Saturday, February 28, 2009

Getting to Know Something About Ourselves So We Can Do Mission Better: FYI, Some Zion Statistics

In order to preach effectively to people it helps to know something about them. Paul captured the essence of this when he said, “I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” Paul felt it was a good thing to “know the audience.” Even my old seminary has come around and offers a whole core class called “Knowing the Audiences.” Several of my former interns took the class and told me it consisted of such wild and strange things as “walking around the neighborhood” (because when driving you focus on different things and miss a lot of detail); and using census info to understand your neighborhood demographically. If we’re going to be serious about mission, we have to have to know something about the people we are ministering to. Most missionaries undergo training in the local language and culture before they arrive in their new mission service area. When I lived in Latvia, I took language classes every semester to help me know and understand the society in which I lived.

So you can imagine my delight when after 3 1/2 years of waiting, we can finally analyze some statistics about our own congregation. Apparently most ELCA churches don’t keep detailed age records so it makes comparisons with previous years nearly impossible. But I’m very excited by what I see.

Here’s what I see in a nutshell:
A. Even though we are the oldest Lutheran congregation in Des Moines (150 years in November), we are really, really young. 45% of our members are 30 or younger.
B. Most of our congregation lives in Des Moines or Urbandale, but people are coming from all over the Metro.
C. We are below the ELCA national average for median age and above the ELCA median average for worship attendance (I included those average for comparison below).
D. Considering the average age of our congregation, some recent decisions about utilizing Facebook and other web based communication tools, adding monitors in the church and using text messaging as a way of inviting have turned out to be good calls.

It’s important that you understand that my excitement about these figures is because they represent what God is doing at Zion and who he is making us to be. When I first came to interview at Zion, I remember sitting in the back pew during Sunday worship and being overwhelmed by the Spirit of God and coming away with the sense that he has a plan and a purpose which he is unfolding in this place. I think these figures, which are all about people, are revealed to us so that we might begin to understand what he intends to do among us.

These figures are for the year ending 12/31/08.

Our total membership: 782
Total number of families: 292

Statistics by age as a percent of congregation:
0-18 years 29%
19-30 years 14%
31-50 years 27%
51-65 years 14%
66-100 years 15%

Average age of ELCA member: 57
Average age of US citizen: 36
Average age of Zion member: 36

% of Zion members in weekly worship: 47%
% of ELCA members in weekly worship: 29%

Family Distribution by City:

Altoona 1%
Ankeny 4%
Cedar Falls .3%
Clive .6%
Dallas Center/
Cumming 1%
Des Moines 42%
Fort Dodge .3%
Granger 1%
Grimes 3%
Johnston 14%
Mitchelville .6%
Norwalk .6%
Panora .3%
Peru .3%
Pleasant Hill 1%
Urbandale 25%
W. Des Moines 5%

I find these statistics to be enlightening and also fun. It’s fun just to know who we are as a congregation. And the more we understand about that, the more effectively we can minister to people. Next blog: worship and money statistics. Thanks for reading. God bless you.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A long conversation about changing the way things have always been in church: the lectionary readings

Sometimes people ask: “Why don’t we follow the lectionary readings like many of the other Lutheran Churches?”

The common lectionary was developed long ago to be sure that all the churches were reading the same Scriptures every week. It’s like a special calendar for the church. It’s changed over the years but still retains the essence of what it was intended to be. It is currently composed of three one year calendars (aptly named years A,B, and C) which assign weekly worship Bible readings called pericopes (from the Greek word for mutilation) which include a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, an Epistle (reading from one of the New Testament letters) and a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). The Bible readings correspond to the liturgical year, also called the church year, which celebrates the major and minor feasts and fasts of Christianity. For instance, the liturgical year begins with the season of Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) and so the common lectionary includes readings having to do with the coming of the Messiah. The idea behind the liturgical year and the common lectionary is sound. This way we’re sure that every Christian is following the life of Jesus every year and so we become familiar with the Bible verses. Then there are feasts like Trinity Sunday which mandate a yearly discussion about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and their relationship. Very sound.

And in our sound-bite culture, wouldn’t you think three short Bible readings ought to accomplish more than one long one?

The liturgical year was also developed in order to take us out of ordinary time and make our “church time” special and different. The idea was that as you stepped into the church, you stepped out of the world. A season like Lent, for instance, on the Christian calendar helps us remember through prayer and fasting that we are sinners in need of a Savior. It takes us out of a world that is too busy and too into instant gratification and places us in a spiritual state of mind to remember how dependent we are upon the Lord for all things including forgiveness of sins and everlasting life which we receive because Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead on Easter.

So if the common lectionary and the liturgical year are such good teaching tools and also take us out of the world’s time and put us into the church’s time, why wouldn’t you want to keep them? Why would you ever go off and create sermon series and such on your own?

Let me first say that we do keep most of the church year or liturgical year. For instance, we continue to observe Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Last year we had a special reminder of All Saint’s Sunday, for instance. Every year we have Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and so on. These feasts and fasts are a part of who we are and will continue to be so. Recently, other non-liturgical churches have even begun observing these holy days and I’m sure that they are here to stay.

However, in the last 20 years, even the liturgical calendar has stopped observing the minor days such as Septuagesima Sunday. What is Septuagesima Sunday? Well, it’s the ninth Sunday before Easter, the third Sunday before Lent, and it’s the Sunday on which Roman Catholics and others stop saying “Hallelujahs” in church. Prior to the Green LBW hymnal which was introduced in 1978, we kept such holidays as Septuagesima on our calendar.

I guess that shows that we do make changes or adjustments from time to time, apparently. Since the liturgical calendar no longer is common for all of Christianity because of individual denominational choices, it has become clear that it is perfectly acceptable for us to use the calendar as a tool rather than having the calendar control us.

Now that you understand that we keep all the major Christian observances (although we have stopped keeping many of the minor ones) lets talk about the common lectionary.

Remember that the lectionary was not an early church tool but a post Constantine tool. In other words, it is something that comes to us after Christianity becomes the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. To go from an underground, outlawed movement to a state church is a huge move and so there were many issues about power and control. Including, but not limited to, keeping worship the same in all the churches the same.

Here is my objection: no church (congregation) is the same. For instance, St. John’s downtown is a very different Lutheran church in personality, presentation and focus than Zion. Our congregations are made up of different types of people who are asking different types of questions from the Bible. The needs of each congregation are also somewhat different and so the things that might need addressing on any given day are also different. (For instance, Zion is a much younger congregation demographically). Maybe we are struggling with a spiritual issue as a congregation and need a special emphasis on some topic. That’s essentially what we’re doing with sermon series’. We are addressing what we feel the spiritual needs of the congregation are.

Another observation about the liturgical year and the common lectionary is this: Has the use of these tools made us better Christians? Are we more mature in our faith in churches that keep the lectionary than churches that don’t? In other words, has having Trinity Sunday helped us to understand the Trinity better? My observation is that no, in fact this is not the case. I think we all understand the time line of Jesus’ life but I’m not sure it has helped us to understand the Gospel as a whole or how having a personal relationship with Him is life changing or transforming. I’m not sure the use of a calendar or lectionary has helped us resist sin or become more loving or godly. When I look around North America at the liturgical church, I don’t see many congregations that are alive, healthy, and doing amazing transformative things in Jesus’ name. In fact, I wonder if preaching only from the lectionary hasn’t kept us from addressing many of the evils in our society or even kept us from encouraging people to grow and stretch in their relationship with Christ. Now this is a value judgment on my part and somewhat subjective. You are free to have a different assessment. I merely observe that the lectionary following denominations such as the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians and so on are not really known right now for their faithfulness to the Bible or for leading people to Christ.

Now I admit, in matters of faith, I’m results oriented. Show me you are in love with Jesus, don’t just tell me. I think in the past many preachers would preach for three years (A, B, and C) and then they could just go back and use their old sermons. That may have given them more time to be with their congregations during the week but it may not have helped them in addressing current needs or situations in our world. In fact, it may have hurt the church in keeping us from being relevant.

So that begs a question: “Pastor, without the lectionary, how do you decide what to preach about? Wouldn’t you just preach on your favorites and deprive the congregation of the whole picture of Scripture?” The answer to that is in my blog of January 8, 2009 (which you can find under "older blogs" by scrolling to the bottom of this page). But here my answer in brief: I pray and ask the Lord and listen to his voice and I watch what is going on in the congregation and what kinds of questions people are asking and based on these two activities I determine what we need as a congregation. In such a way I believe that we are addressing the issues before us and adjusting our teaching so that it meets the needs of where we are as a congregation.

I think things have changed in the last 1500 years. I think many of the things we used to be able to take for granted have changed. Maybe it’s time for a new liturgical year. What would that look like? What concepts would it seek to teach? Instead of “the Presentation of our Lord” maybe Biblical Marriage Sunday? Godly Family Sunday? Christlike Parenting Sunday? Biblical Understanding of Sexuality and Relationships Sunday? Absolute Truth Sunday? These are certainly some of the things that we would need to discuss as we seem to have lost our way within the main line church and in the world in general. These are the things we need to be hearing about today.

For example: Do we know our Christian doctrines? Isn’t a sermon series on doctrine the best way to address this? Do we understand what Jesus meant the church to be? Isn’t teaching specifically about this the best way to address this?

So those are my thoughts. And that explains why we do what we do at Zion at this time. As always, we remain open to the guiding of the Holy Ghost. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Redefinition of traditional communication, community, and pastoral care for the sake of relationship

OK, this is a story about Facebook. If you don’t know what that is, check out the following description and story of this social networking phenomenon at: (see link)

We begin with a story: my best friend is in charge of everything technological at a major Catholic high school with thousands of students in a large southern city. Two days ago we were IMing (that’s Instant Messaging) each other on Facebook about 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and after the usual pleasantries he told me a story about one of their students. The school had just ended on Friday for a three day weekend. This young man and his mother were involved in car accident and the young man died.

Now you know that every time a young person dies there is a lot of activity. Schools usually bring in grief counselors and so on. So I asked what the plan was to handle this tragedy. He said that grief counselors would be brought in: Monday for the teachers because it was an in-service day and Tuesday for the students when they returned to class. Then he said that he was reviewing the young man’s Facebook account and was shocked to see that he had over 500 “friends.” That means that this young man was connected electronically to over 500 other people. Isn’t that amazing in itself? I mean that a single young person could be tied to the lives of so many others? My friend began a “forensic analysis” of the young mans Facebook friends to identify who his friends at school were in order to give the grief counselors a head start.

Then my friend noticed that this young man’s best friend had changed his Facebook “status” and had announced the death of this young man on Facebook. The message was simple, something along the lines of “RIP Davey: I’ll miss you.” Then this best friend went on to create a group on Facebook dedicated to the memory of the young man who died.

Keep in mind I was chatting electronically with my tech savvy friend around 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. the newly created on line memorial page had over 60 members. Three hours later the page had 266 members. Another three hours later it had 432 members and the students had contacted the school chaplain to unlock the chapel for prayer.

Now on Sunday morning, my friend writes: “ Now only 23 hours since the group was created, it is over 720 members, 200 more than he had in his own FB friends list. Alumni are joining in and leaving messages and being affected by the death of a "younger brother" from school. What started as a gathering of a few dozen classmates who are in town ended up being over 300 kids who knew him showing up to pray at school at noon today. On a holiday weekend. In the rain.”

How did the page gain so many members so quickly? Because many Facebook users have Facebook updates sent to their mobile phones as well. This allows anyone in the world to instantly be made aware of anything going on in your life at all that you wish to publish.

The memorial page itself is amazing. There is a picture of the young man who died, full of life and laughing. There are links to the news report of the accident and to a news story about the young man’s father, a physician of note. The young man’s friends uploaded pictures and there were over 70 posts to the wall of this page when I last checked. Young people saying beautiful things about the young man who died and how they felt about him and what had happened.

It is now Sunday morning and I am still in a state of complete amazement at the speed with which this online support group was created. I’m amazed also because it seemed to happen “all by itself.” I’m amazed also that before the professionals arrive at the school on Tuesday morning, the students have already organized and are ministering to each other. And it gives me pause to think about the future of pastoral care.

Has technology provided us with a new way to share our feelings and help us grieve? I think so. Now I don’t think that as a pastor I won’t ever stop going to the homes of the bereaved for a personal visit and I don’t think we’ll stop doing funerals or making follow up phone calls. But I do think this web based, grass roots kind of care will prosper and grow as a way to supplement human face to face contact. Apparently technology is becoming a new tradition in the way we relate to each other.

What would it be like if in the future; tech savvy churches provided streaming video through the web of funerals, weddings, and baptisms and so on? It might mean more participation by family members who couldn’t afford or simply didn’t have the time to come in person.

This all fits into an interesting conversation I had with some staff members this past week. I told some of them about how my uncle, the patriarch of my mother’s family, is upset with me because I can’t afford to go to a family wedding in California this spring (after I couldn’t afford to go to one in Idaho last year). He’s worried that as a family we are drifting apart. And he has grounds for concern. My cousins and I don’t know each other that well and we all live in different regions. So I suggested that we mandate our whole family get on Facebook so we could keep abreast of each other’s lives. One of the people I was talking to then expressed how he couldn’t relate to the superficial level of communication that Facebook provides. But that got me thinking that frequently the superficial is the avenue to depth and meaning. You almost have to get to know people on the superficial level before you can advance into greater levels of understanding and intimacy. And Facebook provides such an avenue.

I continue to see how technology is changing the way we do things in the church and I’m glad to be a pastor at such an exciting time when traditional methods are in flux and new traditions are coming to life. Everyday is fresh and provides new challenges. Thank you, God, for challenging us to stay relevant, to stretch our imaginations and grow. That’s as much a part of being made in the image and likeness of our Creator as reaching out to the world around us and sharing his amazing love in Jesus Christ and the comfort and strength that it gives us.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Popcorn, Opera, Cup Holders, and the Church

Saturday I went to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and saw Donizetti's "Lucia de Lamermoor."    I suppose I shouldn’t give you the false impression that I actually went to New York City.  In fact, the Opera came to me, live from New York, via a High Definition satellite broadcast to a movie theater in West Des Moines.  It was fantastic and I just have to tell you about the experience.  

I know what you’re saying.  “So what?”  Well, I’m thinking going to your first opera is a lot like going to church.  There are only three reasons you go:  1.  Because you’re invited and you said “yes” and you can’t get out of it.  2.  You go  for someone else’s sake: because your parents make you go or because you think it’s good for the kids or your spouse or whatever.  3.  You enjoy it.  (Someday we’ll have  to talk about how to make church more enjoyable).   

OK, I admit it.  I like opera. My parents took me when I was younger but I fell in love with it while living in Eastern Europe.  It’s what people do there.  You go to the opera to escape, to be taken away from your cares and transported to a different world if only for a while.  You also get to have special things like “Opera Cake” (which is only available at the Opera House) and maybe some champagne.  The tickets are very reasonable and you put on your very best clothes and all the social classes mingle together at the coat check and in the cafe.   It’s an amazing atmosphere at the opera.  People are reverent.  They speak in hushed tones.  You sit on really hard chairs for hours.... (doesn’t this sound like church?)

I’ve never been to a Met Opera performance in New York.  But I imagine it isn’t that much different than opera’s in the East except perhaps on a grander scale and with more padding in the chairs.  But now, the Met is trying something new.  They are reaching out to a new audience and using the very latest technology to do it.  And it seems to be working.  They’ve sold a million tickets to audiences around the world who are watching the opera live in movie theaters this year.  

I admit I was skeptical.  I didn’t jump at the chance when it was first offered.  Let’s face it:  what is the opera experience without really uncomfortable chairs?  You can’t have Grand Opera in a movie theater!  Movie theaters are the home of popcorn and hot dogs and Cokes, not Opera Cake and champagne.  It’s just too weird.

It may be weird, but it works.  The visual quality of the broadcast was amazing.  You see the tenor there in front of you, 20 feet tall.  You can see his sweat and whether or not he brushed his teeth.  Even in the front row at most opera houses you can’t see that.  The digital sound quality is amazing too.  It’s like being there.  And you get so much more than if you were there in person.  Before the performance and during the intermissions, a host takes you around and interviews the principals.  Then you go backstage and watch them break down the sets between acts.  They interview technical people, prop people, make up people, it’s incredible the information they share with you.  Maybe that’s it.  Living in the Information Age, being given so much more information than I would have if I visited the Met is a real treat.  

The experience struck me as a mix between some sort of interactive website that answers questions about the Opera and provides “extras” like interviews and director’s cuts combined with an Opra-esque pre-show/post show experience.  Truly amazing.

I was also amazed by the audience.  Some of them were elderly.  Some of them were young.  Some of the men wore sport coats and others wore jeans.  Almost everyone ate popcorn and I had a hot dog and a Coke.  And we all sat on wonderfully comfortable chairs with cup holders and we could get up and leave and go to the restroom any time we wanted too and there were no ushers to keep us in the corridor until the act was over.  Wow.  It was like all the rules were gone but the opera was still a world class performance.  

Now some will argue that opera just isn’t opera without uncomfortable chairs and Opera Cake and people dressed up.  Others will argue that if you want to reach a new generation, you’d better be prepared to change the environment so the new people feel at home.  Believe it or not, I’m not going to weigh in on that.  I just want to tell you what I saw. 

I saw elegant older folks dressed well as if they were going out for a nice dinner or to church.  I saw older folks in jeans.  I saw younger folks in business casual and I saw younger folks in jeans.  But what united them was a love for opera that was made possible by an HD live satellite broadcast.  I heard them talk enthusiastically about the interviews and the other informational segments during the intermissions.  I saw a whole theater of people enjoying the Met together in a way they wouldn’t have been able to do before.  Young or old, tech savvy or not, they were there courtesy of this modern satellite marvel to share a common passion.

Yesterday in church one of our older members went out of her way to tell me that despite some frustrations which she had to work through, she had succeeded in finding and reading my blog.  I told her I was in awe of her as many younger people would never even try.  But she told me that you had to stay current in order to stay in touch with family far away through e-mail.  Now that’s technology in the service of communication and the church is in the communication business and we have an Old, Old Story to tell about our Savior.  

I guess what I’m wondering is this:  is the Church willing to stay current to stay in touch?  If so, we may experience a crowd of young and old, different races, different social classes.  All brought together in a variety of formats by one common passion:  Jesus. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Navel Gazing About the Tyranny of Reputation

One of the things that really struck me about last Sunday's sermon on the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20) was when Jesus was talking about the weeds and thorns that grow up and choke out faith.  He describes a couple of the varieties of these thorns as "the worries of this life" and "desires for other things."  One of the things I see people struggling with is their own reputations.  We want so desperately to be known and understood by people as being a particular sort of person.  It totally explains why some people have so many bumper stickers on their cars!  Perhaps we want to be seen as a good person, a hip person, a caring person,  an interesting person, a good pastor (in my case) or whatever.  When other people's views of us don't match what we think we are projecting, we get upset.  I heard this predicament once referred to as "The Tyranny of Reputation."  It means that we desire to be seen to be a certain kind of person more than we value doing the right thing if it makes us look bad.  In other words, we're more interested in our human audience and their opinions than we are in our Heavenly Audience of One. 

One of the many things I didn't foresee in becoming a lead pastor was the frustration of not having my motives and intentions known by everyone.  Did I really believe that I could cast a vision and everyone would buy in?  Being a leader means that you have to make tough decisions and if people aren't willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as to your motivations it can cause problems.  The only way for people to know your motivations is for them to know you.  Really know you.  Your past, the influences in your life both good and bad, your testimony, your heart, your relationship with the Lord and so on.  Hopefully, to be known is to be trusted.  Without that trust from being known, people will make assumptions as to your motives and frequently those assumptions will be erroneous but the damage will already be done.  

So then the trouble is this:  if you need to be known in order to build trust so that you can lead, how do you avoid the spiritual pitfalls of the Tyranny of Reputation that will make everything about you and how you are perceived?   Specifically:  If you are not understood how will you be able to build credibility with people?  

I think about some of the famous leaders from history:  Edison.  Nobody saw the vision for electric lights like he did.  Einstein:.  People still don't get it.   Moses.  Even after 40 years of wandering his folks still weren't happy.  Jesus:  They killed him.  

So that brings me back to the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus is basically saying, "Hey, not everybody's going to 'get this.'"  But he just went on sowing the Gospel seed throughout his ministry (and even after his resurrection and ascension by the Holy Spirit).  Not everyone "got" Paul, not everyone "got" Moses.  But I guess what Jesus is saying is that nobody will ever get the vision all the time.  There isn't enough time or resources in the world for everyone to get to know you and trust you.  People are in different places and circumstances in their life will keep them from seeing the seed for what it is.  But don't worry about it.  Just keep on going because some will get it and produce a crop 30,60, 100 times what was planted.  Focus on seeking after his kingdom and whatever else you need will be provided.  

In the meantime, remember it isn't about us.  It's about Jesus.  If nobody gets you, oh well.  Just keep doing the right thing.  Err on the side of righteousness over reputation.  Forget about yourself, it's Jesus that really matters.  I think Paul said it best (1 Cor 2:2):  "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  St. Francis also weighed in on this one in his Prayer for Peace which, for me, is one of the most concise summaries of what the Jesus life looks like (and he even talks about sowing seeds):  

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen