What It Means When Your Church’s Worship Isn’t Cool

I have a pastor friend who serves a campus ministry. He has an intriguing way of piquing interest in his worship services. Every week he places a sign outside the door of the church for passers-by to see. It always has an interesting statement or question relating to the week’s worship. This week the sign said: “What is the best thing about church?”

It was interesting that this happened to be the question today. This very day I heard through the grapevine that a family no longer attends our church because the adolescents in the family think it’s boring.  So they attend the local mega church that has lights, sets, a professional band, and an attractive young pastor with an untucked shirt.

Here are my honest responses to that revelation:

  • It cuts like a knife. I probably take it more personally than I should that someone has left our church. But I (and our support staff, volunteers, and musicians) put a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, into developing lively worship and engaging sermons. Like it or not, it’s personal.
  • You can’t be all things to all people. If entertainment is what you’re looking for, it’s probably best to look for a church other than ours. While our worship is engaging, and some would say “relevant,” it’s not going to be a highly polished production. I don’t believe it should be. Yes, it should be done with excellence, and well done, because we ought to be giving the Lord our best. But what’s more important is that the content of worship is filled with the Word of God.
  • Our church will never be able to compete with “mega churches.” We don’t have the personnel. Our resources are far more scarce. We’re not able (or willing) to “sell” our church with expensive gifts and incentives that draw people in. In an easily distracting world people tend to gravitate toward things that are more sparkling and flashy. Our church is not that.
  • I wish people would give small and medium-sized church’s a chance. They are filled with people who care. Most everyone knows your name. Your gifts and talents are needed in a significant way to move the ministry forward. You can have a real impact.

My church is filled with people who are ready, willing, and able to welcome you with open arms. I am pleased to serve one of the friendliest church’s of which I have ever been a part. They want you to be part of the family, and they’re genuinely concerned when they haven’t seen you in weeks.

Instead of turning away from a church like this, why don’t you give it a try? You just might like it.

What are your thoughts?

When An Important Moment in Life Comes By Surprise

We were in the middle of eating dinner. My phone rang and it said the call was coming from West Palm Beach, Florida. Usually I let calls like that go to voicemail. If it’s important enough they’ll leave a message. For some reason I picked it up. A fellow pastor was on the other end of the line. Now stick with me because this gets a little convoluted. A pastor in Wisconsin had called him because a husband and wife from his parish in northern Wisconsin were at Disney on a mommy and daddy getaway. An important moment was taking place.

You see, The unimaginable happened. The husband suddenly passed away, and they needed a local pastor to go be with the wife at this most difficult of times. I told them that the hospital where they ended up was about fifty minutes away from our house. But I’d get there as quickly as I could. So I hopped in the car and headed out.

I got to the hospital and met the poor woman in the Emergency Room. All I could do was give her a hug. I told her how sorry I was. The nurse gave us a room where we could have some privacy. She cried and told me what happened. She cried some more. They were supposed to go back to Wisconsin this evening. Now their pastor at home was telling their three young children that Daddy wouldn’t be coming back. To their credit, Disney gave the grieving woman a room in the Animal Kingdom Lodge until her parents and father-in-law could join her tomorrow.

I listened to her and let her cry. Before I left for the hospital my wife and I decided we would offer to have her come back home with me so she wouldn’t have to be alone for the evening. She was appreciative of the offer, but declined. I gave her my phone number and told her to call for anything at all. Pretty soon a taxi came to pick her up. Before she left the hospital we prayed. We thanked the Lord for all those who helped and cared throughout this ordeal. We prayed for the kids. The prayer included petitions for peace, comfort, and help. In such an important moment it’s not easy to know how to pray. But pray we did.

Then she got into the taxi. And off she went.

You never know when an important moment will enter your day. Two people who had never met before were able to share faith — the very essence of life — at a time when it was needed more than any other.

This poor woman has a long road ahead of her. I don’t know why this had to happen to her. And I don’t know why, in the grand scheme of things, I was the one chosen to minister to her. But I do know that these most important moments are the reason why faith in Jesus matters. It matters eternally.

Faith in Jesus is the only thing that will help us through any and every surprise life tosses at us. Nurture it. You never know when it’s the only thing that will be able to sustain you.

Breathing in Your Post-Easter Sigh

When I got home from church on Easter Sunday I changed my clothes, sat down on the couch, inhaled deeply and let out a big sigh. Seven services later Holy Week 2017 was in the books. It’s the most glorious week of the year, recounting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Savior. But it’s also one of the most fatiguing for church workers.

A deep, heavy sigh sometimes feels great. It brings a cleansing to our lungs and certain relaxation to our bodies. Whenever I exercise, get my heart rate up, and do some heavy cardiovascular work, I find myself breathing a heavy sigh when I’m all finished. It’s my body replenishing the oxygen that it needs and that our God gives in abundant supply.

Isn’t it interesting that the Sunday after Easter we hear the Bible reading of Jesus breathing on the disciples? This isn’t just a post-Easter sigh because He’s tired and in need of some rest. This is the very breath of the Holy Spirit, the Ruach, the Pneuma of God. It is the Lord Himself replenishing His disciples with the strength and faith they need to carry on. This is Jesus giving His disciples the gifts to be His shining lights in a very dark world.

We can take two things away from all this post-Easter breathing:

  1. Physically: Take the time to breathe. When you are stressed take a deep, cleansing breath and notice your stress float away. Breathe deeply as you regularly work out and keep your body and lungs in shape. Be sure to take your own “Sabbath Day” each week to get an entire day’s worth of “breathing deeply.”
  2. Spiritually: A physical deep breath just isn’t enough. We need the breath of the Spirit to wash over us consistently and fully. When we are fatigued in body, soul, and spirit, the Holy Spirit comes to us in His perfect Word and glorious Sacraments to breathe the very breath of God into our existence. Take advantage of that breath by being consistently in the Word and receiving the gift of His Holy Supper.

In this post-Easter time breathe in the goodness of God and find rest in Him. He is your breath. He is your strength.

When and where are you breathing in the Spirit?

What It Takes to Be a Good Church Member

When I first started my vocation as a pastor I was struck by the “churchmen” (and women). There were certain people who were leaders, supporters, and faithful church-goers. Though they held other vocations, they always had the best interests of their church at heart. They gave of their time. They knew how to tithe. And their leadership was second to none. Somehow, somewhere along the line they learned how to be a good church member.

But over the years it seemed as though outstanding “churchmen” and “churchwomen” were more and more difficult to find. Understandably, modern technology and life began to crowd in on people. Today’s world is much more complex and more difficult to make the kind of time commitment it takes to dedicate to life outside of family and work. But thankfully, some still do.

I began thinking about this because of my friend Mike. Not only is Mike a friend, but he happens to be the president of our congregation, a musician, a volunteer, and a guy who does whatever it takes to enhance and promote the ministry of Ascension Lutheran Church. Today, the day of the Super Bowl, Mike had to fly to Atlanta on business. He headed to the airport right after church. When he got to Atlanta I got this text:

Finally settled in at the hotel. I just wanted to say that you had another amazing message! Thanks for your ministry. It is such a blessing.

I don’t share this with you because of the compliment he gave to me. I share this with you because it’s another example that Mike is simply a good church member — a “churchman” if you will. Here’s why:

  1. Mike is positive about our church. As President of the congregation Mike writes an article for our weekly email. For three years now, nearly every week, he has written something positive about our church and its people.  
  2. Mike attends church regularly. The only time he misses is when he’s sick or out of town. Want to find Mike on a Sunday morning. He’ll be at Ascension Lutheran Church in Casselberry, Florida.
  3. Mike is a leader who develops leaders. Over the years Mike has served in various capacities as a leader in the church. Over the past five years I have watched him tap and develop leaders in very savvy and hospitable ways.
  4. Mike goes above and beyond for the sake of our church. Even though he’s already volunteering and serving on our Church Council, he still takes the time to be part of our contemporary worship team, as a leader of a team that gets people together to play cards, and as a volunteer for community events that we present.
  5. Mike’s life is centered around the church. Just this week he came by during his lunch hour to meet someone who needed his help.

Want to be a good church member? Want to really help your pastor? Say positive things about your church to others. Attend worship every single week. If you are asked to serve as a leader, say yes. Then help develop others to be leaders, as well. Give whatever time you can (within reason) to benefit your congregation. Finally, encourage others to do the same.

What do you think it takes to make a good church member? 

Why It Was a Blessing for Me to Baptize My Grandson

I finally had the opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. When our children were babies I didn’t get to baptize them. I was still a seminarian. So our pastor baptized them both. But today I was privileged and blessed to baptize a member of our family. I baptized Crosby Benjamin, our grandson.

Here’s what I believe about baptism:

  • It doesn’t matter if Grandpa does it. Baptism has nothing to do with sentimentalities. It has everything to do with God’s work through water and His own Word. You don’t need water from the Jordan River or a relative performing the act. All you need is water right out of the tap and the words that Jesus told us to use: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
  • There are two parts to it. And far too many people forget the second part. Jesus said that disciples are made by baptizing and teaching (see Matthew 28:18-20). That means parents don’t just bring a child to baptism and forget about faith from that time forward. No, parents have their child baptized and then see to it that the very same child is raised in the faith by regular worship attendance, going to Sunday School, and prayer and devotions at home. A disciple is made when there is both baptism and teaching everything Jesus has entrusted to us.
  • It delivers forgiveness of sins, creates faith, and begins eternal life. That’s because we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. We were buried, therefore, with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6). And as the apostle Peter said in Acts 2: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

These are the reasons why it was a blessing for me to do Crosby’s baptism. I was a first-hand witness to a miracle of God. He did the work. I was simply His instrument in delivering the goods. I do have to admit that my voice quivered a little bit. But I held it together.

When was the last time you were a first-hand witness to a miracle?

Five Things Many Pastors Fear

October happens to be Clergy Appreciation Month. After a wonderful celebration for my 25th anniversary in the ministry, and recognition in our worship today, I feel very well appreciated. I serve a congregation that loves me and honors me more than I deserve. It can most certainly be debated whether a whole month should be set aside to “appreciate” clergy. Other professions deserve just as much, if not more, appreciation. In addition, it seems like we are called to do our duty and nothing less. And yet the very existence of things like Clergy Appreciation Month and the high demands of the vocation cause fear in some pastor’s hearts.

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Here are five things that some pastor’s fear. Some of them are founded. Others are unfounded. But they all are a legitimate concern for many pastors at one time or another.

  1. Losing members. Pastors shouldn’t take it personally. But when someone leaves the church they most always do. They feel as though it’s a personal judgment on their ministry.
  2. Low attendance. When attendance goes down many pastors ask, “What am I doing wrong?” It may just be a combination of many factors such as natural transition, people moving, deaths in the congregation, or the time of year. But pastors are passionate about the Gospel and want people to hear it on a regular basis.
  3. Missing someone’s need. As much as some might think, pastors can’t read people’s minds. They fear missing a hospital visit or some other kind of personal need. But if they don’t know what the need is, they can’t meet it. Tell your pastor what you need. He* will be happy to respond to the things he knows about.
  4. Inadvertently offending somebody. Sometimes decisions are made for very good reasons, and due to human nature a decision offends someone. I can assure you that there is hardly ever (never?) any intent to offend someone when a decision is made. But the fear is that when someone is offended a member will be lost or attendance will go down (see #1 and #2), and the pastor will feel personally responsible.
  5. People who are unwilling to be themselves. Pastors love people. And since pastors are sinners just like everyone else, they know we’re not all perfect. Pastors really appreciate it when people are comfortable enough to be themselves without putting on a front or facade. Be who you are. Your pastor loves you for who you are.

The key to overcoming these fears is to remain confident in the One who drives out all fear. Our God give peace to all people, even pastors. He assured it by the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. He forgives all those who offend or are offended. He covers all misunderstanding and sin with His grace.

What fears do you have in your vocation?

*I intentionally use this pronoun because it is the accepted practice of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, of which I am a member.

5 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Became a Pastor

This weekend the wonderful people at Ascension Lutheran Church will be celebrating my 25 years of ministry as a pastor. These 25 years have been quite a ride with ups, downs, hills, valleys, and every other cliche that has to do with the good and the bad. It’s hard for me to believe that for nearly half of my life I have been a pastor. As I think back to my days at the seminary I recognize just how naive I was to it all. My classmates and I had eager and shining eyes when we graduated on the warm may evening in 1991.

princeton university princeton, nj

As I both reflect and look ahead, I recognize at least five things I wish I’d known as my young wife and our infant children headed off to rural, western North Carolina.

  1. Sometimes the well runs dry. I like to say that Sundays keep coming. There’s one of them every week. That means there’s always a sermon, liturgy, and/or Bible class to prepare. Every. Single. Week. It means there might be seasons when creativity and drive take a dive. But you have to push through. At times like those it’s best to receive inspiration from others. Sometimes being around other pastors, doing reading outside of theology, and simply taking a walk are what it takes to get things moving again. Don’t be afraid to experiment with things that might work for you.
  2. Nothing should surprise you about anyone. I’ve heard it all. Sometimes people tell me things about themselves that they are afraid or embarrassed to tell. They really shouldn’t be. I’ve come to the recognition and realization that we are all poor miserable sinners in need of the forgiveness that Jesus won for us on the cross. Nothing that anyone ever says to me could surprise me. I need God’s forgiveness as badly as anyone else. Because I know what that forgiveness means to me, I’m always happy to be the vessel who delivers it to those who need it most.
  3. Be ready to offer all the personal forgiveness you can muster. People can be mean and hurtful. The ones who are mean and hurtful are usually struggling with their own personal difficulties and struggles. Though the things people say and do to a pastor can sometimes be nearly debilitating, the best thing to do is to recognize “hurt people hurt,” and to respond with (sincere) love and forgiveness. It’s easier said than done, but do it.
  4. After God, your family comes first. There were times early in my ministry when I did things that unnecessarily took away time from my family. It took me a while to learn that though the congregation is important, my family is more important. When everything is said and done the congregation won’t always be there. Your family always will be. They deserve not just “quality time,” but quantity of time.
  5. There will always be someone to support you. Over the years I’ve had my share of “different” ideas and have made bad decisions. There have been times when I have not always put forth the best effort. Sometimes mean people (see #3) have taken over my thoughts and have ruined days. But without fail I have always had people who have supported me, my ministry, and my family. They have prayed for me and told me they were. People have surprised us with far too generous gifts and have written the kindest notes. I’m certain that the Lord sees to it that though we live and serve amongst sinful people we are given the gift of those who have our back. It’s comforting to know.

Though I can’t go back and re-live these past 25 years, I take comfort in the fact that there have been many lessons learned. I hope that I can share those lessons with others. And I pray that I will continue to learn important lessons as my ministry continues.

What are some of the things you wish you would have known as you began your career?

5 Things to Do the Weekend Before Holy Week

This year marks the twenty-fourth time I will have had the opportunity as a pastor to lead a congregation through Holy Week. Over the course of those years I led a service that began in the midst of a cemetery in the foothills of North Carolina. I participated in an Easter Vigil in suburban Washington, D.C. that watched the clock turn past midnight on Easter morning. I paraded with a Paschal Candle down a central city, urban street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Church Interior

The weeks and days leading up to Holy Week are taxing on the life of a pastor. But Holy Week itself is an opportunity to walk through and reenact the most holy days of history. The week begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry in to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It continues with Maundy Thursday as Jesus washes the feet of His disciples and institutes His Holy Supper. We then follow Him through prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, trial before Pontius Pilate, and crucifixion on Good Friday’s cross. On Saturday we wait and watch at the tomb. Then Sunday surprises with the most joyful mystery of all mysteries: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Holy Week isn’t just for pastors. It’s for everyone. Missing even part of it is to miss the fullness of the story and the overwhelming grace that floods through it.

Here are five things to do as you get ready for Holy Week:

  1. Reflect. As we enter this week we will be focusing on the greatest sacrifice the world has ever known. The sinless Son of God willingly goes to the cross to suffer the punishment for all of sinful humanity. Use this weekend to reflect on your own sin and need of a Savior. Reflect on the incredible love poured out for you by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Reflect on the kind of love it takes to forgive such sinners. Reflect on the way your life has been changed by a forgiving God.
  2. Pray. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed so hard and so fervently that drops as of blood dripped from His forehead. He asked His heavenly Father to deliver Him from the pain and suffering He was about to face. Yet in the end He prayed, “Thy will be done.” That simple four-word prayer is worth praying this weekend as you prepare for Holy Week. Ask God to do His will in your life as you hear once again the account of all it took to win your salvation.
  3. Participate. Make plans to participate in all of the Holy Week services where you live: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. You can’t have one without the other. It takes them all to tell the whole story. And each worship service has something unique to give to you as an individual. If you’ve never done it before, give it a try and see just how enriching it is.
  4. Listen. As you prepare for Holy Week make sure you head into it with a commitment to listen. Listen carefully to the cries of the crowd on Palm Sunday. Listen thoroughly to Jesus’ words as He speaks to His disciples in the Upper Room instituting His Supper. Listen intently to Jesus’ seven “words” from the cross. Listen at the Easter Vigil to the history of the world’s salvation and the history of your own salvation. Listen with wide open ears as “alleluias” come shouting out of the empty tomb.
  5. Rejoice. Much of Holy Week is sad, reflective, and somber. But beneath it all is a spirit of rejoicing: rejoicing in all that it took to procure forgiveness; rejoicing in all that it took to pour out grace; rejoicing in all that it took to wash away sin and deliver the gift of eternal life. It’s OK to hold it back just a bit until Easter Sunday. But on that Day don’t hold back one bit. Let the shouts of joy ring out.

One side note: If you’ve never participated in an Easter Vigil do your best to seek one out this year. The service contains four parts: The Service of Light, The Service of the Word, The Service of Holy Baptism, and the Service of Holy Communion. It is the very center of the Church Year Cycle. It is an experience that takes you from darkness to light and death to life. Give it a try. You will be blessed.

How will you observe Holy Week this year?

The Not-So-Surprising Way God Creates Teams

It’s not very surprising how God creates teams that serve and work for Him. The ministry team and staff of our congregation recently held our annual planning and goal-setting session. In preparation for the meeting I had all the members of our team do the “How to Fascinate” assessment. This personality brand analysis identifies one’s own personality’s top advantage at work. It doesn’t measure how you see the world. It measures how the world sees you. It’s a completely different perspective.

Team

According to the How to Fascinate website: 

Your personality has one primary Advantage. It’s how you add value. It’s what makes you different and better. Think of it like a natural superpower. When you communicate using this Advantage, you earn more attention, and more revenue.

I thought it would be fun for each of the members of our team to discover the personality advantages of all of the other members. One by one we watched the video that described each Personality Advantage. Every single one was spot on. When each description was complete every single person in the room agreed that the description pegged that particular person.

  • I am “The Ringleader.” The Ringleader is marked by the terms Power and Passion. The Ringleader is seen as energetic and compelling in drawing people in, casting a vision, and getting people to buy into it. The Ringleader energizes others, sees the big picture, but needs help with follow-through.
  • Our Business Manager is “The Talent.” The Talent is marked by the terms Passion and Prestige. The Talent is expressive and a perfectionist. The Talent is engaging, passionate, and draws people in with personality.
  • Our Director of Media Relations is “The Quick Start.” The Quick Start is marked by the terms Innovation and Alert. The Quick Start executes plans with innovation. The Quick Start can find a new path. The Quick Start is detail oriented, prolific, and reliable.
  • Our Plant Manager is “The Authentic.” The Authentic is marked by the terms Trust and Passion. The Authentic is dependable and solid. The Authentic is dedicated to others. The Authentic is sincerely gentle and makes people feel at home.
  • Our Assisting Pastor is “The Mediator.” The Mediator is marked by the terms Alert and Trust. The Mediator is dedicated, punctual, and steadfast. The Mediator protects the status quo, is a practical and organized thinker, and protects others.
  • Our Volunteer Administrative Assistant is “The Intrigue.” The Intrigue is marked by the terms Passion and Mystique. The Intrigue is perceptive and selective about what parts of him/herself he/she wants to show. The Intrigue avoids delivering mixed messages by being both engaged and observant.
  • Our Choir Director is “The Coordinator.” The Coordinator is marked by the terms Alert and Passion. The Coordinator understands how people interact. The Coordinator motivates people, inspires a team, and keeps projects on track. The Coordinator takes a step-by-step approach to every goal.

Read that list again thinking about what it takes to deliver ministry and run a local church. Our team sat around the table in shock and awe as each short video described every person to a T. But as we sat there and thought about it a little more, we began to understand how uniquely qualified was every single person on the team for his or her position and vocation.

In other words, the team that sat around the table that day was no mistake. There is no question in my mind that God knew what He was doing when he put these people together as the servant-leaders of our local congregation. Each person has the gifts that uniquely qualify her or him for their own particular duties and tasks.

More than that, the gifts of each person complement the others on the team. There’s no way any one person on the team could deliver to our congregation all the gifts represented by the entire team. When this team works together our congregation is blessed in many and myriad ways. The team is a unit that brings care, comfort, service, and ministry to a wonderful group of God’s people who are members of His kingdom.

No human being could have as perfectly formed this team. God knows what He’s doing when He puts people in place to serve Him, His church, and the world at large. He knows what He’s doing when He gives gifts. If you think about it, it’s really not so surprising at all that God knows what He’s doing when He creates teams.

How have you seen God’s work in the teams that serve you?

How to Affirm Harmony and Unity

You wouldn’t think that riding your bike would provide examples of harmony and unity. Just steps away from our house is a bike trail with incredible vegetation, vistas that provide sweeping views, and access to a pier that goes out into a large lake filled with jumping fish, wetland birds, alligators, and wildlife of all kinds. The other day I saw a turkey on the shore. One evening I watched the sun dip down into the far side of the lake.

Harmony and Unity

One of the best parts of any bike ride on that trail, is spending time out on that pier watching how the unity and harmony of nature plays itself out. There is an ecosystem that works the way in which it was intended by the Creator. There is life. And there is death. There is beauty. And in the midst of that beauty, ugly things, too.

In other words, it’s a mess. Just like life.

Yet in all of it there is harmony and unity that exhibits the way all things work together for good.

I have now had eight months to become part of the ecosystem of a new (for me) congregation. I have been serving, teaching, preaching, visiting, listening, asking, working, learning, and living with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church.  We’ve been trying to put the pieces together. I feel as though I’ve been placed into an ecosystem that had already been working well, but was seeking ways to find even greater harmony and unity.

For months we have been having meetings and events designed to bring greater harmony and unity into an ecosystem where people have been brought together for a specific purpose. It’s not always easy. Where there are personalities, changes, and opinions, there are ups and downs, highs and lows. But where people have a common there is always a harmony and unity whether or not it is realized.

Last month we got together as a congregation to talk about unity, harmony, and purpose. It was an event that was well-received and met with enthusiasm. From the people who set up the room and put together the luncheon, to those who sat at tables laughing and talking with one another, to artists who made balloon animals and took photos, there was a spirit of unity and harmony.

But the event ended in a way that demonstrated the unity and harmony that some may not have realized was present. Members of our traditional choir and our praise band came together at the front of the room to lead the entire group in singing, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Everyone willingly and happily joined hands together all the way around the room in an outward demonstration of unity and harmony.

God demonstrates unity and harmony in many and various ways. When His baptized people come together there is no greater unity and harmony here on earth. It isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s even ugly and death-defying.

The ecosystem of God’s church ought to be demonstrated far more than it often is. 

Where do you see harmony and unity demonstrated in the church, or otherwise?