December 2013

Dealing with Church Community

The Best Way vs The Easy Way

Christians are no different from people in general. We tend to look for easy ways.

How many of you had a mother that routinely pointed out that no one promised an easy life?

There are plenty of examples in the Bible of just how true Mom’s advice is. But let’s not muddy up the New Year by referencing biblical examples.

Christians are all about building community.

Communities are messy things, intricately woven. The resulting tapestry can be beautiful.

There is no easy way. But that won’t stop church leaders from trying.

This is a good week to think about Christian community. This coming Sunday’s lessons are all about facing the challenges of life where God planted us.

Remember, God wasn’t afraid to stick his only Son right in the middle of a big mess.

I was reading the Alban Weekly blog this week. They are pushing a book about relations with former pastors.

Here is an example where the Church often advocates the easy approach. Pastors are taught to separate themselves completely from a congregation when they leave. No contact. No funerals (either attending or presiding). No weddings. No attendance at worship. No coffee meetups with the friends made over decades of service. Some pastors are advised to not talk to the next pastor. The theory is that no prejudices should be passed on—as if that’s the only thing pastors share!

The new pastor is supposed to be presented with a sterile environment. Make life easier for everyone. Remove allegiance. Remove choices. And in doing so, remove humanity.

What an artificial approach!

Perhaps this comes from the day when pastors lived in parsonages and leaving the community was almost a necessity.

Perhaps it comes from the day when the internet was not around and connecting was harder.

Today, most pastors purchase their own homes. The spouses are often employed in the community. They and the children have no reason to take orders from regional leaders. They can go to church and maintain friendships as they please.

The pastor may be moving on to a different job—not another church far away. The pastor and the pastor’s family will continue to be part of the community.

Continuity. Longevity. Networking. Incoming pastors are taught to see these as threatening—an obstacle to leadership. An excuse for failure.

This is baloney.

Collegiality and a passion for helping among all clergy and lay leaders will trump territorialism. We need each other today.

Train pastors with integrity, unselfish motivation and good judgement. Train pastors to talk with one another. Not selfish gossip. Honest communication tempered with common sense.

Stop creating a phony environment.

A congregation is not a clean slate on which an incoming pastor will write pristine words of wisdom. The pastor will not mold the congregation. Congregations are more likely to mold the pastor!

Lay people are not pawns in the hands of either the new or old pastor. No interim ministry, no matter how long or well-orchestrated, will change that. The congregation will build on its past and find strength in that.

There is no way to keep people from connecting. Church leaders that attempt to isolate congregations from their past are fighting a losing battle.

This standard practice has led to abuses. The advice is stretched to the ridiculous. Bishops actually look at congregations and suggest that certain members will have to go before a new pastor will be agree to serve. Heaven forbid lay leaders have influence.

Transitions are managed for the comfort of clergy.

The extension of faulty reasoning continues. Property will have to be turned over to the regional body before pastoral recommendations will be made. When “easy” is the goal, this makes sense despite what the rules of the church may be.

Communities grow. The new will add to what has been.

Don’t haul out the pruning analogy. It’s just plain mean — especially when the lives and property of lay people are the targets.

Churches are made up of people, not trees.

Lutherans Who Care. Are there any?

Light one candle to watch for Messiah . . . .

I was touched by the story shared by a Redeemer family on Sunday. They reported that their family visited our church and placed a candle at the steps to the locked doors on Christmas Eve. It was our fifth Christmas Eve locked out of God’s house.

Light one candle to watch for Messiah . . . .

East Falls Lutherans are faithful. It is sad that our devotion and passion for mission and church is lost on a denomination that just doesn’t care about congregations and communities beyond their own comfort.

It is even sadder that our successful ministries could be benefiting the whole church, if we weren’t being shunned.

These particular members have suffered severely at the hands of SEPA Synod. Still they are loyal and hopeful leaders of Redeemer and 2×2.

We’ve waited five years for Lutherans to demonstrate compassion for our church.

The ELCA is only as good as it treats its own.

We’ll light more candles.

There is always hope.

A Christian’s Guide to Trusting Authority

Start Asking Questions—NOW!

The news of Nelson Mandela’s death was still fresh when I shared lunch with a fellow Lutheran.

She told me that she remembered going to church the Sunday after the news of his release from prison in 1990.

Nelson Mandela went to prison when I was in the fourth grade. Those were turbulent years ruled by fear. There was talk of the evils of Communism. The Civil Rights protests were in full swing in this country. There were mixed philosophies on how to protest decades of wrong policy in our own country. Nelson Mandela epitomized from afar everything we feared at home. He had Communist sympathies and had practiced both nonviolent and militant protests. He was living with a very tough situation. People in tough situations are likely to try many paths.

Pressure from around the world influenced Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years.

His release was not met with universal approval.

My friend told me that her visit to one of the churches closest to Redeemer that morning was led by an angry Lutheran minister. His sermon was about the huge mistake that South Africa was making. Nelson Mandela deserved to rot in prison.

    Read the description of traits of a doctor. We should trust them. Why? They work hard! Do we give our church leaders the same unquestioning allegiance?

Read the description of traits of a doctor. We should trust them. Why? They work hard! Do we give our church leaders the same unquestioning allegiance?

Imagine that sermon being preached today. The world is just coming off three weeks of mourning Mandela’s death and celebrating his life.

Nelson Mandela did not have an easy life but he was given time to prove himself.  He became the one-term president of a divided country and proved that the surest way for all of South Africa to move forward was to put the past behind them and move ahead together.

His 27 years of brutal and humiliating punishment were erased by his final 23 years of peacemaking.

It didn’t have to be that way. He could have written an autobiographical manifesto fueled by bitterness and anger. Instead, he was typically seen with a smile on his face and the words he spoke were as gentle to the young and innocent as they were to the older generations who had witnessed and perhaps advocated for his downfall.

The world is always challenged to think independently, to make difficult judgments. This is pivotal to a democratic society. It is also pivotal to Christianity.

The people who make up the Church, lay and clergy alike, are tempted to follow. Following Christ is part of our heritage. We tend to take the same trait and misuse it. We act as if mortal church leaders are due the same unquestioning devotion.

Followers are not expected to be mindless! If we behaved as unthinking drones, no new leadership would emerge.

Perhaps that is the problem we face in today’s church—a problem of leadership.

In our society, church leaders are given special protection by courts reluctant to get involved in church matters. This creates a very dangerous environment, especially for lay people. Church laws may not give special protection to clergy but custom does. Because courts will defer to church leaders, lay people are at risk. Ask the people of Redeemer! The court ruling in our case stated that if the law were applied, Redeemer’s arguments held merit. But the law was not applied. The courts deferred to the Church. Church leaders reveled in their ability to flaunt their own rules without legal consequence. Church rank and file followed — mindlessly.

The Church deals, usually in private, with thieves, adulterers, liars and schemers. We don’t question when we should. We are beginning to regret it in the sexual abuse cases. But abuse comes in many flavors.

If we could get in the habit of asking questions, there’d be no need for the dramatic sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela — contemporaries fighting similar problems.

Christians need to question leaders. Leaders can be wrong. When there is self-interest in the decisions in question (either monetary or prestige), it is almost guaranteed.

When we don’t question early and often, we end up with defensive stalemates. That’s where the Church is today. Stalled by leadership that is vested in protecting the past and their own positions within the past. We wait for someone else to take the first dangerous steps. It usually takes a very long time. It is not without cost.

Enter the Martin Luther Kings and Nelson Mandelas. Neither lived an easy life, but we are all the better for their struggles.


Adult Object Lesson: Matthew 2: 13-23

medium_10061727925Where is God when bad things are happening?

Your objects today are toy cars.

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. The hoopla is over. We Lutherans had our one night of Christmas music. We’ll sing a few more carols this morning but our heart for Christmas wore out a couple of days ago. Most churches will have their poorest attendance of the year. We’ll feel a bit awkward singing the tunes the radio stations have mothballed already.

Few Christians hear the tough part of the Christmas story. An angry king didn’t like that his plan for the Holy Family was foiled. He let his pride get the best of him.

Wasn’t the first time the powerful lost their way. Won’t be the last.

The people Herod tried to use for his own purposes caught on to his true intent. They refused to cooperate. Embarrassed, the king went after every baby boy. Scorch the earth. Kill the innocent. Feel better about failing.

Hundreds of mothers wept at the slaughter.

God’s behavior is puzzling. He knew what was going to happen. He had the power to stop it. Everyone could have just gone on with their lives content to leave the tough stuff to God.

God let things play out. He warned Joseph and Mary to get out while the getting is good.

Mary and Joseph wrapped their toddler in blankets and headed to Egypt in fear of their lives.

Where was God? Why was He so hands off?

This is the problem Christianity tackles this morning while many Christians sleep in.  It’s a tough problem.

Many Christians worship the God of benevolence. The parking lot god. The rabbit’s foot god.

Here is where the toy cars come in. Illustrate the following story as you tell it. (It’s word for word from a Bible study I attended.)

“I was late for my appointment. I was worried that I wouldn’t find a parking spot and I would be hopelessly late. I prayed to Jesus. ‘Find me a parking spot.’ Just as I neared my destination, a car pulled out and left an open space right in front of me. And there was time left on the meter! God heard my prayer. God is good!”

Most people face far more difficult life problems at some point if not every day. The God of the parking lot seems to be too busy to hear their prayers.

If God can find us a parking spot, why can’t He stop a car crash? (Use your cars to illustrate this!)

  • Why did God send a hurricane or tsunami?
  • Why can’t God just heal my child?
  • If God made me with special talents, why can’t I find a job?
  • Why does God allow terrorists to prosper at the cost of innocent lives?
  • Why is anyone poor?

It is not unusual to question God’s choices in allowing difficult circumstances to develop and continue to grow. This question is the root of doubt.

When we are feeling desperate for intervention, we can remember the lives of the Holy Family.

We find Mary and Joseph in a similar state this morning. God warned them to get out! Flee! Bad things are coming.

  • Why didn’t God strike down the wicked king? After all, He is God!
  • Why didn’t God warn the mothers of ALL the baby boys destined to be slaughtered?
  • Why was everything so hard?

The answers are wrapped up in our own expectations of what God should be.

If I were God, I would . . . .

It may be that God has plans for His creation that we do not understand.

It may be that God trusts His children enough to follow directions.

Who knows the mind of God?

What we know is that Mary and Joseph followed God’s advice. For sure, it was hard. But in the end, the family returned. Even that wasn’t easy. But the family was reestablished in Galilee long before we hear the next story about the boy Jesus.

Surely, they prayed just as we pray. Surely they asked the same questions we ask when life is tough.

Things worked out just in time. God’s time. God’s way. It isn’t what most people want to hear. Most people never hear this morning’s story.

They’ll be home remembering the newborn baby asleep in the hay.

He is a baby that will have to grow up. Fast.

photo credit: RiveraNotario via photopin cc

Redeemer’s Christmas Greeting


While most churches scurry . . .

redeemerxmas2013lrin East Falls, there’s no hurry

Redeemer members passed our locked church for the fifth Christmas and gathered into the welcoming home of one of our members to celebrate Christmas together.

It will be the fifth “bleak” midwinter in East Falls locked out of the church—but we had a wonderful time catching up. As usual, much of the world was represented even in our small group. Our Christmas chatter included talk of how Christmas is celebrated in England (the youngsters opened “crackers”) and in the Mideast and Africa. We spent no time remembering Christmas past at Redeemer because we live in the present. Our ministry today counts. Many of our members will be traveling in the new year. Several have new jobs or business ventures. We are still the talented, eclectic and diverse community the ELCA doesn’t know what to do with while they try to establish diversity on their terms.

The direction of 2×2 was discussed. We grew threefold this year. We now have a community of more than 200 daily readers and we are still just starting. We already have the widest reach of any congregation in SEPA Synod. By the end of next year we may have the largest reach of any church in the ELCA! And they think we don’t exist!

One of Redeemer’s remarkable traits is the ability to build on the interests of the present. That hasn’t changed. The young people spoke of their interest in archery. Out came two bows and lessons on how to hold the bow and draw the string. It’s safe, SEPA. We didn’t get out the arrows!

Redeemer is still a fascinating Christian community.

So, while other churches rush to create a typical Christmas Eve experience for typical people who look for a typical church to attend on Christmas Eve, Redeemer is already moving into the new year. We are eager to see if the Epiphany Season presents the Lutherans of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—an epiphany! We’re betting that the point of Christmas will be lost. Again.

Churches Can Tap Emerging Talent

When Will It Be Christmas Again?

If you watch the singing competitions on television you’ll notice that the talent is getting younger and younger. It is not unusual to see mid-teens in the finals. A few have won!

The first reality competitions had narrow age parameters something like 18-30, but in recent years the competitions have removed age restrictions. Twelve-year-olds get international exposure. High school groups compete with veteran performers.

The opposite is true too. Susan Boyle stood before the world dressed in the dress she had worn to a recent wedding. We snickered at her nervous cockiness. She was well into her 50s and had sung for the locals all her life. The judges and audience were braced to witness her complete embarrassment. And then she opened her mouth.

The reason these polarities of talent are emerging is that today’s world provides more opportunity.

Youngsters are exposed to professional music from the womb. They are accustomed to the best.

Older people have the leisure to revive abandoned dreams.

Church is accustomed to relying on professionals. As the paid organist begins to play, the paid worship leader says, “Please turn to Hymn 150 in the Red, Green, Blue or Dark Red Hymnal.”

Most of the poets and tune writers represented in these hymnals retired to heaven more than 100 years ago.

Online tutorials make learning music theory a breeze. Many guitarists are proudly self-taught. PBS features a piano teacher that has adult learners playing chords and melody in no time. Skip the scales. Use whatever fingering works for you. Just play.

The mechanics of song-writing are readily available. Do you have song-writing talent in your church? Have you expected to find song-writing talent among your own? Is that one of the opportunities for service listed in your church newsletter?

Here is the 13-year-old song-writing daughter of a faithful 2×2 reader sharing a song she wrote for Christmas. Unlike a lot of modern songs it has more than one verse! We are proud to share it. Way to go, Abbey!

Go Small to Grow Big

Christmas and the Power of Small

It’s a very good thing that Christmas comes every year.

Every year we need a reminder of the power of small.

God started out with a bang. The epic stories of the Bible come from the Old Testament. Floods and famines. Wars and destruction.

But at some point, God shifted gears.

You can hear his exasperation in the prophetic words of Isaiah.

Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
Therefore, the Lord God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

God turned away from the epic solutions with casts of mostly unnamed thousands.

“Thunderbolts and lightening. Very, very frightening.” wasn’t working.

God, holding all the power in the universe, went small.

It was dramatic—earth-changing.

Suddenly, the cast of thousands become known to us by name. There are 12 male apostles with names and a bunch of women with names, too. Suddenly, our scriptures have us looking into the crowd. We see the boy with the fish and loaves of bread, the woman who is bleeding, the crippled man, the dying girl, the fisherman, the merchant, the rich young man, the priest, the widow, the soldier, and the tax collector. Many of them are named. Suddenly, they are all equal in importance.

Our all-powerful God went small. He bundled all his power into a tiny baby and let it loose in the world. He came to earth and joined us. Immanuel. God with us. Large and small.  Rich and poor.


The Church is always tempted by big. We feel secure when there are big congregations making big contributions to support — who knows what? We can look across our large congregations as they pass the offering plates at three or four Christmas Eve services and feel a sense of accomplishment. We’ll know some of the names in the crowd. Many will be strangers and will stay strangers.

We look down at the little neighborhood and country churches who struggle to find a supply pastor on Christmas Eve. They are seen as a drain on the hierarchy without clear evidence that they are costing hierarchies anything. The Church will set unrealistic expectations, making the mission of every congregation to equal the financial capabilities of the very few large churches.

The Church, in its own interests, has a hard time valuing small.

But once a year, we are reminded.

Every Christmas we remember the power of small—the power of knowing the person sitting in front of us in church and the ones behind us as well — the power of every person being able to contribute in worship and mission with the gifts God gave them, not the gifts the church perceives it needs for its own survival.

The power of the Church is in strengthening small churches—not focusing on growing numbers but in empowering influence.

We can do that best when we look across the congregation and know the names.

Once a year, at Christmas time, Christians return to our roots.

It all started with a baby and love.

His name is Jesus.

The Flipped Classroom; the Flipped Church

flipSchools Flipping the Model of Learning
Will Fuel Discontent Among Future Worshipers

Enlightened educators realize that the world has changed. In response they are flipping their classrooms.

A flipped classroom realizes that the educational world does not have to subsidize one expert lecturer teaching the same material in every classroom across the United States and beyond.

The old model had 30 or more disengaged pupils listening to lectures in school and going home to work in solitude on solving sets of problems. Working together was considered cheating. Students who encountered difficulty didn’t get help when they needed it and often lagged hopelessly behind.

The new model has students listening to online presentations of material. They come to school to work together on solving problems. Students can view the best deliverers of facts and theory online. Students and teachers can choose the ones that fit their learning styles and curricula! When teachers work more closely with students, problems are identified and addressed at the best time for learning to take place.

Local teachers are free to facilitate learning in more hands-on ways. Classrooms are used less frequently as lecture halls and more frequently as workshops and labs with the added benefit of collaborative learning. Working together is no longer cheating but expected.

Teachers are loving it. Students are getting used to it. It’s a bit harder to dodge the homework.

This is providing a future work force that is accustomed to collaboration and innovation and using resources from many sources to solve problems. Eventually the flipped classroom will be a flipped work environment. It already is in many cases.

But how does this major societal change affect church? Will worshipers who have never experienced lecture-style teaching sit still for sermons? Probably not.

Can we flip the church experience? Can worshipers follow the scriptures and teaching aspects of worship at home and come to together in church to collaborate in worship and mission or will mission continue to be the optional “homework”?

Does every little church have to pay a professional theologian in order to work together in mission?

The answer, hard as it may be to accept, is no. This is nothing new. The small churches which are now struggling to meet unrealistic budget expectations of the modern world started out with itinerant pastors in many cases. They were built on the passion and work of lay leaders who maintained the mission between pastoral visits.

The model of the flipped church has yet to be developed. It must happen. 2×2’s experience is a start. We’ve flipped by necessity!

As the numbers of children reared in flipped classrooms grow to maturity, the experience of spectator worship will become anachronistic. It will seem demeaning and purposeless. Small churches with minimal professional leadership are learning that their members have leadership skills that larger churches purchase.

Talk to the majority of Christians. Most are already less involved in church. When they come to worship, they are going to want to know their involvement will make a difference.

Churches need to find ways to engage, beginning with worship. That will change the way everyone thinks about their relationship with Christian community.

If you want to transform, start flipping!

Here’s what we are doing: 2×2 offers a weekly object lesson for use with adults. We’ve called these “Adult Object Lessons.” We will keep using this term. It helps drive search engine traffic. We will start using the term “experiential worship or experiential sermons.” That will help flip the concept of worship from spectator to participatory. That’s where worship needs to go if it is to remain the communal experience we expect it to be.

photo credit: Dabe Murphy via photopin cc

Adult Object Lesson: Advent A-4 Isaiah 7:10-16

Advent artThree Weeks and Counting: Still Broken

Isaiah 7:10-16  •  Psalm 80:1-7

This is the fourth object lesson based primarily on the Isaiah readings for Advent Lectionary Year A.

For the last three weeks we have been pondering the great event that is about to be remembered by the world once again. In just two days the Saviour will come at last.

Have things been getting steadily better for us during these four weeks? Not necessarily.

On this last Sunday before Christmas Eve, we read from Isaiah and Psalm 80 and we hear about our brokenness.

Both the psalmist and Isaiah reference an exasperated God—a weary God.

“All right, you guys. If you are just too stubborn or helpless to get the messages of the last three weeks or last few decades, listen up. Listen and listen good. I am sending a baby. And by the time this baby starts eating solid food, things are going to change around here.”

For all the prophesying that had been taking place in Israel and for all the preaching that has been taking place here, we arrive at the threshold of Christmas as broken children of God.

Your object today is something that is broken. It could be a broken record, a broken piece of pottery or a broken toy. Set out to do some mending as you talk about today’s lesson. Try some tape or duct tape, move on to white paste or school glue. Express your frustration as you work at mending things. Then pull out the Krazy Glue.

Speaking of crazy fixes — here’s how God intends to fix our brokenness. He is going to send a baby. He will be born of woman, just like any other baby, but He will be a sign that things are about to change.

As you come to Isaiah’s unlikely solution for the problems his audience faced, walk over to your congregation’s crèche scene. If you don’t have one, have at hand just the manger and the baby or even just the baby. Put all the glues away. You might have a child hold the baby Jesus while you put away the glues and broken object.

Then focus all attention on the baby.

Point out the brokenness that we all face—and with which the baby will contend from the time he can eat solid food!

You don’t have to say much more at this point. Just read verse 13-14 from Isaiah Chapter 7.

Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
Therefore, the Lord God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Remind them that the people hearing this message from the lips of Isaiah would have known the meaning of Immanuel.

God is coming to be with us.

Invite them to return on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

You might lead the congregation in an a capella rendition of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” It captures both the hope and desperation of the Advent season.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Here are the other three Advent lessons based on Lectionary A’s Isaiah readings.

Advent 1

Advent 2

Advent 3