church

Alone in a Church

“Why is it people I scarcely know know how to talk to me better than anyone at my church?”

She asked me that. She’s a young adult trying to connect at her home congregation. (Yes, I asked her permission to quote her, anonymously.) Her perception is that no one in her home congregation cares about her, nor do they care about their surrounding community. They insist on doing things the way they have always been, without any further examination. They don’t reach out, especially if it means breaking out of a very narrow comfort zone. And for her and her needs? A lot of shrugging. Connecting with her? Whatever.

She just came back from a conference where she vaguely knew… two people, I think. And she connected with them more and better than people she’s known her whole life at her congregation.

This is a problem. (more…)

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Review: Unfashionable

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Unfashionable
by Tullian Tchivdjian

What is the church’s relationship to the world supposed to be? Are we supposed to stand apart from the world and refuse to let it in? Are we supposed to be in the world, making it better? Are we supposed to learn from the world or run from it? In this book, Tulian tackles what the church should be. He claims that the church makes the best changes in the world by being different – by being, well, unfashionable. We can only make a difference by being different. And the only way to be different is to be what we are: Sinners saved by grace, children of God chosen by his pleasure and mercy. And to be strengthened to do that, we must be in the Word.

Tullian has “fallen from grace” in many circles because of what appear to be true allegations concerning his conduct and refusal to repent. I won’t defend the author of this work – assuming the allegations are true, Tullian must repent, and should he repent, I pray he is shown true grace.

That said, even with those allegations, Tullian wrote several books that spoke Law and Gospel so well that I still pick up his books when I find them available. (His excellent Jesus+Nothing=Everything still receives my highest recommendation!) (more…)

The Best Thing About Church

It was a long, hard catechism process fraught with communication issues. You see, she’s Deaf. I have some basic signing, and she is an excellent lip reader, so most of the time it worked all right. She has told me repeatedly that I saved her life. She’s never been involved in a church before, and she’s been pulled in deep her. She loves women’s Bible study and attends faithfully.

Today she nearly cried.

After all that, what is it that affected her most? More than preaching the Gospel? More than the announcement of forgiveness or a home in heaven? More than peace with God?

I sang “Happy Birthday” to her.

“She was almost crying,” another church member told me after. “She said no pastor had ever sung Happy Birthday to her before.”

Um… ok.

Look, I get that as a small congregation, we get to make things far more personal than larger congregations. I can get away with silly things like singing Happy Birthday on a Sunday morning right before Bible study. I get that the people here greatly value that personal touch.

But… but the center isn’t my personal touch. That should be a “bonus feature” on the DVD of church. The main feature is Jesus. Not pastor – Jesus!

I’ve long struggled with church worship here. I’ve only barely been touched by pastor worship… but now I see it a little. It happened with a teenager, too. He told me that he can’t pay attention to other pastors, and now that I’ve had to enact discipline on his mom, he refuses to see me. So he might as well not go to any church, because he won’t get anything out of those other pastors, anyway. That’s pastor worship there – and other sins, too.

I have told people repeatedly – it’s about Jesus, not about me. When I leave (and it is a when, whether that’s in one year or twenty) – when I leave, nobody better leave this congregation. If they do, it shows me they were attached to me and not attached to Jesus.

I can’t save anyone, no matter how many times I might sing Happy Birthday to them. Knowing me will not forgive any of your sins.

This may shock you, but I’m not Jesus.

I appreciate that this woman appreciated my singing Happy Birthday. I do these things on purpose to express love. And I’m not calling her a “pastor-ologist” or anything like that. She trusts Christ and rejoices in him.

But if that’s the thing that gets her most excited about church… something’s lacking.

Does that mean I need to be less friendly? I don’t think that’s the solution. Can I point better to Christ? Well, yeah. Obviously. I can always do that better.

The best thing about church, though, shouldn’t be the pastor. And it shouldn’t be the people. Those things are nice and good, but they shouldn’t be the highlight.

The best thing about church is Jesus: hearing what he has done proclaimed to you; praising in response; confessing sins and hearing forgiveness; receiving the Sacrament… these things are the best things about church. Not pastor!

“Maybe I need to rethink belonging to this church.”

“One of my old pastors told me a church isn’t a building. It’s a group of people. And I have my group of people at work. We watch a pastor on tv together. That’s good enough!”

That’s what she told me. Never mind that what she said meant she didn’t belong to the same congregation as her family. Never mind Jesus invited her to the feast of Communion only in a local congregation, not through television. Never mind that her tv preacher was a false teacher. Never mind that I was her shepherd calling her back.

It didn’t matter what Scripture I proclaimed. It didn’t matter at all – she didn’t need church.

Never mind that she constantly complained that her son didn’t come to church. (I wonder where he learned that?) Never mind that she was constantly so overstressed that she needed Jesus to calm her down and make her let go of her stress. Never mind that Jesus commands us to gather together.

Sigh.

Well, as might guess, it wasn’t a fun conversation for either of us. She left, telling me, “Maybe I need to think about whether or not this is the right church for me.”

Oh, the next day?

Her brother (also a member) was in the hospital and about to undergo emergency surgery. “He’s about to go into pre-op, so you probably can’t get here in time. Just say a prayer, ok?”

I grabbed my coat and drove to the hospital. I’m known in this particular hospital, and if the patient allows it, I’m allowed to go all the way in until the actual operating theater. When I arrive, he’s still in his room, surrounded by family.

Including that woman.

“Pastor! You got here fast!” she says.

I look at her. “A tv pastor will never visit you in the hospital.”

“You’re going to be mean about this, aren’t you?”

“Yep.”

And I turned to the man in pain and shared the Gospel with him. I visited him every day until he went home – and I’ll do a follow-up this week at his home. (I make it my policy, whenever possible, to visit a member every day they’re in the hospital. It might be only a five-minute visit, but I’m there with them! There are definite positives to pastoring a smaller congregation!) I shared Jesus and comfort from him at every visit.

See, God has given us a great blessing through television and the internet to share the Gospel with others. But there are things that cannot come through a screen. A personal visit when you’re in pain? No matter how close you might be to that person on the other side of the screen, they can’t hold your hand as you pray together, and they can’t sit with you in your pain and simply be there.

But I can’t help but feel God timed this all to happen just right to show that woman… yeah, you do need a local congregation.

I just hope he gets through to her. Personally, I’m not confident – she’s a stubborn woman, she is! – but if anyone can get through, it’s God!

Pastor on Mute

So, I was useless this week. I canceled pretty much every appointment. I did half the work I set out for myself to do. In fact, I could only achieve about half my normal work. I was physically incapable of doing more.

No, I wasn’t flat on my back with an illness. And no, I didn’t get run over by a bus and get laid up in a hospital. I was in my office every day, working on office stuffs. But I couldn’t visit people… because I lost my voice.

Do you have any idea how much a pastor relies on his voice? It means I can’t communicate the Gospel easily. It’s near impossible to comfort another person. If the other person is susceptible to illness (such as someone who’s older or someone in the hospital) I can’t even visit them. Bible studies? Nope. Sermons? Nada. I can listen, sure! And that’s really important to do — but I also need to be able to clearly communicate what God has done to people. And I can’t do that without a voice, unless the other person knows sign language. (I know basics, so that would work…)

I actually lost it over a week ago, so Sunday morning was a struggle. I posted a bit on that last week. But then… I had to cancel almost all my meetings. I had a lot of evangelism visits lined up this week… all canceled. Instead, I languished in my office. I worked hard on the sermon (and honestly, this was a good week to spend extra time on the sermon). I prepared Bible studies. I still did lots of work, but spent very little time with people.

And you know what? It was frustrating! I got grumpy. I had little motivation to do the actual necessary office work. I wanted to nap a lot, and it wasn’t from the cold. It was just me being grumpy.

By the time my voice came back late Thursday, I was ready to go. I spent a good chunk of Saturday going out and visiting people, and my spirit soared. There is something about getting out and serving people that helped me. Sure, the interactions were generally positive. All but one visit were evangelism visits, as I stop by just to see how people are doing and remind them that hey, there’s a pastor and a church ready to serve them!

(It also helped immensely that one such family came to visit our congregation for the first time today!)

But I’ve learned this about me: If you take away my ability to serve the congregation, I get grumpy. Now, that doesn’t happen if I’m vacation or serving in a different capacity – say, at a pastor’s conference. But if I have a week straight of nothing but office work, I get cranky.

I guess I just need to serve.

And also get rid of the cough that’s returned. That can’t be a good thing.

It’s not my church.

I have an imagination. Sometimes that’s a blessing. I love making up stories. God has given me the ability to tell his stories in a way that people hear “story” and not “boring Sunday school,” and so they learn more about the Bible. Imagination is a good thing.

…and then it’s not.

This past week, I had two related meetings. Both of them were high stressors for me — to the point that I wasted two days this past week, not able to do any office work, not able to visit anyone, because my head was in those meetings and mentally preparing and bracing myself. I do not exaggerate when I say: If these meetings went badly, this congregation might not make it to the end of 2013. And my brain decided the best thing to do was to make that worst case scenario the most likely scenario.

And that’s when imagination is a bad thing.  (more…)

Stranded

It wasn’t that bad… but it wasn’t pretty.

Beware the vengeance of squirrels, for it shall come suddenly upon you, like a wave of acorns.

This past Monday I hopped in the van to get to a meeting with pastors from some sister congregations and then on to visit some shut-ins. I looked forward to a full afternoon of growing in Christ and serving brothers and sisters in Christ.

And then the “check engine” light started blinking. And the van stopped functioning.

I made it home, opened the hood, and found just about every wire and cable I could see… snipped. My initial thought was vandalism (we live in a neighborhood where, while it’s not the most likely thing to happen, isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility). I called up a congregation member who suggested squirrels.

Ah, those pesky rodents.

For the last two years, they’d been enjoying the comfort of the church’s ceilings for their nests. They got in through a hole in the roof’s sealing and chattered away up there. This spring we sealed it all up. And now… well, apparently furry vengeance struck.  (more…)

“You’re too old/young to have a good idea!”

I am so proud of my congregation.

Before I explain why, let me say: my congregation is full of sinners. Its pastor is a terrible sinner. We do terrible things to each other. We are broken human beings that, really, are just getting used to being open about our brokenness with each other.

And yet, sometimes, something happens that shows me that they are not what they were. They have been washed, they’ve been sanctified, they’ve been justified by Jesus. And it’s so awesome for me, as their pastor, when that shows.

We were having a congregational brainstorming session. It was pretty open. I served as moderator and tried to keep things focused and on track as well as allowing everyone the chance to speak. It went well. Lots of ideas came up. The central thought of the meeting was this: How can we make Jesus clearer to a visitor? How do we get all the junk out of the way that we do sometimes, how do we get all the thick “This is the way we do things” out of the way and simply present Jesus? (more…)

“Pastor, are you OK?”

It’s hard to distribute Communion when you can’t see because of tears in your eyes.

She came up for Communion. She came to participate in the Lord’s Supper, the body and the blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine. She had lingered at the outskirts of the church. She had been away. She had been hurt. I spent a lot of time with her, comforting, listening, simply being with her. She had returned… but had not joined our family at the Lord’s Table. For months now she’s lingered, watching. I told her she was welcome. I invited her up.

Today. I turned around from retrieving the platter of bread. And there she was, in line with the other communicants. And I cried.

This wasn’t bawling. This wasn’t sudden unseemly behavior. This was simply sudden tears of joy.

A member of our Christian  family was finally coming back to feast with us.

I actually had a hard time getting the words out. “Take and eat. This is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, the same body he gave to death for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” I heard my voice quiver. I don’t know if she knew how awesome it was giving her Communion.

My assistant asked if I was alright. I nodded with a smile.

How awesome it is to give forgiveness! How awesome it is to be used to show others — so that they may taste and see that the Lord is good!

I needed today. I needed to gather together with family around our Father. It’s been another hard week. I feared today; the sermon was very personal and not everyone enjoys that kind of sermon. After the service, as I hung up my robe, a woman came and said, “Pastor, you made me cry again today. And that’s not a bad thing!” And she burst into tears. We held each other for a long moment.

A man, after the service: “Pastor, you got me with that sermon.”

Another: “Pastor, that’s what I needed to hear today.”

I needed to hear this encouragement from my members. I needed to know that God was actually using me in their lives. And today, seeing a woman receive Communion for the first time in years… hearing that God was using me in others’ lives… and later on, visiting on a hospital call and sharing Jesus with a woman who’d never even heard of him…

Yeah. I’m not ok. I’m tearing up again.

I’m not ok. And that’s ok. I’m a broken man. I such a stupid, silly, useless man… and that God would use me? That he would do such amazing things through me? That I could accomplish his wonders as he works through his Word in my mouth, as he dwells in wafers my hands distribute, that he would create faith through something I would do?

If you’ve read here any amount of time, you’ve heard this sentiment from me before. And I apologize if it’s a repeat. But… it still just amazes me.

I’m not ok… and God uses me anyway.

So, Bipolar Weeks are the New Normal, Huh?

Another week of up and down. I have a feeling this will be the standard. Truth to tell, it’s been normal for a while; I’ve just usually focused on one thing or another. But then again, when you live in the extremes of God’s grace, that seems to be simply part of the landscape.

Think about the men who lived in the Bible. Elijah never seemed to have a blah day. It was either huge celebration or “kill me now.” Peter was a fisherman, but once he followed Christ, he didn’t seem to have much emotional downtime. And Paul? Man, if you look at his letters, you see a man who knows passion for each and every subject.

And why should that surprise me? Let’s see here: God has extreme love. It’s not a love that’s ever mediocre. Michael Card called it the “Raging love of the Lamb.” It’s a love that was so extreme that he set aside everything he was, taking on human flesh, to become one of us. That’s not something you do because you’re bored one day. It’s not something you do because you felt like it with a “meh.” This is something you do at the extreme. (more…)