make amends with those he had hurt. Maybe he wanted to live for another month, another year, or even another decade. But, what we do know is that this man’s desperate plea for survival wasn’t answered. He didn’t get what he wanted; and, perhaps, he even died in sad desperation. But, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Didn’t Jesus once say that those who try to save their own lives are going to lose them? (Matthew 16:25)

But, the other man who was hanging on the cross beside Jesus did something very different. He began by confessing that he had gotten himself into a pickle; and that, in some ways, he was only reaping what he had sowed. And then, in a moment of faith, he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Here, we have a man of faith. This man, who cried out to Jesus in the same desperate situation said, “Jesus, please take me wherever You want to take me.” He entrusted everything to Jesus alone. And, in that moment of faith, he heard a promise: “I will remember you,” Jesus says, “and you will be with me in Paradise.” And those words shouldn’t surprise us either. Didn’t Jesus tells us that those who give up their life for His sake and who trust in Him alone are going to find it? (Matthew 10:39) Didn’t Jesus also tell us that He was going to build the Church and that even the gates of Hell would not prevail against it? (Matthew 16:17-19)

Moses once told the people of Israel: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) And the story of Jesus’ crucifixion does the very same thing.

Congregations that turn inward and try to “survive” by chopping away at their ministries to save money are choosing a perilous path that often leads to death. Congregations that seek renewal through prayer and daily devotion and that entrust their futures to Jesus, in difficult times, often find new life and exciting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others because renewal often brings a deeper sense of God’s guiding hand in life and in the ministry of the Church.

Jesus has clearly told us that He has something special planned for us, and that He’s going to carry us into better days and into a future that’s going to be far better than any of us can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And that leaves us, our congregations, and even the whole Church with a question that needs to be answered: Do we want to fight to survive for another year or even another decade, or do we want to follow Jesus into a future where our ministry will continue to grow and thrive even in challenging times? The choice is ours.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Should Worship Challenge You?

Luther Pic

This week, the clashing symbols at our worship services couldn’t go unnoticed.

We celebrated Reformation Sunday, as Lutherans, and the great hymns of Martin Luther were vibrating in the air. But, in the midst of the celebration, there was also a flickering candle in front of our altar that had been lit in memory of the eleven innocent people who were senselessly killed in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill exactly one year earlier.

We celebrated the life, ministry and teachings of Martin Luther – a man who boldly and with great courage nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. And yet, we remembered that Martin Luther vehemently attacked the Jews with words like these: “We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather, we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to overcome us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property as they daily pray and hope.”

We remembered that modern-day Lutherans have openly denounced these horrible words of Martin Luther. But, we also remembered that Adolph Hitler used the words of Martin Luther to convince the German people that Germans have always felt that the Jews should be “removed from society with no less mercy than a doctor cuts a cancerous tumor from someone’s body” – ultimately firing suspicions and fears that led to the Jewish Holocaust.

Even our altar was covered with red paraments that remind us of the Holy Spirit that continues to reform the Church even today; but, paraments that also remind us of the blood of those who have been killed because of their religious convictions.

Should worship challenge you?

I guess that I would respond by saying that if you’re attending a church where you are not feeling challenged and confronted from time to time, you need to find a new church.

The Bible continues to remind us that we are sinners, and that we want to continue to believe what we believe and act in the ways that we act because there is no fear of God before our eyes (Romans 3:18). But, the words of St. Paul remind us that God is at work in our lives to transform us and to restore a sense of peace in our relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Set free by the love of Jesus, we can “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and find peace with God (and with each other) in a world that God created with wonderful diversity.  Set free by the love of Jesus, we can join hands with others and be “good moral neighbors” in a world where hatred, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression need to be confronted by the Word of God and by the Church that’s called to proclaim that Word.

Abraham Lincoln once said, as he gazed across a muddy field that had been transformed into a cemetery after the battle at Gettysburg: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

If the death of those who were slain in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill has called us to reflect upon the ways that we think about others and about new ways that we can work together to make our world a better place, those who were senselessly slaughtered (as they were worshipping) did not die it vain.

But, before we can begin to move in that direction, we need to allow the words of pastors and those who teach in the Church to challenge us and to even confront the ways that we think and behave. And, as long as that continues to happen, we will be challenged during worship services and we will continue to be called to be a part of the solution – not a part of the problem.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

God, Me, You and Them

Martin Luther

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood to be received by faith.” ~ (Romans 3:22-25)

We commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation this week.

A monk named Martin Luther had been struggling with a question that many of us have asked ourselves at some point: “How can I know that things are right between God and me; so that I can know that, when I die, I’m going to Heaven?”

Luther tried his best to make sense of how God responds to the sin. Luther struggled to understand how we can live with hope and peace in our lives knowing that, even when we’re trying to do our best to please God, we still fall short. And Luther also struggled to make sense of how Jesus fits into the picture. If Heaven is something that I earn by being a good, kind and loving person, why do I need Jesus? And on the other hand, if Heaven’s something that I earn by being a good person, how can I know that I’ve been good, kind and loving enough?

But something else was happening….

Faith was intensely personal. People were obsessed with Heaven and Hell, and their fate in the afterlife. And the Church was willing to help. In fact, the Church was telling people that they could take a big step in the right direction by purchasing indulgences – pieces of paper that indicated that a withdrawal had been made from the “Treasury of Merits” (an overflowing bank account that contained all the good deeds that had been done by the Saints in every Age). And that was the solution! But, Luther didn’t buy it (literally).

“God, Me, You and Them” is a message to encourage you to think about God’s relationship with you and with everyone else in the world. The Bible tells us that God sent Jesus into the world because sin is incredibly destructive. The Bible tells us that God sent Jesus into the world because He wants us to know that He loves us, and that His love is a love that’s always ready to welcome and embrace us. And that’s true for other people, too.

The Lutheran Reformation was about more than indulgences. And the Reformation of the Church is still about more than indulgences. It’s about the fundamental relationship between God and the world. Jesus came into the world because God loves you, and Jesus came into the world because God loves me, too. Jesus came into the world because God cares about people that you love and cherish, but He also came because God loves people that you find hard to love. Luther reminded us that God’s love is all about “God, Me, You and Them”. Luther reminded us that God’s love in Christ is extended to everyone. God’s come into the world through the life, death and resurrection of Christ because He has a better plan for us than what we’re seeing right now. God’s come into the world, in Jesus, because God loves us even when we’ve fallen short; and He’s willing to lift us up and dust us off and send us in a new direction with another chance.

“God, Me, You and Them” is about recapturing the heart of God’s message to the world in Jesus Christ. It’s about moving beyond the “God and Me” type of thinking that causes me to focus all of my attention upon my own personal salvation – while forgetting about the fact that Christ came into the world because God loves everyone.

 

 

Something New!

something-new-graphic

I’ve decided to try something new at the ExploraStory Cafe!

I’m always looking for quality resources that support my journey of faith, and I’m always looking for ways to encourage people to explore new ideas. I believe that God has blessed me with the gift of teaching, and I’d like to share that gift with all of you through this new and exciting expansion!

This afternoon, I added a Menu Bar option that offers “Study Resources” for your use. I’m hoping to add materials that I have created as a part of my ongoing ministry of teaching; and am trusting that people, like you, will take advantage of this new part of the ongoing outreach and faith-building ministry of the ExploraStory Cafe.

This month’s addition is a study guide for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” – a great and valuable resource for discussing what it means to live in Christian community. This seven-session study can be used for personal reflection, or it can be used as a study guide for a gathering in your home or in your church. I am sure that you’ll be both challenged and enriched as you learn about: Christian community; routines that support Christian growth; the importance of hymns, prayers and fellowship in the Church; worship; and the basic building-blocks of Holy Communion, Confession and Forgiveness.

I hope that you’ll enjoy this new addition to the ExploraStory Cafe, and hope that you’ll find the resources that I’ve created both helpful and life-giving in your journey of faith.

Blessings!