Hydroponic Churches

I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a tomato grown hydroponically. You probably have, even if you don’t know it. Hydroponic tomatoes are ones that are tomatoes-grown-hydroponicallygrown in water (along with a few additive minerals). It’s kind of an amazing process. It’s one thing to water your plants; it’s entirely another to grow them in water.

Once, when my wife was on a weeklong business trip, I was left in charge of watering her potted plants. I forgot to water them until the last day prior to her return. It was summer, and the only reason I remembered was the sight of the wilting flowers. A few of them burned out, and none of them were very healthy looking when she arrived home.

The next time that happened, I wrote myself a note to avoid a similar occurrence. I watered like a fiend. I literally drowned some of them. And to think I had once entertained the idea of becoming a farmer. For normal plants, water is critical–and too much is deadly (as I sorrowfully discovered).

In our day and age, many churches are unwittingly making an attempt to grow without soil. While you can pull that off with tomatoes, it’s not a good plan for congregations.

When the loyal commuters are gone…

What happens is this. A church is established in a neighborhood over a period of years—often for generations. Then people begin to move away for whatever reason. If their move isn’t too far, they continue to attend on Sundays. Anything scheduled during the week, however, necessarily has to be ignored by these loyal commuters.

Eventually, more and more people move hydroponicchurchaway, and fewer and fewer continue to attempt giving long distance support. Other members die. A small remnant is left behind holding the watering can, and the roots of the community are now elsewhere.

Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will give one a deep sense of the fact that the church was always a community of people deeply rooted in the soil of the surrounding neighborhood. When the roots are stripped away, they must necessarily be replaced. The church, unlike hydroponic tomatoes, cannot be separated from the soil.

“They will eventually wither and die.”

Many of our congregations today are attempting to grow absent that soil. The neighborhood, for them, is something that used to be theirs. Now it’s someone else’s. If they don’t work to become a part of that neighborhood, they will eventually wither and die. Hydroponic churches simply don’t exist. And neither can they exist with new roots that merely float in thin air. Any new roots must dig deep into the nearby soil.

The church, it seems to me, was always meant to be an integral part of her neighborhoods. The neighbors can no longer be expected to show up just because the church building is still present in the community. That day has passed.EmptyPews

We need to plant our seed (and ourselves) in the things God is doing locally. If we don’t, we’ll surely fade into the sunset.

  [Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

See Jesus and Mess Up

ComeSeeI recently read about a Christian family who begins each day with the following prayer. “Today I will pay attention, see Jesus, be Jesus, and mess up.” I was immediately intrigued. It’s so human and so spiritually real.

They follow that refrain with the Lord’s Prayer. Then the kids head off to school, and the parents do whatever it is that parents do these days. What happens when everyone gets back home is the key to their family life together.

At the end of the day, they gather around the evening dinner table. The conversation surrounding their daily meal is focused on the prayer that opened their day. They grapple with the events of their individual lives in this family setting.

“They discuss how they messed up.”

They speak about the things to which they paid attention that day. They talk about how they saw Jesus during the day as well as how they were Jesus to someone else. And, yes, they discuss how they messed up. What a great way to raise children! I wish I’d thought of it first.

During their mealtime conversations, they deal with their attitudes and how they can choose to improve them. They speak of looking for opportunities to spend their time in meaningful ways. They also talk about ways they can help each other as a family unit to achieve their goal of a fulfilled life together and separately.Like Jesus

This is a wonderful practice on many levels. For one thing, it brings Jesus into the center of each of their lives. He is not merely someone they speak of on Sunday morning; he is an integral part of their daily life as a family.

For too many of us, Jesus is an add-on. He’s given an assent during a prayer prior to family meals (maybe). He’s used as a threat when the kids misbehave. He’s seldom seen as a guide through life.

A lot of us internalize the things of Christ and live them out on an individual basis. But having these things lived out and ingrained in a child as he or she grows is immeasurable. It not only encapsulates their faith, it confirms and supports it as they develop into mature disciples of Jesus.

“They fully admit they’re human…”

I guess what really jumped out at me, though, was the messing up part. In their morning prayer, they flat out state that they would “mess up” during the day. They fully admit they’re human and fall short of the glory of God. It doesn’t end there, however.

They take the time to wrestle with weaknesses in their lives and choose (as a family) to be honest and ultimately do something about it. To top it all off, they’re not left on their own to tackle these life situations. They have the love and support of their family members to enable them to accept their humanity and still grow in the faith.

Today, I want to see Jesus, be Jesus, and mess up with you. It’s the church at its best. messedUp

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Nothing in Moderation

MuslimPrayerBenjamin Franklin is purported to have said, “All things in moderation…including moderation.” It sounds good, clever, and insightful. Like most sayings, however, it has its drawbacks.

If you’re drinking alcoholic beverages, eating dessert, or building a house, moderation is indeed a fine watchword. However, if you’re trying to win a game, qualify for a job, or please a member of the opposite sex, going all out might be a better strategy.

There’s a strong movement afoot in our society to push many things toward the moderate end of the spectrum. The big problem with that is this. “Moderate” is not at the end of the spectrum. Moderate is stuck in the middle of that proverbial spectrum somewhere.

Are moderate Muslims really moderate?

Take, for example, our huge push to label most Muslims as moderate. If I were of the Islamic faith, I think I would take exception to this verbiage. I wouldn’t want to be known as moderate at all.

I understand the purpose of all this of course. It’s to distinguish them from their more violently aggressive counterparts in the religion. I get that. Still, I think I would loudly kick agaRadicalinst the goads if I were being labeled as such. It’s downright demeaning. I would demand a much more accurately descriptive term (like “faithful” maybe).

I’m not sure I can give it justice from an Islamic perspective. So, let’s view it from a Christian one. I think I can be a bit more judicious from there.

Making Jesus Sick

Take, for example, Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation chapter three. He calls them moderate. More accurately, he calls them lukewarm. They’re neither hot nor cold, neither sweet nor sour, neither aggressive nor passive. In short, they’re middle-of-the-road—straddling the fence.

His reaction to their milquetoast approach to a life of faith was one of disgust. He actually said he would prefer they be at one end or the other. As it was, he said he was ready to vomit them out. In short, they made him sick.

Keeping all that in mind, I think I would prefer to be known as a radical Christian rather than a moderate one. Unfortunately, we’ve already given away that term. Radical used to mean, “getting at the root—pushing to the heart of the matter.” Now it means something else. I’m not sure what, exactly.

I suppose it depends on who’s using it and for what. The term, hostile, comes to mind. I believe Jesus was a radical. Yet, no one could accuse him of being physically hostile or belligerent (unless they were selling stuff in the Temple).

JesusExtremeI’m not moderate in my beliefs, and I’m not keen on people urging me to be so. That’s why I say I would take exception to all this “moderate” labeling if I was a proponent of Islam.

I don’t know if this is all merely semantics, or if we’re just giving away our vocabulary to the press and the politicians. Either way, it looks like we’re becoming lukewarm about it.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Lonely Soldier

ConfederateJust before Memorial Day, I was walking from my Jeep to the church hall when  a small flag waving in the breeze caught my eye. It was situated in the center of the church cemetery just beside a very old tombstone.

The design of the flag looked very familiar, but it was one I had never noticed there before. So I took a short walk over to the gravesite to get a closer look. As it turns out, it was what most people call the Confederate Flag.

“It was never really the Confederate Flag…”

Being somewhat of a history buff, I can give you a little aside here and mention that it was never really the Confederate Flag at all. It was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Still, it was used during the American Civil War, so I can certainly understand the confusion.

Its stand was implanted in the ground just beside the grave marker of a man named Phillip Beach. There are many people from the Beach family buried in that yard, but this gentleman was apparently different than the rest. He was a Civil War Veteran.

I don’t know his history (maybe someday I’ll be able to learn more). But his headstone says he died in 1897. That same stone reads, “Thus star by star declines till all are passed away.” It’s from a poem by James Montgomery entitled, “Parted Friends.”

Because of where we’re located and the particular flag that was used, I’m guessing he was an actual member of the Army of Northern Virginia. If I’m reading the inscription correctly, he was forty-three years old when the war began.

I’ve been pastor here for over twenty-one years now. I’ve never spotted this genre of flag there before. Maybe I’m just not very observant, or maybe it just stands out now because of all the controversy over it in the past couple of years.

Flag of NOVAMaybe it’s something else entirely. You see, this was the only flag in our cemetery on Memorial Day. It really stood out because there were no American Flags anywhere. I realize we have a small burial ground, but surely there are some WWI and II vets here somewhere.

What we do today may be forgotten…

None of this is really a big deal—just curious. But it all reminds me of something that I occasionally am given pause to ponder. Once we’re gone, we are so quickly overlooked. The fact that many tombstones read, “Gone but not forgotten” is touching. The truth is, however, we are all too soon forgotten. Unless we’re a famous name in the history books, it only takes a couple generations to wipe out most recollections of us (even from our own families).

All this re-emphasized (in my mind at least) how important our lives are this second. The moments we spend on this earth are precious, few, and irreplaceable. We need to make the most of each one. We hear it all the time, and it’s true. What we do today may be forgotten, but it will never die.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Look for the Helpers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” ~Mister Rogers~

When the recent act of terror was perpetrated in Orlando, the word spread quickly that blood was needed to help in the treatment of the victims. To the credit of many of the local citizens, they stood in line for hours to donate their own precious lifeblood to the cause. As you undoubtedly know, the target of the assassin was a nightclub that catered to the homosexual lifestyle.

If you’ve ever given blood, you may also know that you are screened. Certain people cannot give blood. For example: If you’ve gotten a tattoo recently, they won’t take your blood (depending on the state you received it). If you’ve traveled outside the country, your destinations will be reviewed carefully before being accepted. Likewise, if you’re a sexually active gay male, you will be summarily turned down. Be-A-Helper-

This means, of course, that some of the people most closely affected by this atrocity could not give blood to aid their friends. They had to depend on others to do so.

That means, the folks standing in those lines were probably not male homosexuals. So who was donating? That may seem like a stupid question, but I ask it to make a point. They were simply people who wanted to help. Many of them were probably people who frown upon (or at the very least, don’t understand) the homosexual lifestyle.

Don’t give blood on an empty stomach.

Those of us who give blood in ordinary times have no idea who will receive that blood. We’re simply people who want to help. Our sexual preferences, social creeds, or biases just don’t enter into the equation.

Meanwhile, standing in long lines for hours can cause hunger to set in. Giving blood on an empty stomach is not the ideal situation. Local Chick-fil-A employees worked that Sunday to prepare sandwiches for those standing in line. As you may remember, Chick-fil-A was the target of much hate speech when it was learned the owner was a Christian who didn’t support the homosexual agenda. Yet, this organization (which does not open on Sundays) was right there to be of assistance in the best way they knew how. Imagine that.

Hate speech not withstanding…

As you may remember, Chick-fil-A was the target of much hate speech when it was learned the owner was a Christian who didn’t support the homosexual agenda. Yet, this organization (which does not open on Sundays) was right there to be of assistance in the best way they knew how. Imagine that.

When I managed the accounting department of a large business, I heard about a rather attractive opening in another company. I called in one of my best workers and told her about it. She applied for (and landed) the job. She couldn’t believe I would do that and thanked me profusely.

mr-rogersWhile it wasn’t in my best interest to point her in that direction, it was certainly in hers. I lost a good employee, but it was the right thing to do.

Following Jesus often means doing something contrary to the way we feel. We don’t always agree with each other, but that’s beside the point. The person you trash today may well be your finest ally tomorrow. Frankly, your best interests may not always line up with that of your neighbor.

As Mister Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Better yet, be one!

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

The Dance

dance-danceMany times, I’ve heard the Christian journey referred to as “The Dance.” I’m guessing you have as well. I love that metaphor. It captures a lot of what we do as we move with Jesus in this life.

When we’re just learning to dance, we have two left feet (maybe two right ones—not sure why we always pick on the left ones). If we keep at it, we gradually improve as we go along. We begin to glide with the music provided by the Lord. Eventually, we don’t think as much about our feet as we do our Partner and his song.

A different beat…

People who dance to the music of the Lord hear varying tunes and different lyrics. The beat is seldom the same and the ebb and flow occasionally seem out of sync. Our individual dances are like snowflakes (you know—no two alike).

So we dance and learn to follow Jesus. Occasionally we try to take the lead, but it never works out. If we’re paying attention, we’ll get back into step with what the Savior is doing. But always, the music is there to enjoy, rest in, and be inspired by.

Another side of the dance is that many people don’t hear the music. Friedrich InsaneNietzsche once said, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” That one really hits home. How many people do you know who believe you’re at least a little weird because you journey with Christ? Probably more than you think.

It seems to me, however, the dance itself must attract some folks. They see us swaying and don’t quite get it. Still, there’s something they find alluring in the movement. Something draws them to the place (whatever that may be) where they begin to hear the music themselves. Then they too are supernaturally scooped up by the Savior’s arms and carried away by the melody of his call.

Years ago, Calvin Miller wrote a book entitled “The Singer.” That tome enthralled me. I was only twenty-five years old when it hit the scene, and I haven’t thought about it in years—until just now, in fact. It was a poetic narrative about a Singer whose song could not be silenced. That book helped me learn to dance.

“Dance like nobody’s watching.”

Then there were songs like “Lord of the Dance.” They reminded me who was doing the singing and why I should dance to his song. There were always new steps to be learned and new revelations to help me learn them.

When I was a kid, it was always a big deal to invite someone to a dance (this time I mean a literal dance). It was mysterious and exciting to do so. Others anxiously awaited an invitation.

That’s how it should be with our spiritual dance. Over the years, many of us lose our zeal and choose to be wallflowers. I think it’s time to take another twirl around the dance floor.

modern style dancer posing behind studio background

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

My Dad: The Mayor of Stafford Court

PapaProverbs 4:1 says, “Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding.” I actually did that while growing up. I didn’t want to, but Dad didn’t allow for much leeway.

I remember thinking my Dad had to be one of the stupidest guys on earth. I had a hard time understanding the way he thought, and I couldn’t believe some of the things he said.

However, an amazing transformation occurred over the years. The older I got, the smarter he became. Anyone else out there have a similar experience?

As a kid, he earned the nickname, “Candy.” Friends and family called him that all his life. I just called him Dad.

When my boys came along, they called him “Papa Deno.” That one stuck as well. The Papa part got passed along to me. And, when I get a little ornery, my Bride calls me “Deno” as well.

“He didn’t want anything.”

He never had much in the way of possessions, but it’s not that he didn’t have any money. It was more a result of the fact that he didn’t really want anything. If he had a dependable car to drive and a TV to watch his baseball games, he was fulfilled.

Deno wanted two things for everyone. He wanted you to have a job, and he wanted you to be happy. If you didn’t have a job, he wouldn’t let you be happy until you got one.

Bobby McFerrin once had a hit song entitled, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” My Dad didn’t share that outlook. His was, “Worry, and be happy.” He worried about everything. It was his lot in life. He just couldn’t help himself.

His philosophy was simple. “It’s my way or the highway.” If you didn’t agree with Father & Sonhim, you were obviously wrong. Once, he was in the checkout line at the grocer’s and bumped the guy in front of him with his cart (apparently more than once). When the guy turned around to complain, my Dad said, “Hey Buddy! It’s not all MY fault!” We still quote that one and laugh until we cry.

He was such a worker that I was always concerned he’d be miserable in retirement. That was not the case, however. He was always busy with projects my Mom conjured up for him. He once complained to me, “Some days I can’t sit down for a week!”

He loved watching baseball, and he hated the Yankees. He passed that along to me. It’s an art that I’ve perfected along the way (largely under his watchful eye).

“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding.”

Although he wasn’t a mechanic, he loved his garage. In fact, he was known as a “garage-sitter.” After a hard day’s work, he would sit (drinking a cold beer) with the garage door open and survey the neighborhood. The guy next door used to call him the “Mayor of Stafford Court.”

On days like today, I really miss “The Mayor.” When I remember his instruction, I still pay attention and gain understanding. Happy Fathers Day, Papa!

fathersday1

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Spiritual Commuters

I’ve been a tent-maker.

For the past twenty-one years, I’ve been a tent-maker. If you don’t recognize that term, let me elucidate (I just love that word).

Tent Making is a reference to the vocation of the Apostle Paul. He made, repaired, and restored tents for a living. That seems like an unlikely livelihood in our day and age. In his, however, it could be quite lucrative.

Accounting–Almost as exciting at tent-making…

We apply this term to people who are heavily involved in Christian ministry but earn the bulk of their living in secular work. I’ve been a preacher but have earned my living as an accountant (not overly exciting work, but probably on a par with sewing up tents).

For many of those years, I had a relatively long commute. Each day, I drove around the beltway of Washington DC. Any of you who’ve ever done that know what a treat it can be to maneuver the perils of multi-lanes of traffic while traveling at high rates of speed. On a really good day, I could make it in forty-five minutes. Good days were a rarity. It seldom took less than an hour and was usually well over that (one way). Still, commuting was the norm. Who wants to live where they work?traffic

I was reminded of this by a term I heard recently—“spiritual commuters.” The coiner of this short phrase had some particular people in mind. He was referring to folks who shoot into worship services on Sundays (sometimes often enough to get their name on the rolls) and zoom back out again. I’m not so certain how “spiritual” that is, but the “commuter” part surely fits.

I’ve never been one of that ilk; so I’m not totally sure what the perceived benefits of such an arrangement happen to be. I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is that spiritual commuters feel better simply because they’ve attended worship.

“I always feel good when I’m here!”

I think that because of a guy who used to attend services with a congregation I served many moons ago. At the end of worship hour, he would shake my hand and say to me, “Dave, I always feel really good when I’m here.” I think that statement speaks volumes. It translates (at least to my way of thinking) to what one of my old seminary professors used to call “feel-good religion.”

Please don’t get me wrong here. I loved that feel-good guy with all my heart. In fvisitor parkingact, he was one of my favorites (please don’t tell anyone I’ve had favorites over the years). I’m glad (even ecstatic) that he came to worship with us. The problem is, I believe people like him are cheating themselves.

Our faith is lived in the trenches of life. If we merely look for that feel-good experience, we’re missing out on the bulk of the journey. It’s nice to be airdropped in and flown out. But the real victories are won when we get our hands dirty. It’s in everyday discipleship that we’ll find real fulfillment.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Death & Religion Rarely Stick

A few days ago, I flipped on the radio and heard a guy say, “Death and religion rarely stick when the person gets better.” Then he chuckled.

I had never heard that saying before, but apparently it’s been around for a while. I didn’t think it was all that funny, but I can see why he laughed.

“People only need God when they’re in trouble.”

Coincidentally, I read an article around the same time written by an atheist. He was noting that things were bad, and a lot of people were starting to lean on God. His premise was that people only need God when they’re in trouble. Once the trouble subsides, they don’t need a deity anymore so they jettison him.

The article (and the earlier saying) irritated me a bit. However, I have to admit it’s true to a certain extent. There definitely are people like that.

oldmanWhen I was a rookie pastor, I remember visiting an elderly gentleman in the hospital. His name was George. George’s wife was a staunch attendee at our weekly worship services. He, on the other hand, never darkened the doors. When I walked into his hospital room, he began to cry. He proclaimed to me that he needed to get back to church. I agreed with him, prayed for him, and left.

He got better, left the hospital, and I never saw him again until he ended up back in sickbay. I went to see him again, and the scene was repeated. He cried, said he needed to get back to church, and we prayed. Once again, he got better but never showed up for worship. Interestingly enough, he only lived a short distance from the church building. His wife walked it every Sunday.

To top it all off, the next time George ended up in the hospital, I was unaware that he had been admitted. A neighboring pastor friend of mine happened to be at the hospital, noticed he was listed as a patient, and stopped in to see him. The pastor later related his visit with George to me. You guessed it. The whole scene was repeated again.

“I’m never sure how to take people like that.”

Whenever George was in trouble, he got scared and called on the Lord. Once his distress was gone, he didn’t have time for God anymore. I guess the guy on the radio was right—at least in George’s case. Death and religion rarely stick when the person gets better.

I must admit that I’m never sure how to take people like that. I don’t really know how to oldguydescribe them, and I’m not exactly sure how to minister to them. They’re an enigma to me. I guess it’s because of my own experience. Once I discovered my need for the Lord, I was all in.

When all is said and done, whether I can understand them or not doesn’t matter. I’ll do what I can to help. I feel a little badly, though, when people cry at the sight of me.

 

Dynamic Equilibrium: Part Two

Several years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. James Boice (twentieth-century pastor and theologian) teach at a church near me. He said some things I will never forget. I’m paraphrasing, but here is some of what he passed along.

EmptyPewsIf you win people with great music, you win them TO great music. If you win them with programs, you win them TO programs. If you win them with entertaining preaching, you win them TO entertaining preaching. What we need to do is win them with Jesus, TO Jesus.

These are things we don’t often think about. The music won’t always great. Programs tend to stagnate. The next preacher might not be quite as entertaining. Jesus, on the other hand, will always be Lord of the Universe. As Scripture indicates, he never fails.

As I mentioned in my last blog, some churches who are comprised of honest-to-goodness disciples of Jesus are said to have “dynamic equilibrium.” In other words, they are strong churches that basically remain the same size numerically. While every congregation wants to attract new members, the important matter at the core of every local church body is to grow to become more Christ-like.

 

Equilibrium.svg

Many congregations get distracted from this fundamental tenet in their pursuit of new members, new money, and new energy. What we often forget is, even if we are successful at gaining newness, even that newness becomes old and tarnished. What never gets old is discipleship.

There’s no substitute for discipleship.

Discipleship is a dynamic journey of a life traveling in the ways of Jesus. It never gets old, because we never fully arrive. There is always a growing edge, and there is always a new frontier. Any true disciple will affect lives for Christ. Those affected lives don’t always translate to new members, but they do always translate to growth in God’s Kingdom.

We now live in a time when people simply don’t want to join anything (except for Facebook). One of the fastest growing movements in the church today is a group who want nothing to do with formal church membership. Among them are many Bible-believing, disciples of Jesus who are put off by the way the modern church operates. They have no intention of adding their name to a list. They have every intention, however, of serving Jesus.

The_Rise_of_the_Nones

If we really want to see growth in our congregations today, we need to see growth in our personal faith and practice. Without that, any growth that might occur will be shallow, hollow, and short-lived.

Today’s church doesn’t look like the Apostle Paul’s church. Tomorrow’s church most assuredly will not look like today’s (or at least shouldn’t). If we do things merely to sustain or maintain what we have and what we are, we’re not walking with Christ—we’re simply running in place.

The only congregations that ever really grow are the ones who have vital relationships to their Savior. Let’s work on that first. Who knows where he’ll take us from there.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]