Archive for May, 2021

“More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church is beginning to reopen in the United States. This process has been uneven, with many cities still under significant restrictions while others are able to operate with relatively minor accommodations. At the center of this season of reopening is the pressing need for churches to gain clarity on the state of their membership. While online services and ministries have offered a necessary lifeline of connection, the rapid change and inherent disconnectedness of the pandemic has produced a season of uncertainty. How are churches in the United States fairing in terms of attendance, giving, and staffing? How are pastors navigating the new pressures of reopening after over a year of unprecedented challenges? The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents an effort to answer these questions by tracking church reopening. The report processed responses from over 600 churches representing over 400,000 weekly worshippers from 47 states and the District of Colombia.” — cited from the Overview of the full results of the Project Report.

You can view the full report at https://churchattendanceproject.org/full-results/. To read commentary on the Church Attendance Project Report, go to https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19.html?&display=checkout and https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2021/may/church-decline-and-recovery-during-covid-19-part-2.html.

What do you think of the research? Does it reflect your particular congregation?

Categories : Church, Church Growth
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May
30

Finding Shade

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We have a German Shepherd. Without a doubt, she is the smartest dog we’ve had, possessing an extensive vocabulary of English words (yes, that’s a thing). She’s active and athletic, and provides a lot of joy for our family. One of the things I’ve noticed about her is that she doesn’t care to be outside in the heat of day. Summers in Iowa are not renown for intense heat and humidity, but we have had several days of 100 degree heat indexes. On those days she immediately seeks shade when outdoors.

Shade is something that makes summer what it is. It is a place where we find rest from the heat of the noonday sun. There are times when we have to be in the sun, but its nice to have some shade available.

There isn’t really much about shade in the Bible, but recently I’ve been thinking of the story of the Exodus. When God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he provided his presence and guidance through the form of a cloud. The fleeing children simply had to keep an eye on the cloud to know the path to the land of promise. Interestingly enough, the same thing that provide them with guidance also provided them comfort, for those who followed the cloud walked in its shade.

The same thing is true today. Following God provides some marvelous benefits, including his comfort. The more closely we walk with God, the more we sense his comfort. The Psalmist understood this principle far before I did. Psalm 121:5-8 says, “The Lord watches over you–the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm–he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.”

So next time you see a park bench under a shade tree, remember that the Lord is your spiritual shade, provide rest and refreshment from the noonday sun.

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May
30

Measuring Spiritual Authenticity

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One of the most subjective things we can evaluate is our own spiritual authenticity. Am I becoming more mature in my faith? Am I growing in my discipleship? Is there progress in my walk with Christ? Questions like these can create a struggle, leaving us to either listening to our “gut,” or, finding some prior point of reference to do an informal comparison study.

Matthew 23 records Jesus’ evaluation and condemnation of the hypocrisy of “the teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees (who were) the official interpreters of the law of Moses.” (23:1) From this chapter we can glean six questions that can help us determine our own progress and growth. I won’t cite the entire passage, but if you’re interested you’ll find it helpful to read the chapter in its entirety in light of the exploratory questions.

  1. Is spiritual growth a burden? (Matthew 23:1-4) “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (23:4)
  2. Am I judgmental, exclusive or proud? (Matthew 23:5-6) “Everything they do is for show…they love to sit at the head table…” (23:5-6)
  3. Am I becoming more approachable, or less? (Matthew 23:7-12) “They love to receive respectful greetings…” (23:7)
  4. Are my priorities self centered? (Matthew 23:13-22) “For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! (23:15)
  5. Am I measuring spirituality in a superficial way? (Matthew 23:23-24) “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! (23:24)
  6. Are there evidences of spiritual integrity? (Matthew 23:25-28) “For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” (23:27)

Again, reviewing these questions in the full context of the chapter will prove to be beneficial. My hope is that we will frequently use the words of Jesus as we evaluate our progress, leaving nothing to chance.

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May
23

My New (Ad)Venture

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As I’ve previously stated here on my blog site, I stepped out of pastoral ministry last August, concluding 36 years of work in the local church. Today I’m pleased to share with you that I have accepted a new position with Mortar Stone where I will serve as Generosity Ministry Partner with churches across America. This opportunity will allow me to office at home and will not require me to relocate.

Mortar Stone provides generosity intelligence software that manages church giving metrics. In addition to serving in that capacity, I will be coaching congregations regarding their generosity ministries. Mortar Stone was founded about ten years ago with a passion to help churches develop and grow their givers through discipleship. Presently we help over 2,000 churches with our processes.

I’m excited for this opportunity and look forward to using my past experiences to help congregations grow in generosity. I’m also excited to meet new people, hear their stories, and serve them as they seek to fund their ministries and fuel their mission and vision. Thank you in advance for your prayers as I embark on this exciting new chapter of my ministry. For more information about Mortar Stone, visit http://www.mortarstone.com.

Categories : Uncategorized
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May
23

State of the Bible – 2021

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Here’s a new study from Barna research on how American’s view the Bible. Check it out here: https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/. Are you surprised by anything in the report?

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In the twelfth century, a Jewish scholar and Torah expert named Moses ben Maimon developed a philosophy of giving ranking the lowest form of giving to the highest form. Like rungs on a ladder, Maimonides, describes eight levels of charity as progressions that are accomplished through spiritual maturity. Jewish thinking viewed charitable giving as an act of righteousness, especially in caring for those who were poor.

The first level, or the lowest one, is where the giver gives reluctantly or begrudgingly. This may include embarrassing or shaming the recipient.

Level two is giving cheerfully, but not to the degree that is needed. Here, giving is measured and insufficient.

At level three, the person gives cheerfully and adequately, but only when he or she is asked. In level four, the person gives without being asked or before being solicited.

Level five occurs when the recipient knows the donor, but the donor does not know the recipient. Here we are beginning to see anonymity come into play. The next level, six, flips the paradigm. The donor knows the recipient but the recipient doesn’t know the donor.

The seventh level occurs when neither the giver and the recipient know of each other’s identity. Number 8 then, is the highest level, which is the donor empowers the recipient to become self sufficient. This could be done through a major gift, an interest free loan, time offered in mentoring, or any number of ways that enable the recipient to become self reliant and in turn, become of service to someone else.

Let me make a few observations about Maimonides’ list. First, since making a gift is a part of each level of charity, he’s really describing the way a person makes a gift. It’s true that the gift may indeed increase in size over the progression, but the main growth comes in the form of humility and anonymity. Second, while the gifts offered are helpful to the recipient, the ultimate goal is for the person to become self sustaining. The easiest thing one can do is write a check, and the most difficult thing one can do is give their time. Finally, the eight steps provide a tangible way to measure our own giving attitudes. Aspiring to become a better giver is not just having the desire to give more, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s aspiring to reproduce yourself as a person of generosity. For when the recipient is self reliant, they too will become persons who give.

Categories : Generosity, Giving
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May
16

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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Congratulations, Class of 2021! You did it with grace and elegance during a world wide pandemic! In the midst of shutdowns, limitations, cancellations, masks and social distancing you overcame adversity to accomplish one of the greatest milestones of your life to date. Celebrations are best served mixed with moments of reflection as we realized the conferring of degrees was a milestone achieved over a life of learning. And with that the hope and confidence that the best is yet to come.

I mused at what it might have been like if Jesus graduated in 2021. Would he have been the valedictorian? Would he have won all of the academic and athletic honors? Would he have been presented with multiple full ride scholarships to all of the best institutions of higher learning due to his perfect ACT and SAT scores? It kind of makes you wonder.

One of my favorite passages about Jesus’ life is found in Luke 2:41-52. The story is familiar enough. Jesus and his family went to the Temple when he was 12 years old. This would have been an important visit for Jesus, because at age 13 he would become a full member of the Jewish synagogue and assume all of the rights and responsibilities of circumcision. In other words, he would become a man.

While the text is about Jesus, the story includes Joseph and Mary and their interplay through the narrative. The text reveals that Jesus, like any child, required some work. (Not that it was necessarily bad work). Verse 52 said that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” In short, he grew intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially. Joseph and Mary were there to superintend that growth and were diligent to ensure that Jesus was nurtured in the most loving way. The preceding verse says that Jesus was “obedient to them,” inferring that the parents were going to continue to provide direction and guidance for his developmental years.

But Jesus also created some worry. You remember, don’t you? They went to the Temple as a family, and after spending some time on the return trip to Nazareth they discovered Jesus wasn’t among the caravan of worshipers.

“Joseph, have you seen Jesus?” “No, I thought he was with you.” “I thought he was with you.”

After a three day search they found him in the Temple, presumably right where they left him. And in typical parental fashion, Mary chides, “How could you do this to us! We’ve been worried sick!” His simple response was that he must be “in his Father’s house.”

Which brings me to the third thing. Jesus created wonder. Imagine Mary and Joseph’s reaction when Jesus said he must be in his Father’s house! Hence the wonder. There’s no recorded response to Jesus’ statement. The only insight we have is that Mary treasured all of it in her heart. That’s not the first time Mary has treasured the mysterious sense of wonder surrounding Jesus in her heart. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

My most sincere congratulations again to the Class of 2021. May the Lord continue to walk with you as you begin the next exciting chapter of your lives!

Categories : Graduation, Parenting
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With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational form of church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.

A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.

A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.

There is one more thing about congregation wide voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”

So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?

Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.

One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.

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May
15

NEXT: Wait for the Promise

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Over the past several weeks I’ve been posting reflections from a sermon series I did titled, “The Seven NEXT Words of Christ.” Each sermon dealt with the first post resurrection statements made by the risen Lord. This week I’ll cover the final post resurrection saying, found in Luke 24:49.

“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49, NIV).

Jesus seventh statement concerns the important role the Holy Spirit would play in the ongoing mission of the Christian movement. My Baptist tradition in general has been a little nervous around talk concerning the Holy Spirit. That kind of theology was central to the church down the street! But the Holy Spirit is central to the ongoing story of God’s redemptive plan. The Holy Spirit wasn’t invented at Pentecost. If you read the creation account of Genesis you’ll see the active work of the Spirit in the formation of the world. The Spirit is lurking in the shadows of the Old Testament narrative, appearing here and there supporting and undergirding the story of Israel.

A more prominent role is undertaken at the incarnation of Christ and continues as such in the Gospels. But its the book of Acts and the formation of the new community of the redeemed where the Holy Spirit takes a more visible posture. The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost comes simultaneously with the sending of the church into the world. The Acts of the Apostles are really the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles. As a result a movement was born and the world was transformed through the message of the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes I get the feeling that our heads spin a little bit whenever the Holy Spirit is introduced into a conversation. The New International Version presents a clothing metaphor to aid our understanding of how the Holy Spirit relates and interacts with believers. While we may struggle a bit with the Holy Spirit, we can at least wrap our minds around clothing and what clothing is all about.

Clothing is what covers you. It provides a sense of protection from the rays of direct sunlight and warmth in the chill of winter’s snow. Clothes cover our bodies and help us from being exposed to rough surfaces that may be uncomfortable to the skin, as well as protect us during dangerous activities such as football or cycling. There is an element of comfort that is also associated with what we wear, like that old hoodie or faded pair of jeans.

What we wear is also what others see. We are able to make impressions upon others, depending on what we choose to wear. We dress for certain occasions and perhaps even have our own style that matches our personalities. In a sense, our clothes are identification markers, helping us locate one another in a crowd. Some will even go so far as to assert that “clothes make the man or woman,” suggesting that our behaviors and attitudes are closely associated with what we choose to wear.

Thinking of the clothing metaphor leads me to the conclusion that one of God’s goals for our lives is for others to see us in our redeemed version, kind of a YOU 2.0, if you will. With certainty, the Spirit continues to work on us everyday. But the outcome of that ongoing transformation is to work in us so the Spirit can work through us to make God impressions on those around us.

So maybe the question is not so much what will you wear as it is who will you wear. Each day we make the choice to put on ourselves or to be clothed with the Holy Spirit.

Here’s a helpful article that is worthy of pastors’ attention about the struggles of motherhood and the challenge that churches face in meeting their needs. It’s by Dr. Heather Thompson Day, associate professor at Colorado Christian University. You can read the article at the following link: https://www.barna.com/guest-column-mothers/.

I appreciate Day’s research about the stress levels of mothers, single mothers, and working mothers. The pressures and demands of being a mother become more complex with each generation of children. While Day appeals to churches to provide support to mothers, she stops short of offering some practical suggestions. Here’s what I would offer that is practical and tangible, based on my experiences as a pastor.

  1. Lay Off the Obligation to Volunteer in Children’s Ministry. Our mother’s and grandmother’s all took their turns working in the church nursery, teaching Sunday School, and volunteering for VBS. They did their duty and did their time, and now expect the 21st century mothers to do the same. But the world has changed. Many of those same mothers and grandmothers didn’t work outside the home nor face the pressures of modern day parenting schedules. I remember one parent who told me, in so many words, if they had to watch their own kids when they came to church they “just as well stay at home.”
  2. Lay Off the Proverbs 31 Ideal. Many mothers place enough expectations upon themselves with out a pastor (usually male) pointing out Proverbs 31 as the model of perfect motherhood. Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman could do it all, and by my observation, many of today’s moms are already trying to do it all, including meeting the additional expectations they feel from other moms in the PTA or the weekly play group.
  3. Lay Off the Lip Service to Reaching Young Families. If you want to young families, make a commitment to reaching them. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Create environments and contexts where young parents can be with each other, sans kids. Provide occasional date night opportunities for parents by offering child care so they can catch their breath. You can do the same in early December so parents can Christmas shop together for their kids.
  4. Lay Off the Sports Guilt. I’m old enough to remember “blue laws,” which virtually shut communities down on Sundays. Stores, gas stations, and even restaurants were closed on Sunday so that local churches had the market cornered one full day each week. That ship has sailed. Even Wednesday nights, a night once respected by local school districts is off the table. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to provide their children every opportunity to learn and grow possible, including sports and the fine arts. Whether we agree with it or not, sports and fine arts are going to schedule practices, games and performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to choose those practices, games and performances over church activities. I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to win that battle. I also learned I wasn’t going to judge or criticize parents who made the choices they made. Nothing is to be gained by invalidating a young family’s Christian commitment just because their kids play soccer on Sunday morning. So instead of judging them, celebrate them. Encourage older congregants to attend kids sporting and fine arts events. Make your presence known to them where they are, not just when they are on the church’s campus.
  5. Lay Off the Guessing Game. One of my pet peeves of church leadership is the insistence that they can sit in a room and discern how to meet the needs of mothers, fathers and young families. But if truth be told, they’re just guessing at it. Or worse, they plan as if they’ve read the latest and greatest book released on the subject by the guru of the day who lives in a different geography. There is not magic formula for reaching young families. So maybe church staffs need to quit guessing and actually talk to the mothers and fathers. No, I’m serious. Ask them. And then listen. What they have to say may not be in your church’s program or schedule, but that’s ok. You really don’t have to guess any more. And if you can discern what the needs actually are, who knows? They might be more prone to invite and bring their friends along. The gymnasium you’re thinking will help you actually may be for naught. What moms or dads may prefer is a mentoring relationship with an empty nester who has already walked where they’re walking.