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09. November 2017 · Comments Off on WIRELESS RUDENESS · Categories: CHURCH, Funerals, Internet · Tags: ,

 It is not often that I quote the words of The Pope, but an article in today’s newspaper (THE STANDARD) in Kenya caught my eye. During his weekly general audience in St. Peters Square he chastised people on their use of smart phones, saying “At a certain point in the ceremony the priest says ‘lift up your hearts’.  He doesn’t say, ‘lift up your mobile phones to take photographs.”  He went on to say, “its so sad when I’m celebrating mass here or inside the basilica and I see lots of phones held up – not just by the faithful, but also by priests and bishops! Please!”

I think we all have experienced it – a special moment ruined either by the sound of a mobile phone ringing, or some person snapping a picture with their smartphone at the wrong time.  Not just in church either. Family dinner time.  Concerts.  Special celebrations like weddings, anniversaries or birthdays – even a special date with a special someone.  Really – you need to remain accessible for the rest of the world to call you – even then? I have even heard of people taking their smartphone to bed with them, so that that they might see who is texting them or emailing them throughout the night.

At one time, being available, and able to be reached anywhere and anytime was a sign of importance.  Doctors (and others) would have little beepers attached to their belt and then suddenly in the middle of something have to get up and go to the nearest telephone to call the paging company.  Then the little pager became a little more sophisticated…the number calling you would be displayed on the pager.  I remember having one of those when I was in sales during a career break.  But now we live in the age of the smartphone.  No longer just a mobile phone or “cell phone” as we used to call it.  The smartphone keeps us “wired” and in touch all the time with all the world.  We can be reachable by phone, or by social media or email, or even surf the web anywhere, anytime. And … anybody can have one.  I can remember when mobile phone was part of science fiction.  Remember the agent who talked into a fountain pen?  Then came the first mobile phones – big bulky things.  Car phones that had to be wired into your car to work.  And now? The most sophisticated devices accessible to anyone, not just those who need to be accessible.

Now I am not against those things.  I have one myself.  Nor is the pope against social media.  I am told that he has 14 million followers on his English language Twitter account alone.  He has even gone so far as to say that the internet, social media, and texting can be “a gift of God” if used wisely (though he also said that young people should exchange their smartphones for pocket Bibles.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that you can read the Bible with your smartphone.  As a pastor, when I made visits to the hospital, I always took my smartphone along because I had access to various versions, and various languages of the Bible (German or English) and I used the one that suited the patient.

Like all the other electronic tools and toys before it, the smartphone in and of itself is amoral – neither good or evil.  But the person using it can be either, or at the very least rude.  Rude? You ask me?  Well let me explain.  If you and I were having a face to face conversation, and somebody else came and began to talk to me, would you not think it rude if I suddenly ignored you and carried on a conversation with that other person?  How then, is it polite to do the same thing using a smartphone?  But I have had it done to me many many times.  “Excuse me”, says my partner “but I really need to take this call”.  Then the phone conversation goes on an on while I twiddle my thumbs.  Actually, I usually pull out my smartphone and check my email at such a point.

And then there are the thoughtless people who allow their cell phones or whatever to ring at the most inappropriate moments, such as worship services, weddings, and funerals.  In the last church that I served, we had to every Sunday put a note in the bulletin and on the overhead screen, asking worshippers to please silence their electronic gadgets.  I thought it was sad that we had actually do that.  And still I would observe people texting or whatever throughout the service, thinking the people on the platform don’t notice.  During a funeral that I was conducting in my last church, a phone rang on two occasions.  From the sound of the funky ring tone it was the same phone both times.  The first time I said nothing and just went on with the service while others around the offender glared at him.  When it happened again during a very solemn moment in the service, and it wouldn’t stop, I had enough.  I stopped what I was doing and looked over in the direction of the offender and asked him to please silence his phone.  (I later found out that he was so flustered because he couldn’t get it to stop).  I was criticized for that move because he told others after the service that I had hurt his feelings by singling him out.  I reminded the critics that this person (who did not belong to our congregation) rudely interrupted a very important service in the life of that grieving family.  Secondly the service wasn’t about him, so I didn’t care about him being offended or not.  He should have known better.  Whether you know how to operate your smart phone or not, turn it off before going to a special event.  Or if you must remain reachable, then put the thing on vibrate so it doesn’t disturb others.

One last bit of irony.  Smartphones and other electronic toys supposedly enhance communication between humans.  But sadly, with all this accessibility and availability, studies have shown that we have become less effective communicators when face to face with others.  Just watch next time you go out to dinner, or even look at your own dinner table.  How is the conversation going?  Do you actually talk to the person or persons you are with?  Do you let others horn in on that conversation with an MSN text or an email, or a phone call?  And, seriously were these interrupters and those interruptions really so important that they couldn’t wait until after dinner?  Or church?  Or the movie?  Or whatever?

 

 

31. October 2016 · Comments Off on HERE I STAND…I CANNOT DO OTHERWISE · Categories: CHURCH, LITURGICAL CALENDAR, MINISTRY, THEOLOGY · Tags:

6124216_orig“Here I stand”. These are words that Martin Luther uttered with great conviction almost 500 years ago. These words helped set in motion something that has been known as the Protestant Reformation.  Today, October 31, marks the day when Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.  Such a practice might seem strange to us, but in those days that was the way to make something public – the bulletin board as it were.  The 95 theses were a list of propositions intended for academic discussion.  They were triggered among other things by practices in the Catholic church of the day such as selling, for monetary gain, so called “indulgences” or remittance of time off in purgatory.  Luther regarded purgatory itself as a questionable concept that is not supported in Scripture, and the crass commercialization of divine forgiveness as deplorable.  There even was a marketing slogan, long before the concept of marketing became a science: “When the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 

As Luther’s challenges to papal teaching became widespread, it led to personal danger.  Luther still lived in the time before separation of church and state, and so it was not only the cage of the church hierarchy that he had rattled, but also the civil authorities who demanded that he recant, and go back to the accepted teachings of the church.  The “here I stand” quote was uttered at the Imperial Diet of Worms, to which he had been summoned to answer to charges of heresy. There his books and writings were placed on a table. He was asked whether they were his works, and whether he would recant any of the things taught in the books.  Luther supposedly requested time to think over his reply, and next day returned to make the famous speech which contained these words, “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen!”

With these words, Luther placed a line in the sand so to speak. A milestone that marked his convictions that he could never be persuaded to abandon.  I asked myself how often I had heard these words repeated by people who wanted to make a point, or “take a stand” as the saying goes, and I find a broad spectrum in today’s Christianity that has two extreme positions.  On the one side, we have those who don’t stand for anything, and they hide behind a pseudo academic cloak wherein everything has to be “contextualized” and “relevant”.  In other words, our beliefs are shaped from wherever the winds of current life are blowing at the time. Nothing is absolutely true, in fact something can be “true for you”, but not for me. Because there is no absolute truth,  there also are no moral or doctrinal absolutes.  These are the churches that preach about nothing in particular, or whatever hobby horse the minister is currently on: the environment, social justice, or whatever.

The other extreme however, is equally dangerous, for it takes an immovable stand on the wrong things.  One confuses human made preferences and likes and dislikes with unchangeable divine truth.  I remember Billy Graham got into a lot of hot water years ago when he said that the Sadducees of Jesus’ day were the liberal theologians of that time, and the Pharisees with their many man-made rules and regulations were the fundamentalists of that day.  There may be liberals and fundamentalists who don’t like that analogy, but I believe there is some truth to it. 

Of the two, I believe that the right-wing ultra-conservative wing of Christianity is the greater threat to the church today. While I proudly declare myself to be an evangelical in the historical sense of the word (but not necessarily in the sense that the word is used today), I also distance myself from  that part of the church that wants to take us in a direction that borders on if not meets the criteria of legalism.

Some time ago, I visited the website of a church.  Like many church websites it had a “resources” tab. As I scrolled down it, I found a link to the church’s position or “stand” on a variety of subjects.  There was a “position paper” of the pastor and or elders about subjects like the King James Bible (they said it is the only valid English speaking Bible – “the preserved Word of God for the English speaking world”.)  There was a position on rock music (they were against it and said it comes from the devil and will lead people to hell).  There was a position on the charismatic movement (they were against that too, and said that their church does not believe in the validity of the “sign gifts”). And on and on it went, a position on the role of women in the church, contemporary Christian music, etc. etc.)  I looked in vain for a positive statement about their theology, though I’m sure they regarded all of the aforementioned as theology.

The secret, I think is a proper understanding of Scripture, that enables us to discern between eternal truths that are valid for all people in all times, and those things that were said to a given culture in a specific setting.  That’s why taking a verse of Scripture out of its setting, and waving a Bible in the air hollering, “the Bible says” just doesn’t cut it.  Luther understood those differences.  That is why he summarized his position around the so-called Five Solas which in Latin means “alone”.  The Scriptures alone are the authority for salvation and life; Salvation is by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ Alone and for God’s Glory Alone. Now that is worth dying for.  Any modification either by addition or subtraction is not worth dying for let alone living for.

On this date, some churches especially those of the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) tradition will celebrate the Reformation.  The Five solas will be rehearsed in their original Latin, and in the vernacular.  Luther’s Reformation Hymn “A Mighty Fortress” will be sung. May those churches, and indeed all of us remember that the great reformers also taught “semper reformanda” – the church should always be in reformation.

 

15. May 2016 · Comments Off on · Categories: CHURCH, LITURGICAL CALENDAR

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Today is the Feast of PENTECOST.  Unless your church observes this feast, you may drift by this holy day, for it is unlikely that you received a “Happy Pentecost” card, and probably you aren’t having a big family get together today either.  Pentecost is one of the few spiritual holidays that has not been commercialized, and I suspect that is because those without faith would not know what to do with such a festival.  If there were a way to make money off it, I’m sure that people would.

Some have suggested that “Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian church”.  In fact some years ago I visited a church to find the sanctuary decorated with balloons and ribbons.  On the communion table was a huge birthday cake, and we were obliged to sing “Happy Birthday”.  I found the experience somewhat shallow, to say it charitably.

Actually, the biblical roots of Pentecost go much deeper and much farther back than the Christian church. For Jews of the Old Covenant, it was a harvest festival, the festival of “first fruits”.  It was a pilgrim festival, to which people would travel to the holy city of Jerusalem.  It was a holiday in that no servile work was permitted, and there were certain celebrations and offerings that were prescribed to be offered to the Lord on that day.

In Acts chapter 2, Luke tells us that it was on this day, when people from all of the region would be in Jerusalem, that the disciples of Jesus were gathered  in one place. What happened then, is best told in the words of the historian Luke: “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues  as the Spirit enabled them”. (Acts 2:2-4 NIV)

Luke goes on to say that the considerable commotion attracted onlookers from among the pilgrims in the city.  Unlike the glossolalia (tongues speaking) that is often practised today, these people heard the disciples speaking languages that they did not know, or had not learned.  It was the miracle of God’s Spirit that brought this to pass. The narrative of Acts 2 goes on to record the main points of Peter’s powerful sermon, a sermon drenched in Old Testament Scripture, and replete with accusations for those responsible for Jesus’s death.  It certainly was not what we would call a “seeker sensitive” message in today’s parlance.  But the Spirit brought about conviction of sin resulting in the repentance and baptism of three thousand people. And thus the Christian church launched what it has been doing for the past two thousand years, and that is calling people to repent of their sin and follow Jesus.

Many people who read Acts chapter two are particularly drawn to the mention of the hugs crowds, the powerful and fearless preaching of Peter, who just weeks earlier was afraid to confess Christ.  The thousands of baptisms and the huge growth of the church in that one day are truly remarkable.

But as for me, I tend to think these days more about the opening lines of the story.  The part about what “seems like rushing wind”, or “tongues of fire” on peoples’ head obviously without harming them.  The communication miracle that allowed people from various backgrounds to comprehend the same message.  Its all rather exciting, but perhaps also a little disturbing?  How would we react today, if our worship were interrupted in this way, even if it were God Himself by His Spirit.  I asked my congregation once if they would have liked to have been present on that first Pentecost Sunday.  I dare say that most Christians and sadly most churches would NOT want to have their decorum, their tradition disturbed in that way.  And yet some of those same people bemoan and decry the fact that things don’t seem to be moving forward in most churches.  In my native Germany, churches are being closed and sold to people who turn them into mosques, something that seems to outrage the people who found no reason to worship in those churches before.  Here in our own country we are beginning to face the same thing in many of our cities: huge church buildings, designed to accommodate hundreds, even thousands of worshippers are being sold because the dwindling congregation can no longer  care for them. Several churches that I know in Hamilton and in Kitchener, with a seating capacity of a thousand people contain less than 100 worshippers on a Sunday morning.

Many have suggested that a “Holy Ghost Revival” similar to what happened on Pentecost is what we need.  Now Pentecost, as it is recorded in Acts 2 was an historical event that will not be repeated, just like the nativity, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of our Lord will not be repeated.  Peter said that day was a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.  Pentecost remains in the past tense.  But wait.  There is good news.  What this means is that the Holy Spirt who came that day, is with us still.  He still is like the wind that “blows, wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8) . It is this same Spirit that opens your heart and mine to be able to understand the good news that Jesus came to save sinners.  It is this same Spirit that gives us power to live in a way that honours God and to serve Him.  The trouble is, that many people want the Spirit to help them, lead them, comfort them, yes even fill them … but only if He does it in a way that allows us to stay in our comfort zone, or if He works in ways that fit our theology.

Maybe … just maybe….if we were as receptive to the Spirit as people were in those days, things might be different in our lives, and in our churches. Maybe that is worth praying for.

08. April 2016 · Comments Off on SERVANT LEADERSHIP (and AFRICA PT. 5) · Categories: CHURCH, KENYA, MINISTRY · Tags: , , , ,

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One of the benefits of being in the ministry for several decades is that you watch the trends and fashions both in the church and the world come and go.  Today I will focus on only one, and that is the style of leadership.  Churches are led in many different ways.  There are those who have a hierarchical-top-down system that resembles a pyramid.  Power is concentrated at the very top among very few people (sometimes only one person). The congregation (or congregations under this system) is at the bottom of the pyramid – with very little input into the governance or decision making of the organization.  In other systems it seems like the pyramid is inverted. The leader is at the very bottom, and the church at the very top.  The leader (pastor, minister, etc.) is at the bottom, and answers to a body of congregational representatives, who in turn answer to, or are elected by the people.  In this system it is all about congregational democratic rule.

Then there is something in between the two, where the congregation elects a group of spiritual leaders (the biblical term would be elder, although other terms are used as well). This group, together with the pastor(s) – whatever way they are elected/appointed – forms a plurality of leadership.  Together, through prayer, discussion and spiritual discernment they arrive at a consensus on matters pertaining to the governance of the church. This could be called a Presbyterian system (from the Greek presbuterus meaning “elder”. Generally, this term is used by churches and denominations that use this style of leadership for governance beyond the local church.  Local assemblies send representatives to a “presbytery” which has authority over a group of churches.  To avoid confusion with such bodies, many churches, like the one I currently serve simply refer to an “elder governance” where the locally appointed elders govern an autonomous local assembly (meaning that no other ecclesiastical body has authority over our local church).

Which is the best way?  All of the models briefly described above have their strengths and weaknesses.  Moreover, each model has its own set dangers and pitfalls and opportunities for abuse.  Even though I regard the middle “elder –led” model to be the one closest to the apostle leadership found in the New Testament, it too has possibilities for error and abuse.  All of the models can be defended with Scripture, depending on how you interpret them.  But the greatest strength of the plurality of elders is that authority rests not in one person alone, but in a group.  One person can be easily deceived, and can easily deceive many, but more than one is much safer, though not foolproof.

But there is something else that must be considered when thinking about leadership, and that is how you use power, in whatever system you must function, whether you are a leader in the church or in a secular organization.  Sometimes churches try and copy what they see in the corporate world and that is not always a good thing.

If I may digress, there have been many trends that have come and gone in corporate management.  I remember  when “collaborative” and “consultative” leadership were buzzwords that went along with “input” and “Feedback”.  Everyone who was affected by any decision had the right to offer their input.  If that input represents expertise and know-how it is a very useful thing.  But what if someone’s feedback or input is tainted by their personal interests and selfish preferences ahead of an organization’s well-being?  Taken to its extreme, collaborative and consultative leadership can mean that things are either done very slowly, or in many cases not at all.  This can be true even in a democratic structure: the majority can easily become the slave of the minority.

On the other hand, the authoritarian, heavy-handed top down approach has its own set of problems.  It really depends on who is at the top of the food chain.  What I find particularly ironic is that while many American mega churches, that are ultra conservative in their theology, can be very critical of the catholic hierarchical system, and yet be run by a pastor who is nothing less than a benevolent dictator.  And if you look at how some of those empires have fallen, the word benevolent isn’t even justified.  When a church stands or falls with a pastor, the leadership model is suspect.

Another interesting word that is often used today both inside and outside of churches, is the term “servant leadership”.  Here the leader does not seek power to serve him or herself, but uses his resources or power that comes from knowledge, skill, leadership abilities etc. to be the servant of those who really answer to him.  As Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.” (Matthew 20:24-25 NKJV). This was a hard lesson for his disciples to learn, so Jesus did two things that good teachers do.  They use repetition, and they demonstrate by example. So on the night of the Last Supper before his passion, Jesus became the servant of all by removing his outer garment, donning an apron, and washing the feet of his disciples.  It really should have been the other way around.  But a servant leader puts the needs of those whom he leads ahead of his own needs, even if it means disregarding rank and authority.

I am amazed that while the term servant leadership is gaining popularity in the world (one actually comes across this term in corporate literature) it seems to be going out of fashion in the church. Pastors and leaders nowadays are enamored with titles, rank, and honour of office. We have pastors that behave like managers and CEO’s rather than as servants and shepherds, and we have powerful executives out in the corporate world who are discovering that they can get more accomplished by empowering those whom they lead and looking after their needs, and that this contributes to the success of the organization as a whole as well as the executive’s agenda.

During my trip to Kenya, I was invited to speak on the subject of “Servant Leadership” on two separate occasions.  The first was a conference at MOI University. The second wIMG_0635as a group of pastors and leaders of various local churches.  I used essentially the same material with a slightly different spin in both talks.  At the university, I had really no idea who my audience was. Presumably most were students, but I am told there were also entrepreneurs and other leaders present.  They listened politely to what I had to say, and during the Q + A time there were some interesting questions.  But the second day, in a rural church, where leaders from the surrounding area had come, the reception was much different.  From the feedback I received from these men, I sensed that they “get it”.  In other words, I was in the presence of servant leaders. It challenged me to cultivate that leadership style in my own ministry much more.

 

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02. April 2016 · Comments Off on HOW TO BUILD A CHURCH … AFRICA ADVENTURE (PART 4) · Categories: CHURCH, General, KENYA, Missions · Tags: , , , , ,

IMG_0924How do you build a church?  In North America, a common assumption is, “if you build it, they will come” – they of course being the people. It surprises many people to learn that in the first three or four centuries of the Christian church’s existence, there were no church buildings.  And yet the “church” of Jesus Christ flourished.  The building material was people who were transformed by the message of Jesus who was crucified and rose again from the dead.  The assembly of those people was known as “church” and it met wherever they could find space … in public places like the temple courts, in private homes, in burial catacombs.  It was a gradual development that assemblies or groups of assemblies had the means to construct buildings that are set apart for the purpose of worship.

The church I am writing about today, is located in Kenya, in a rural area near Eldoret.  It was started about 2 years ago with seven people, including the founding pastor who is the father of our Missions Trip leader.  Last November this church had their first baptism service where 69 people were baptized upon their profession of faith.  With the increasing attendance, the congregation of course started to build a church edifice for their worship. The building is on land that was donated for that purpose – something that is not unknown in North America, but not exactly common either.

Our mission team was privileged to visit this church in November.  On one day we had small part in helping with the construction, and on Sunday morning of November 29 we it was our joy to worship with them, together with other area churches who withdrew their service in order to join in with us.  There were Roman Catholics, Anglicans, who gathered with this AIC (African Inland Church) to listen to this Baptist preacher who had come from North America. It was a wonderful celebration that again took 3 or 4 hours (who was counting?).  At the time the structure  had walls and a roof, but no doors, no windows, and no floor.  There was a platform, but with a dirt floor.  What they DID have was a state of IMG_0931the art portable sound system powered by a generator.  This was essential for the lively music performed by lively dancing choirs, and it came in handy for the sermon too – a sermon that was done with interpretation by the same capable translator that I had the previous Sunday, Rev. Peter Ng’ok, the Principal of AIC Missionary College in Eldoret.

Another thing that characterized  this service was GIVING.  Our team was privileged to hand over some gifts that were purchased by donors in Canada.  These gifts consisted of 100 solar powered fixed tuned radios, which people could use to listen to Christian radio programs, and also the Bible in their own language.  The pastor of the local church had a list of who would receive these radios (predominately elderly or shut in people).  Some of those who were present in the service received the radios that day.  Then it was our privilege to present 6 motorcycles to the area ministerial to be used by pastors who have to preach in more than one congregation on a Sunday.  Until then they had only bicycles or their feet to get to these rural churches.  Our aim had been to raise funds for 8 motorcycles, but the funds we had were only sufficient for 6, which were purchased in Kenya.  The motorcycles were lined up at the front of the churcIMG_1075h on the platform, presented to the ministers, and then consecrated by the Presiding Bishop who was present.  Before blessing the motorcycles he gave a stern speech to the pastors who received the bikes, warning them to use these to the glory of God, and that they could not sell them!

But the giving was not over yet.  The person in charge of the service announced that there was to be a “second” offering.  The way it was received was interesting.  The bishop was called upon to be the first one to give, leading by example.  Then  donors come forward one by one, and the amount of their donation was called out!  Some of the members of our team are elders at our church in Hamilton, and I asked them (only half seriously) whether we should try that in Hamilton.  I didn’t get a response, and that too is a response!

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07. August 2015 · Comments Off on WHAT DO YOU EXPECT OF YOUR PASTOR? · Categories: CHURCH, MINISTRY, PASTORS · Tags: ,

SuperPastor2Every once in a blue moon someone asks me what I find to be most challenging in my job as a pastor.  Expecting to hear something deep and dark, most are surprised when I say it is the myriad expectations that face the modern pastor.  In times of old, the pastor was the person to go to and to look up to. Nowadays, for those who go to church at all, the pastor is someone who serves us the way we want to be served, whether that is the “way it always was”, or the way popular opinion calls the shot at any given moment.  Those expectations, even in the smallest of congregations, can be as different as there are numbers of people.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal young minister, whose ministry in his first church after seminary wasn’t going well.  So he looked up his former seminary professor for advice.  After sitting and listening to the young man’s tales of woe, the professor said, “I know what your problem is.  You are arrogant to think that you can do what even our Lord could not, and that is to please everyone!” Then he slightly altered a well known saying, and informed his former student, “you can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but never all of the people all of the time.”

And so it is.  For every person who tells you that they were “blessed”,  by something that you said or did, there will be one, and possibly more in the congregation who didn’t like it. So what do people expect?  For one thing, they expect the pastor to be “on top of his game” no matter what.  That means always a sermon that is not only good, but “great”.  Define great? Inspiring, interesting, uplifting, encouraging, entertaining, intellectually stimulating, funny, spiritually challenging, culturally relevant, doctrinally pure, and those are only some of the things people expect to hear on Sunday morning.  Some do not want to hear anything that challenges their beliefs, contradicts their opinions, or…. has anyone ever heard of the word “being convicted” as in your conscience accuses you?

Now that is only one facet of a pastor’s work – the public side of him that you see every Sunday if your schedule allows you to be there.  People also expect the pastor to “be there” when we need him during the joys and sorrows of life, which one tired pastor called “hatching, matching, and dispatching”.  That can be challenging inasmuch as one of these can be planned and organized in great detail, but the other cannot but it may need the minister’s attention at once.  I have found that it takes only one funeral to throw off your whole week, and dismantle the most carefully planned schedule.  You cannot postpone comforting the sorrowing, organizing and preparing the funeral, being emotionally balanced and level headed to conduct the funeral in a way that is helpful to the mourners.  But … the wedding on the next day was planned a year or more in advance, and the people who will be at that wedding don’t care how difficult your week was.  Nor do the people on Sunday morning.  They don’t care about your rollercoaster journey between grief and joy, the time that you spent at hospital beds, in your office listening to people unburden themselves, and that you had to “steal” hours from your personal life in order to get Sunday’s message ready, for Sunday comes …. ready or not!  And I haven’t even said anything about board meetings, committee meetings, coaching times with up and coming leaders and many other things.

People expect the pastor to be good at everything that he does.  But then there is a question that we haven’t even come to yet and that is “what does God expect of the pastor?” We call the pastor the “man of God” (at least they used to call us that) or God’s Messenger, but we expect him to be at our beck and call.  Does God  have expectations  of us as His servants?  If He does, than surely we will also answer to Him.

In Ephesians 4:11-12,   Paul the Apostle  says, “And He (God) Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,  for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,  till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;”

We notice that here the word “ministry” is used to describe not the work that the pastor does, but the work that the church collectively (the saints) does. My job is not to be a jack of all trades and a master in none, but the coach, who “equips” i.e. teaches, shepherds, guides the people to be the best at their gifts.  Easier said than done.  Many of the “saints” are not motivated to do the work of the service of the church, many do not want to be taught anything that they don’t already know, and some resist every effort to lead and guide them in God’s way.  And some do not want to grow in maturity, which is what the passage points to.

If God expects these things of me as a pastor whom He has “given” to the church, then it stands to reason that I must one day give an account of how I have or have not met His expectations. On the one hand, that keeps me awake some nights, on the other it makes it easy for me to decide which of the many expectations hurled at me I choose to make a priority.

26. February 2015 · Comments Off on THE GREAT DECLINE · Categories: CHURCH · Tags: ,

emptypews

Were you in church this weekend?  If you were, then you are part of only 20% of Canadians who say that they attend church weekly, or part of the 39% in the USA, depending on where you are reading this blog.  These numbers, by the way are from a 2004 Gallup poll, so they probably are not current. But the numbers have not been going up that’s for sure.  Across the pond as they say the numbers are even worse… only 10% in the UK, or less than 4% of the population in Germany say they attend church once a week.

As I said, those are Gallup poll numbers.  The BARNA institute, that researches these kind of things, believes that those numbers, at least for Canada and the US are inflated. They found that out by comparing these numbers, to the actual reports of churches and denominations.  The Gallup numbers of course are based on “self-reporting” by individuals, and it seems that many people were fudging when answering the questions.  Why anyone would lie about going to church is beyond me, but I guess it is human nature to try and make yourself look good.

There are other related statistics as well, and they are equally disturbing. For example: every year more than 4000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1000 new church starts!  From 1990 to 2000 , the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the USA declined by almost 5 million members (9.5%), while the US population increased by 24 million (11%).  At the turn of the last century (1900) there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of the latest century (2000) where we have only 11 churches per 10,000 people in America!  What has happened?

Various researchers, sociologists, both inside and outside the church have tried to answer that question.  The research is complicated, and if I were to replicate all of it, I would be busy writing blogs only about this subject.  So I will attempt to state my own opinions as to what happened, not based only on the research, but just my own pastoral experience. To understand what has happened we need to look at both how society has changed as well as how the church has changed.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I would say there are EXTERNAL and INTERNAL causes for the decline in church attendance and membership. When we think of external reasons, we think about changes in society, and there have been some that I have noticed during my own lifetime.

For example, I grew up in the public school system.  The student body, and the teachers, could be described as WASP – my Catholic friends went to Catholic schools.  However even in our own public schools, religion was present. The Lord’s Prayer was said as part of the opening exercises at the beginning of each school day. Right up until High School, there was a Bible reading included in those exercises.  Some of our teachers taught us hymns and Bible stories.  By High School, things began to change.  Visible minorities objected to the use of the Lord’s Prayer, so the Principal opted for a compromise.  He simply intoned the words “Our Father” over the PA and then everyone was required to simply stand in respectful silence.  People could pray quietly – or not – and the fact that everyone had to be silent meant that nobody would be forced to do something they didn’t believe, and nobody was singled out for not participating.

Today, in the public schools at least, no religion can be favoured over another…equal time has to be given to all, and that means usually that nothing is done. Christmas assemblies and parties are now “Winter Festivals” etc.

As we look beyond schools, we notice that Christianity is no longer the only visible religion.  As the fabric of Canadian society has changed, we have a greater variety of ethnic backgrounds, and people bring the religion of their country of origin with them.

And then, on the external side of the equation, there is also the issue of a perceived need for God. I would call it the “desperation” factor.  Going back to biblical times, we notice that when things were going well for people, spiritual complacency set it.  The covenant faith became less important, and idolatry, even among God’s people increased.  Then when times turned tough, as they did when God sent his chastening judgments, then people again began to seek God.

My parents remember that in post-war Europe, after people had virtually lost everything, the churches were jam packed full.  But as the wonder of economic prosperity swept across Europe, the churches slowly began to empty. It was no different on this side of the Atlantic.  During the post-war immigration era, as people started new churches according to the beliefs of their heritage, these churches flourished and in some cases had to enlarge and expand.  But already the second generation began to take things easier, and today, three or more generations after the “hard days”, religion, or shall I say God is no longer up there in priorities.

A good example here might be 9/11.  On that horrible day, the churches in New York City spontaneously filled with people looking for a place to pray.  For a brief time, Sunday services also spiked.  But it didn’t take long, for things to settle back into old routines.

But what about the INTERNAL REASONS for church’s decline?

Some churches are defensive and attribute their lack of growth to an inadequate building, location in the wrong part of town, lack of parking, their ethnic background, etc. The biblical Book of Acts paints a fascinating story about how the first followers of Jesus were formed into the first Christian church in Jerusalem.  In contrast to us in our day, the early Christians

  1. Had no money. “Gold and silver have we not”.
  2. Owned no real estate and therefore had no place of worship that they could call their own.
  3. Had no educated or ordained clergy. The leaders of the church were blue collared fishermen who had spent 31/2 years with Jesus, and had some knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures.  Our “New Testament” of course did not exist yet.
  4. The church in Jerusalem was an ethnic church. The people that gathered on the Day of Pentecost were Jews, or converts to Judaism born in a different language.
  5. They were persecuted almost from the start – they were forbidden both by the religious authorities (the Jewish leaders) and the civil government from spreading their message.

All of the foregoing would be considered “obstacles to church growth” by today’s church growth experts.  Moreover, they had a message that was controversial: they not only proclaimed that the one who was crucified was alive, but that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, yes God Himself.  Later on, St. Paul calls this message “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. (1. Corinthians 1:23)

And still the group was able not only to attract people to themselves, but also to make an impact on the life of their society.  As the church grew, it pioneered social institutions such as hospitals and schools, and also dominated the arts.

Contrast that to today, where the church is marginalized and irrelevant. In contrast to the first century, the 21st century church allows the dominating culture to shape its thinking and practices. Rather than setting the standard for the arts (music for example), the modern church thinks that it needs to be culturally relevant by adapting the world’s standards of art.

Another internal reason is the consumer mentality among those who go to church.  Many come to church with specific expectations, and if a given church does not provide these, the modern church shopper will take their business elsewhere. I occasionally receive phone calls at the office from strangers who have been to our website, and now call me with asking for “more information about your church”. As I answer their questions, I can almost see them going through a checklist: do you have parking? What do you have for children?  What type of music do you use: traditional? Contemporary? Blended?  Do you have a choir?  How often does it sing? What type of music? And on and on it goes.  Few people ask me anything about our beliefs, for the Statement of Faith is available online, and my sermons can be heard online as well.

And finally, people who go to church nowadays tend to be less engaged, and less willing to participate actively in the life of the church.  For a church to provide the things found in the above list, it needs volunteers. But recruiting, and particularly motivating volunteers is becoming increasingly difficult. Time is one of the most precious resources that people have. If they have young children who are active in their schools and intra mural sports and other activities, then parents are also called upon to sponsor, volunteer, pay fees etc.  With increasing frequency these activities take place on Sunday mornings, and so people have difficult choices to make where their loyalties lie.

Can these obstacles be overcome, or do we simply concede defeat – if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em? Or perhaps it’s time for churches, and the people in them to take a long hard look at why the church exists, and what our role in society should be. What do you think?  Feel free to voice your opinion by leaving a comment.

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28. January 2015 · Comments Off on WHEN CHURCHES DISAPPEAR · Categories: CHURCH, General · Tags: , , ,

Kapernaumkirche

A little while ago (October 14 actually) the HAMILTON SPECTATOR had a piece in the Saturday paper called “A TEST OF FAITH” that took up almost a whole section.  It was about Protestant churches in our city that have declined to the point that they are unable to maintain the expense of their building.  Last weekend when I was in my hometown of Kitchener for a family event I happened to pick up a copy of their newspaper WATERLOO REGION RECORD. Splashed across the front page was an article called KEEPING THE FAITH, with a picture that showed a somber looking fully vested minister standing inside an empty church.

The story that continued on the inside of the paper was very similar to that in the SPECTATOR, and inside were more pictures of churches in that city slated to close this year.  Huge, beautiful edifices that are testimony to a different era.  Built to seat 1000 worshippers, one of them now has fewer than 50 on any given Sunday.

One church has been sold to another Christian congregation of a different denomination. Another will be torn down, and two condominium buildings will be built on its site.  The congregation plans to continue functioning, but in a downsized multi-purpose facility. Another, somewhat smaller building will be converted into a private residence.  In Toronto, there are a number of churches that have gone down that route: the shell of the former church building is visible, but inside are apartments or condo units in which people live.

Here in our own city, a Baptist church (James Street Baptist Church), was a downtown Hamilton landmark for generations. Because the building became structurally unsound, and too expensive for the congregation to repair or even maintain, it has been sold and the congregation meets elsewhere. Everything but the façade of the building has been demolished.

Sadly, this is a phenomenon that is not limited to this continent.  In my native Germany, where Christianity has been in an even sharper decline for a much longer time, they speak even about a new “trend”: the conversion of Christian churches to Islamic mosques.  It has already happened in such major centers as Berlin, Monchengladbach, and Hamburg. In that second largest city of Germany, it is about to happen for a second time: a former Lutheran church “Kapernaumkirche” (Capernaum Church) was closed in 2005 because of dwindling attendance.  An attractive edifice, (pictured above) it was built in 1958, it has stood vacant since 2005.  Adjoining buildings such as a child-care centre, manse, etc. have been demolished and replaced by condominium dwellings. From 2005-2013 various studies took place as to how to utilize the attractive and modern main church, but with no results.  The new owner has sold the church  to an Islamic congregation who is renovating it into a mosque.

There has been a cry of outrage among the citizens of Hamburg, something that I find incomprehensible. Why the fuss?  After voting with their feet and their pocketbooks not to support their church, why should people be upset that others who have purchased the place fair and square want to use it?  Yes it is sad. For not only modern buildings such as the Kapernaumkirche, but beautiful edifices built centuries ago meet the same fate.  What the outraged citizens fail to understand however, is that these buildings new or old were built for a purpose other than tourism, or preserving art and culture. They were built as places of worship, and at one time crowds of people thronged into them to fulfill that purpose. These cavernous places cannot be sustained by the few people that worship in them.  When I visited Germany years ago, and toured a beautiful gothic church, I was told that on some Sundays only about a dozen people showed up for services.  On some Sundays even fewer show up, and the rule is that the minister, who is an employee of the state church, must conduct the service only if at least three parishioners show up in addition to the organist and the sexton.

The two articles that I mentioned at the outset, make an attempt to analyze the reasons for the demise, or impending demise of the churches in our two cities.  Written as they are by journalists, they depend on the input of various points of view which range from  the data and thoughtful analysis of the Christian sociologist Reginald Bibby,  all the way to the blasé platitude that people nowadays are “spiritual but not religious” which one of the articles quotes a minister as saying.

Although it is obvious that these buildings are empty of people, there is no simple answer as to why that is so, or at least not one that totally satisfies, except that Christians of whatever denominational stripe need to re-think their faith, and how to express that faith in a relevant way in our time. As I have said before, “beware of those who have simple answers to complex issues.”

My only contribution (today at least) is to point to the fact that there are churches of various denominations today that are thriving, and who see not fewer but more people coming through their doors. And the reasons for that are complex as well.

In closing, leaders in both the religious and the secular world know that most organizations begin as a movement, and then develop into a machine.  In the movement it is all about the person or force or idea or message that prompted the movement.  The machine is built to more efficiently carry out the purpose of the movement. But the moment that more effort goes into keeping the machine alive than the movement,  the organization is in danger of becoming a monument.

The founder of the church, Jesus Christ, started a movement, which after his physical departure (ascension) was carried on by his followers.  In the beginning, before there was a machine, outsiders were moved to concede the impact of the early Christians everywhere they went.  At some point somebody decided to build a machine to keep the movement going.  Then the machine became more important than the message, the bureaucracy of Boards, committees, policies, constitutions, congregational votes became ends in themselves.  First the machine got disconnected from the movement. It continued to run in neutral.  Then it stopped.  What is left is a monument to another time, the good old days. Is there any way to stop or reverse this?  Yes, only one.  Remember who started the movement and why He started it.  Then get back to Him and get back to doing his mission.

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21. October 2014 · Comments Off on Religion and Politics…A Bad Mix · Categories: Charity, CHURCH, CIVIC LIFE

electionsMost of the Province of Ontario (where this blog originates) is currently in the midst of municipal elections for the positions of mayor, councillors (or aldermen as they used to be called), and perhaps other officials such as school board trustees. Municipal elections are usually not as exciting as the federal or provincial ones,  unless you live in Toronto.  But it is a good time tor raising  again the issue of what churches and religious leaders may and may not do during elections, along with permissible and prohibited political activities between elections.  My blog entry today is primarily directed at readers who are fellow-pastors in Canada, because as I read the statements that some of my colleagues are making on social media, I am concerned that many are skating very close to the line, and in some cases have definitely crossed it. Why is this so important?  Because if you are a paid pastor,  then you are probably an employee of a registered charity.  Canadian registered charities, including churches, are registered by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and as such are authorized to issue receipts which donors can use as a deduction credit on their Income Tax Return.  Contrary to popular belief, this is not a right that churches and other charities have; it is a privilege which the government is empowered to grant or to refuse.  Along with the privilege come certain strings and conditions.  One of these is that money that is tax deductible, including the donations made to churches, may not be used for political activities.  Like it or not, that is the law. The CRA has very broad powers to enforce this law with sanctions that include the power to revoke a church’s Charitable Registration Number. It happens all the time. If you are employed by a charity such as a church and you sound off on politics either in the pulpit or some other public forum, a case can be made that charitable donations are being used for political purposes.

To clarify what is and what is not acceptable, information is available from the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC), from which I have gleaned information for this blog. I find their bulletins very helpful. In an article entitled “What Pastors need to know about running a Charity” comes this list of prohibited activities:

  •  supporting an election candidate directly or indirectly; Praying publically for one candidate to the exclusion of the others could be interpreted as an indirect endorsement of that candidate;
  • telling the public the government’s position on an issue during an election campaign;
  • inviting candidates to speak at different meetings that are not of equal opportunity in terms of prestige or audience; [If you are going to invite any candidate, you have to invite them all. Rick Warren did this with mixed reviews during the 2008 US presidential election.] 
  • singling out elected officials or a party for its voting record on any particular vote or its voting pattern over a series of votes. [If you want to publicize where a candidate stands on an issue or reveal a voting pattern, you have to again treat all candidates equally, and not shine the light on one particular one].

The CRA has stepped up its efforts to enforce their regulations.  Extra staff have been hired to carry out audits of organizations that are suspected to not be in compliance, and charities are a high priority for monitoring.  What is my source for that kind of a statement?  I heard it while attending a Charity-Law seminar last autumn in a statement made by a CRA staff member who was present and addressed the gathering.  Their efforts include monitoring church websites and blogs for possible political activity.  The internet has given us all a much larger platform, so we need to use it responsibly.  In the case of pastors, a miss-step can not only get ourselves in trouble, but the people that we serve, so it is necessary to be wise in what we say and where we say it.

Pastor friends, I would add this.  While it may be legal for a pastor to put a lawn sign on his private property, that doesn’t mean that it is wise to do so.  The reason I have chosen not do so is that I want to be a shepherd to all of my flock, including those with political views that differ from mine. I respect my people enough to let them draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions and choices.  (And a small business owner might follow the same wisdom – you need the business from all potential customers, including those of a different political persuasion). And be careful what you tweet and what you post.  You never know who is listening or watching.  A word to the wise is sufficient.

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bloopers

A video posted on Facebook, where   the pastor and the bride end up in a pool of water during a wedding brought not only a good laugh, but also reminded me how easy it is for such an important moment like a wedding, a funeral or a baptism to go horribly wrong.  These things look and sound funny after the fact, but they are not funny at the time.  Every pastor, I think remembers how nervous we were at our first “first” of these occasions. And some of us had moments that we would either like to forget, or which we laugh about in retrospect.

When it comes to baptisms, I had a few tense moments.  Remember, I’m a Baptist and so administering baptism by immersion is considerably more complicated to do than it is to watch. I remember one baptism early in my career where the candidate was hydrophobic, but did not tell me about that before hand.  As I was about to lower her into the water, the candidate suddenly began to flail her arms and and tear at my robe, almost pulling me into the water with her. Water splashed everywhere, much to the amusement of the children sitting in the front pew watching the spectacle.  It never happened again, but now I cautiously inquire of candidates whether they are afraid of water, and would take some proactive steps.

Another baptism was also not amusing for the woman involved.  She was very vain about her appearance and so ignored my advice to secure her wig with a kerchief, or perhaps remove it and wear a bathing cap instead.  You guessed it. She went down into the water wearing her wig, and came up with a completely bald head.  Amazingly, I was so involved in what I was doing, I didn’t notice until she said to me from the top of the baptistery stairs, “bring the wig with you.”  I looked down, and there was the wig at the bottom of the pool! How was I to fish it out of there unobtrusively? I thought I was discreet enough by moving it with my foot to the bottom of the stairs, and then bending down and concealing it in the folds of my gown as I exited the baptistery.  But my secretary who was in the audience later told me that the whole performance was plainly visible to the congregation.

I had only two weddings go a little wrong.  One had to do with the bride’s name. In this day and age not all brides take their husband’s surname.  Some keep their name, others hyphenate it etc.  I always check ahead of time how a couple wishes to handle this and how they want to be presented or introduced at the end of the ceremony.  I thought I had remembered it well, but when it came time to present them, I introduced them as “Mr. and Mrs.”  as they had requested,…but used the Bride’s surname!  Their fee was refunded.  That’s when I learned the cardinal rule to doing any kind of ceremony … write down every word and don’t ever wing it.

At another wedding I had indeed written everything down but forgot the rings in the ceremony. I was ready to send them back up the aisle when  the Maid of Honour tried to signal me by pulling her ring on and off, but I didn’t notice.  Finally she came over and whispered in my ear, “you forgot the rings.” I tried a “save” by saying something like “whereas you have exchanged vows, and sealed them with a kiss, it is customary also to exchange rings..”. Afterwards the mother of the bride came to me in tears and said, “that was so moving! I have never seen the rings part done so beautifully!”  Well I knew that she would find out the truth eventually, so I confessed that the reason I did it that way was because I had forgotten. It was the talk of the reception.  Some knew about the blooper, others liked or disliked what they thought was an innovation.

Funerals – though I have done many, have mostly gone smoothly except the one that I was not prepared for.  I was not scheduled to officiate, but rather to assist another minister by reading Scripture and offering prayer.  While sitting in the funeral home office waiting for the other minister to appear, I was called to the phone a few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin.  It was the other minister. His car would not start, and he had another funeral across town  later that afternoon. His words to me, “would you mind taking care of this one?” Take care of it? A young rookie minister who could count all the funerals he had done on one hand? The funeral director, who knew about the problem was standing beside me and said, “well?”  I replied that I would need a few minutes to prepare. “I can give you 10, but no more, because we have other services.” Ten minutes later he was back, and we processed into the chapel, much to the surprise of many who were waiting there.  After a loooong opening prayer, I stumbled my way through an obituary, and an extemporaneous message on the Scripture that I had previously been asked only to read.  Everyone but me thought it was “a lovely service.”

Does anyone else know any such stories?  Any pastors who are reading this? Or perhaps you have observed something that your pastor did that must have been embarrassing or funny. If so, please share them by posting in the comments section below.  The only requirement – it has to be true – either experienced or observed by you.  Remember, I reserve the right to edit.

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