All posts by Ben

Article: Why Churches Die

By Thom Rainer

Whenever I come across an article by Thom Rainer, I take the time to read it. He is one of the best church consultants and church “practitioners” I have come across. I have read many of his books and he is rarely wrong in his assessments.

This past week, I saw an article entitled, Why Churches Dieby Thom Rainer and I of course read it.

Denial is a bad thing and will cause a local church to close its doors. If you didn’t know, the ELCA has been shrinking in membership for a while now. 

I think it is good to know why churches shrink and then close so that we do not fall into the same mentality. 

I am not sounding any alarms or predicting gloom and doom! I just want every church member (where ever you go to church) to know the warning signs and then do the very opposite of what Thom Rainer lists below!

  • Why Churches Die: They refuse to admit they are sick, very sick. I have worked with churches whose attendance has declined by over 80 percent. They have no gospel witness in the community. They have not seen a person come to Christ in two decades. But they say they are fine. They say nothing is wrong.
  • Why Churches Die: They are still waiting on the “magic bullet” pastor. They reason, if only we could find the right pastor, we would be fine. But they bring in pastor after pastor. Each leaves after a short-term stint, frustrated that the congregation was so entrenched in its ways. So the church starts the search again for the magic bullet pastor.
  • Why Churches Die: They fail to accept responsibility. I recently met with the remaining members of a dying church. Their plight was the community’s fault. Those people should be coming to their church. It was the previous five pastors’ fault. Or it was the fault of culture. If everything returned to the Bible belt mentality of decades earlier, we would be fine.
  • Why Churches Die: They are not willing to change…at all. A friend asked me to meet with the remaining members of a dying church. These members were giddy with excitement. They viewed me as the great salvific hope for their congregation. But my blunt assessment was not pleasing to them, especially when I talked about change. Finally, one member asked if they would have to look at the words of a hymn on a screen instead of a hymnal if they made changes. I stood in stunned silence, and soon walked away from the church that would close its doors six months later.
  • Why Churches Die: Their “solutions” are all inwardly focused. They don’t want to talk about reaching the ethnically changing community. They want to know how they can make church more comfortable and palatable for the remnant of members.
  • Why Churches Die: They desire to return to 1985. Or 1972. Or 1965. Or 1959. Those were the good old days. If we could just do church like we did then, everything would be fine.

God bless the Church and God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Romans 3: God Provides a Way

We continue on in Paul’s letter to the church of Rome. Today, we get to the heart of the good news of God’s love. There is a lot to learn but by the end you will know the what, how and why of God’s intention for all of us.

Article: Independence Day Reflections

Today is July 4thand I started thinking about a monument on the other side of our country: The Statue of Liberty. 

It was a gift from France and the statue arrived by boat in 1885. The only stipulation of this gift was that the United States would build a platform for the statue to be erected upon. Eager to receive such a wonderful gift, fundraising began several years before the statue arrived in New York. 

Jewish American author and poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem called The New Colossus, which she wrote for a fundraiser auction to raise money for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty now sits. The poem did not receive much recognition and was forgotten about shortly after the auction.

In the early 1900s and after Lazarus’ death, one of her friends began a campaign to memorialize Lazarus and her New Colossus sonnet. The effort was a success, and a plaque with the poem’s text was mounted inside the pedestal of the statue.

The well-known part of this sonnet goes like this…

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A beacon of welcome for those coming to start a new life.  Lazarus also calls The Statue of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles.” A symbol of new found freedom where one can pursue the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that was ratified on this day 243 years ago in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

When I reflect on both Lazarus’ and the Declaration of Independence, I know we still have a ways to go before this is a reality for all. Even though I have the ability to take hold of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” I also know that others within our nation do not for various reasons including racism and economic disparity. 

One could rightfully lament the inequity and partisan divisions in our nation today. I am sure we could make a long list of things that need to be addressed by our legislators right now. As sit in my living room typing this, I have decided that the best way I can celebrate Independence Day is to be thankful for the vision put forth by our “founding fathers” and continue to advocate for those who do not have the same opportunities as I have had here in the United States.

I will be thankful and I will continue to be a voice for the voiceless. 

God, you have given all peoples on common origin.
It is your will that they be gathered together
as one family in yourself.
Fill the hearts of humankind with the fire of your love
and with the desire to ensure justice for all.
By sharing the good things you give us,
may we secure an equality for all
our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
May there be an end to division, strife, and war. 
May there be a dawning of a truly human society
built on love and peace.
We ask this in your name. Amen.

– Author Unknown

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: A Message from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

One month ago the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the church body of which I am a pastor) Elizabeth Eaton wrote a pastoral letter regarding the children at our southern border who are dying. 

When Bishop Eaton pens a letter, I take time to read it for several reasons:

  1. She is my bishop.
  2. She is wise.
  3. She is compassionate.
  4. She believes in the tenderness and mercy of Jesus for the world.

Here is what she shared with the ELCA…

May 28, 2019 

Children coming to our nation for safety and protection are still dying at our southern border while in U.S. detention. 

Carlos, a 16-year-old youth from Guatemala, died May 20 in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Wilmer, a 2-year-old, died May 14, also in the custody of CBP. They were preceded in death by Jackelin, Felipe, Juan and a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador who died in September 2018 but whose death has just been disclosed. One year ago, Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old woman from Guatemala, was shot in the head and killed by a Border Patrol agent while seeking safety in the United States. 

I am deeply dismayed by the deaths of these children, made in the image of God, who came to our southern border as refugees and asylum seekers to ask us for protection. As a nation we denied them that safety, instead placing them in detention facilities, sometimes for months. 

We follow a Lord who instructed, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the well-being of children and families in detention, and we urge the administration to seek alternatives to the detention of children. 

In Christ, 

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton Presiding Bishop, ELCA 

Article: Christ is Our Home

Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Centre is located in both Mount Brydges, Ontario, and Regina, Saskatchewan. By the name I am sure you can deduce what they do. They rehabilitate all sorts of wild animals who need medical help… including mallard ducks.

A four years ago, a mallard ducking was brought in that needed care. This duckling undertook the same journey all of their orphaned mallards experience at the center. She was placed in an incubator to be kept warm, and then, after a little over a week, she  moved into an outdoor flight pen along with her fellow ducklings. By mid-summer, she was flying on her own and able to take care of herself, but likely she stuck around until the end of the season before departing with her fellow mallards as they flew south for the winter. All of their duck patients have bands attached to the legs for possible future identification. 

Here is where the story gets interesting…

Recently, “on an early spring morning earlier this year, Salthaven’s founder, Brian Salt, was surprised to discover a mother mallard duck waiting expectantly at the facility’s front door along with her entourage of 11 ducklings. When she didn’t gain access to the clinic, momma duck promptly led her brood straight into an empty flight pen located outside.”

“An inspection of the mother’s leg band not only identified her as the very same duckling that had grown up at Salthaven four summers ago, but also revealed that the pen she selected was the very same one in which she herself had been raised. The family has now been at the center for the last few weeks, during which time the babies have grown considerably and are mingling comfortably with more than 50 other young mallards being raised at Salthaven this summer.”

“This mother duck returned to Salthaven to raise her family in a place that she knew was safe and secure.” 

I can’t help but think of God’s love. Our Heavenly Father invites us to return “home”  and be lost in His love. God wants us to know that we are safe in Christ’s arms. His nailed scarred hands remind us of his care for us. Our home is with Christ and wherever we are loved by other Christians. By that definition, I have several homes! I am rich in love! Are you?

Consider these verses…

The everlasting God is your place of safety, and his arms will hold you up forever. Deuteronomy 33:27 (NCV)

Jesus said,“How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1

Jesus is waiting for all to return home (Luke 15) to find peace of mind and a love that will sustain us throughout our lives and into eternity. The momma duck figured out where home is… why do we find it so hard?

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: The Future

Several weeks ago someone shared a sermon with me from a seminary graduation at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia. As a matter of fact, it was the last commencement of that school because it was closing due to low enrollment and financial instability. A very familiar scenario in this day and age. 

The school invited the Reverend Elizabeth Mangham Lott of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans to preach. A lot of what she said at that graduation rings true for me and for the Christian Church in 2019.

Here are some excerpts from that sermon that I want to share with you…

If not, let me be the first to welcome you to the life and work of the pastor in 2019. I’d venture to say that those of us in transitional ministry settings (standing between what has been and what will be) have no idea what we’re doing half of the time. In any given week at the historic St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church in New Orleans I am a building manager, an entrepreneur, a social justice warrior, a community organizer, an institutional innovator, a therapist, a development director, a wounded healer, a custodian, a really bad bookkeeper, a nonprofit executive director, a midwife, a hospice chaplain, and a preacher.

I am simultaneously preparing something old for burial while trying to assist in the birth of something new; pastoring in the ways of the 20th century while chasing the Spirit’s guidance for the 21st. I have a lot of moments of thinking maybe, just maybe, my congregation and I are gonna pull this thing off and make a sustainable way forward. 

But between you and me, sometimes all it takes is one of those days when New Orleans gets a hard rain for six hours, the building floods, and I am nearly as confident we’ll put a for sale sign in the yard and watch the whole thing go condo.

Everything is changing in American religious life. It isn’t all changing at the same pace or in the same ways, but the institutions we knew and loved (the very ones that formed and shaped and sent us) are changing forever. And y ds, are called to work and serve and love for this season of transformation.

Dr. Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants spoke over and over and over and over and overagain of paradigm shifts. We wrote the papers. We studied the tome. We knew conceptually that the paradigm was shifting. Dr. Phyllis Tickle made famous the image of the church’s rummage sale every 500 years, and we preachers have found some comfort in bringing that image out every now and then to remind ourselves and each other that what we are experiencing has happened before and will happen again; church is bigger than our collective memory. Paradigms shift. Rummage sales are necessary… We creatures don’t like change. We don’t enjoy paradigm shifts. And we don’t particularly enjoy rummage sales.

In this rummage sale, we’re releasing that which no longer serves in order to make room for what comes next. That sounds nice and hopeful and promising. But if you’ve been through the process of cleaning out your childhood home and deciding who gets the love letters in a box found in the attic, who gets the beloved Christmas ornaments, what to do with your mother’s 75 church hats, who will deal with your father’s hoarding problem made evident in the garage, and putting your sister-in-law in her place when she tries to put her name on the heirloom armoire, well, that’s decidedly more complicated. The life and work in 2019 is decidedly more complicated than it was 30 years ago.

The dear writer and woman of valor Rachel Held Evans reflected on this impulse we have in our church culture to win at doing church, saying, “I wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make healthier, happier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.

These words are true and they are good. We are in the midst of  massive change as it relates to religious practice and attitudes towards faith. I don’t know what is coming next, but I do know that Jesus said not even “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) . The church may be different in the years to come but I trust Jesus to lead us into that new reality.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Pentecost: We Are Never Alone

It is Pentecost Sunday and we remember the giving of the Holy Spirit to the early church. As Lutherans we are unsure about the Holy Spirit. We need to change that! The Spirit does so much for us and Jesus tells us as much. Listen in!

Sermon: Doing Life Together: Generosity

We finish our series on the core values of Bethel. Today we spend time examining the most challenging of our values… generous giving. LIsten and discover how living from the attitude of abundance can grow your faith.