August 2012

Singing Together Is Fun and Creates Community

Today there are just three songs outside of church that people sing together—the National Anthem, Happy Birthday, and whatever the pop star that people paid to hear is belting out at a concert.

Singing is fun. Yet, once we graduate from lower levels of school, many of us never again experience group singing. Recognizing this, some movie theaters sponsor movie singalongs to  favorites like Sound of Music or My Fair Lady.

The power of music is the power to surprise and delight.

We remind you of a favorite video link which illustrates this.

Here’s another from a different part of the world.

Songs create cultural ties. Many of the commenters to the Welsh choir video wrote that they enjoyed the Welsh hymn so much they memorized it. Otherwise, they spoke not a word of Welsh. The second video shows how good music knows no cultural bounds.

Our Ambassadors gathered for Sunday morning brunch recently and someone mentioned a clock, which had been her father’s prize possession. We broke into song, My Grandfather’s Clock, with an African member looking on in amusement. “Tick-tock, tick-tock.” My Grandfather’s Clock was written in 1876, by an American Civil War songwriter Henry Clay Work after a visit to England. 136 years later, we could all sing it together, part of our common culture.

Similarly, the one meeting Redeemer had with Bishop Claire Burkat, we considered such a success that as our members left they broke into song which traveled with them down the elevator from the synod offices and across the parking lot to waiting cars. This time the song was from African culture!

Music was part of the magic of Redeemer’s ministry that was binding our diverse groups. We used  eight or more hymns in our worship. Frequent repetition of select songs allowed for commonality. Soon Africans could sing I Cast All My Cares Upon You and Americans could sing Bwana Awabariki. We often sang popular hymns alternating languages and soon we could sing the chorus to Jesus Loves Me or How Great Thou Art in either language without realizing which language we wee singing!

One Sunday we had a guest preacher. He mentioned in his sermon the hymn Just As I Am. He started to read the words. The congregation began singing the hymn a cappella from memory. The hymn is part of our culture. Oddly the pastor seemed annoyed at the congregation’s initiative.

Church is one of very few places where people gather weekly to enjoy singing. Let’s take advantage of our strong points! Let the music of your church come from the people and shape your ministry.

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Church Politics: Operating on Autodrive

Democracy (for Your Convenience)

Remember when things actually happened at political conventions and networks bragged about “gavel to gavel” coverage.

Today the political events are well-orchestrated ads. The platform is handed to us on a silver plate. The rousing speeches are timed to fit one hour of commercial TV: 10 Eastern, 9 Central, 8 Mountain and 7 Pacific. Hawaii and Alaska, fend for yourselves!

It makes us voters feel less involved. Apathy dilutes our political consciences until something stirs a movement like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street.

Church government is running parallel to politics of the neat and tidy. Annual regional assemblies once included open discussion and debate on issues. Motions regularly came from the floor. Attending an Assembly was a chance to make a difference.

Today, the Assemblies are orchestrated to achieve desired results. Worship takes a good bit of the business time. Reports are upbeat. Complicated issues are allotted as little as 20 minutes for presentation, discussion is timed and limited and debate doesn’t exist at all.

Decisions, based on little exploration, become binding.

The effort to include as many as possible in church politics sounds noble. In effect, it has welcomed voters who have no background to make church decisions and there is less attempt to prepare them for the responsibility. They are welcomed partly because they can be used.

The vetting of church leaders is done rather privately. Who are the people elected to Synod Council?  Names are presented to voters with scant bios. They are never really known to the people they represent. Their knowledge of the full church is often only what they’ve been told by synod leadership or the pastor they know best, all of whom have a vested interests. A good third of the votes attending a Church Assembly have a vested interest in the votes. Pastors rely on their relationships with church leaders for their jobs.

There are few qualifications for lay delegates outside of membership. Guidelines are a list of “political correctness” that defies logic. Congregations must send one man and one woman. There is an allowance for youth representatives and some congregations are allotted additional votes because they speak a different language or represent a racial or ethnic minority. Beyond this, delegates can have a lot of experience in church or practically none!

Now what if a congregation has mostly women (not uncommon), mostly old (not uncommon) and the men at church have no interest in taking off work for a synod assembly (not uncommon). That church will be underrepresented. The stated goal of hierarchy — to be inclusive — is actually excluding the voice of many congregations.

There is a lot going wrong in church government today. The power structure likes it that way.  This begins as a desire for efficiency. But efficiency soon becomes expediency: How can church leaders get people to vote a predetermined way in the quickest fashion—while appearing to be inclusive?

The result: people feel like obstacles, not children of God who serve and need to be served and who represent even more people who are counting on very few to make decisions in the interest of the Gospel . . . not the interests of professional leaders or the largest congregations.

Encouraging Hymn Knowledge to Create Community

One of my great grandmothers enjoyed playing piano. She collected sheet music and had her favorites bound into books. I have her volumes dating back into the late 1800s. None of the tunes that she found worth preserving are played on the radio today.

On the other hand, the Church is one place in our society where songs of past centuries are regularly revived. Only the words remain to the music of Bible times. The advent of a universal system of notation in the ninth century gave music—both melody and lyric—longevity. Today’s Christians sing songs that span from the Gregorian chant to the current folk and rock genres.

I attended a concert of a contemporary rock-style band recently where the tune to Of the Father’s Love Begotten from the 13th century was used as a motif.

The treasure and legacy of Christian music is most appreciated during the Christian season when even today’s pop singers make albums of music written hundreds of years ago. People who never attend church sing along with car radio (at least to the first verse).

Church music spans other seasons that are less recognized by secular culture but are a treasure of the church. Much of today’s hymnody comes from the Protestant tradition where pastors often wrote songs as a preaching tool. Martin Luther, Isaac Watts and the Wesleys were preachers and hymn writers whose work is still sung in churches around the world.

The legacy of praising God in song continues with a wealth of new music heard by many for the first time on Christian radio.

Often, hymns are a collaboration between the poet and the tune crafter—not unlike the great teams which brought us operettas and musicals. In fact, Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote the tune of Onward Christian Soldier.

Knowing something about the hymns we sing adds to their meaning.

In the 1600s, Martin Rinkart was a village pastor in Germany during the years of the Great Plague. He buried as many as 50 of his parishioners a day, 4000 a year, including his wife. One of the most enduring hymns of thanksgiving came from his pen — Now Thank We All Our God.

In the 1700s, John Newton repented his life as a slave trader and wrote a perennial favorite used in both religious and secular settings — Amazing Grace. Another prolific hymn writer, Isaac Watts, broke with the tradition of sticking to the biblical Psalms as text. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is the best known of his hundreds of hymns—some of them written specifically for children.

Some great hymns have come from the recognized masters such as Handel, Bach, and Beethoven.

Women, following the biblical tradition of Miriam, gained notice as hymn writers in the 1800s and early 1900s. They included the blind Fanny Crosby (Blessed Assurance) and Katherine Lee Bates (America, the Beautiful).

The difficult process of publishing and printing helped preserve hymns. Prior to 1980, it took about 40 years to compile and publish a hymnal within a denomination, which slowed the adoption of current music but added life to the existing hymns. Today’s publishing allows instantaneous publication and it remains to be seen how that will affect the legacy of hymnody.

Despite the wealth of tradition, many congregations stick to the tried and true. One pastor complained that the congregation he served was content to sing the same 12 hymns over and over.

Later posts will address ways to both preserve and build upon hymn legacy and the way hymn knowledge and tradition impacts faith and Christian community.

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Speaking of Niche Ministries —

Small Church Creates Niche Ministry

Dr. John Jorgenson leads a small congregation in a Plymouth Meeting, a vibrant Philadelphia suburb. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is uniquely situated across the street from a popular and well-appointed township community center.

The congregation has long been supportive of several regional ministries including a food pantry, prison ministry, and a Lutheran Service Agency serving troubled youth, Silver Springs.

Dr. Jorgenson, who developed curriculum for many years with the Lutheran Church in America, helped the congregation focus additional attention on a gift the small congregation is uniquely equipped to serve—the modern family.

Their emphasis is not the typical route of larger churches who dedicate a large part of a budget to hiring a youth minister. Their program relies on using the resources they have and that unique location in their community.

“No Family Left Behind” began with a congregational exploration of three issues that challenge today’s families.

Bullying was the first issue. Bullying is often viewed as something affecting teens. The congregation discussed how bullying spans all ages and is common even within families.

As they focused separately on bullying among infants, toddlers, school children, youth, families, school, the workplace and among our elderly, they identified other areas they could serve in the small church setting.

Families who deal with Autism and similar health problems often have a difficult time feeling at home in structured church programs.

The Aging often are similarly challenged, especially in the many small churches where the elderly are the majority and ministries among them are often viewed by church management as “dying” and not worth their investment in time and resources.

2×2, along with Dr. Jorgenson as guest blogger, will examine how the No Family Left Behind approach is tailored to small church ministry, working with a regional Lutheran Social Service Agency, Ken-Crest, which serves people with developmental challenges, and with the Community Center across the street.

Niche Churches — Hmmm!

This is from a blog by the Rev. Larry Peters, a Lutheran pastor from Tennessee. He was commenting on the writings of Terry Mattingly.

If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. . . . It’s time, he said, for “craft churches” that reach niche audiences.

This is an astute observation. Small churches have been serving niches for some time.

Our Ambassador visits reveal that most churches, large or small, serve a niche, but probably with little intent!

The largest church we visited (non-Lutheran and twice the attendance of the largest Lutheran church we visited) was a congregation of 25-35-year-olds.

Birds of a feather . . .

Small churches know their niche. Any intention of being all things to all people, though tempting, is out of reach. Even if people wanted that kind of ministry, (and most mission statements sound like they do!), finding leadership is daunting.

Church leaders often view small churches as failures—undesirable places for pastors to serve. Part of this is economics. All churches must rise to the same budget expectations, which in the modern era have priced many communities out of the faith business. Pastors assigned to small churches often view their role as care-taking, never bothering with outreach. Some even use the offensive term “hospice ministry.”

Perhaps it’s time to seriously examine the economics of church.

People will make their church home where they can see their offerings and efforts at work. They will neither participate nor attend a church where they do not feel fully welcome.

We at Redeemer know the difference between being welcome to attend church and being welcome to participate. Our bishop made it clear that we are not welcome to participate in SEPA Synod. She seized our property and pledged to close our church and reopen it under new leadership. She wrote to us that current members could attend this new, improved Lutheran church but former members would not be permitted to participate. She unilaterally denied us vote or voice. When we started visiting churches she sent a letter to pastors warning them!

How’s that for a welcome statement!

Redeemer was welcoming East African immigrants who were moving into our community—not just to use our building, which is the more common outreach approach, but to join their traditions with ours. We saw our unique niche ministry as adding to the mosaic of the greater church.

But SEPA was determined that one population had to die before a new population could be fully welcomed. As Bishop Burkat said, “White Redeemer must be allowed to die, black Redeemer . . . we can put them anywhere.” Control of assets was the objective.

Religion is not supposed to be a spectator sport.

Part of the problem with niche ministries is that few pastors are trained to serve niche populations.

Defining a niche (while recognizing the likelihood that niches will change every decade or so) may not be such a bad idea. It will take decades to recognize and train leaders to actively serve niche ministries and not view them as “hospice” assignments.

Another problem with niche ministries is that the “niches” that are most in need (the ones the Bible talks about), often can’t support them.

The true mission of the church is defeated by cost—at least with today’s budget and funding expectations.

Meanwhile, rejected and criticized by our denomination, Redeemer has created a niche ministry. You are visiting it now. Today, two months into our third year, we are reaching more people every week than the largest church in our denomination’s local region. We are just getting started.

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Adult Object Lesson: September 2, 2012

Be Doers of the Word

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s object is a hand mirror.

Begin the talk with something about you in obvious disarray. Your hair might be disheveled or your shirt buttoned wrong or you might have a mismatched or missing earring or if you are robed, wear your stole backward. Having created a visual flaw, look into your hand mirror and discover the flaw.

Today’s combined lectionary readings examine God’s reaction to human flaws.

Retell briefly the story of Moses and God’s refusal to grant him the reward of entering the Promised Land after Moses had grown old leading the Israelites through the desert. For all the hard work of keeping a disgruntled people together on an arduous, perilous journey, Moses had to face his failings—his tendency to doubt.

The passage from James reminds us that God gives us the power to do more than hear God’s Word. We must act.

James asks us to look in the mirror. If we look in the mirror and do not like what we see we are compelled to do something about it.

The Gospel from Mark focuses on the interpretation of Jewish dietary laws. Jesus listens to the questions and criticism of the scribes and responds by pointing out that defilement comes from within. It isn’t bad or wrong food that gives the Devil its power. It is what is lacking within our hearts and minds.

Coupled with James insistence that Christians act upon what they learn from scripture the concluding message for today’s object lesson is to look into our mirrors every day. If we don’t like what we see, do something about it.

End your object lesson by fixing your obvious flaw.

Keep your lesson upbeat. Self-examination is difficult even when we have balloon-sized egos. Many people feel bad about themselves as it is. Offer encouragement, help, forgiveness and love as tools to overcome human failings.

Thoughts to keep in mind:

  • There is a related message in the signs posted in public concourses, “If you see something, say something.” (If you hear the Word, do something)
  • The lessons for today coincide appropriately with Labor Day, America’s celebration of the worker.
  • The book of James was such a challenge to early Christians (and even the great reformer, Luther) that it almost wasn’t included in the Bible.
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To SEPA Deans

The following is from a letter to parishes from a SEPA dean:

When we think about what is needed to help our congregations become as healthy and as strong as they can be, we need to develop our capacity to be confident in prayer, inspiring in worship, sacrificial in service, rooted in scripture, intentional in invitation and generous in giving.
—Serena Sellers

All of these qualities describe Redeemer. We were even growing where we were planted as her letter also recommends. Too bad SEPA decided they needed our assets more than we. . . and not a single SEPA dean (who are supposed to be liaisons between the synod and congregations) spoke up.

Pastor Sellers points you to the synod website, godisdoingsomethingnew.com.

God is also busy in East Falls. See our news here and here.

Conflict in the Church: Why Does Anyone Care?

Why Does Anyone Care?

This question is not asked often enough.

Why do church people care enough to get up every Sunday morning, dress better than usual, fuss to get the children and teens ready, leave their homes greeting their neighbors jogging by or walking their dogs, and drive their cars—passing diners and big box stores with full parking lots—to come to church.

Why, with all the demands on their lives at home and at work, do church members dare upon occasion to challenge church leaders?

The answers to these questions were probably taught to them in Sunday School and nurtured in their homes. Church leaders today are able to take advantage of the fact that fewer and fewer of the few people in the pew have a passionate religious upbringing.

Church leaders can take advantage, playing to the common denominator, risking church division to achieve their goals. When disagreement turns to conflict, leaders, quick to take all resistance personally, often resort to labeling church members. Members are resistant to change, ignorant and incompetent. They are incapable of leadership and not very good at following either. Members are dehumanized with terms such as “alligator” to describe lay people who oppose clergy. Church members are quickly considered expendable.

The “discernment” process in the church is widely cited, but rarely practiced. It would ask questions.

  • Why do members care enough to challenge leadership?
  • Why are members willing to risk peace in the congregation and in their personal lives to advocate against an idea?

The answers to church conflict are the answers to these questions.

But they are rarely asked.

Also not considered: If members don’t care enough to stand up for what they believe, why does the Church crave their benign attendance? Or maybe they don’t!

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Ambassadors Visit St. John’s, Hatboro

The Ambassadors were back on the road today. Our visits are taking us farther as we have visited most of the churches near us.

Today we visited St. John’s, Hatboro. Our former pastor’s wife served here until they both fled the synod in 2006. We were surprised to find St. John’s still in transition or in transition once again.

We turned at the road just before the church, seeing a few parking spots along the church. We found these spots were reserved so we set out to park on the street. Parking was allowed on only one side of the street and NOT the side we happened to be on. As we drove, looking to remedy that, we found the exit from their parking lot and we entered against the Do Not Enter Sign. We would have had to cross a four-lane highway to find the proper entrance. No one was coming; no harm done.

Bishop Burkat criticized our congregation for not having a parking lot, but the walk from the parking lot this morning to the front door of the church was considerably farther than we ever had to walk after parking on the street in East Falls.

We were early. We found a nice outdoor sitting area, a memorial garden surrounded by shrubbery and begonias.

We entered a church which was much wider than it was long with very long pews flanking a center aisle. The only window was a circular stained window at the peak of the domed roof.

We were attending the second service of the morning at 11 am. There were just shy of 40 present and the people used the full width and depth of the church in choosing seats. We do not know how many were present at 9 am service. We were reminded that the synod trustees never visited our worship before announcing they intended to close our church and a visit by one of the trustees a week before synod assembly reported only the attendance at one of our two morning services in their report to the assembly. According to the online newsletter, St. John is one of the larger churches in SEPA.

We managed to hit another stewardship Sunday (our fourth!) with all the lessons addressing Christian giving. A member, a retired school teacher, opened the service with a temple talk and spoke passionately about the congregation’s food pantry mission. It was a service he had learned as a boy scout and he was proud of St. John’s enterprise in helping the needy of their community in a supportive and dignified manner.

The names of the pastor and music director were not in the bulletin but their web site says that the pastor is The Reverend Marcia Bell, of Mount Airy Seminary, and the music director is Michael Brinkworth. The pianist enhanced the hymns with many flourishes and upped the tempo of the closing hymn, Take My Life, as a spirited recessional. The width of the sanctuary seemed to affect singing.

Pastor Bell’s sermon talked about the need to make commitments and to take risks in determining offerings to the church. That message probably hit our ears differently than the congregation’s as Redeemer members took risks, made commitments and gave generously only to have Synod confiscate our assets and put our members in jeopardy with law suits as they try to get still more.

Church Properties Become a Burden to Church Hierarchies

2×2 points to a recently reposted article about closed Philadelphia churches.

Tons of property now stand empty in the greater Philadelphia region.

Episcopal Bishop Bennison says, Where is the Gospel in this?

Good question, Bishop Bennison. The question should have been asked long ago!

The article deals with the stones and mortar problem church leaders are facing.

It barely mentions the lives of the people who have been affected.

The Church misplaced its priorities long ago. They point to a changing economy and demographics. Where were the experts on change when the changes were happening?

The neglect of God’s people is the real problem.

Most of the church leaders quoted in this article are from Roman Catholic and Episcopal traditions where church property is owned by the denomination.

One person quoted in this article, Bishop Claire Burkat, comes from the Lutheran tradition, where property belongs to the congregations. Her actions, in one neighborhood (East Falls) defied the rules of the church she serves. Courts have refused to hear the case the congregation brought. They want churches to settle their own problems, citing separation of church and state.

The Church does not have a good record of solving its own problems!

Now, they, like the hierarchies modern Lutheran leaders emulate, have a problem. They have successfully acquired property they cannot support or have any use for! Each denomination is competing for few willing buyers.

Costs are rarely discussed openly. This article states the realistic cost as $55,000 per property. No figure like this appears in the regional Lutheran church budget!

The real problem began years ago. The Church fled neighborhoods and considered the people left behind or newly moving into those neighborhoods as demographically unsuitable for their investment in ministry. They paid experts a lot of money to support their decisions.

They sought short-term solutions that would one day be someone else’s problem—presumably the laity’s.

They routinely, assigned part-time, minimal effort, caretaker pastors to see how long they might keep money flowing without actually ministering to the community.

Reliance on demographic studies is not helpful. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America analyzed Philadelphia’s demographics and found only one zip code in the city worthy of mission investment—Chinatown.

Eventually, they officially quit trying and started helping congregations close. Initially, in the Lutheran Church, they allowed the congregations to dispose of their assets as is Lutheran law. But regional bodies were struggling, too. They started imposing new “rules” which would make the assets of congregations go to them. Any such new rules are in defiance of the ELCA Articles of Incorporation and cannot be changed by fickle, expedient bylaws. Only Redeemer is challenging this, although the practice will one day affect many.

The plan is backfiring. Even suburban churches face serious challenges.

Regional bodies are looking for any way to put properties they now manage to work. They would rather work with hot dog vendors and theater troupes than people in the neighborhoods who profess the same faith.

It’s time to start looking at more than property. 2×2 will examine the more important question.

What happens to the people and neighborhoods when churches close?