Thursday, October 6, 2011


The following is a letter from an Iranian Christian pastor who has been sentenced to death. Why? Because he refused to deny Christ on three separate occasions before the Iranian supreme court. I suppose it's trite, but I think times like this necessitate the asking of the question, "And what about you?" If they were going to hang you or cut off your head or kill your family or burn down your house, would you keep the faith? Jesus is all the more real when we live precariously in this world. By that I mean, when we realize that for the sake of Him we could lose everything, I think we are more likely to trust him and therefore gain everything.

This sad news from Iran corresponds with our Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) National Gathering (our denomination) in Des Moines this week. We prayed as an assembly for this pastor. I hope we all pray individually for him and for his poor family, too. But later, in the church planting workshops which were held after the Gathering at our church, I heard first hand that suffering is very real in America, too. Not to death, perhaps, (although broken health is a death sentence merely postponed for a later date), but for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of Christ's church, the loss of pensions, savings, houses, cars, churches, friends and even family is quite common among those doing mission in our society today. It reminds all of us that Jesus' call was to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

Here are his words. May the Lord grant him grace to stand. Amen. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ

(This message has been translated from Farsi to English.)

Dear brothers and sisters, Salam

In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I am continuously seeking grace and mercy to you, that you remember me and those who are bearing efforts for his name in your prayers. Your loyalty to God is the cause of my strength and encouragement.

For I know well that you will be rewarded; as it’s stated: blessed is the one who has faith, for what has been said to him by God, will be carried out. As we believe, heaven and earth will fade but his word will still remain.

Dear beloved ones, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few verses, although you might know them, So that in everything, you give more effort than the past, both to prove your election, and for the sake of Gospel that is to be preached to the entire world as well.

I know that not all of us are granted to keep this word, but to those who are granted this power and this revelation, I announce the same as Jude, earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.

We are passing by special and sensitive days.They are days that for an alert and awake believer can be days of spiritual growth and progress. Because for him, more than any other time there is the possibility to compare his faith with the word of God, have God’s promises in mind, and survey his faith.

Therefore he (the true believer) does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on for him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ’s suffering. Because the believer knows he will rejoice in his glory.

Dears, the “ judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

Therefore those who are enduring burdens by the will of God, commit their souls to the faithful Creator. Promises that he has given us, are unique and precious. As we’ve heard he has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”

How can it be possible for a believer to understand these words?

Not only when he is focusing on Jesus Christ with adapting his life according to the life Jesus lived when he was on earth? As it is said ” O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.”

Have we not read and heard: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests, and gain victory.

Therefore in the place of Christ’s followers, we must not feel desperate, but we have to pray to God in supplication with more passion to help us with any assistance we may need.

According to what Paul has said: In every temptation, God himself will make a way for us to tolerate it.

O beloved ones, difficulties do not weaken mankind, but they reveal the true human nature.

It will be good for us to occasionally face persecutions and abnormalities, since these abnormalities will persuade us to search our hearts, and to survey ourselves. So as a result, we conclude that troubles are difficult, but usually good and useful to build us.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must be more careful than any other time. Because in these days, the hearts and thoughts of many are revealed, so that the faith is tested. May your treasure be where there is no moth and rust.

I would like to remind you of some verses that we nearly discuss everyday, (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) but as long as our human will has priority over God’s will, his will will not be done.

As we have learned from him in Gethsemane, he surrendered his will to the father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name. He said: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that he will come soon.”However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Discipline yourself with faith in the word of God. Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly.

May you are granted grace and blessings increasingly in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.

Yusef Nadarkhani
Lakan Prison in Rasht

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What We Expect from People Who Go to Church at Zion

What are we asking of you, when you join Zion?

We know that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and not by anything we do. But we don’t believe that Jesus intended his people to sit around and navel gaze. He told his followers: “Go! Make followers of me!” In order to make followers, you also have to be a follower, and that means devoting time every day to get to know our Master, Jesus, better.

The biggest commitment we ask you to make when you join Zion is the commitment to grow in your faith. We believe that your intention to join a church, specifically this church, means that you believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that you want to experience here and now the abundant life he offers in this life and the life to come in heaven. We aren’t a church of pew warmers - we are a church of Jesus followers. So we’re asking you to commit to “go” with us on the adventure of a lifetime. Having taken the new member class, and understanding that we are serious about what we believe, we ask you to give yourself to Jesus and his body, the church, in the following ways:

1. Commit to worship together weekly: We understand that “life happens,” and you’ll miss church sometimes. But we ask that you make it a priority, and part of your normal life routine. We don’t track your attendance, and you won’t get an angry note if you’re not in worship, but we believe that worshipping with other Christians is essential to the Christian life. We have 3 Sunday morning services and a Wednesday evening service, so there are plenty of chances to be involved.  Our belief is that part of being church together is worshipping together.  We believe that in worship, God is glorified and we are each edified, built up, refreshed, and equipped to be sent out into the world to serve Christ together and as individuals.  Weekly worship is the fuel that keeps us going day after day.  We also encourage our members to consider setting aside time every day for family and personal worship. See Exodus 20:8-9, Psalm 29:1-2, Psalm 95:1-7, Hebrews 10:24-25, Revelation 11:15-17. See Jesus do it: Luke 4:16-21.

2. Commit to reading the Bible every day: Sure there will be days when you don’t get to it, but we ask you to make it your daily habit. A great way to get started is to read 3 chapters of the book of John every day for a month. Every week you’ll finish the entire book (seven days x three chapters = 21 chapters in the book). You can also easily find daily reading Bibles or Bible apps that will guide you through the Bible in a year. Or maybe you’d rather set your own course and read as you feel led. We’re happy as long as you’re engaged with the Scriptures. We’re ready to answer your questions in person or by e-mail and we’re happy to take the time to help you get started. See 2 Timothy 3:14-17. See Jesus do it: Luke 24:25-27.

3. Commit to pray every day: Simply find a few quiet moments and open up your heart and mind to the Lord. Prayer is first and foremost a conversation between you and God. It involves both talking and listening. Through daily prayer, we learn to turn over control of our lives to God and we believe that you will begin to experience his presence more and more as a result. We recommend that if you're new to this discipline, you start with about 15 minutes a day and then try to add more time as you become comfortable with the practice. There are as many different styles and ways of praying as there are people. We offer classes on praying and also have a helpful guide on our website called, “Easy Steps to Homemade Prayer,” if you’re looking for help getting started. See 2 Chronicles 7:14, Matthew 6:5-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, James 5:13-16. See Jesus do it: Mark 1:35.

4. Commit to giving: This includes time, talents and treasure. We ask that you make a commitment to give of yourself to the church, to other people, and to God. This isn’t always easy, and you need to make tough decisions some times. We believe it’s ok to say “no,” so that when you say “yes,” you mean it. In other words, not every mission or program is the right one for you. But seek God’s call and live it out. We want you to give from a cheerful heart as God leads you to Zion and other holy causes- with your time, talents and treasure. We believe that we are called to be generous, as God himself is magnanimous with his grace, so we should be generous and magnanimous with our giving.  So we ask our members to give and give generously.  We encourage our members to give electronically, so that their offerings come in on a regular basis, even when they are away.  This also helps us with our budgeting and stewardship of offerings. See Mark 12:41-44, Luke 6:30, Luke 6:38, 2 Corinthians 9:6-8. See Jesus do it: Mt 14:13-21.

5. Commit to serving: Simply put, it is not enough that we should learn about Jesus. If we are to follow him we must also do the things that he does. One cannot be a disciple only in the classroom. To be a follower of Jesus Christ we must follow him from the classroom to the boardroom and the market place, into the life of our neighbor and to the ends of the earth. In a very real way the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the world has been given the task of carrying on the ministry of Jesus. Guided and united by the Holy Spirit we are the body of Christ and each individually members of it. (1 Cor 12). All of us have a role to play in ministering in Jesus’ name to the world. We believe that acts of selfless service are done for Jesus himself, even if they benefit others.  So we ask our members to be part of our mission together.  We ask that you join a ministry and volunteer.  Perhaps serving in the church when we get together on a Wednesday or Sunday or maybe serving in an outreach ministry to the neighborhood or the world.  Check out the Zion Missions Magazine at the info desk or look online for opportunities at Zion to get involved. If you don't feel that you can make that kind of on-going commitment, we invite you to drop by the "Just Do One Thing" board in the Fellowship Hall where special needs or projects are posted.  Just grab one of the items off the board for a quick and easy way to serve. We’re also very open to new opportunities into which the Lord might be leading you. See Ephesians 4:11-13. See Jesus do it: John 13:1-16

6. Commit to take a class: Following Jesus is a growing experience. We can't outgrow Christian faith. As modern day disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to move from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity (Philippians 3:13-14, Ephesians 4:12-14). For this reason we strive to bring people into an ever-growing relationship with Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19). This growth best happens in small groups (Acts 2:42-47) and so we offer a number of classes to help you know Jesus and his teachings. As we grow in faith, we turn our hearts to God, giving of ourselves and our resources -- freely and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7). We invite you to commit to being a life long student of Jesus. See 1 Timothy 4:13. See Jesus do it: Luke 2:41-50.

7. Commit to struggle against sin in your life: Jesus forgave our sin on the cross and because of his blood, we are reconciled with the Father. But we still sin. A part of following Jesus is to seek to eradicate sin from our lives so that Jesus might be wholly and completely Lord of our life. As John the Baptist once said, “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease.” You are not a vacuum, you will be filled with something. As sin decreases, Jesus increases (and vice versa). We strive to die everyday to our old, sinful selves, and to rather live to the new, reborn self through Jesus Christ. See 1 Cor. 10:13, Ephesians 4:22-5:12, 1 John 1:8-9. See Jesus do it: Mt 4:1-11; Mark 14:35-36.

Friday, September 23, 2011

We are Battlestar Galactica

One of my colleagues got the combination “eye roll” and “tsk, tsk” today from someone who attends our church and was visiting our offices. Why, you might very well ask, would anyone give a colleague of mine, who has offered his/her life as a living sacrifice to God, and who, by the way, along with most of our staff, is at least $10,000 underpaid annually according to a survey of other churches in our region and of our size and budget, get the combination “eye roll” and “tsk, tsk”?

Because our offices were messy and full of donations. Donations of school supplies requested by our local public elementary. Donations of food requested by the same school for students who have no food on the weekend. And donations of clothing for the clothes closet we have that I didn’t have time to take to the room where it is housed.

Why do I bring this up? Because such incidents serve as a reminder that we can’t forget who we are or, more likely, subscribe to the great lie about who we are. What is the great lie? That we, the church, are like a cruise ship. The great lie says that our job is to serve our passengers: to give them the music they like, the food they like, the entertainment they like, the activities they like. If they, the passenger/members aren’t happy, we need to fix what is broken immediately.

But we aren’t a cruise ship.

Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that most church people will pay more for a cruise than they give the church in offerings during the same year?

But that isn’t the reason we’re not a cruise ship. The reason that we are not a cruise ship is because we are, in fact, a warship. We are under the flag of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us a mission and he is at war with the powers and principalities and spiritual powers of this world. And because our Lord is at war, we are also at war. The church does not exist to make our attenders comfortable or to serve them: we exist to serve our Lord Christ himself, to be his ambassadors, his representatives, his soldiers, and his servants. Scripture is clear on this point, there can simply be no argument.

The church is not the Love Boat. We are, instead, more like the Battlestar Galactica. We have the holy remnant of a fallen humanity on board and we must all make sacrifices for the common good. We are a “rag tag fleet” of survivors who have been saved for a purpose. We need to have quantities of clothes to clothe the naked, quantities of food to feed the hungry, quantities of whatever is needed to meet whatever need we encounter. Because that is the mission.

Mission is messy. Our Lord has sent us on a mission. We are his partners in redeeming a fallen race. If our mission is messy there are times when we, or our offices, will be messy too.

Let’s remember who we are called to be. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ

Friday, September 9, 2011

I’m Going Back to the Phone

OK, it’s hard for a guy who likes technology like I do to admit it, but I’ve noticed a trend lately. For things that need a response about a week away, e-mail or FB works great. But when I need things NOW!, it has to be the phone.

I’d abandoned the phone in favor of e-mail, FaceBook and Twitter. And for a couple of years, that seemed to work. But now I’ve noticed a trend: people are way to busy to answer e-mail or check e-mail, but they’ll answer their phone.

I know, I know, people respond to text messages. Texting is cool. Hey, I did it all the time in Europe before it was cool here. I get it. But the fact is that a text still isn’t as urgent for the people I need to talk to as a phone. And, remarkably, I find the people I need to talk to actually answer their phone....

Now I realize that at 44 years old I’m a fuddy duddy. And my primary contacts are with people 28 years old and above. But who knew? They answer the phone and they actually return voicemail when they don’t. Go figure. As more and more things come into my life and I become more and more last minute because of the volume, the phone really works.

So thank you, everyone, who answers your phone. Thank you for bailing me out, time and time again. Oh, I’ll still use FaceBook and Twitter and texting and e-mail, but, by golly, I just upped my minutes for real voice to voice communication, too.

God bless. Thanks for reading. PJ

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Start with empathy

If you spoke no English, had less than $100 in your pocket and no credit cards or credit history, had left anything you couldn’t carry behind, and were transported to our country, how long do you think it would take you to get established?

Imagine trying to figure out how to enroll your children in school, where the buses went, how to find a job, where to get furniture and basic needs. Imagine if your child became ill in the night, what would you do? Where would you go? Who would help you?

It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it?

And yet, over 100 people arrive in our community every year and experience this very thing. Yes, it’s true, there are non-governmental agencies tasked with assisting them, but the agencies themselves are stretched to the breaking point and can’t even begin to answer all the questions people have or serve the full needs of each family.

That’s where the church has to step up. The Bible repeatedly tells us that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst. We must, by Divine decree, help our new neighbors in need. Shouldn’t our hearts desire be to help these new Americans because the love of Christ compels us to show mercy as we have been shown mercy?

Many of the refugees are moving into our neighborhood, just east of Zion. Why? Because of many of the apartment complexes in this neighborhood are owned by privately and the owners and managers are willing to work with the refugees and with their assisting agencies. Our neighborhood also has a vacancy rate high enough to allow people to move here.

You can imagine the effect on the local school? According to the principal, whom I met with last week, our local elementary has 100 new families this school year. 37% of the student body is now “English Language Learner” - meaning that English is not their native language and they need special help in learning English. Unfortunately, funds for assisting the school are not available from the district. We could just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well. Another cut back.” Or, we could see this as an opportunity for the church to be the church and represent Jesus and come and redeem the whole situation by helping in any way we can.

How would we help? In whatever way we could. We’ll be publishing a list shortly of needed supplies. The school is also in desperate need of volunteers. Stay tuned.

We need you to continue doing what you’re doing. We need you to continue volunteering to drive the van and keep moving “at risk” children to school and back. We need you to keep donating your furniture and clothing to the clothes closet and furniture ministry.

We need beds. It’s a strange ask, I know, but we are currently in need of about 40 single beds. Entire families are sleeping on the floor and while it isn’t a life or death issue, it is an issue of dignity. I’m working with Slumberland to try and see if we could purchase new beds at a discount as our supply of “recycled beds” just can’t keep pace with our needs.

We are happy to announce that the garden plots we intend to be used by refugee families are moving closer to completion and should be ready next spring for cultivation.

We need families in the church to volunteer to be “mentor families” for new arriving refugee families. We know this is a big ask, but it needs to happen. Imagine getting together with another family who has learned English enough to communicate and sharing meals and faith and life together, and helping each other through all the ups and downs of life. We have member refugee families at Zion right now waiting for this opportunity. Please, prayerfully consider this opportunity and talk to Pastor John.

So which will it be? Will we step up and model for the world the love of Christ? Or will we be the priest or the Levite in the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan, and just say we are too busy and walk on? I am confident in this church’s ability to respond to needs in our community.

Did you notice? I haven't even mentioned the incredible opportunity to share Christ with people? If you're into evangelism, you need to be getting behind this.

Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I wish I had the guts to sing

I'm standing in the hospital last week and suddenly, the absurdity of the disconnect between our faith and life as Christians comes into sharp focus for me.

A few weeks ago, a friend at church gave me a link to an incredible story from Haiti. After the earthquake, a group of American doctors are working there trying to save as many as they can. Into their ward, in the midst of unimaginable suffering, comes a man with a guitar. Unannounced and without asking for permission, he begins to play. And the people begin to sing. What are they singing? Jesus songs. The doctors are impressed by the spirit of people who have lost everything, singing praises to God in the face of indescribable loss.

You can hear the story by going to:

So here I am in this hospital going to visit a man of deep faith who is very sick. And it occurs to me that the most natural thing in the world would be for us to sing praises to God in the midst of his illness and suffering. But I also realize that we won't. Not only is it just, well, "unnatural" in our society, but hey, they'd probably yell at us for bothering the other patients.

The verses from James come immediately to mind: "You don't have because you don't ask God." I'm overwhelmed by the fact that as a Christian in North America in the 21st century, I lack the guts to be a little "weird" and to take a chance on God and do the thing that should be the most natural thing in the world: to sing praise to God in the midst of suffering. My singing isn't very good, admittedly. But I see this same fear at being "weird" in the eyes of the world at work elsewhere. It's no wonder then to me that we are a church where signs and wonders, healings and life transformation don't take place on a regular basis. I think of all the sick people I know right now who believe but who have asked us not to bring the elders and pray for them. And I think, wow, we could all be healed if we'd just step out in faith and trust God to do what he says he'll do in his Word. Then I see I need to pray for more courage and to be more faithful in what seems to be small things but which are actually large things. He who is faithful with small things will be faithful with large things.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Different parts of the same body

It’s been quite the summer.

I can’t recall another summer when I’ve worked so hard. We finished Art Camp a couple of weeks ago and it was amazing. Ninety kids, most from our neighborhood and not church members. VBS was amazing before that. So were the outreaches we’ve done this summer to our neighborhood and the Drake neighborhood. Everything has been great ; just busy. Finally, about 10 days ago, everything slowed down and I went on vacation.

I wasn’t at Zion this Sunday because I was “on vacation.” One of the cool things about being a preacher on vacation is that you can visit other churches and see what God is up to in other places. So, we visited another church instead. A church not too far from my house on the north side of our city. It isn’t quite yet a mega-church but it’s going to be soon.

It was a very pleasing experience. We were welcomed. They were having a community fair; a huge affair with every imaginable kid friendly appliance and food. The worship production was amazing. Spiritually, yes, I believe we worshipped the King of Kings. It was crowded. The preacher was very good. His words spoke the Word to my heart. In fact, the whole thing was so smooth, so organized, so well done, my wife turned to me as we were leaving and asked, “Do you ever think we should just quit and let other churches that are doing things well just take over?”

OK, I admit it. I’ve thought of that before myself. We always say, “There is only ONE church in this city, the church of Jesus Christ.” So why keep on doing what we’re doing. There are better preachers. There are slicker worship teams. There are churches with more resources doing more things in this city and around the world. There are churches with less baggage. Is it vanity that keeps us going? Do preachers just need jobs and so we need to have lots of churches? Is it that we just couldn’t fathom closing and merging with another congregation or two?

As I looked around the church where we were visiting, I saw signs of the grace of God. There were several mixed race couples (that’s one of my leading indicators about church health. Bi-racial couples sometimes have trouble finding a place to welcome them, but when they find a place, you know it’s a good place that welcomes everyone). There was representation from different races. There were young and old. There were people with different disabilities. While it was overwhelmingly caucasian, it did resemble the changing face of our community well.

They preached the Word and lifted up the name of Jesus. They were passionate that others should come and know the Lord.

They had just had a major event where they provided clothing for 300 needy people.

And so on. They were representing the King of Kings and Lord of Lords well.
So why not just merge with them? Doesn’t it make sense? What makes us unique?

I suppose the answer to that last question, “what makes us unique?” is the reason that in two weeks, I’ll be back to preaching and we’ll keep making mortgage payments on our building and we’ll keep meeting together to pray and worship and teach and serve.

Because the answer is, we are unique. We may not be slick or be the best. We may not have it all figured out. Our sermons may not be for everyone. But somehow, God is using us. And the uniqueness of our church is found in the stories of our people.

Stories like the man who was far from God but because he was loved by his small group who calls our church home, he came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Stories about a number of preachers who lost their churches and found a home and restoration through the ministry of our congregation.

Stories like the guy in our neighborhood converting to faith in Jesus from another religion because together, as Christians locally, we showed him the love of Christ.

Not every church can do everything well. And we shouldn’t expect them to. But each church has a unique role to play in the redemption of the world. Together, acting as a body, we accomplish far more than we think or imagine. Because each of our churches is part of the body of Christ. Some will be parts that have greater honor and more exposure and some will be less honored but no less important in the working of the body.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mission is Messy (Reprise)

A reminder to me of how messy mission is: When following Jesus, things can get complicated. The world resists the kingdom of God breaking in. Our Master never promised us it would be easy. We do things intending to bless people and our efforts are rebuffed. Sometimes we totally fail. But we have to keep trying.

Wednesday night I had a strange phone call. It was the mother of some of the kids in our mid-week tutoring program. The family is Muslim. We had invited all the kids to go to Bible Camp this summer. This week I started handing out the permission slips to go. The mother called and was frantic. She told me that if I took her kids anywhere, she’d burn down the church. Wow. That’s messy. I assured her that we would never take her kids anywhere without her permission. I apologized for any harm we had done in extending the invitation and said I hoped that she would consider allowing us to bring the kids to our Art Camp next month. The kids called me later and were upset and disappointed. I told them that God wants us to respect and honor our parents. If their mother didn’t want them to go, they need to respect and honor her. I suggested they try to serve her and love her and maybe, just maybe, she would change her mind.

Friday night, the same mother called back. She was apologetic and said that she gave her permission for her children to go anywhere with me. Wow. Complete change. Praise God. An answered prayer. God changed hearts and minds and his will-will be done. But you have to be willing to wade through the mess first, give up control, and don’t give up.

Last weekend, a friend of mine and our ministry, another Muslim, gave his life to Christ. I’m weeping as I write this. I wasn’t at the service he attended and then he was out of town this week. We finally connected yesterday. His family is in an uproar. I don’t know how this will affect his business. There are so many things to be overcome. It’s messy. But praise God. I am confident that if we wade through the mess, He will be faithful.

Sometimes I think that the church is kept from doing mission because we’re afraid to make mistakes, make a mess, we’re afraid of making people angry or upset. We’re afraid of not meeting the expectations of our long time members to deliver what they expect week after week. We’re afraid of the mess we’ll make if we invite those who don’t know Christ to follow him. They could say no. They could get upset or offended.

Following Jesus is messy. Mission is messy. Being faithful is messy. But do we have the faith to risk failing? The faith to make a mess?

At church we’re experiencing a new phenomenon. Our members are bringing homeless men to church. Wow. The kingdom of God is happening. But it’s messy. The men want to shower before the service. The showers are in a Sunday School area. We have to set up an elaborate system of supervision to be sure that everyone is safe. These men need accountability, they need to be discipled, they need community, they need a job and place to live. It’s ironic to me that as a pastor I’ve never realized that we weren’t set up to incorporate those not in families and without a place to live into our church family. I’d like to think that as a church, we could be a place that could incorporate anyone into the Body of Christ. And now we have to. And it will be messy. And we will make mistakes. And we might even fail. But in the end, it’s worth it. Because following Jesus is messy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Directions, New Challenges

My current working theory: As we seek to minister in Jesus’ name to the people in our neighborhood, it requires us to become more open to them and to their needs. As we become more open to new people in our church, it means we become more open to change in order to accommodate our new friends and to make them feel welcome. As we accommodate more, our structures and styles have to change more.

Case in point: we are seeing a wonderful thing happening with people on the fringes of our society coming to church at Zion. Zion has always been very open to people with various physical handicaps. Now, we’re seeing the Lord bring us people with various other conditions, including mental disabilities and other conditions which make it difficult for them to “fit in with the rest of society.”

Praise the Lord!

We recognize right away that this is a big part of the audience that Jesus would seek to reach. The fact that the crowd on Sundays and/or Wednesdays includes such folks, I think, means that we are continuing along the path of obedience the Lord has called us to follow.

The participation of such folks in the life of the body means that we need to find ways to help them, where appropriate, and, in Jesus’ name, welcome them.

The issue on my mind these days is just how “un-set up to do ministry” we are as a church. This is what I mean: Want to be baptized? We can do that. Want to worship? We do that. Sunday School? Got it. Spiritual questions? Equipped to handle that. Outreaches, missions? Got ‘em.

But come to us with the basics: “I have no where to live.” “I’m hungry.” “I need work.” And we hem and haw and don’t know what to do. Now add to that: “Oh, by the way, I’m schizophrenic.” “I’m homeless.” And we don’t know what to do.

In the past, we’ve been able to accommodate maybe one person at a time. “I’m an offender and I need a job.” We’ve done that. Praise God. But this recent development requires us to stretch. A guy off the street with no housing and no job who wants to follow Jesus requires a whole new approach. An approach we’re not exactly set up for. It would be easier if he wanted Sunday School or Bible Study.

All this came to a head for me this weekend. Apparently, a local business where one of our members works, has been letting a homeless man, a Christian, live in his broken car in their parking lot for the last few weeks. Individual members of our church have been taking him grocery shopping and giving him gift cards. It’s a beautiful thing. But here’s the deal: what’s the long term situation? A single man can live in his car in Iowa in the spring and summer, but not in the winter. We eventually have to find a solution.

Isn’t that why we are church together? To help this brother, a member of the same body we are, find his legs and stand? But how? He needs a place to stay, a place to work, and someone to hold him accountable. It would be great if individual members could do this, but once you consider people’s schedules, our fear of liability issues, the very real fact that this is new to us as a way of doing church (the homeless didn’t used to be our target audience - but Jesus seems to be changing that!), it gets complicated. We really need someone on this more or less full time.

And that’s my big thought for the day. Isn’t it interesting how most churches, including ours, are set up to do ministry? We are set up to meet, first and foremost, the needs of our members. We have a staff member who runs the office for us, one who runs adult discipleship, another who runs children’s discipleship and one who runs youth discipleship and one who runs worship. And me, who preaches and teaches and gets us into stuff. But, in our structure, we’ve no one tasked with ministering to the very least of these. And isn’t that significant? Didn’t Jesus tell us, “whatsoever you do for the least of these, my brethren, you do to me?” Shouldn’t we be set up to minister more to Jesus (as his body) than to minister to ourselves?

So I have a lot of “stuff” churning around in my mind. Obviously it isn’t as simple as I’ve laid it out. Obviously, our various staff do minister to our regular attenders and to the neighborhood and so on. But isn’t it odd how the answer to the man living in the car is really just Christian community and we’re not set up to be that? I find it strange, scandalous and wonderful to be in this position all at the same time. All the more so because I believe the Lord is calling us to again stretch and trust him in obedience.

Thanks for reading. I’m open to your thoughts and comments. God bless you. PJ

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This Summer At Zion Church

It’s a busy summer at Zion.
Don’t think that just because the suns out and the weather has warmed up that we’ll be closing the church. We’ll be here to do ministry each week and here’s a look all the things going on this summer. We hope you’ll be participating in many of the exciting events. Some of the things you may recognize from previous years:

Wednesday’s offer the opportunity for your kids to come and have fun at Zion from 1-3 p.m. each week beginning June 8.

Vacation Bible School is looking for volunteers. Don’t forget to register all the kids in your life either in the lobby or online at

And some of the things are brand new.
CANVAS Art Camp.
Something new for us this year at Zion. CANVAS: Crafted by God, Creative for Jesus is an art camp designed to reflect on Ephesians 2:10, “We are His workmanship created for good works in Christ.” CANVAS is an opportunity for children third through seventh grade to learn painting, collage and 3D art from Christian artists and find ways to express their God given creativity. Artist Ann Williams will also be joining us from Lincoln, NE. You may remember her as one of the artists who exhibited at Zion’s art show last spring. The camp is a Zion project led by Grace Kline with help from Cyndee Buck who runs the Express Your Faith art ministry at Lutheran Church of Hope. CANVAS will also be an outreach event with kids from the neighborhood attending. We’re also pleased to announce that a youth group from Hayward, WI, on a mission trip will be helping us. CANVAS will be held July 11-15 between 12 and 4:30 p.m. Lunch is included. Registration is $25 per child and will begin in June. Watch the weekly bulletin and the website for details.

Summer Book Club for Adults
Want some good spiritual books to read this summer? Come join us on Sunday mornings June 21, July 19 and August 23 at 9:15 at Zion. The three books we’ll be reading are, Practicing the Presence of God: Letters from a Skeptic; and The Ragamuffin Gospel. Check the Adult Discipleship page on the Zion website for more details. Conversations about the books will be led by Bob Norris.

Invited Inn
It’s time for more homeless families to call Zion their home for a week. Our guests will be here the week of May 22nd. Make them welcome and if you can help, sign up in the lobby.

Summer Adult Discipleship
All offerings are held in the Fellowship Hall at 9;15 a.m. Sundays
June 12, Rev. Harold Hosch, “The Shema in Our Lives” (Deuteronomy) The Shema is Israel’s confession of faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Find out from our scholar in residence the significance of this statement to our life and faith today.
July 10, Shannon Bauer, “Identity in Christ” Shannon Bauer is a therapist currently practicing at a clinic in Ankeny, at Zion, and at Hope Lutheran on the Eastside of Des Moines. Shannon will led us through a discussion of who we truly are and expose who we are truly not.
August 14, Rev. Shola Falodun. Shola’s life experience could be a topic all of it’s own. From life in Nigeria to hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, Shola has experienced much and found God at work in all of it. Come and get to know our very own community missionary.

Outreach Events
We have seen so much fruit from the simple outreach events we did last summer that we’d like to do it again. We plan on revisiting the Douglas Terrace apartment complex on Sunday and brining our bounce houses, some food and music as well as games and things for the kids to do. We’ll be asking for volunteers and hope to know the exact dates of these outreaches soon.

We also plan on doing a new outreach, similar to those at Douglas Terrace, to the four apartment complexes clustered around the Wunder Years Academy (Head Start) at Clarkson and MLK. Wunder Years has expressed a desire to do something for their neighbors and we plan to help. So a party is in it’s planning stages and we’ll keep you abreast of this new outreach opportunity.

Redeemer (Lutheran Church) Neighborhood Outreaches
Zion and Redeemer are sister churches in the same denomination (LCMC) and we dream of one day being able to tithe Redeemer some of our members and a pastor so that they can “re-plant” their church. Redeemer is strategically located in the Drake neighborhood, just blocks from the University campus. There are many apartment complexes very close to the church and we feel that this summer is the perfect time to start a Douglas Terrace type outreach at Redeemer. Four Sunday dates have been chosen. They are: June 5, July 10, August 7 and September 11. We hope that you’ll consider coming to Redeemer on these Sundays and helping us reach out to their neighborhood and introduce them to Christ and his church.

Street Outreaches Continue
We’ll keep on during the summer reaching out to the homeless with lunches and prayers. Every third Saturday you can come at 9:00 a.m. and make lunches and then go and distribute them.

Out of town on weekends this summer?
Try our midweek worship service.
The more service will continue this summer. Wednesdays are the new Sundays. more offers a different look at the Sunday sermon in a casual, come as you are, relaxed environment in the Fellowship Hall. Service begins at 6:35 p.m. A light supper is available beforehand beginning at 5:45.

New Clothes Closet (and furniture and housewares, too)
To better serve our community and our Zion family, Zion will be having a clothes closet. Donations of clothes and household goods can be made in the Fellowship Hall.  They will be sorted and available for distribution downstairs in room 110.  Jodi Whitsitt will be heading up this ministry.  We are currently seeking donations of plastic tubs, hangers, and garment racks in order to get started.  These items can also be dropped off at the church. This ministry will function in conjunction with clothing donations made to our Street Outreach ministry and Hope Ministries.

Community Gardens
Where are we with our plans to make garden plots available to the community and church members on the land just to the south of our building? Well, we have some great volunteers waiting for land to till and mark off in plots. We also have great volunteers looking for truckloads of compost to improve the poor soil quality that currently exists on the site. Once we have the dirt and a way to mix it into our current soil, we’ll be ready to start. Even if we can’t get a crop in this summer, we’re still excited to be ready for next year with plots assigned to members and friends in the community. Many of the plots will be given to immigrant families who miss their connection to the land. If you have any compost to donate or would like to help with the project in any way, please contact Pastor John. Brian Thielges is our new project manager on this exciting new project.

Well Done
A huge thank you to all who volunteered this past academic year at Zion. Thank you to everyone who helped clean the church, teach Sunday School or other classes, who gave time or money to help us in our mission efforts. Sunday School and Wednesday Wow volunteers will be honored at 9:15 on Sunday, May 22. It was a fantastic year and we wish you all a magnificent summer and hope to see you back in the fall.

A big thank you as well to those of you who drove kids to school this year. From December 1 through the end of the school year, we have transported 14 kids to and from school each school day. This effort has resulted in 13 van driving volunteers. Thanks.

Thanks to all who folded bulletins, stuffed letters, helped with IT or the website or answered phones or ran vacuums or went on a Street Outreach or a Monday Night Supper or who made our guests welcome during an Invited Inn week.

And for those of who have been helping tutor kids on Wednesday night or helping us with crowd control - praise God! What more can we say. We had 15 steady volunteers and saw and increase from 4 kids in September to nearly 70 in May. Thank you.

And to the Wednesday night kitchen crew and those who did the grocery shopping and Tuesday night food prep - thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Your efforts are greatly appreciated and this year we had a new record for meals served on a Wednesday night - 289. Thank you.

Monday, May 16, 2011

This Summer Pastor John Shall Read

Turns out the books on ministry were right: it does take between 3 and 5 years to establish your ministry as a pastor in an established church. In my case, I think it took the entire five years. Now, contemplating the end of my sixth year at Zion, and the beginning of my sixth summer here, I look back and wonder where all the time went. I simply don’t recall having time to read during the summer before. It seems the first summer we were having a baby and after that we were always completely redoing all the programming or running at a frantic pace to try and get the right people to the right places or raise the necessary revenue to continue the ministry. But this year is different. This summer, Pastor John shall read.

I’m looking forward to reading again. It seems like it’s been ages since I had time to read. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow reader, a fact complicated by my need to stop and take notes and think things through.

So I have a big pile of books on my desk in my study at home. They’ve been accumulating throughout the year. I’d like to share my reading list with you in part to invite you to read along with me, but also so that you will know what I’m thinking about and mulling over this summer.

1, The Bible. Yes, it’s true. I’ll be reading the Bible. I’ve decided to try a radically different translation, however. I’ll be reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It claims to be the Bible in today’s English so I’ll be interested to see how reading the old, old story with updated words will affect me. I look forward to new insights.

2. Building A Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church by Mark DeYmaz. I’ve quoted DeYmaz in my blog from a recent podcast he did. He referenced his own book and I bought it right away. I’ve started it already and I think the insights are extremely helpful for where we are as a church that is being integrated by God and for what I think He has in store for us in the not so distant future. Last Wednesday night I referenced DeYmaz’s list of seven things we must do to integrate the church during my sermon. This is very thought provoking stuff and I’m particularly grateful for his astonishing exegesis of John 17. I’m grateful to have recently joined DeYmaz’s Mosaix network of churches who are intentionally integrating different races.

3. Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. The subtitle is: “The Alternative Gospel of the American Church.” Been on my desk for a year, I think. Recently re-recommended by a reader of this blog. I’ve seen it referenced elsewhere and I look forward to delving in. I assume, (which is always dangerous!) that it will tell me the church has left behind the teachings of Jesus for either customer service, entertainment, or cultural accommodation. I think that might be true in many cases. My fear is always that we tend to paint with too broad a brush and wind up cursing what God is blessing. I’ve seen so many people come to faith in Christ because they were attracted by the “parlor tricks” we sometimes play at church in order to make it interesting. At the end of the day, however, what got them in the door wasn’t what saved them. They met Jesus. So I’m interested to see this book’s take on the relationship between throwing a good party (Jesus was always going to parties) and straight forward, no nonsense biblical preaching.

4. Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind, given to me by one of the great teachers in our school district. The subtitle is: “What Being Poor Does to Kid’s Brains and What Schools Can Do About It.” I’m intrigued. I wouldn’t have chosen this book off the shelf, but since it comes from a respected colleague in the fight to teach kids about Jesus, I will devour it this summer. I want to make sure that our attitude to teaching the kids in poverty who come to our church is godly. I suppose I fear that maybe my presuppositions about education are incorrect. So I look forward to the challenge this book might present.

5. The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero. One of the associations we belong too sent it to me for free and I was intrigued. I’d heard about it from a good friend before. The subtitle declares: “A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives.” I hope it does. I’m tired of wasting time watching the same folks live out the same scenarios over and over again. Sometimes I think our congregations are only interested in what the church will give them, i.e., a good youth program. They don’t seem to be affected by what we preach at all. If they comment at all it’s because we taught them some new fact about 1st century Judaism they didn’t know before. They don’t say, “Wow. That teaching from the Bible changed my life.” I simply don’t know how to preach to people who think they know it all but whose lives appear to be joyless and devoid of sacrifice, cross carrying, struggle, or peace. So, needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s inside this one.

6. George Barna’s Revolutionary Parenting. Turns out, the problem with kids these days might well be their parents. We believe putting our kids in the right situations will make them the right kinds of people. But there is so much more to raising a “spiritual champion.” Lately, I’ve been shocked by the parents who seem so out of touch with what their kids are actually doing. “My child would never do that!” But it seems as if the kids are teaching each other and the parents are completely out of the mix. Kids in our church are having oral sex and saying it isn’t real sex; they are soliciting sex on FaceBook; they are “sexting;” they are bullying each other and figuring out how to guilt their peers into doing what they want. We need some heart to heart talks with parents and I have to have some information to share. So this is a start. Wish me luck. :) I want my own kids to be spiritual champions. Don’t you?

7. Swedish novels by such authors as Kjell Erickson and Henning Mankell. You could say that it’s good to read something besides church stuff. But what fascinates me about these novels (and I have three on the docket), is how they are filled with anxiety and hopelessness, especially when it comes to death. Here are a couple of quotes to show what I mean:

“He said silent, agitated prayers - not really to any god, but more to himself, urging himself to resist, to not allow himself to be dragged down into eternal silence.”

“I can feel death tugging me at me. The earth is pulling me down. Sometimes, when I wake up during the night, just before the agony gets so bad that I need to scream, I have time to ask myself if I’m scared of what lies in store. I am.”

In these novels there is no relationship with God. No Jesus. No hope. No salvation. After living in Europe, I can tell you they are accurate indicators where many, many people are in terms of their understanding about what death is. It is silence. It is non-being. It is over. Wow. How tragic.

I feel I must be continually reminded about how Europeans just 10-20 years old than I feel about death. Hopeless. I feel this is important because I believe as a culture we shall soon be there. In my brief life of ministry, spanning some 20 plus years now, I have met so many people older than I who attend church regularly but who seem to have no peace when it comes to their mortality. I cannot comment harshly, as I am younger and, people argue, less likely to die soon. But I also remember the day I made peace with death through Jesus Christ. I remember Jesus assuring me it wasn’t something to worry about. And that, in fact, is what Scripture tells us. So I read these kind of novels so as not to loose touch with the audience we need to reach with the hope and peace and love and joy of Jesus Christ.

8. The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America, by Gabe Lyons. I bought this book in the winter and took it on our vacation to Florida but never got to read much of it. The idea behind the book is that the emphasis of churches is changing. Many churches will die out because they are self centered. But there are many churches who are finding Jesus is leading them into a glorious future full of hope. These are churches that are both deep in their teaching and effective in their local outreaches. They make a spiritual difference in the lives of their members and make a real impact in their city. I plan to finish the book this summer.

9. Here’s a real classic. My wife recently read it in one of her group studies. The Christian’s Secret of A Happy Life.” Written by Hannah Whitall Smith in 1952, it’s a classic. But good books are timeless. So I look forward to her advice. If Christian’s need anything in 2011, it’s joy.

10. The last book is all about me and for me. So I may very well read it first. But I doubt it. For years I’ve been trying to find a way to have a healthy lifestyle as a preacher. Food, it appears, is my downfall. Growing up, food was a reward. It was the thing you got when the work was done, when you’d done a good job. I put on a 100 pounds at my last church because I didn’t eat dinner until late at night - when the work was done. For almost a decade I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to take it off. It’s hard to believe that I was once tall, tan, thin and blond. But I have pictures! So I’m reading Eat Your Way to a Healthy Life, by Ed and Elisa McClure. The McClure’s are from Texas and I wish I was there now. He ate bbq (without sauce) for the first 100 pounds. Being a preacher presents a time challenge as far as food prep is concerned (we have early morning, lunch, and evening meetings). Also, as far as money is concerned, fresh food costs more and let’s face it, it’s far, far more convenient to the schedule to eat out. So I have a lot to learn and am looking forward to it.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to suggest books I should read or share what you will be reading this summer. God bless. PJ

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Notes and Reflections After Listening to Mark DeYmaz, Pastor of Mosaic Church in Little Rock, AR, about being an intentionally multi-ethnic church

You can listen to the same podcast I did. Just look for Mark DeYmaz’s podcast at

The vision for a church that is multi-ethnic originates with Jesus and then becomes a Biblical mandate. Jesus earnestly desires that all his followers be one - one with him, one with the Father, and one with each other. Jesus envisions a church that is composed of different people from different backgrounds and classes and races coming together to be his body (John 17).

The Holy Spirit creates such a church in Antioch in Acts 11. The Bible describes this church as Jews and Gentiles (two different races) coming together and forming a church centered around Jesus the Messiah. The leadership team of this first multi-ethnic church were Jews and people from Africa and Asia. (Acts 11:19-26). This is the church where Paul first has a leadership role.

Paul goes on to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he intentionally builds churches which mix both Jews and Gentiles. The entire book of Ephesians is devoted to the unity of the church for the sake of the Gospel, by which Paul meant the unity of Jews and Gentiles, living and worshipping together - being one in Christ. In Chapter 2, Paul talks about how the blood of Christ has broken down the walls that separated Jews and Gentiles. In Christ, they are one people. In Chapter 3, Paul talks about the great mystery of how God intends that Gentiles are to be included in his salvation.

Why is the church in North America so segregated? There are many, many reasons, but chief among them is that the devil loves to divide people and seeks to keep Christians from becoming one. In John 17 Jesus says that if his followers are one, all the world will know he is the Savior. The devil surely doesn’t want that to happen.

Zion has a long history of being a welcoming place to mixed race couples. Recently, however, we’ve seen God doing some amazing things that lead us to believe that he intends to make us into a multi-ethnic congregation.

About two years ago, we had several Liberian families join the church. “Why this church?,” I asked. “Because when we drove by, God said, ‘This is a good church.’” Amazing. Overnight, 1% of our membership was Liberian.

Then last fall Shola arrived. Shola is from Nigeria and he and his family have been a blessing to me and to our church. Shola ought to be on staff. I hope someday we can afford to hire him.

Then, in December of last year, the Mizo approached us about joining together. By March of 2010, we had a fifth weekly service, this one in the Mizo dialect. Again, overnight, we’ve suddenly become a multi-ethnic church with members from all over the world. God is certainly up to something and my earnest prayer is that we allow him to continue his work and that we participate in it and become the church he desires us to be.

DeYmaz outlines Seven Core Commitments that a church as to make in order to become multi-ethnic.

You must embrace dependance. God is the one who is doing the work. He is bringing the people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. it is his work. We cannot “make it happen” by ourselves. We cannot program it, we cannot control it. In order to allow God to work, we, the congregation and leaders, must be comfortable being uncomfortable as God works.

You must take intentional steps. As God does the work, we must be obedient. We must be ready to move out and do what God is asking. We need to be willing to go out into the community and help people. We must be willing to invite them to meet Christ. Sometimes our worship styles can be obstacles to what God wants to do and we have to be ready to sacrifice our preferences and traditions. We are not talking about compromising theological principals here. God would never ask us to compromise the truth. But he may ask us to compromise all manner of human preferences and traditions. It is the age old question: will we ask the new people to assimilate or will be accommodate them? To assimilate means that we ask them to change. To accommodate means that we ourselves are willing to change for the sake of the other.

You must be willing to empower diverse leadership. As a church, are we willing to raise up leaders who are of different races than we are and empower them to lead?

You must develop cross cultural relationships. This means that we have to willing not just to say “Welcome to church!” to people of different races, but we must be willing to share their experience as well and really get to know them. We need to go to dinner at each other’s houses. We must be willing to build relationships and to really get to know each other on a personal level.

You must be willing to pursue cross cultural competence. This means that you are willing to grow in your understanding of different people and their experiences. You are willing to learn what offends and what honors them. It means that you are willing to learn a few words of their language, taste their food, share their stories.

You must be willing to promote a spirit of inclusion. What does this mean? It means that we must be willing to make people feel welcome. Display the flags from the places they come from. Translate our bulletins. Be sure that in everything we do we put them on the same level as we are. That we don’t treat anyone like a second class citizen.

You must be willing to mobilize for impact. What does this mean? It means taking the power of God that is present in diversity (when his followers are one) and using that power to impact your city for the Gospel. Can you imagine what would happen to Des Moines if the churches were truly united? Men and women of every ability, class and race, working together? That witness would transform our city.

DeYmaz identifies many challenges that will face us. Remember, the devil doesn’t want this to happen.

Challenges include (but are not limited to):
Personal challenges. Our friends or family members may not approve of what we’re doing. After all, this is a difficult task. We could be more comfortable and safer doing something else.
Theological challenges. It is harder and slower to build a church that is multi-ethnic.
Relational challenges. In working with people of different races, there is a 100% chance of being offended.
Philosophical challenges.
Practical challenges. How will we do worship now?
Spiritual challenges. DeYmaz says that it’s no accident that Paul put his treatise on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. The book of Ephesians is all about unity between Jews and Gentiles. The devil will be sure to attack us. Unity provokes him.

The podcast is wonderful and I hope you’ll take some time to listen to it. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Report on London MoodleMoot 2011: A Conference on Open Source Learning Environments

Why on earth is it important for a pastor go to conferences?

Trevin Wax recently blogged about this ( He says:

"There are many reasons why conferences are important to pastors:
-We need the mutual strengthening that comes from face-to-face conversation.
-We need the opportunity to sit and listen to the Word preached.
-We need to be reminded that the kingdom of God is vast and that God is working in all sorts of ways through all kinds of people.

"Conferences help us envision ourselves as individuals taking part in a bigger movement, a procession of the gospel that moves from God to us and then through us to the people around us. It's no wonder we enjoy the occasional retreat. We need to be refreshed and have our spiritual batteries recharged. God works in us so that He can continue to work through us."

I'd add to this that pastors are supposed to teach, and the best teachers are life-long learners themselves. In order to challenge people from the pulpit we have to be challenged ourselves. This isn't an idea unique to me. Continuing education and spiritual growth is a part of many clergy salaries. Part of my compensation package is supposed to include money for the furtherance of my learning and spiritual growth yearly. Sadly, for the last few years, that money just hasn't been available, nor was it available this year.

So why a technology conference in London? Because a long time friend and supporter of my ministry who lives in another state bought my ticket and paid many of my expenses. He felt that this was important enough for me to see and as he was going to the same conference, he could help me navigate the waters and answer my not so techie and very basic questions. To him for his generosity and to the church for the time away, I am grateful.

But why on earth a technology conference?

Because the internet isn't going away and we, as the church, need to be up to date on the very latest teaching applications. It's almost a Reformation prerogative that the church needs to appropriate new ways of communicating the old, old story. As I look at our efforts to educate our congregation and the larger world about Christ and his teachings, I believe we are being called to make more and more of our classes and supplementary materials available online, to be accessed by our members and others. Imagine how many things someone like Harold Hosch, our Scholar in Residence, has to teach. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could capture his lectures for a broader audience and a future audience? Wouldn't it be wonderful if that class you wish you could take on Wednesday night but that interferes with your commitment to volunteer in Childrens Discipleship was available on-line as an open course you could take at your own pace? Technologies available now, and beginning to come into use by schools, could help us multiply our teaching ministry and provide more opportunities for people to learn. Imagine being able to go to our website during and after a sermon to download "more information" on a particular aspect of the teaching that was interesting to you. The applications are literally endless. And, just so we're all clear, such teaching has as it's object the glorification of God and not ourselves.

I suppose that's one of the things that struck me the most about this conference. Our interest in using technology doesn't come from a desire to be cool or have the latest stuff, it comes, rather, from a desire that the whole world knows Christ Jesus. Both inside and outside the church. The content we have, the Gospel, drives us to find new ways to reach the lost and engage the seeking and edify the already convinced. It isn't about the technology, it's only a delivery system. It's about the love of Jesus Christ which compels us to share his teachings with everyone.

Here are some of the things I learned in a nutshell:

1. Current use of the Internet in education is as a static depository. That is, you Google what you want to find out. It's like a giant library. But use is now changing. Through open platforms such as Moodle, it is now possible to actually teach online, make your course freely available to all, interact with students in real time and solicit feedback all in the same place. So the really great communion class you teach can now be accessed worldwide by churches who may not wish to reinvent the wheel and are looking for good material. I see this as very exciting. Imagine churches where their are great teachers being about to teach in many churches at once. This seems to really honor the spiritual gifts of people and I believe, rightly applied, it could move us closer to a truly biblical model of doing church.

2. Educational applications of technology do not exist to replace people but rather to further communication and make our face time together more profitable.

3. It isn't about having the latest and greatest technology. Technology is wasted without solid content. In other words, what we teach is still far more important than whether or not you use Moodle or some other technology.

4. Lectures work for some people. Other learners with different learning styles engage the material in different ways. Using a tool like Moodle helps people find their own ways to learn. We learn through creation, observation, sharing, peer feedback and discussion, among other ways. Moodle allows us more flexibility in addressing these different ways of learning.

5. As a church, we're always looking for new ways to connect and communicate with people. Imagine being able to access your child's Sunday School or WOW class online and see what he or she is learning? Imagine being able to download resources to help you reinforce the lessons at home. Wow. The applications are limited only by our imaginations.

6. I was the only church guy at the conference. All others from education or business, with one rep from the police and one from the army. So this hasn't really caught on in the church yet. But it needs too. The nature of the classroom is about to change forever and we need to be ready for it!

7. We are now defined not just by what we know as individuals, but also now, thanks to technology, by what our "networks" know. You can see this in the way that FaceBook and Twitter can solicit immediate feedback. "I have a problem, anyone got an answer?" And immediately, you get feedback. So, the idea is, if you're networked to me, I know what I know and what you know because we can share all that knowledge almost effortlessly via the internet. Wow. Community = network. Amazing. I'm still chewing on this.

The most amazing lecture was delivered by Grainne Conole, from the Open University. Her key note really opened my mind and gave me so much to think about it and I am really, really grateful.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton, the church from where the Alpha Course originates. HTB is one of the churches on my short list that I wanted to experience for myself before I die. The worship, the teaching, the people, all really ministered to me. It was wonderfully refreshing and I'm still processing the experience.

Another big benefit of going to London was the chance to spend an evening with Richard Goodwin, one of the foremost authorities on Christian Counseling in the UK. He has graciously agreed to come to Zion and teach for us and our city at some point in the future. Just the chance to catch up with Richard, have dinner, and spend some time in conversation about broader issues within the church around the world was really special and encouraging for me.

Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's Do Something Beautiful for Jesus - No, Really, Let's Do it.

What follows is a very rough draft of where I think Zion could lead our neighborhood. It hasn’t been approved by anyone in authority. It is simply the result of prayer and watching where God has led us this far.

Vision: That Zion lead the way in our community to God’s brighter future. This is accomplished by getting to know our neighborhood, analyzing it’s needs, and finding innovative and faithful ways of meeting them.

Who is our community?: Our community is roughly defined as the Lower Beaver, Beaver and Meredith Drive neighborhoods. Our immediate activities focus primarily on the Lower Beaver neighborhood with the intention of expanding our ministry work from neighborhood to neighborhood throughout the city as God leads.

Goal: That Zion Lutheran Church will fully engage with it’s community as a force for God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.

Imagine living in a community where the church led the way in truly knowing and loving our neighbor. Imagine living in a neighborhood, for instance, where every child was intentionally offered pre-college career counseling; college admissions counseling and help finding a job while a student. Imagine a neighborhood where there were people who wanted to coach you on how to handle your money, buy a house or a car, or even learn how to cook economically and nutritionally. Imagine a community where the major businesses and institutions regularly sat down to consider neighborhood issues and how to help solve local problems. Imagine a community where every child was offered a chance to attend camp and where each child was individually known and valued and their future was the top priority of the whole neighborhood. Imagine a community where there was help for those who couldn’t afford their medications and there was emergency help available to solve the kinds of problems that systematic programs cannot address. Imagine a community that united around the concept of education and found ways to provide quality education for all it’s children and supported it’s teachers and made itself available to ensure the best present and future possible for it’s children. Such a community would be a community that had been redeemed, a community where all things were possible, a community that could help other communities unite to bring redemption and hope in other parts of town. This doesn’t have to be a dream. We believe that such things are possible if the church leads the way.

Why is the church uniquely suited to accomplish this task? Because of Jesus. Jesus, the founder and Lord of the church showed us that all people are our neighbors. He encouraged us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him into a life of sacrifice and service. Jesus desires the daily death of the church to itself as it pours his life into the world around it. The church, when it is truly the church, is the last altruistic establishment in our society. The church is capable, when it is truly the church, of uniting disparate groups within our neighborhood to work for good. Finally, the church is the only institution in the world that was founded to sacrifice itself for the good of others. It’s founder set the mark very high. To bring redemption, the church is willing to lay down it’s life and die.

One big value we have is to open as many opportunities as possible for other churches and organizations to partner with us. We realize that we can’t do this alone. We realize that this is a miraculous opportunity for the church in Des Moines to truly be One.

Those who have agreed to be in partnership with us in our community so far: Freedom for Youth, Merle Hay Mall, VA hospital, Broadlawns, various local ethnic restaurants, Wunder Years Academy, Meredith Drive Reformed Church, Lutheran Services of Iowa, International House of Prayer - Iowa, Samuelson Elementary,

Change is coming to the Lower Beaver Neighborhood. The neighborhood is composed of single family and multi-family dwellings built after the second world war. The neighborhood is a great place for a starter or first time home. Prices are reasonable and quality is good. Local apartment complexes have also found recent immigrants to America who are being resettled here through federal partnerships, to be excellent renters. As the immigrants establish themselves, they are purchasing homes in the neighborhood. With the addition of the Thai Village Complex on MLK, which anchors the eastern part of the neighborhood, immigrants are likely to continue to move into the neighborhood. Immigrants have different needs than other minority groups. These needs are tantamount in our consideration as our plans continue.

Below are a series of projects that we believe would help in the redemption of our neighborhood. Some are in progress and could expand, some are yet to be started. A list of needed resources is also provided for each project. The projects are not listed in order of priority.

School transportation for ELL students living 1.7 miles from the school. Because of a very busy street and the distance from school (especially in the winter), Zion is currently providing transportation for 14 students each school day. The current students have been selected by the school. Different groups, living in the same apartment complexes as the students, are now petitioning the church through Lutheran Services of Iowa to increase our activity to include their children as well. There is definitely an identified need here for expansion. Needed resources: Another van or larger bus. Drivers. Gas. Maintenance of vehicle. Vehicle insurance.

Whiz Kidz Tutoring Program (in affiliation with Freedom for Youth). Currently, as many as 55 kids participate on Wednesday nights (Sept - May). With 15 tutors, we are hard pressed to provide one-one tutoring but consider the fact that the kids keep coming (and bringing friends) to be justification to continue. The environment is safe and the atmosphere fun. Dinner is also provided. Needed resources: educational supplies, furniture, tutors, transportation, drivers.

Neighborhood Emergency Fund: The idea is to establish a fund, replenished on a regular basis; that would be available to aid families in our neighborhood in an intentional but non-recurring way. Examples would be, helping with a special, one time project or emergency need (car repair). Special counselors would administer the fund and would meet with each applicant to determine how needs could best be addressed. Needs: money for fund

Prescription Assistance Fund: A special fund would be established and made available to help people in the neighborhood who are having trouble filling their medications. The fund could be accessed only at the request of a local pharmacist. Needs: money for fund

Community Garden: Using available land at Zion that is currently not in use, the idea is to create garden plots that would be available to immigrant families. Some small percentage of plots would be made available to families in the church. The plots would follow basic guidelines established by the City of Des Moines in their community gardening program. Applications would be taken from immigrant families and then a lottery would be used to choose which would receive the plots. Lutheran Services of Iowa would be our partner in this. Needs: fence, ultimately, a water line, monthly water charge

Soccer team: The local apartment complexes are full of young kids with nothing to do. In order to provide structure and discipline, we propose starting a soccer team. The kids would help to raise some of their own support and the church would help with the rest. Soccer is universally played by the kids and this would serve as a way of bringing them together in a positive activity. We would either join a league or find a way to enter into competition with other clubs. Needs: Uniforms, equipment, any fees associated with being part of a league; travel expenses?

Art Camp: Creativity is an important aspect of human life and as we seek to provide opportunities for kids in our neighborhood we don’t want to forget to foster their creative and innovative spirit. Beginning in July, 2011, Zion will host a week long summer art camp for kids 3rd - 6th grade. The week long camp, which begins with a meal, will expose the kids to various artistic media and allow them to express themselves in a productive way. Needs: about $25 per child; supplies

ESL classes for parents: Much of the work so far has focused on children. But it is very important that learning English doesn’t isolate parents from their children. Parents need to learn English as well. We proposed hosting ESL classes at the church taught by volunteers from inside and outside the church. Classes would be held at times convenient for the parents work schedules, perhaps on weekends or Wednesday evenings.

Music Camp. We propose sponsoring a music camp in the summer. There are many musicians in the church happy to teach and these musicians have friends in the community who could help. The camp could run for a week or be a weekly activity, depending upon the response from musicians. We would seek to find instruments for the kids to play. A small guitar, for instance, runs about $100. We could borrow rhythm instruments from local schools. A few more electronic keyboards and maybe another drum set would help as well. The next challenge would be how to find instruments the kids could afford if they proved to have a desire to continue with their musical studies. The music camp experience would conclude with community concert.

Furniture and clothing for immigrant families. New immigrants being resettled in Des Moines will number about 100 persons per year in 2011. That’s down from over 300 per year three years previously. The decrease in new immigrants comes about because sponsoring organizations no longer felt they could do a good job in light of budget cuts and many of the supporting systems, like education, were already overwhelmed. Des Moines is now becoming a secondary settlement site, however, as families move here now after having been settled in other areas of the country, to be close to family and friends and also because Iowa has a good job market. The Chin people and Iraqis are now coming to Des Moines in “second migrations.” Zion is well connected in the local refugee community and we are consistently asked to help new families establish themselves in apartments with donations of furniture or clothing.

Camperships: This year, our dream is to send about 28 kids to Riverside Camp. We think the camping experience will be formative in the lives of our neighborhood kids. We’d like to be able to offer scholarships to every child in the neighborhood and church. We’ve found an amazing partner in Riverside Camp who will work with us to accommodate our children. We believe it would be best for the children to earn some of the money themselves through fund raisers or through doing various jobs at church or in the neighborhood. Needs: money for scholarships. A selection process. Someone to oversee the project, especially helping the kids to raise their part of the expense.

Career and education counseling: There are so many opportunities open to kids you wonder how come any of them would fail to take advantage. But while there are many opportunities, there are very few people in the lives of the kids telling them what they’re good at. Kids are attracted to the things that high salaries can buy, but may not have the right set of aptitudes to succeed in a particular field. However, they may have amazing aptitudes in another field. The idea for this project is to offer counseling by professionals to help the kids determine where they are gifted and in what kinds of things they are interested in or even good at. When a field of interest is selected, it should be possible for the kids to shadow or observe that profession. Finally, a course of study and direction can be lined out for the kids to follow as they seek to achieve their goals. The desire of the program is to give intentionality to the process of deciding “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Without a future to dream about, the present often seems bleak. Perhaps the best way to describe this process is to say that the goal is to help the child choose a target, take aim, and hit the target. Needs: counselors and their fees; a way to market the program.

Life skills training: We live in a world of fractured families, and often times that means that information doesn’t get passed down from one generation to another. Holes develop, and critical information doesn’t get passed along. This project would seek to plug some of those holes, as well as train people who are new to our culture who may never have developed the skills necessary to manipulate the systems we take for granted. Topics include bill paying, budgeting, house and car purchasing, cooking/menu planning. Needs: There are plenty of realtors, car salesmen and financial planners in the church we can rely on. Home economics people, maybe money for demonstrations.

Parenting Seminars: with translation... In many refugee families both mother and father are working very long hours. Since many are working in meat packing plants an hour or more away, they are gone from home much of the time. This has led to some discipline problems as parents are too tired to raise their children. Compounded by the fact that the children are learning English at school faster than their parents are at work, inequities and imbalances are developing in the traditional roles of parents and children. Parenting skills are now in serious need of being taught given the new reality of families. We understand that not many will want to attend these sessions but we also know that these sessions are critically important. Needs: presenters. presenter fees?

Establish a neighborhood employment network: On the westside, Lutheran Church of Hope has Hope@work, a successful ministry dedicated to helping people find employment and pursue their goals. While Hope@work is much more than an employment agency, we have no equivalent in our neighborhood for far less skilled positions. What if we could partner with Hope@work to start a northside version of the ministry that would focus on jobs that were open to new immigrants or less educated people. The goal would be to help new immigrants and others to find local employment with good wages so that they wouldn’t have to travel so far for work and be away from their families for so long (see previous). Hope@work also helps people prepare resumes and determine the steps necessary to advance their careers. Need: cooperation from Hope@work and some people with a passion for this.

Establish a neighborhood round table: Basically to continue what we’re doing in terms of networking local businesses, institutions, schools, churches, apartment complexes, home owner associations, etc, together for future planning, co-operation and collective response to neighborhood needs.

Establish a Des Moines area refugee resettlement and assimilation round table: Referencing the beginning paragraphs of this document, Des Moines was once proud to welcome over 300 new refugees a year. Currently, many regard our resettlement efforts as being broken. The schools and social services seem overwhelmed, as do the resettlement agencies themselves. Perhaps during this “lull in the action,” we should strive to bring together city, county, school, resettlement agencies, employers, churches and others and establish a round table group to plan the way forward. Perhaps by creating space for people and institutions to work together, we might establish a united approach to welcoming new refugees to our city.

Partnerships with Local Apartment management: Keeping good relationships with the apartment managers and owners allows us to advocate on behalf of the tenants. For instance, when bed bugs are a problem, some managers are reluctant to spray. If the managers trusted the church as a positive force in their properties, perhaps the church could accomplish things on behalf of the tenants to keep the apartments healthy and habitable. Helping the managers make small improvements to their properties while raising the quality of life for the tenants might be one way to build relationships and trust. Such things as building and installing picnic tables, charcoal grills, outdoor seating areas, even helping with routine cleaning or maintenance are ideas. Needs: money for supplies.

Community education experiences about the refugee community: Offer short seminars on what it’s like to be a refugee, the history and individual stories of the people in our neighborhood, maybe some role playing and some ideas on how individuals and organizations can help.

Partnership with Samuelson Elementary: Samuelson probably already has a corporate partner and we don’t know who that is yet or what they do. But our brothers and sisters at Meredith Drive have been doing such a good job at Moulton Elementary, having monthly birthday events for the kids, writing encouraging words to the teachers, and trying to supply needs in the classroom, that we thought we ought to at least try something like this for Samuelson.

Comprehensive Neighborhood Education Strategy: Everyone agrees that our local teachers are doing a wonderful job working with the ELL students. There is a volume problem, however. The school’s resources are overwhelmed and in a season of cutbacks, it’s probably naive to look for help from the district. But perhaps we could work with other districts and even parochial schools to spread the joy and intentionally open enroll some of the children into other schools with more current capacity.

Vacation Bible School: Looks like we’ll be having a lot more kids this year from the neighborhood. Having successfully brought them to church for Wednesday nights, we’re confident they’ll come in the summer for things like VBS.

Local Outreaches: Our involvement in the community started with these outreaches and they seem the best way to get to know the kids and invite them to church. We have four planned at Redeemer Lutheran Church and plans are underway for a joint event in our neighborhood with Wunder Years Academy. We plan to return to Douglas Terrace as well.

After School program: In the next 18 months, we hope to develop an after school program for the neighborhood that would provide education, food, Jesus, and a safe environment for all.

College/Vo-Tech Scholarship program: We hope to find individuals and corporations that would consider contributing to a neighborhood scholarship fund. This is one way we could celebrate as a neighborhood the graduation of our local children. It would unite the community in showing our kids that they do matter and that they are known.

Toys/hobbies: We hope to put in some little money into some “hobby” projects for the kids that they could build or work on at church. For instance, building a model race track, a train layout, etc. This helps in teaching the kids to work together, to be part of something larger than themselves, and helps to work on English. Not to mention the fact it is an excellent way to bring hobby enthusiasts and the kids together.

Thanks for reading. God bless. PJ

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fishing with Jesus and the Big Catch (There’s a difference between the “one that got away” and what we let sink in a tangled net because the net is too heavy).

Luke 5, Jesus calls his first disciples. Luke says that Jesus got into the boat owned by Simon (Peter) and asked Peter to put out into the lake so that he (Jesus) could teach the crowd gathering on the shore. Afterwards, Jesus directed Simon to put out into deep water and let down his nets.

Simon did so, and, what do you expect? An amazing catch! A catch so large that Simon and his crew had to signal to their partners on the shore to come and help bring in the nets which were so full of fish they would swamp the boat if they tried to bring them in alone.

After that, Simon followed Jesus and was eventually renamed Peter, and became a great leader in the church.

This story is on my mind a lot these days. It haunts my thoughts. Today I’m going to get really vulnerable and I’m going to share my anxiety with you, gentle reader, and with Zion Church, the intended audience of this blog.

Our nets are full right now. I think we’re Simon in the story. We simply let Jesus in our boat and the next thing you know, we’re fishing. And now, a miraculous catch. A catch so big there is a real danger of swamping the boat and losing it all. And remember, per instructions of Jesus, we’re in deep water.

What on earth am I talking about? We have been so blessed to enjoy miraculous ministry in seeing the Mizo fellowship join us at Zion and also in seeing neighborhood kids, primarily from new immigrant households, join us on Wednesday nights. The growth of Wednesday nights in particular is astounding. Consider that in September of last year we had 4 kids in tutoring. Last week we had 55 kids. And I know the tutors feel swamped. Driving the van on Wednesday nights to pick up and take home the kids, who live within a 2 mile radius of our building, now takes an hour each way because we have to make so many trips.

Praise God! What great problems to have! Here’s my anxiety: I am all too aware of the human tendency to want to control. When things seem to be getting out of control, our natural tendency is to want to take over, clamp down, put in rules, regulations, safe guards, mechanisms, etc., so that we aren’t overwhelmed. And, I very much fear from personal experience in churches, that when we do so, no matter how well intentioned and well meaning we are, we begin to limit what God is doing and we turn our blessings into curses.

To be clear, my anxiety comes from the collision between wanting to honor God on the one hand, and being “reasonable” and using “common sense” and honoring our volunteers and members. I’m afraid if we don’t manage this new level of ministry properly, we will, in the words of the old hymn, “bring to naught all He hath done.”

So, here are things that I’m trying to remember as we seek the Lord’s solutions for our current “embarrassment of riches.”

Remember that the recent uptick in ministry has all been directed by God himself. He brought it, he built it, and I have to believe he will maintain and sustain it. It was in June that we first went to the apartment complex simply to bless the people who lived there and give them a banquet. We did it three or so more times in the following months and God himself opened doors and provided opportunities for us to serve. We were not very organized, we were not in control, the volunteers simply showed up and so did the food and the necessary resources. God led, we followed.

Remember that we don’t get to sort through the fish while they are in the net looking for “bad ones” to throw back. Apparently, our job is simply to bring it in. So we don’t want to start thinning the ranks of the kids who are coming by trying to decide “who really needs this most?” We have about 4 kids (out of 55) that can be a challenge. They are also the kids who need Jesus the most. Two of them are not very good Muslims and are looking for the Truth. I have to believe that God will raise up special people with a great heart for these kids in particular who can patiently disciple them and help them with their school work at the same time.

Remember that we’ve spent almost nothing from our bank account to do these things. People, I believe prompted by God himself, have given and given gladly to provide for these needs. It’s as if God Himself wanted to shame those who believe that you have to have money to do ministry. And remember that we now own a church van outright because people saw what God was doing and wanted to help. I have to believe that God will continue to be faithful and provide what’s needed to sustain us through this time. In fact, I’ve already been contacted by someone who wants to help financially and will also help me put a vision together of where all this may be going. I have to believe that God has “many other people in this city” (Acts 18:10) who are about to appear and help us.

Remember that when Simon thought his boat was going to sink and the catch lost, he signaled his partners to come and help. And they did. And the miraculous catch made it safely to shore and was enjoyed by all. It’s probably past time for me to be hitting the streets and looking for more ministry partners with a heart for our neighborhood and these kids. We are so grateful for the participation of Meredith Drive Reformed and Freedom for Youth, Lutheran Services of Iowa, the International House of Prayer - Iowa, and a half dozen volunteers from other churches or no churches who are helping us already. It appears obvious that this catch is way bigger than we are.

Remember that with God, all things are possible. It’s his work, his way. So we have to continue to be diligent in prayer. We need to wear out our knees, seeking his face, and I’d appreciate your help with this. And, hey, if you’re not busy on Wednesday nights, we’re looking for some folks to help...

Thanks for reading. God bless you. Thanks for listening and letting me clear my head. I feel better already. PJ