Fear Or Faith? That Is The Question!

I’ve been reading a number of articles lately on the continuing demise of the small town small church. I’ve always been interested in this topic and have dedicated much of my pastoral career to such churches. Even now, here at St. John’s, I still work with some of the dynamics of small churches even though, I would argue, we at St. John’s are a transitional church, neither small nor large. We have some things that many small churches do not have, like a daily ministry to the community in the form of a Preschool and a Daycare, and a facility which holds the potential of housing so much more ministry. Yes, North Prairie is still a small town, but the fact that it lives quite literally on the edge of Milwaukee suburbia means it’s probably not Mayberry anymore either. In short, while I still reckon with many factors common to small churches, we at St. John’s are in many ways much farther ahead, and at a better advantage, than the typical small town small church. That advantage is something we need to capitalize on. With the population growth around us, no church in this area should be in decline.

So why are small churches in decline? Like all organizations, the small town-small congregation is challenged by a combination of external and internal factors. External factors are factors common to all small churches. They are often tied to things such as the economy, societal issues, and changes in the culture around the congregation. A classic example of an external factor for many small congregations is the decline of populations in rural areas. This happens to be one external factor that we at St. John’s do not share with other small town/rural congregations.

Internal factors are the much trickier factors. These are the particular “ghosts that haunt the mansion,” so to speak. They are tied to the church’s history, both recent and farther back. That history forms a legacy which often defines the character of a congregation. Many small churches in small towns which are near larger towns bleed members to other larger congregations largely due to a combination of the anonymity of larger congregations and the lack of internal health in the smaller congregation they are leaving. Because the decline in the small congregation has been going on now for more than 50 years, the number one problem is a sort of locked-down “survival mode” that is more concerned about keeping the lights on than engaging a serious ministry. It is about preservation. rather than engagement. It is about maintenance rather than ministry. Sadly, as every year goes by we get more and more examples of how the churches that aim to survive don’t. Survival mode isn’t very attractive to outsiders.

The maintenance mindset shuns or disregards change. The common expression, “We’ve never done it that way before” is the classic dismissal that keeps many small churches from making the changes necessary not only to survive (maintenance) but to thrive (ministry). Nevertheless, “We’ve never done it that way before” has helped to retain good practices as well. As a pastor, I’ve tried over the years not to complain too much about these words when I hear them. Yes, sometimes they are frustrating. Yes, sometimes they are good. It depends on the circumstance.

The words that hurt the church’s ministry the most, however, are words like “We can’t” or “We don’t need…” or quite simply, “No,” when presented with opportunities for increasing the quality and effectiveness of the congregation’s ministry. In financial investing, reward is always tied to risk. It’s just as true in the ministry of the Church. Just building a church like ours in the 19th century involved incredible risk. It involved saying Yes to many things that weren’t paid for up front. It involved making gutsy decisions on faith.

Many of those churches are still here today…but are living on borrowed time. The difference should be apparent if you read the previous paragraph. Our ancestors built a church and ministry on faith; today we are maintaining our congregations in survival-mode, which often requires far less faith than our ancestors showed. The builders said Yes even when they didn’t know where the funds or materials or people were going to come from. Today the small church is slowly being pecked to death by ducks, all quacking their throaty “No’s” as they peck. Sadly, the grandchildren have no idea what strength of faith their grandparents had.

We are in a day and age where the small congregation is characterized more by fear than by faith. Fear is faith’s opposite in the Gospels. When Peter’s fear takes over while walking on the water with Jesus, he starts to drown. Ministry is often like that. Fear of death replaces hope for the future. Lock-down safety replaces reckless ministry. It’s often been said that congregations get the results that reflect their effort. Playing it safe is often tied to fear, and when fear runs the show, the congregation starts to drown.

Sadly, congregations often fail to recognize they are drowning until it’s too late. I am told a story of a congregation that had a very large trust fund that its leaders were “saving for a rainy day.” The pastor suggested tapping the principal on the trust fund in order to make badly needed improvements on the church building, but received opposition all saying “that’s our rainy day fund!” The pastor then pulled out the membership/worship attendance statistics for the past twenty years and asked when the leaders were going to recognize that it’s already raining.  Those improvements made a big difference in that church and it enjoyed an increase in overall health as a result. Sure, that trust fund is depleted, but it still ended up being a valuable asset for that church’s ministry. It gave that church the freedom to concentrate on ministry and the payoff happened. Too bad it took so long for the congregation to recognize it.

As long as we have the Gospel, and a fallen world all around us, we have a ministry to carry out. The challenge is not in safeguarding our churches against change. The challenge is in recognizing that change is necessary to reverse these awful trends. It’s about trusting Christ, not merely protecting the bottom line.

It’s easy to say No. We need to learn to love Christ, the world, and our congregations to find the ways to say Yes to the future and to strong, healthy ministry.

God bless all congregations and strengthen them in putting faith above fear.


Pray For The Persecuted

From the August 2014 St. John’s Prairie Preacher

Matt. 16 24 Then Jesus told his disciples,“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (ESV)

Last week, I saw a post on Facebook by a Christian organization which had an image I would rather have not seen. It was a picture of four human heads placed next to one another. They were the heads of four Christians who had been beheaded by ISIS in Iraq. The Christian community in Mosul is one of the longest running Christian communities in the world, dating to the second century A.D. These Christians are no strangers to persecution since much of that part of the world has been Islamic for some time now. But the current persecution is definitely much hotter than it had been.

We American Christians are often shielded from this sort of persecution. The news media isn’t reporting this very loudly. Many have suggested that the reason is that it is Christians that are dying and it is true that the media here in America has not been friendly to Christianity for a long time now. The flip side of the matter is that the media often knows what we don’t want to know too, so they don’t report it. Ignorance is bliss.

But these are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are dying. Indeed, Christians are facing severe persecution around the world in what journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway (an LCMS Lutheran) calls a worldwide movement against Christianity.

Yup. Worldwide. And it’s starting to matter more every day here in America as well as Christians are being forced to comply with regulations that go against Biblical teachings and are being dragged into courts for reasons that only 25 years ago would never have been questioned. This persecution may be low-level by comparison to what’s going on in places like Iraq and China, but make no mistake about it, it is still a form of persecution. When articles of faith have to be set aside in order to be in compliance with the government and avoid punishment in any form, you have persecution.

The picture I saw on Facebook puts a lot of things into perspective for me personally. I asked a lot of questions about myself and I will mention them here because they are good ones for all of us to ask.

Am I more outraged by inconsequential things than by the deaths of these Christians?

Have I been guilty of “not really wanting to know” about the plights of suffering Christians in other parts of the world?

Have I failed to appreciate the freedoms I have here, especially religious freedom?

Do I fail to trust that God will still work good out of the persecution of His Christians?

So what can we do about it? Sometimes Christians give up too easily in matters like this. We have one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. James writes that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful” (James 5:16). LC-MS President Matt Harrison recently sent out this prayer for the persecuted Christians of the world. I would ask you to consider making such prayers part of your daily devotions.

All-merciful Father, You gave Your Son into the flesh to experience hatred and violence and to conquer them with His unfailing love. Remember in compassion Your children, our sisters and brothers in Iraq and elsewhere, who suffer now for the sake of Christ. Strengthen them for a good confession, and give them grace to entrust themselves entirely into Your loving care, knowing that You will never leave them or forsake them and that death is no match for the life that You have given in Your Son and Spirit. According to Your wisdom, bring an end to the bloodshed and violence. Open the hearts of Your people in all places to stand with these hurting members of Christ’s body and provide any earthly aid we can to them. We ask it all in the name of Him whose cross is the triumph over all hatred, violence and death and whose resurrection is our everlasting hope, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Lord, have mercy on these our brothers and sisters and give us grace and strength to fight the good fight in these grey and latter days before Christ’s return.

Praying with all of you,

Pastor T.

Another Commercial For Meditation

Bible Study has many forms. You can try to read the Bible in a year. Or you can continue to marvel at a small section of Scripture for many years, as I have done.

But one of the great advantages of living in the times we live is the audio Bible. God meant for His Word to be heard (Rom. 10:14-18). And there’s nothing quite like listening to extended sections of Scripture, without the constant visual reference to chapter and verse.

Today, I spent much of the day feeling under the weather. I put on the Psalms on my Bible app and streamed it to my Bose WaveLink speaker, shut my eyes, prayed, and listened.

Yes. I am feeling better, and while I cannot attribute that to meditation on the audio Scriptures, they brought comfort…which is what they were written to do.

I highly recommend getting a good audio Bible of the ESV. Or use the YouBible app and stream away. There are few better ways to spend your time.