December 2011

Oops! Wrote Too Soon! Redeemer Is Closed Again

The week before Christmas SEPA Synod announced that Redeemer was reopening and they were holding candlelight vigil of celebration on Wednesday evening. All welcome!

Neighbors report it wasn’t well attended or a particularly happy celebration. They were never clear about what exactly they were celebrating. Lutherans don’t celebrate Christmas in Advent.

It was not open on Christmas Eve.

The latest news is that SEPA will be coming to East Falls Community Council in February to ask the neighborhood how they should use the “former Redeemer” building. Guess Redeemer is closed again!

Just another flip flop from a Synod with no direction. Lock out 82 members (black, white, young and old) for two years. Welcome the neighborhood back. Ask suggestions from the neighborhood at large — where the people they locked out still live. The last thing they would ever do is ask the Lutherans of East Falls what to do with Lutheran property.

Redeemer had plenty of ideas for how to use their building . . . all within the mission of the church as it was intended when the people of East Falls bought the land, built the church, rebuilt it and nurtured it without SEPA’s help. Want ideas for how to use East Falls sacred property? . . . Try asking “former Redeemer.” We’re still alive and well. But SEPA knows that!

  • Redeemer had a 25-year day care with Ken-Crest, which packed up and left when Synod reared its head.
    Redeemer had a day care for 20 years before that.
    Redeemer was within a week of reopening the day care when Synod locked the doors.
  • Redeemer hosted as many as five AA groups.
  • Redeemer was once the “home” of community council meetings.
  • Redeemer held weekly worship services.
  • Redeemer held cultural events.
  • Redeemer held fellowship events weekly.
  • Redeemer held Bible Study weekly.
  • Redeemer had a full-summer Day Care/Bible School.
  • Redeemer had a unique multicultural ministry which Synod claims is one of their goals.
  • Redeemer had multiple ambitious and ground-breaking mission projects underway.
  • Redeemer often hosted ecumenical worship events.
  • Redeemer continues to pioneer mission initiatives. We took our ministry online and have a worldwide following.

Synod, who now claims interest in our neighborhood, attempted to destroy all this with questionable legality. While claiming immunity from the law under separation of church and state (which so far the courts have bought — hook, line and sinker), they used precious resources to attack the members of “former Redeemer” in the courts.

Why Does the Church Accept Failure?

2×2 has studied church statistics in the last two years. A growing church is a rarity. Almost all Lutheran churches in SEPA Synod are in decline — many in double-digit decline, including some of the “most important churches” (that’s a term used in Bishop Burkat’s book about Transforming Denominational Ministries). There is no room for any church to pass judgment on another.

What is most alarming is that failure seems to be accepted. Decline continues over years. Many churches have had the same pastor during many years of decline. This may be a byproduct of the call system that requires congregations to muster a two-thirds vote to change leadership. This process tends to be divisive and avoided for good reason, long past the point when needed.

Pastors are protected by the call system. They can collect a pay check even while steeples are falling. Some even expect periodic raises as income and attendance drop! Failure has no consequence.

Why does the Church accept failure from its leadership?

It starts at the top! The ELCA presiding bishop has no trouble traveling to Washington to advise our president on the politics of the Mideast, but he has been silent about many problems facing the ELCA, as if they don’t exist.

His attitude trickles down to the bishops which trickles down to the pastors which trickles down to the congregations. You end up with a church of words without action.

A great deal of effort is spent not rocking this ecclesiastic boat. Pastors serve in isolation. Asking for help might impact their autonomy. If things get really bad (as if they aren’t already), they need friends in the denomination to help them move on.

Lay people have a different sense of commitment to their ministries. It is a truly deep “call” to them; it is the foundation of their culture, faith, and legacy. They are not likely to move when their church is failing. They will either work harder or slowly fade from involvement.

Our Ambassador visits reveal just how influential the laity is. They are holding congregations together with little help and less credit. Sadly, they will be the first to take the blame when fingers start pointing. Just ask the members of Redeemer! Our members were sued by SEPA BEFORE we were able to exercise any process called for by the constitution. The clergy working with us, who voted for and encouraged our initiatives, disappeared faster than you can say “Luther is my uncle.”

This is not to say there are no problems among the laity. Many lay people admit that they try to avoid dealing with the denomination. They fear the very treatment that Redeemer experienced. So they keep sloughing along on their own with minimal funds or professional support. Many have only part-time professional leadership, which typically covers worship and visitation but not much in the way of mission or initiative.

Without initiative their work is like that of Sisyphus.

It’s only a matter of time. They will fail unless denominations can revise their attitudes. They should not be refusing to help small churches while they wait for laity to give up, yet that is the published leadership philosophy of the current SEPA bishop! (See review) They should not be discouraging churches by providing limited options for professional leadership. Caretaker ministries — in which pastors intentionally do nothing to encourage growth but tend only the needs of current waning membership — are an insult to the mission of the Church.  (Such ministries are also part of SEPA’s bishop’s published philosophy). Denominational leaders should not breeze into neighborhoods they haven’t visited in decades and dictate ministry solutions which solve their leadership placement problems and ambitions for church assets — not the congregation’s needs or mission.

These serious problems are side-stepped by the Annual Assemblies. There is little time allowed.

Our Ambassadors have noticed a troubling sentiment common among active Lutheran clergy. Many  use the same words: “We’ve elected our leadership; we have to support it” or “We have to trust the wisdom of the Bishop and Synod Council.”

They are wrong. The constitutions rely on the clergy and congregations to be the watchdogs of the church. The bishop and Synod Council serve the congregations. The constitutions work only when clergy and congregational representatives provide checks and balances over the leadership they elect. It’s their duty. To stand aside and watch poor leadership is apathetic and derelict. It does not speak well of Christianity or our denomination.

Ignoring these duties, hoping someone else or the secular courts will do the work, is the foundation of much church failure. Leadership at every level needs to be held accountable.

New Year’s Resolutions for the Hospitable Church

As a people, Americans have become suspicious and xenophobic. We live in a world that recommends background checks and fosters credit checks for simplest of reasons. These attitutudes are bound to manifest in church life.

But church life should be different. We should be welcoming the people with spotty backgrounds. Christ died for them! The least we can do is welcome them into His church!

Most churches describe themselves as friendly. Some church web sites describe themselves as “truly friendly.” Many churches post a generic sign “All Welcome.”

Friendliness, however, is a beauty that can only be measured by the eye of the beholder. If visitors to your church leave feeling they were wallflowers, observers of friendliness, it is not hospitality.

Redeemer Ambassadors visited 38 churches in the last 18 months. We have experience as recipients of church hospitality. We think this is an area of church life that needs to be addressed.

Hospitality, once part of the fabric of American life, no longer seems to come naturally. It may have to be taught and nurtured. Even pastors, whom we presume received training in evangelism, seem to be awkward in greeting church visitors.

Some churches have assigned “greeters.” But the gauntlet of greeters characteristically do little more than hand you a bulletin. We suspect that visitors are rare in some congregations and that leads to a bit of rustiness.

In several of the churches we visited, the pastor disappeared after the service and did not greet people at the door. At times the pastor was present in the fellowship area but stood along the wall and waited for people to come to him/her.

While some pastors pointed us to guest books to sign, most never introduced themselves to us or asked our names. After 38 visits, only one pastor followed up with a phone call after our visit. Another returned a call when one of our ambassadors called him.

Some churches seemed to have fellowship going on somewhere else in the building. The congregation disappeared quickly after worship, failing to invite us to join. In many cases, people walked by in the narthex and never made eye contact. In one instance, when we approached them and asked a simple question such as the location of a restroom, they responded, “Oh, we thought you knew someone here” or “We thought you were here for the baptism.” Assumptions block hospitality.

The number of churches/pastors who exhibited true hospitality are so few as to be memorable to us. We suspect that if others were greeted the way we were in these churches that they would return. Here are a few efforts we remember and appreciated as visitors:

  • When a pastor personally invited us to fellowship, accompanied us and introduced us to a few people (one church visit).
  • When a pastor asked if he could meet with us sometime during the week (one church visit).
  • When a member took the time to give us a tour of their church and told us something of their history (three church visits).
  • When a lay member sent us a handwritten thank you note for our visit (one church visit).
  • When a member sat next to us and pointed things out in the bulletin (one church visit).
  • When we left knowing at least one member’s name (a few times).
  • When members of a church offered to help us (more than just pray) and followed through (three church visits).
  • When a member engaged us in extensive conversation that was about us as much as about them (six visits).
  • When congregation members prompted the worship leader to introduce visitors (two visits).
  • When a pastor asked us to join their congregation (one church visit).

Here are four easy resolutions your church can make in 2012 to become a more welcoming, hospitable church:

  • Make sure each visitor knows the name of at least one church member before they leave.
  • Make sure each visitor is addressed by name before they leave.
  • Make sure each visitor receives a direct and specific invitation to a church activity. It can be next week’s worship or some other event. Most people report that they became involved in a congregation because someone invited them! 
  • Contact your visitor within five days of their visit with a phone call or greeting card. Make it as personal as possible.

Redeemer Ambassadors Year in Review

The Redeemer Ambassadors have now visited just shy of one fourth of the churches in SEPA Synod.

As we enter the 2012, we have some observations to share.

  • Attendance is challenged across the board. We attended many services with fewer people than Redeemer.
  • The Lutheran Church is aging. There are few children attending church and even fewer tweens and teens. A typical service at Redeemer had half the congregation under 18.
  • Hospitality is a challenge. Most congregations are friendly and say hello but generally few make any attempt to introduce themselves or engage visitors. This includes clergy.
  • There are many churches in interim, bridge or mission redevelopment ministries, which means that their ministries are monitored by the Synod to some extent. SEPA broke its interim ministry contract with Redeemer.
  • Worship style and communion practices differ from congregation to congregation.
  • Most congregations do not use hymnals but print comprehensive bulletins. Redeemer does too.
  • Racial and ethnic diversity is rare. Less than 10% of the congregations we visited had broad diversity. Redeemer is mixed both racially and culturally.
  • Languages other than English are rare as well. Redeemer is multilingual and our worship reflects this.
  • People love their congregations and are proud of who they are. So does Redeemer.
  • People feel little connection with the greater church. There is a sense that they are alone in ministry and that they cannot expect constructive help from their denomination. Synod had almost no contact with Redeemer for a decade. We feel the same way.
    Interesting aside: Several church consulting groups across the nation have published statistics that indicate that 75% of church members disapprove of their denominational leadership — with an additional 10-15% weighing in with “not sure” responses. This should be a cause of concern!
  • Most congregations need more leadership than they can afford the old-fashioned way. If congregations are to grow, the denomination needs to help them find creative and affordable solutions to leadership challenges. As it is, some congregations are doing this successfully on their own with impressive commitment from their lay leaders. Unfortunately, they sense that asking for help might bring the same kind of actions from Synod that Redeemer experienced.
  • Most churches have very little knowledge of their nearest neighboring Lutheran congregations and even less of those farther away. Redeemer was much like everyone else until we started our Ambassador’s program!

How Long Should A Children’s Sermon Be?

Someone plugged this question into a search engine and found 2×2. So here’s an answer:

The length of a children’s sermon depends on what you hope to accomplish with the children and the congregation. Five minutes is enough if all you plan to do is give very young children some attention during a one-hour service.

A shorter sermon is also appropriate if you are “talking at” the children. In other posts, we have advocated for using children sermon time to accomplish much more.

The children’s sermon can be learning time for the entire congregation and can help fill huge gaps in education that churches are encountering as Sunday School attendance drops and becomes more sporadic.

A children’s sermon can be used to introduce new concepts to everyone listening and grow your congregation’s skills as a worshiping community.

Here’s a format that expands the function of the children’s sermon and involves the congregation in this part of the service.

  • 1-2 minutes
    Take a moment to make the children comfortable. Ask a few questions? Were they part of an event at church during the week?  Is there anyone or anything you can pray for later on?
  • 1-2 minutes
    Tie the message to the scriptures of the day. In this case, the sermon time should be delivered after the scriptures. Ask the children if they were listening and refer to the lessons. Over time, this will encourage them to listen to scripture readings.
  • 3 minutes
    Present the body of your message. This is the meat of your sermon.
  • 1-2 minutes
    Pray with the children. Use various formats and involve the children.
  • 3 minutes
    Teach something. Sing a hymn together. Give the children an assignment for the next week. Ask them to listen for something that is going to happen later in the service. Introduce a member of the congregation that the children may not know. For example, if there is an upcoming congregational event, introduce the lay leader of the event and invite that person to talk to the children about their project. Make this interactive time. Involve the entire congregation. Remember, everyone is listening!
  • Dismissal
    If your children will remain in the service, this might be the best time to hand them a children’s bulletin insert tied to the day’s theme. It will occupy their attention in a related way as the adult sermon is playing out.

This format takes about 10-12 minutes. That may seem like a lot, but it is a short amount of time that can reap big rewards. Your children will feel less on display and more part of congregational life. New relationships within the congregation will be forged.

12 Days of Christmas — Fun or Significant?

There is a minor debate on the internet over whether the  Christmas song, The 12 Days of Christmas, is a centuries old song sung just for fun or if it was a secret way of teaching the fundamentals of the Christian faith at a time when teaching the Catechism might have cost you your life.

The internet watchdogs point to the publication of the song in England in the 18th century with the tune predating it to France. It was nothing but a children’s game set to music, they say with certainty. But then if the message was so secret that it might have cost a person freedom or life, they wouldn’t dare tell anyone . . . so who knows.

Whether rooted in history or not, it is fun to think of religious truths when singing the song. It can even help you remember whether it is nine lords aleaping or nine ladies dancing. So why not use it to teach!

For those who want to give religious meaning to a secular song, here are the meanings some people assign to the 12 crazy Christmas gifts. If nothing else, they make an endless trivial song a bit more interesting!

  • 1 The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God
  • 2 Turtle Doves represent the Old and New Testaments
  • 3 French Hens represent the Virtues—Faith, Hope and Charity
  • 4 Calling Birds represent the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
  • 5 Golden Rings represent The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch”
  • 6 Geese A-laying represent the six days of creation
  • 7 Swans A-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, wonder, right judgment, knowledge, courage, and reverence)
  • 8 Maids A-milking represent the eight beatitudes
  • 9 Ladies Dancing represent the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control)
  • 10 Lords A-leaping represent the ten commandments
  • 11 Pipers Piping represent the eleven faithful apostles
  • 12 Drummers Drumming represent the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

The Lost Art of Memorization

by Judy Gotwald

I recently reread Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They were first read to me by my fourth grade teacher — a chapter a day after lunch. I read the books myself several times since. In my latest re-reading something jumped out at me. There was a reference to blue Sunday School tickets.

I was a child more than 100 years after Tom’s Sawyer’s time, but I remember blue Sunday School tickets. These were given to us as children as a reward for memorizing Bible verses. We memorized The Ten Commandments, Psalm 23, the Corinthians Love Chapter, The Beatitudes, etc. Ten assigned passages later and we would receive a red ticket. The tickets were to be collected and traded for a prize — a Bible or a pencil with a Bible verse or some other devotional knickknack.

Memorization was also a feature of our Vacation Bible School. Each year, we learned a new classic Christian hymn. I can still sing Built on A Rock, Beautiful Savior, This Is My Father’s World and several others by rote.

Memorization was an important part of our faith training. These words are etched in our hearts as we face life’s challenges.

But memorization is a dying life skill. Retrieval of information is so readily available, why clutter your memory with Bible verses or hymn lyrics?

The reason is that the memorized words become part of who we are — our culture.

I was impressed to visit a neighbor’s home one holiday. The large living room was crowded with lively chatter. In one corner, a man was playing the guitar for the pleasure of a few. Then he began to play When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The entire family stopped what they were doing and with bowed heads sang the entire hymn — every verse — from memory. I have never experienced a more reverent moment in any sanctuary.

The Church should consider reviving the fine art of memorization. The blue tickets weren’t such a bad idea!

You can introduce the concept as part of a Children’s Sermon. Write a verse on cards and ask the children to say the verse together a few times. Give the cards to all the children, even those who do not read. Their parents can teach them the verse. Have the rest of the congregation join in. Have them take the card home and come back next week without it and repeat the verse by memory.

Here are 15 verses to start your memorization program. They are short — a good starting point and suitable for even very young children. Build up to the longer passages!

To find more verses just plug “Bible Verse Memorization” into your search engine. There are a number of sites with great suggestions.

  • 1 John 5:3
    This is love for God: to obey his commands
  • Proverbs 3:5
    Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
  • Romans 3:23
    All people have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
  • Psalm 145:9
    The Lord is good to all.
  • Matthew 28:20
    I am with you always.
  • 1 John 3:23
    Love one another.
  • Psalm 118:24
    This is the day the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
  • Psalm 136:1
    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.
  • Luke 6:31
    Do to others as you would have them do to you.
  • Philippians 4:13
    I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.
  • Ephesians 6:1
    Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Children’s Sermons — Not Just for Children

A fundamental problem facing the Church today is educating members as well as the community. Who are Christians? What do we believe? What difference can we make?

The Sunday School is no longer efficient or particularly popular and is generally seen as a service to the very young. We’ve all seen the kids dropped off so mom and dad can grab a cup of coffee and read the paper in peace.

Vacation Bible Schools have shortened their offerings and limited their outreach— again, to the very young.

Many children are gone from church life by the traditional age for Confirmation training. Even large churches have fairly small confirmation classes.

Children’s sermons have become popular over the last few decades, perhaps to fill this void. Our Ambassadors have observed quite a few. In most cases, they addressed only the very youngest children. Interestingly, the exceptions — where older children were involved — were some of the better sermon offerings. In one suburban church we visited, children as old as 12 or 13 joined the gathering of children. In another, led by a lay member, older children were enlisted to act out part of the sermon. The message of both sermons can be remembered weeks and months later. The ones where the pastor spoke awkwardly to unfocussed preschoolers, while adults giggled at the children’s responses, are long forgotten. (No wonder older children don’t participate!)

The concept of a children’s sermon can help fill the educational void in the Church. Try enlisting everyone in the congregation to take part in the message.

Here are some suggestions for how this can take place:

  • Teach the chorus of a new hymn to the children. Ask the adults to join in. Then sing the hymn together before the service ends.
  • Have some hands on activities that involves adults. In one such sermon, the children were asked to look around the sanctuary to identify someone they trusted. That person then took part in a trust exercise that illustrated the gospel message of the day.
  • Pose a question to the children and ask them to find the answer from someone in the congregation. You might even suggest someone they can ask. This helps children expand their knowledge of other people in their worshiping community.
  • Have an older child accompany a simple song on guitar. The children will see themselves in that role in a few years.
  • Have an older child tell a story or lead a prayer.

Working together on a children’s focus in worship can become a project for your teens. Learning about faith will quickly become part of the fabric of your congregation, regardless of age.

This approach takes a little more time — not much. But it is time well spent. It will help create learning as a life-long Christian habit.

Redeemer is Open Again — But No One Told Redeemer

A new chapter is about to begin in the continuing saga of Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls.

One year we are told we are closed by the bishop, who has questionable authority to take such actions without a congregational vote. We go on for some time. Then we are told by SEPA Synod’s legal counsel by fax that we are “officially terminated” — again, with questionable authority. We appeal that decision to the Synod Assembly who never votes on that part of our appeal. Then Synod Council, who has no authority to vote congregations closed, decides they need to vote to “officially” close Redeemer. Now, according to the community calendar in East Falls, Redeemer is OPEN and celebrating Christmas tonight.

No one told the people of Redeemer! No one invited the people of Redeemer! They have our mailing list!

None of the clergy about to celebrate Christmas in the sanctuary we built with love for the glory of God has shown an iota of concern for the people of Redeemer or East Falls. Sadly, neither have the congregations of the NW Olney Conference. We’ve seen nothing but arrogance from SEPA leadership.

While they are using the name Redeemer,  they do not represent the people of Redeemer from East Falls, whom they have sued as a congregation and as individuals in order to seize our assets.

The message of Christmas just doesn’t seem to be breaking through.

You cannot reconcile people from a position of arrogance. The message of Christmas is about God coming to Earth in human form, to suffer humility for the people. The people of Redeemer have seen none of that modeled by representatives of SEPA.


SEPA Lutherans: if you want to reconcile with the people of East Falls, begin by knocking on our doors and acting like we are children of God. We haven’t gone anywhere, we’ve just been locked out of our church for two years and three months.

The notice in the Community News Calendar says All Welcome. Now that’s news!

Structuring the Church for Change

The need for change is a common topic in church circles. It is also a hot topic in the business world. It isn’t easy for either sub-group of society, but the business world is more likely to succeed. The people who can be catalysts for change are rewarded in the business world but are barely tolerated in the Church.

The Church wants change. Leaders say so. Pastors say so. Congregations say so. But the structure they work within is medieval. It is set up to nurture longevity. Change in today’s world is not oriented toward longevity.

The business world recognizes the need for dramatic change and is undergoing major restructuring. Business leaders are rethinking the fundamentals of how they provide services, including the way they are charging for their services. They are looking for ways to provide recurring funding streams, so all of their business is not hinged on cyclical activity. They are communicating with their clientele differently. They are interacting with vendors and customers differently. They are consciously putting service before dollars — and they are seeing that it makes all the difference.

The Church can learn from this. The care and nurturing of an archaic infrastructure stands in the way. Before they can consider “change,” congregations are expected to do a litany of costly things the same way — call a pastor for unending term calls, maintain a building, and hold all the same services and events. Mission is secondary to all of these, something for a core group to work at as resources and energy allow. To grow within this structure, a congregation must find more like-minded people who relate to existing leadership. That’s a huge challenge.

The cost of the infrastructure is putting the Church out of business. A bare-bones active church budget with a full-time pastor and building to maintain requires the steady support of 100 families. Yet that size community or larger becomes unwieldy in providing the atmosphere many people look for in a church. The Church is asking for people to buy into a costly infrastructure over which they have little influence or control. Most people take one look and say, “No thanks!” The Church would do well to remember that participation in Church is voluntary.

The Church needs to think about the world today and the pace of change in society and in our individual lives. Few of us play out the easily defined traditional roles — bread winner or homemaker. Most people change jobs and careers frequently. Multitasking is the order of the day.

If the Church does not recognize this it will become an institution for the aging — the people who have a connection with what the Church was and not what it needs to become.

The Church must address the following issues in a new way:

  • the way we train church leaders
  • the way we call church leaders
  • the expectations of church leaders
  • the education of all church members
  • the roles and expectations of the laity
  • the purpose of property and assets and how they are maintained and used for mission