Category Archives: Church Direction

Don’t Want to Start a Fight, but…

This was an interesting article on the start of a “Contemporary” Worship service.

Here was the line that caught me (after absorbing the fact that this church invested 2.1 Million (yes million)) in bringing this off.

“The UMC’s problem is that we have great substance but no style so we come across as irrelevant,” Mr. Nixon said. Churches touting prosperity gospels typically offer plenty of style, but no substance. “But when you put style and substance together . . . you have an amazing power to communicate to people in a profound way.”

Three questions/thoughts:
1) Does anyone take McLuhan seriously that “the medium is the message”? I’m not saying that you can’t do substance with style, but can you really preach the gospel including the cross surrounded by the medium of $2.1M of audio-visual equipment that becomes obsolete overnight?
2) When Jesus talks about the narrow way, or we quote in advent Isaiah saying “there was nothing that attracted us to him” (Isa 53:2), or he talks about 3/4th of seed falling on ground that eventually despises it, are we to make the decision that the gospel appears relevant?
3) The UMC has substance? Ok, that was an undeserved crack. Real question, if you spend $2.1M dollars and 840 people show up over-night, where did they come from? What percentage came from other congregations? If 50% came from other congregation, 30% from the “slipping-away” group and 20% came from the no-church, is that acceptable? Is it possible to have a gospel arms race, or have you lost the gospel?

Just asking…

August 2012 Newsletter

Churches or organizations have a generation gap. A Newsletter is one of those things. On one side of the divide you could say that the newsletter is probably the most faithfully read thing. They often get a circulation and reading far beyond what you would believe. Pastor’s articles in newsletters have a half-life of years as old newsletters get pulled out of odd places and glanced at. On the other side of that divide, a paper newsletter is as archaic as getting a morning paper. Probably best described in this scene from Phineas & Ferb starting at the 25 sec mark.

But this issue of the newsletter is important enough, if you are member of St. Mark’s you should be sure to read it. So I’ve put a PDF copy right here …newsletter August 2012

Ministerial Purpose

I found this article interesting for the quotes which were highly revealing of what I’ll call the narcissistic tendency within the ministry that can’t but shipwreck the faith of a bunch of people. Here is what I mean.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral epistles. Critical scholars debate if the are truly written by Paul, but tradition holds that they were written by Paul to Timothy and Titus his traveling companions who were often left to build churches after their missionary start. These short letters are called the pastorals because they are short instruction manuals for what a pastor does. All in all they are rather pragmatic documents. You might sum up their message as – “don’t be stupid”. But, there is an over-riding message first: 1) 1 Tim 1:3, the first words of the letter – “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” 2) 2 Tim 4:1-5, “preach the Word, in season and out” and 3) Titus 2:1, “as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine”. The doctrine, the Word, comes first in the office. Everything else is secondary. There is a phrase that could lead to a bunch of mischief but it also captures a truth at its core – “A layman can be a heretic, the pastor can’t be”. That is because the chief ministerial purpose is according to 1 Tim 4:12-14, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”. The preacher and teacher needs to watch closely what he/she is preaching and teaching such that it is in accordance with the Scripture, and that accordance is “in season and out”. Seeing that the Word is often offensive being out of season is part of the job. Saying hard things is part of the job.

Compare that with this quote from the lady who just stepped down from the Vice Moderator of the PC-USA.

“I am a pastor,” McCabe stated in her speech Wednesday. “That is who God has called me to be.

“As I reflect on what’s happening now, I think I am embodying the reality of a growing number of pastors who find ourselves caught. We are caught between being pastors – being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another – and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling, especially in states where it is legal for everyone to be married.”

What is the key thought of being a Pastor to the former Vice Moderator McCabe? Is it teaching the meaning of marriage? Is it preaching how marriage is a symbol of Christ and the church? Is it encouraging those marriages to reflect the truths of Scripture? No. Her definition of a Pastor is – “being with couple in those sacred moments”. That is a deeply narcissistic thought. Leaving aside the “sacredness” of a moment, seeming to think that the role of pastor is to stick themselves into such moments, that their own personal presence makes it more special, is something creepy. The office places you there. The purpose of the office is to teach and preach. A simple question should be asked. Would I have been invited to this moment – i.e. to be part of the gathered friends and family – outside of the office? If the answer is no (which it almost always would be), then being with that couple is not your primary job.

And it is exactly those narcissistic tendencies that get in the way of doing the job. Vice Moderator McCabe officiated/signed the papers for a homosexual union. While the PC-USA seems to be going the way of the ELCA, they hadn’t yet. At a minor level she did that going against her own judicial body. The major level would be looking at Scripture. What she did is the definition of lawlessness – not recognizing scripture, nor her brothers and sisters, but forging ahead of her own authority. But the point here is more from her quote – “the polity restricts us from living our pastoral calling.” The narcissistic tendency is to want whoever is before you to “like” you. There is no way that homosexual couple would have liked what the job required. (Eph 4:17-24, Eph 5:3-14 and those would not exhaust Ephesians – chastity is the calling of all Christians, marriage is the vocation of some men and women). But if you want to be liked, and if it is your personal presence instead of your teaching presence that is there at those “sacred moments”, then the job of the pastor and the truth suffers.

Two Congregations

While watching my Penguins blow a 3 goal lead (argh!?!), I was reflecting on the congregation at Easter service, the congregation on a “normal” Sunday, and the differences in preaching.

I’m going to use statistics just from Jan 1 through April 1 and then look at Easter. I could expand that basis, but that gives me 14 Sundays for a population baseline which does not include any major holiday. Also I am looking primarily at people on the “membership” list. There are visitors, but they get a special category.

So, the first thing I did was take a look for each member how often they attend. Simply # of Sundays attended divided by 14. If you understand baseball think of that as the batting average, or better yet the on base percentage. There is variance; a young player gets better and the older player gets worse. But, a player’s batting average during the heart of his career could probably be taken as a set number. There are .300 hitters, .250 hitters and hitters who struggle to stay above the Mendoza line.

Using those individual batting averages and assuming that they don’t change much, I looked at each Sunday and calculated the “average batting average”. If you were present your batting average became part of the formula. Simple example, 3 members, all attend one Sunday: 1 – 25% of Sundays, 2 – 50%, 3 – 75%. The average attendance average would be 50%. For St.Mark, when I look at each Sunday for that congregational average, it is amazingly consistent. For the first 14 Sundays of the year the the highest average was 82% and the lowest 71%. Interpreting that, the average person in the congregation for those first 14 Sundays attends service 3 out of 4 Sundays. In fact that is what I did next. I calculated the “average batting average” for all of those first 14 Sundays – 77.2%. The standard deviation of that was 23%. So, looking at the typical Sunday service I could expect that the typical person has attended 3 out of 4 Sundays. I can expect that 95% of the congregation has attended 2 out of 3 Sundays. So, what all those numbers mean is that preaching to the typical Sunday crowd means you have the opportunity to teach and build on a base. If I’m thinking of Heb 5:12-14, that should be a congregation that gets meat or weighty words about the Christian life.

Now what about the Easter congregation? The average of its attendance averages was 56% with a standard deviation of 36%. That is a different congregation. The typical person attended 1 less Sunday and the variance is much greater. A substantial portion of that congregation is attending less that once a month. If you experience something once a month or less, how much does it sink in? That is probably a group that you are retelling the basics of the faith and challenging them to commit to living it. Not that you don’t do that the other weeks, but that Easter congregation is going to hear the list in Heb 6:1-2. Since it is Easter focusing on what the resurrection of the dead means. Deny the resurrection and you are still a slave to death. Believe and you are a slave to Christ.

So, paradoxically attending on the High Holy Days of the Christian faith mean you will probably hear “that old, old story” told very simply with what might sound very close to an altar call for a Lutheran. If you are to be challenged in your faith the best Sunday to attend is probably, oh lets say, the 3rd or 4th Sunday of Easter which looks to be the post holiday low spot. That is probably the day to ponder say the doctrine of election or a teaching of the church that is being broken by everyone.

Slight Momentary Diversions

Our organist, Dennis Hein, passed away this week from cancer. He was 64. The service is Saturday at 11 AM.

I’ve always had trouble turning off my brain. It is a cliche now, but a computer keeps cycling those giga-hertz even when 99% of them are spent running a screen saver and idling. When there are those things that come along that say “I’m going to take 100% of your cycles” and you can’t think of anything else, from hard experience that is where I tend to crash. Making sure there are slight momentary diversions is what re-introduces you to life. The daily routine prevents the crash.

This David Brooks article was fascinating. He might not like this, but Brooks is a top flight public theologian. I have a tough time thinking of anyone else who applies theology as deeply and as simply. From the article on the problem of Jeremy Lin:

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Not to dispute that Rabbi Soloveitchik is a great teacher (he is), but those ideas are a little older than that. (I’m wondering if David Brooks is playing to his audience in the NYT?) St. Paul stated those thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:47 and elsewhere. The Gospel according to Luke is at great pains to portray Jesus as the second Adam. And Luther’s Heidelberg disputation talks about the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. The morality of the athlete is that of glory. The morality that saves is that of the cross. The life of the disciple is running the race under the cross.

Sentence to Ponder

What is needed in our churches is not more education but more embodied practices that can shape our affections and behavior along with our attitudes. The virtues I focus on in Unclean involve the practices of welcome and hospitality, what Miroslav Volf calls “the will to embrace.”

That is from this interview with Dr. Beck who also writes here. Unlcean is one of his books that is one of the best works I’ve read in a long time.

Thinking of the last post, this might be a more concrete example of listening to the Spirit. This is one of the discussions that a member and I get into quite often about how do you instruct in the faith. Do you start with the head and push toward the heart (standard Lutheran methodology) or do you start with the heart and push to the head (standard pentecostal). And that is probably the polarity – extreme head Lutheran to extreme heart pentecostal – with other tribes falling in along that spectrum. Presbyterians real close to Lutherans. Methodists closer to the pentecostals. Catholics blow this up because you have both – Franciscans and Dominicans. An embodied practice, a taking action on a virtue, is a combination of both. Listening to the Spirit today might mean less outright upfront doctrine and more lets do a VBS in the city (hope and charity), or the protestant equivalent of adoration of the host – a lenten prayer vigil (faith, fortitude and patience). Could one congregation maintain a prayer vigil for 40 days around the clock? What might be heard by the congregation in prayer?

Building Bridges/Following the Spirit

Here are a couple of very smart people talking about the interesting situation of the modern American Church and narrowly the LCMS. The background of both posts is: 1) a changing culture that is less accepting of the church and the christian proclamation, 2) a history of dispute in the synod at large and within congregations and 3) a history of far reaching dogmatism by which I mean making theological truth out of stuff that might actually be coincidental to culture.

Dr. Zemke (full disclosure, I know her son) uses the bridge metaphor. We’ve got this truth of Jesus Christ, but it needs to be proclaimed. I could stand on the corner and read the Greek New Testament. That is a form of proclamation, but probably not a great bridge to 21st century West Henrietta, NY.

Dr. Kloha is a Concordia Seminary professor who I did have for a class. [Interesting and flat out amazing side story. I took a class with him over the Summer and it happened to be the same summer which he was finishing a dissertation. At the end of the class he apologized to the class for neglecting it. That told me two things because as a fairly tough judge of teaching I had thought that it was a good class. It told me 1) Dr. Kloha was driven by internal standards which were high and 2) he was open to accountability. That type of person is worth listening to.] Dr. Kloha talks about following the spirit and the fact that the church in Acts is just “making it up”.

I’ll put it this way. I’m a practitioner. Admittedly we at St. Mark are making it up as we go along. We are building a bridge while walking on it. That requires being sharp about decisions, but also very willing to say “oops, forgive me.” But what I’ve got in the back of my head after reading both of these people is that they are agreeing in words, but probably have very different conceptions of what “living under the Lordship of Christ, submitting to him and his word and committing to one another as the people among whom Christ’s reign–his kingdom–is manifest in the world” would look like. What I’d challenge both of them to do is state some specifics as to what that humility would look like at a practitioner level. Who are they talking to? What types of practices? Who is clinging to broken bridges to nowhere? Who needs to be a little open to being smacked around by the spirit? What would that look like in OR, NY, MO?

Without a clear statement what I’ve got is a Rorschach test – the equivalent of the “generic republican” poll question. I can read into it whatever I’m thinking. If we aren’t willing to listen to such statements (like Peter, James and John were to Paul) then we can’t actually even start.

A moving reflection on our Organist Dennis

This link takes you to a reflection by the father of one of Dennis’ piano students. If you knew Dennis like we did, it is well worth reading. Others saw the same guy, and wrote a beautiful reflection.

Rock-a-bye baby: A Theology of Children, Church and Family – post #1

Last month’s Lutheran Witness had a slate of articles that I was slightly shocked at. I want to explore some of that shock and some of the theology underlying it.
Here is a chart that basically spells out the problem (the chart is my compilation, pastors usually aren’t great at numbers and synodocrats don’t like publishing clear data)….

What you can see is that births per 1000 women in the US (I’ve looked at white, non-Hispanic because that is what most of the LCMS was/is) took a dramatic swing down from 1960 to 1980. Somewhere around 1970 it went below the magic “replacement rate”. What that means is that the white, non-Hispanic population of the US is shrinking. It will be smaller in the future than it is today. Communicant Membership is roughly a 10 year stagger. The LCMS by-and-large starts communion around the 12 years old. So the highest birthrate in 1960 leads to the highest communicant membership in 1970. It has been downhill since then.

That downhill slope hasn’t been that dramatic because of the other fact of our modern world – we live longer. Less kids in at the base gets mitigated by less deaths than might have been expected. The population gets older. But we can only extend those years out so far. We have more late 70’s and more 80’s and maybe even a few 90’s, but barring a major scientific breakthrough in longevity (which could happen, remember those ages in Genesis, we could find the genetic switches and a treatment), barring that breakthrough we can’t really extend that. What happens is what we currently see – a cliff. People are go-go, until they don’t go. Eventually that last major birth cohort casts off this mortal coil and we have a smaller church in a short number of years.

From the viewpoint of the church universal (the one, holy, catholic and apostolic) this might not be much of a problem. The church shrinks in the west and grows in Africa, Asia and South America. Just because whites stopped having kids doesn’t mean everybody did. From the viewpoint of American denominations this is disaster. From the viewpoint of a denominational pastor it is troubling. What that chart means is a vicious funnel for pulpits – barring a couple of things I’ll look at in this series. I can see myself about age 55-60 with churches closing left and right begging for that job at Wal-Mart or on the used car lot (because let’s face it, after 20 years in the parish at that age what would I be able to get?) and the retirement fund of the denomination that I’ve paid into for 20 years saying “sorry, we’re broke, thanks for paying for the retirement of the generation before you who caused the mess.”

Now to start setting up the problems. The first answer to any such problem could be evangelism. If we have this problem we could solve it through committed and concentrated evangelism of those who don’t look like us right now. But there is a problem with that. Those who don’t look like us, or who weren’t raised within a particular tradition, often have novel and interesting ways of carrying on the tradition. That fight that my grand-dad started, and left it to my Dad who bequeathed the vendetta to me just doesn’t carry the passion for a convert. If we were smart we’d learn from that, but we are not. Instead we moan that the newbies aren’t “confessional” enough. They obviously don’t have the pure doctrine because look at what they sing in worship, pray, hold their hands, etc. Unless you are committed to adapting your traditions to a new context, you just won’t convert enough. And if you aren’t, you compound the problem with internal doctrine wars. Which is exactly what we have seen since 1970 – the battle for the bible, worship wars, the battle for the liturgy, church growth “heresy”, missional.

Right now in the LCMS a strongly confessional faction is in political power. They got elected largely campaigning on being “your grandfather’s church”. Now smartly when they say such things they are adding they are grand-dad’s in the vein of doctrine and theology – not larger social things. Nobody likes to think that doctrine changes or theology changes. And some parts of it – like the creeds – don’t. That is what the Roman Catholic Church calls the deposit of faith. But if I take a look at the “doctrines” that my grand-dad followed: no usury, no life insurance, no birth control, no women in any leadership positions, no official women teachers, questions if English was a possible language, questions over just how kosher this democracy thing is, the list could go on… God the Father is still the maker of all things visible and invisible, God the son is still born of the virgin Mary and ruling from the right hand of the Father, God the Holy Spirit is still active in the Christian church and the communion of saints. The end note here is that churches tend to hold way too much as inviolate doctrine that is really just expression not of Christian identity but LCMS or Denominational identity. As the old joke goes – the seminarian leaves the home church loving Jesus and comes back loving the church.

So, faced with an inability to adapt practices to a new people due to “confessional/doctrinal” reasons, those in power must come up with some “solution” to the problem or at least appear to offer something. Enter the Lutheran Witness issue. Quoting from President Harrison,

Our LCMS birth rate mirrors that of the broader population of the US which is at an all-time low. So, how do we best encourage our young people to treasure marriage and have children? How do we make the point in a freeing and Gospel-oriented way? How do we encourage those capable of having more children to do so? How do we take concrete action in our congregations to care for children and encourage young parents…be fruitful and multiply. It can be a God-pleasing act to have a large, loving orthodox Lutheran family…

I think you can see what the correct doctrine and solution being offered is (hint, it looks like your grand-mothers existence). So, what I want to do in this series is look at some of the theology (which isn’t all crazy) behind the baby push. Now I’m the father of a very traditional family of three (ok, compared to what they are talking about we are slackers), so I do want to support it where I can as a true option, but I also want to look at some of the theological ugly side (i.e. if babies are gifts, and you aren’t having them, what does that mean), and I want to look at how that might not be the case.

Warning note, this series is me thinking out loud. I’m highly likely to be inflammatory and inconsiderate and make everyone mad. Because this is the true fault line in our culture, and I won’t agree with the LW expression enough for the confessional to feel comfortable, but I’ll be too natalist (especially in one area) for moderns to take. I’d love to hear your comments through-out this series, because it is in the living were this doctrine takes form.

Here is a question/challenge to LC-MS folks – Feedback wanted

LINC-Rochester (yes, its still moving) has three principles:

1. Community Involvement – this is care for the community we are seeking to evangelize in a simple way, what are the felt needs and can we address them.
2. Indigenous Leadership – the goal is to find, teach and place leaders from the community itself, the faster the better
3. Church multiplication – the goal is not just to plant a church but to plant multiple churches and to create churches that have planting in their DNA

Those principles are part of LINC-Houston that I witnessed and they don’t seem too far off from the apostolic church observed in Acts and Paul’s letters. The early church was renowned for taking care of the “widows & orphans”. The first fight in the church was over the distribution to the widows (Acts 6:1). Paul sends Titus around to appoint elders in each church (Titus 1:5) and just the amazing fact of the early church talks about church multiplication. That was the mission they were involved in. The first place they were called Christians, Antioch, set aside Paul and Barnabas to plant more (Acts 13:1-3). This is solid biblical ground.

I hope I’m not stepping too far out in saying that the group meeting for LINC is looking to encourage congregations to behave in such a manner themselves. It is an embarrassment that there is not an LC-MS congregation in the City of Rochester proper. Even stepping away from the denominational definition it is something of an embarrassment that a group of congregations around the city supposedly working together have only a marginal mission in the city (important but in the grand scheme marginal, it effectively does one of the three principles of LINC).

In putting together an organization and a budget the question ultimately is what level of support can be generated for such a mission? This is what I proposed.

In the Rochester circuits the last reported average attendance was just over 2800 people on any given week. (That is an attendance number and not a membership number which would be roughly 3-4x the attendance). The total combined budgets of those congregations is just under $5 Million per year. My initial proposals for funding the mission in Rochester were to aim for $10 per individual attendee. Over 5 years as hopefully we proved effective, I hoped to grow that to $25 per attendee. I also put into the budget the thought that congregations would start (in 2013) appropriating 0.5% of their budget to local mission. Again hopefully proving success along the way growing that congregational support for local mission to 2% of budget. Two separate streams. Individuals buying into the mission of the church in Samaria/Judea and Congregations doing the same.

Here is the question: do those assumptions seem pie in the sky? If you were trying to fund local mission work where would you start for funding assumptions? Do you agree or disagree that we should first look at ourselves (as opposed to an outside grant source)? This is a sincere bleg.