4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, NKJV)
August is upon us, and the beginning of school is right around the corner (can you believe it?). I’ve seen the school supply lists in the stores. We’re getting ready to bless the backpacks for the school children. We’re donating uniforms and school supplies. Many parents I know are breathing a sigh of relief as a “routine” can once again be established with children, and things can get back to normal (well, as normal as things get in most households). It’s a busy time of preparation and anticipation.
Our children spend, on average, 900 to 1,000 hours per year in instructional time in the classroom. That’s a lot of time learning reading, writing and arithmetic (among other subjects), and we parents are diligent to see that our children learn all they can. We know the value of a good education, and what’s more, our government mandates that we educate our children. We know the value in teaching and in teachers. So, we invest the time and resources to insure learning takes place. That’s a no-brainer.
We also invest a lot of time teaching our children other things, too. We teach them how to play sports, and perhaps more time and money is invested than ever before with the proliferation of sports academies and sports camps. We invest in the best teachers for our children when it comes to music, or dancing, or cheering, or…(you fill in the blank with the activity that your child is a part of), and we engage tutors when they fall behind in school. We want our children to learn from the best so they can be the best. That, too, is a no-brainer.
I am reminded by the words of the ancient scribe in Deuteronomy that the greatest classroom is not at the school house, nor at the sports camp, or the cheer camp, or the music studio. The greatest classroom is the home, and the greatest teachers are parents. We have been entrusted with teaching our children the lessons of faith. See, the church is not the place our children learn those lessons. They’re meant to be taught in the home. The church is here to come alongside parents to support, encourage and strengthen those values and principles learned in the home. Faith is a family affair. It was never intended for our children to “discover” their faith on their own. Faith is meant to be a family tradition. Are we passing on the tradition?
For all the hours our children spend in the various classrooms of life, they’ll never spend more hours than in the classroom of the home. The value our children eventually ascribe to any activity or area of life will likely be derived because of lessons learned (or not) in the home. May our children learn the value of trust in Jesus Christ because we parents have lived it in our homes, and we’ve invested the time and resources to teach our children the lessons that will make the most difference in our world and in their lives, not only today, but eternally. That really should be a no-brainer, too.
I’ve leaned over and picked up three pennies and a dime this week. My favorite place to find coins is Chauvin Grocery. Rare is the time I stop at Chauvin Grocery or River Grille that I don’t find something on the ground. I bend over and pick them up…even the pennies.
I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t bend over and pick up pennies anymore. “It’s not worth it!” they say. They may be right. At least, our government thinks so. President Obama recently said he would favor getting rid of the penny. One U.S. Representative actually introduced legislation entitled the COIN act (Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation–COIN, get it?) in 2006 that would eliminate the penny altogether. That’s probably not a bad thing since it costs the U.S. government 1.8¢ to mint a penny in 2013, and the cost to mint them has exceeded their value since 2007. Of course, I can’t figure out how to pay for an item that costs $9.99, or $9.96 if you shop at Wal-Mart. How do I get my change back if I pay with a $10 bill? I bet they round up, and I end up losing money. That’s what I need! Wal-Mart making more money off of me.
There’s not a time I bend over and pick up a penny that I don’t think of Ed DeBusk. Ed was a retired Air Force Colonel and a bus driver, and he was a member of a church I pastored. Ed had a passion for pennies (and all other money he found lying around–literally). Maybe Ed’s passion was not for the pennies, but in the pursuit of pennies. Ed hunted pennies. For more than ten years, Ed spent his spare time hunting spare change.
Ed and his wife would go to the grocery store, and Ed would walk the parking lot looking for pennies while she shopped. They’d go to Wal-Mart, and Ed would walk the parking lot. They’d go to the mall, and you guessed it, Ed would walk the parking lot scouring the ground for pennies. Why? Because Ed saw the value of a penny. Ed collected those pennies for missions.
Every year at the church there was a penny contest during vacation bible school. Children would be challenged to bring their pennies and other spare change, and everything that was collected would be given to missions projects. Boys and girls would bring their pennies to be weighed each day. Whichever gender brought the most pennies was declared the winner on that particular day. Ed was the penny man, and he’d bring his pennies to divide among the girls and boys so that there was some equity in the contest throughout the week.
Each year I served as pastor, we collected well over $3,000 in pennies and pocket change that was used for projects like Grace Camp, Heifer Project, the Children’s Home and others. Ed’s parking lot finds were responsible for about 25% of the total collected each year. Ed’s willingness to bend over and pick up those pennies made a difference in the lives of a lot of people he never knew. Children of incarcerated parents got to go to summer camp because Ed picked up pennies. Maybe one of them met Jesus there. Somewhere in the world, there are families who have goats or chickens or pigs or cows to help them survive because Ed had a passion for pennies. Somewhere there’s a child whose pallet has been repaired because Ed spent his time scouring parking lots looking for lost change. Lives were changed because of those pennies. Lives were changed because of Ed’s passion. What’s a penny worth? I don’t know? You tell me.
Sometimes, I wonder if we don’t treat lives the way we treat pennies? We see someone who has struggled with addictions and we wonder if they’ve thrown their life away. We see the homeless and wonder why they’re that way. We see a prisoner and we think, “good riddance.” We encounter a person who is caught in a trap of moral failure or sin, and we think, “What a waste!” God doesn’t see any life as wasted. I think Ed had a little of God’s heart when he picked up those pennies. He could see the value even when no one else could. That’s why God sent His Son, Jesus to die for our sins. The cross was God bending down to pick us up, dust us off and say, “That one is worth picking up.”
Ed’s gone now, but I still don’t pass a penny on the parking lot that I don’t reach down and pick up the penny and thank God for Ed DeBusk and the passion God gave him for pennies. God called Ed to spend the last ten or so years of his life picking up pennies. I would estimate that Ed picked up over $20,000 worth of pennies in those years. I thank God every day that Ed DeBusk saw the value of a penny. I thank God every day that He sees the value in us (and, in me).
I like Thom Rainer. Dr. Rainer is the President of Lifeway Christian Resources (Yes, that’s the Baptist Bookstore). Dr. Rainer is also a great statistician and always offers interesting insight into church culture and its intersection with secular culture. He’s also written some great books, too. If you see me at the Monroe Athletic Center and I have my headphones in, it’s a pretty good chance I’m listening to a podcast on http://www.thomrainer.com. I enjoy getting his perspective on church/culture issues and leadership.
I came across this article Rainer wrote on church attendance in the United States, it dawned on me something was missing. The information was not necessarily new to me. I’d heard him mention it several times on his podcast. We pastors are always concerned about church attendance and the like. Seriously, we take church attendance as a sign we’re doing at least an adequate job, and pastors like to know we’re doing a good job. Most of us were raised with an appreciation for the good old American work ethic, so any pastor worth his/her salt tracks attendance. The biggest problem I have with Dr. Rainer saying the number one reason for decline in church attendance is changing attendance patterns is it can give pastors the false impression that it’s not my fault. Well, perhaps it isn’t…but, just maybe it is. Let me try to explain myself.
Dr. Rainer writes in the article that “if 200 members attend every week, average attendance is 200. But if one-half of those members miss one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175.” I’m not arguing his point. The numbers are correct. I could look at that statement and think, “My attendance is down 12%, and I’ve done nothing different, so it’s not my fault.” I might be only half-right. Perhaps it is my fault because I’ve spent too much time seeking to make church members instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, I do believe there is a difference in a church member and a disciple. For one, we live with the mentality in the United States that “membership has its privileges.” The reality is discipleship has its responsibilities, sacrifices and costs. Membership is too easy. Discipleship is hard work.
While Rainer says the number one reason for decline in attendance is changing attendance patterns, he doesn’t unpack the reasons for the changing attendance patterns. Those reasons are myriad and would probably take several more articles (or an entire book) to work through. Among them are:
Competing allegiances (i.e., sports, work, family commitments, etc.)
A more mobile culture
Lack of commitment
I think one reason for the decline in church attendance has to do with the number of Christians dying. Hello! If a church averaging 200 in attendance twenty years ago now averages 100 in attendance, there’s been a 50% decline in attendance. But, what if 100 of those 200 died? There’s your reason for the decline in attendance. Death definitely changes a person’s attendance pattern. A pastor can’t keep people from dying, can we?
I believe the greater issue is a failure in evangelism. While that doesn’t totally lay at the doorstep of the pastor, it’s a pretty good place to start. I have to ask myself the question, “How have I shared Christ with those around me?” Another question I have to ask myself is, “How have I been Christ to those around me?” Still another question I ask is, “How have I helped my church members share Christ with their friends, relatives, associates and neighbors?” The task is to be Christ and share Christ with a hurting world, and invite others to know the Jesus who transforms hearts, and who transforms the world. That’s the starting place for all discipleship, and unless we pastors lead by example, I wonder if we’re not really disciples ourselves (I’m just wondering out loud).
Members pay dues, attend meetings when it’s convenient, connect socially, and expect the benefits of membership. Disciples commit to a life-long transformation process that challenges the core of our being. I’ve offered my core values of a disciple in this blog before. I won’t unpack them again, but I will mention them as a reminder. A disciple of Jesus Christ is a person who:
Worships regularly (both corporately and privately),
Serves faithfully, and
Attendance should never decline because we should always be reaching out in the power of the Holy Spirit engaging others with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is as relevant to this culture as it is to any culture before us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is never irrelevant. My fear is I’ve made it irrelevant because I’ve failed to allow the Holy Spirit to transform me, and to live as a disciple. I fear I’ve spent too much time being a church member and not a disciple, and that I’ve spent far too much time trying to make church members and not nearly enough time trying to make disciples. As good as Thom Rainer is, I think the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is not changing attendance patterns, but rather my lack of discipleship. So, maybe the decline in church attendance is my fault, after all. But, hey? I’m not the perfect pastor, so…
So…the title of my sermon Sunday was “The Test of Faith.” It should have been “The Lord Will Provide.” I preached Sunday from Genesis 22–the story of Abraham offering his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. There is so much rich material in the passage, but in the interest of time I chose to focus on verse 1–“Later on, God tested Abraham’s faith and obedience.” I should have focused on verse 14–“Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means ‘the Lord will provide’). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’.” So, let me tell you why.
It all began Thursday. I spent Thursday afternoon in sermon prep (that’s my usual routine), but for some reason the sermon just didn’t seem to come together. In the middle of my prep, my Minister of Music texted asking if I would prepare the communion elements on Sunday morning (yes, the Senior Pastor of FUMC, Monroe sometimes has to prepare communion elements–don’t ask!). I replied, “Sure, if you’ll make sure the elements are at the church.”
We have three services at FUMC, Monroe each Sunday. We have two traditional services in the sanctuary, and one contemporary service in the fellowship hall. That means three loaves of King’s Hawaiian Bread (just like Jesus used). It also means that the elements in the sanctuary have to be cleaned and replaced in the sanctuary after 8:30 a.m. worship. I get to the church Sunday morning and there are three loaves of bread in the parlor kitchen refrigerator (we’re good to go). I prepare the elements for the 8:30 and 9:30 worship services and put them in place, and I leave one loaf of bread in the refrigerator. I text our Assistant Minister of Music (believing it is my responsibility to insure the elements are replaced after the service–didn’t my Minister of Music text me and ask me to prepare the elements on Sunday?), and ask her to make sure the juice and bread are replaced in the sanctuary after 8:30 worship. She replies, “Will do.” So…we’re all set.
Both the 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. worship services go off without a hitch. The pastoral staff and the choir are lined up behind the sanctuary for the 10:50 a.m. worship service, and my Assistant Minister of Music looks at me and says, “Lynn, I forgot to replace the juice and bread for communion!” I think to myself, “Well, that’s a problem…,” but I say to her, “Well, send someone to get the bread out of the parlor refrigerator, and we’ll use the old juice left over from 8:30 a.m. She turns to her husband (who sings in the choir) and tells him to go to the parlor and get the bread. He gets to the parlor, and…NO BREAD! Someone has stolen the last loaf of King’s Hawaiian Bread!
He locates his son and son-in-law and sends them to Wal-Mart, which, luckily, is only a few blocks away to retrieve another loaf of bread. While they’re going to Wal-Mart, he goes to the fellowship hall and retrieves the “left-overs” from 9:30 a.m. worship, and grabs the bottle of juice from the parlor ‘fridge and heads back to the sanctuary. More on this story later, but let me digress for a moment…
The worship started on time, and as far as we know, no one in the congregation was aware anything was out of the ordinary. The pastoral staff are on the chancel progressing through the order of worship. It comes time for the morning offering. We have a “new” Associate Pastor, and it’s his first Sunday to be on the chancel with the staff. He’s been assigned the Offertory prayer. He asks, “What do I do? Just invite the ushers to come forward?”
“Yes,” I say, “and then the choir will sing their little ditty while the ushers come.”
“Okay, cool,” he says.
He rises to invite the ushers to come. No ushers. He turns and looks at me. “Well, say something,” I say to him.
“If the ushers will come,” he says, but still no ushers. I must admit, he covered well. He said something witty (I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember the congregation chuckling). I don’t remember what he said at that point because I’d quit listening. I was worried about the ushers. Did we forget to line up ushers? No. There were ushers handing out bulletins this morning. I’m thinking to myself, “It’s Chris’s first Sunday on the chancel. Someone’s pulling a prank on him. Surely they wouldn’t do that, would they?” Finally, I said, “Someone go find the ushers,” and I see one…that’s right…one person get up and go look for the ushers. Someone has stolen the communion bread and now, they’ve kidnapped the ushers! Just about the time that ONE person stepped out into the foyer, the ushers stepped in and began making their way down the aisle. It’s the first time in my 23+ years of ministry I’ve ever seen a group of ushers receive a round of applause from a congregation. I wanted to say, “Wait until we’ve counted the offering to applaud,” but I thought better of it. Chris offers his prayer, and while he’s praying, our Assistant Minister of Music leans over to our other Associate Pastor and says, “There’s no bread under that cloth.” And, now, back to our story…
The choir does a stellar job on the anthem, and the doxology goes off without a hitch (well, at least we got something right!). I step to the pulpit, read the scripture, and as always, after the scripture, offer a prayer for God’s blessing on our hearing of His Holy Word. Okay, so the prayer has a two-fold purpose. One, to ask God to bless the Word and our hearing of it, and two, to allow the choir time to exit. As I’m praying, I keep hearing movement behind me, and I think (yes, while I’m praying), “It sure is taking the choir a long time to exit.” I find out later, it’s the Assistant Minister of Music’s husband scurrying on hands and knees slipping up behind the altar table to leave the “left-over” bread and bottle of juice so we’ll have elements for communion.
I begin preaching the sermon. Now, here’s the irony…my opening illustration, which is seemingly prophetic at this point, mentions several ways you can tell if you’re having a bad day. If you show up for work and there’s a “60 Minutes” crew there, you might be having a bad day. If your twin sister forgets your birthday, you might be having a bad day. If your birthday cake collapses under the weight of the candles, you might be having a bad day. I should have added, “If your ushers don’t show up and there are no communion elements on the altar table, you might be having a bad day,” but I thought better of that, too.
So…I’m in the pulpit preaching, and I see, out of the corner of my eye, my Associate Pastor get up and exit the sanctuary out the back door. “Hum? I wonder where he’s going (yes, preachers can multitask while preaching). Maybe he’s going out to get the bread.” In a few minutes, I see him come back in without any bread. Interesting. Must have had to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, he gets up and goes out again. He must have some bladder problem, or there’s something seriously wrong. I’m not sure what to think at this point. I just keep preaching. Mercifully, I get to the end of the sermon, and it’s time for communion.
We progress through the Prayer of Confession and in the middle of the Great Thanksgiving, I step off the pulpit, move toward the altar table to uncover the “elements,” and my Associate meets me there, fresh loaf of bread in hand, and as I pull back the communion cloth, what do we see but an entire loaf of bread perched perfectly on the plate. The Associate Minister of Music proclaims, “It’s a miracle!” I’m almost certain anyone sitting on the first four rows at FUMC, Monroe heard her proclamation, and wondered what she meant. I simply took the other loaf from my Associate, placed it on the altar table next to the loaf already there, picked that loaf up and continued the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. Until now, I’m not sure anyone in the congregation had any idea what was going on.
Here’s more irony (or humor, or whatever…). The conclusion of the sermon was this: “God is always in the middle of our bad days. Sometimes testing us. Sometimes protecting us. Sometimes encouraging us. But, always with us, and when we trust that He is, we discover grace, and a God who provides all we need.”
Well, God did provide that day, and God provides everyday (even if what we need is communion bread). It’s a pretty compelling lesson, but, as usual, we don’t really learn the lesson until after the fact. It’s hard to see while we’re living it!