There was a definite spiritual element at a recent business conference I attended. There was a lot of talk about yoga and meditation and references to various popular spiritual gurus. The Bible was quoted a couple of times without attribution. Most of the focus of spirituality was on something named “Universe.”
Participants were looking to become more united with the Universe. They wanted to please the Universe. They wanted blessings from the Universe.
And therein lies the problem faced by modern religion. God, going by the name of God, just doesn’t fit in anymore. We need a euphemism for God if we are to escape the critical eye of modern culture. At the same time we long for a personal connection. We want to be noticed. Privately, please.
The God who knew us before we were born is something to hold closely. We don’t want to offend or proselytize. We accept spiritual lives lived on tiptoes — partly so we can all get along.
Enter Universe—the new God without a name, without expectations or demands. The new God with no baggage or history—the new god that won’t embarrass us or cause us to be ostracized or labeled.
Oh, divine Universe, grant that we might prosper and thrive. Don’t ask too much of us —help us to fit in with the rest of the . . . well, universe.
It’s sort of like Santa . . . someone everyone believes in with a wink of an eye and a twist of a head and only for about one month of the year.
It’s so easy to get lost in this big universe. Kind of lonely down here.
Oh, Universe, please send us some kind of sign, something we can understand. We just want to know you are real.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is launching a new fund-raising appeal to member congregations.
It is called “It Takes All the Saints.”
Giving is down.
Under ELCA structure no congregation is required to give. We are not hierarchical, but are united for common mission. There may be many reasons why congregations do not support the regional body as they once did.
The evaluation of that mission is a right of congregations. If congregations are to part with resources, there must be clear benefits.
When a church sends less or sends nothing, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the congregation is failing.
The congregation may simply be practicing stewardship.
Congregations may realize that in this great, new, networked world, they have choices. Giving to the regional body is a choice. The answer for many is that the support of a regional office is not “good use of the Lord’s money. ”
The words in quotes were once used by a Synod representative with Redeemer in East Falls. “Ministry in East Falls is not good use of the Lord’s money.” This is a convenient euphemism. When you view resources as belonging to the Lord, claiming them for yourself seems less like stealing.
Congregations may withhold money to express concern about the direction of the Church. For example, many churches stopped giving because of the theological objections in the interpretation of sexual policies. The Church heard that.
When the issues are more subtle and closer to home, there is a disconnect. Congregations may stop giving when they see no benefit or services. When the regional body claims managerial authority, there is little liklihood that this will be viewed as having anything to do with them.
The insatiable need for more money for “the Lord’s work” is always upon us. Problems occur when the regional and national bodies see their work as more important than that of the congregations. This creates hierarchy where none was intended.
Lutheran constitutions addressed this early on. However, in recent years they have been tweaked to mean the opposite of the promises made to congregations in 1987 and 1988 when the ELCA was soliciting members.
Synods were not intended to have management control of congregational assets. Now they do. Every congregation MUST realize this. They can no longer use their offerings to send a message. The risks are too high. This is a problem no one wants to address.
Here is SEPA’s pitch for their latest fund-raiser. It is excerpted from their website, MinistryLink.
Has your congregation called a pastor or sponsored a member through candidacy? Have you been engaged with one of our new missions or had an evangelism consult with one of our coaches? Have you been blessed by global connections with Tanzania, SEKOMU, and our missionaries, the MacPhersons? Did you send junior or senior high youth to our annual youth gatherings? Have you downloaded documents from our updated MinistryLink.org website? Are you presently serving on one of the more than 40 ministry teams and networks — including the Faith Formation team, Tanzania Partnership team, Stewardship Resource Team, Transformational Ministry team and so many more – active in our Synod right now. Have you called the synod office with a question, and received an answer? None of these services would be available without synod staff, contracted experts, and many dedicated volunteers who spend hours planning programs, producing resources and being present with the leaders and congregations of our Synod.
Having asked these questions, SEPA needs to hear the answers—from each congregation. The answers will tell them whether they are using “the Lord’s money” wisely. If they are not, “the Lord’s money” may be better invested elsewhere.
Here are Redeemer’s answers.
Has your congregation called a pastor . . . ?
Redeemer attempted to call a pastor through the synod office several times.
In 1997, we signed an 18-month interim agreement with Pastor Robert Matthias. Bishop Almquist broke the contract after three months and supplied no one to replace him for more than a year.
In 2000, we encountered a “take who I recommend or else” ultimatum from Bishop Almquist.
In 2006, our pastor of close to two years had a private meeting with newly elected Bishop Burkat. He gave us ten days notice (not the constitutional 30) and left the synod after a private meeting with the bishop’s office. Synod lifted no finger to help Redeemer find a replacement ever again. Refusing to supply pastoral leadership (SEPA’s constitutional purpose) was a means to the desired end of acquiring property and assets.
In 2007, we presented a resolution to Bishop Burkat to call a pastor with whom we had been successfully working for seven months. Terms had been negotiated. The candidate was qualified. All we sought was SEPA approval. This pastor disappeared after a private meeting with the bishop’s office.
Have you been engaged with one of our new missions or had an evangelism consult with one of our coaches?
Redeemer was having great success with an outreach to Tanzanians in our neighborhood who were coming here to attend schools and making new lives in America. Our attempts to work with SEPA’s mission office were rebuffed. Numerous calls went unreturned. The national office noticed our ministry and asked for a report, which we sent to Chicago. When a SEPA mission director at last responded, he offered this excuse. “It doesn’t matter what you do. The bishop intends to close your church.” On November 1, 2007, Bishop Burkat promised that we could work with the new Mission Director. She broke this promise.
Have we been blessed by global connections with Tanzania?
YES! But not through SEPA! About 60 Tanzanians joined Redeemer between 2000 and 2007. Yet when SEPA reported our membership to Synod Assembly, they weren’t counted. Synod Assembly was told we had only 13 members. The first judges in court were told this too. By the time SEPA started chasing our individual members in court, SEPA was holding Redeemer accountable for a voting membership of more than 70.
This led one of our young members to quip, “The Synod is big on Tanzania, as long as we Tanzanians stay in Tanzania.”
Redeemer is now supporting several mission efforts all over the world. We do this with no budget.
Did you send youth to annual youth gatherings?
No. We sent our youth and families to Lutheran Church camp. It was a better choice for children of immigrants who were learning about America and it was helping grow our congregation and our leadership. This stopped when SEPA took our money.
Have you downloaded documents from our updated MinistryLink.org website?
Are you serving on ministry teams?
No. We have been excluded from all SEPA activities. However, we’ve created our own ministry teams that are amazingly effective.
Have you called the synod office with a question?
Yes. We called and wrote numerous times between 2006 and 2008 and received NO response.
Given this track record (which we hear in our Ambassador visits is not unique) it is no wonder that congregations think twice about where their offerings are best used. With new powers assumed by the Synod, they are risking more than they agreed to when they signed up for the ELCA.
What Redeemer continues to discover is that a congregation’s strength today is in its own network-building—not in the networks crafted by the regional or national body.
Perhaps the reason denominational giving is down is that congregations are realizing their offerings are best spent where they can make sure they are working, where there is transparency and accountability every day, and where they can individually evaluate success. That’s always been the Lutheran way.
Mission DOES take all the saints.
As for Redeemer . . . we’ve given all we’ve got. Literally! It still is not enough for SEPA.
Again, when you view congregations as keepers of “the Lord’s money,” it feels a little less like stealing when you claim it for yourself.
The ideas planted in my previous post are starting to come together.
It’s starting to get exciting.
For a year or so, I’ve been following an online preacher/teacher, Jon Swanson. He has been preaching, off and on, about the book of Nehemiah. In fact, he is publishing a kindle book on the topic.
If ever a preacher could take a dry, rarely referenced Old Testament book and bring it to life, Jon Swanson can.
He read the book with us slowly — not skipping all the long lists of names, but savoring each one. His attention to detail brings the book to life.
God-fearing Nehemiah, living in exile, serving a distant king, hears about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He is upset—devastated. The king notices that his servant is not his usual happy self. He inquires, “Why the long face?”
Nehemiah feared angering the king. Surprise! The king grants Nehemiah time off to look into this temple problem far away.
Understand that the temple has been in ruins for decades. No one nearby was lifting a finger to help. They accepted things. They must have been thinking, “It’s time for the temple to die.”
The temple was to them just a pile of rubble occupying a desirable location—just like all those failing or abandoned churches dotting our region.
The book of Nehemiah gives painstaking detail not only of the stones being laid and doors being hung but also of the intrigue of those who would have his efforts fail.
Small churches face the same challenges today. Church leaders allow small churches to fail. Their failure means there will be spoils to divide. They convince themselves and everyone else that it’s the only way. It is the easy road. Widespread failure is encouraged. Phrases like “It’s time to die” pave their rock-ridden consciences.
Most small churches aren’t nearly as bad off as the pillaged temple that so moved Nehemiah.
There are ways to rebuild ministry. The time is now. It will take the joint efforts of others. Some may be like the distant king who facilitated efforts simply because he had compassion and perhaps admiration for Nehemiah. Some might be the logistics experts who ordered, shipped and delivered supplies. Some might be the craftspeople and physical laborers. Some might be the warriors who took turns guarding the work from those plotting Nehemiah’s demise. Some might be the worship leaders who were summoned when the temple wall was complete. They would lead the celebration.
This kind of collaboration could revive small church ministry.
Leadership is likely to come from within the small churches. That’s OK. It’s biblical.
Some will be jealous of any grassroots initiative, especially if new unforeseen possibilities become evident.
Read yesterday’s post along with this one and we will start to form The Nehemiah Project.
Add your ideas. Let’s see if small pockets (chapters) of small churches can start to help one another in mission and rebuild neighborhood ministry.
If Nehemiah could do it, so can we!
We’ll keep pondering the concept and see where it takes us.
The Nehemiah Project. Hmmmm!
If the Nehemiah project interests you, let us know. Who knows what might result?!
I’ve written about this before, but the more I study modern marketing (evangelism) and business strategy, the more I am convinced that the Church is its own worst enemy.
Church structure is ill-equipped to change with the modern world. Its inability to adapt is dooming congregations—all congregations—not just the small ones.
Church leadership, trained and steeped in tradition, is not leading us into the modern world. They are aware of the needs. Desperately aware.
Experts write and offer advice, usually based on isolated success stories that may or may not apply to other congregations. Church structure is a roadblock to implementation. Too many hurdles. Too much reliance on traditional relationships and procedures. Easier to slog along waiting for a miracle.
This week I attended a business conference. About eight related businesses took turns reviewing the goals and strategies of each of the others. Each business was spotlighted for 45 minutes. Their particular challenges were addressed in detail.
The businesses had to let down their guard. Hierarchy was leveled. Soon, ideas were flying. Good, helpful, concrete ideas. Each business walked away with a checklist of what to accomplish to grow their business over the next four business quarters.
It wasn’t an easy process. Some participants were afraid that their ideas would be stolen and that the criticism would suck the wind from their sails. But in the end all participated and they discovered that the other participants were eager to help. Their fresh viewpoints and experience with similar problems was energizing. They were directing one another to resources that might have been protected if the businesses were acting as competitors.
Soon the participants were sitting together into the evening, asking questions, probing, sharing advice.
I was left wondering . . .
Does this kind of free-flowing brainstorming and dialogue ever happen in the Church?
In the Church, all ideas and programs are funneled through the clergy. The clergy will want to retain control even when they don’t have the skills to implement the needed steps. They will also be weighing their position in the total hierarchy. Often their career goals are more important than congregational goals.
Laity are dismissed or enlisted as followers. Their career success is not at stake. They’ll take the blame for failure but have little control over processes.
Lay people can present ideas but the power to see them fulfilled is largely controlled by cooperation of people with allegiance to the status quo, tradition and turf to protect.
How often are lay people featured speakers at any church gatherings?
How do we get around this?
What if small congregations could band together? What if they could hold regular “mastermind” sessions. Each congregation could share their goals and frustrations. Each participant would help them evaluate and strategize. Each congregation would leave with a plan which both clergy and laity would be responsible for implementing before the next “mastermind” session.
Together we might be able to help each other overcome obstacles and see transformation and growth. Together we might share skills and resources.
Or do we all just keep ministering in isolated despair, waiting for the other boot to drop, wallowing in knowing what the problems are without a clue as to how to address them?
This is our proposal. It’s just a start, but it could grow into something HUGE!
One small church provide leadership initiative.
Invite five-ten other small churches to attend a “Small Church Summit” that would explore common and unique problems. The congregations don’t have to be all the same denomination. We could learn from one another!
Once problems are defined, the group can focus on each congregation. Offer ideas and support.
It’s important that clergy and laity interact. Both must attend. As equals. The Lutheran way!
What do you think? Would a Small Church Mastermind Summit interest you?
2×2 would love to develop this idea. Contact us if you have interest.
Every little church knows the litany. It’s the Church’s own version of the The Little Engine That Could. It’s called The Little Church That Can’t.
“You can’t afford a pastor.”
“You are too small to fulfill your mission.”
Sometimes the two statements mean the same thing. At some point, affording a pastor becomes the mission.
The list grows.
“The demographics don’t support ministry.”
“Every church has a time to die.”
Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.
Small churches don’t get much help in overcoming objections, especially when their property and endowments are up for grabs. We forget that the biblical model of “church” always worked at overcoming objections far worse. Remember, it was actually illegal to be a Christian way back when and still the Church grew.
It’s not just the little churches that get trapped by this frame of mind. The whole church embraces it. The erroneous belief is that small churches need bigger entities to fulfill mission.
There may have been a day when this was true or at least more true than today. But the world is changing. It is time we all sit up and take notice.
This is good news for small churches. Small churches can play a huge role in the life of the church.
Here is 2×2′s most recent experience.
2x2virtualchurch.com was started two and one half years ago by Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls when our denomination locked us out of our property. About 18 months ago we began an online friendship with the Christian Church in Pakistan.
We were amazed that our friendship resulted in facilitating a meeting of Christians from Pakistan and Kenya earlier this year.
We were already in strong conversation when a Pakistani Church was bombed by terrorists in September 2013. We checked on our friends. They were not directly affected but they were close to those who were. They were in hiding behind locked doors.
As weeks passed, we heard firsthand accounts of the devastation and terror. We were sent photos of the prayer vigils. For the first time, the Pakistan Church asked for help.
How could a little shunned church like Redeemer respond?
We looked to see if the ELCA had a mechanism for help. (We never voted to leave the ELCA. They kicked us out.)
We found none in the companion synod system or on the Lutheran World Relief website. We heard no mention of the tragedy in Lutheran churches or in The Lutheran magazine.
The Pakistani Church told us their biggest need was winter clothing for the many orphans that resulted from the terrorist attack.
Redeemer had many children, but the persecution of our church has hurt our network among families with children that could donate clothing.
We mentioned the need on our virtual church website.
Readers in Michigan picked up the ball and ran. They said “Just call us 2×2 Michigan.”
They gathered three large boxes of clothing.
Then came the next hurdle. Shipping costs were $1500. We were all discouraged. But a 2×2 reader mentioned the need to a business associate that ships products all over the world. They offered to help.
So this week, only a month after the need was made known, 2×2 shipped boxes of children’s clothing to Christians in Pakistan.
That’s a place where it is even harder to be a Christian than East Falls!
The modern church will be built on the reliance of member networks more than denominational networks. This is a power waiting to be unleashed.
We think we can. We think we can. And we can! 2×2.
We were all once strangers, the weakest, the outcasts, until someone came to our defense, included us, empowered us, reconciled us (1 Cor. 2; Eph. 2).
Questions for SEPA
If SEPA’s oft-stated passion is to have a Word and Sacrament church on the corner of Midvale and Conrad, why don’t they open a church?
Why did SEPA work for a decade to destroy the church that had been there, supporting SEPA, for a century?
Why is SEPA making overtures to the community (where the members they evicted still live), if they already know their goal is to open a church?
Why has the property been empty for two years when there were plans in place -- made by members of the community with an interest in SEPA's mission -- which could have been earning revenue for the last two years?
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Where in the World is 2×2?
On Isaiah 30:15b
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.