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.]

Dynamic Equilibrium: Part One

As a pastor, I’ve always been amazed (and stymied) by the almost constant struggle between the traditionalists and the progressives. I’m using these terms for lack of something better. Just so you know where I’m coming from, let me give you a couple of quick definitions.Be-dynamic-for-God

The traditionalists are the ones who want things to be the way they always were (at least in their memories). They want the old favorite hymns, readings from the Psalter, and a bulletin that lays out exactly what the order of the day happens to be. Then there are the progressives. They don’t want anything to be like the good old days. These folks want all the latest worship music, free-form-spirit-led services, and no readings from anywhere (except maybe a poem by Maya Angelou).

I’ve been around a rather long time. I understand both sides (and all those folks in between). I’ve always listened to them and tried to march to their drumbeat. That, of course, is impossible. But, hey, what are you going to do? I’m just a preacher, not a magician.

We all want to attract new people to our worship services.

These folks all have one thing in common. They want to attract new people to their worship services. One side says, “We’ve got to return to the ways that attracted all those folks we had in the past.” The other side says, “No one wants to attend a stuffy old service like we used to have, we’ve got to beef it up.” Okay…

Equilibrium.svgThe fact of the matter is neither side seems to know what they’re talking about. They only know what they want. A quick study of today’s church will show both of these approaches work under the right circumstances. There are mega-churches that cater to one or the other of these groups. They are (by attendance terms) successful.

On the other hand, the opposite is true as well. There are plenty of struggling congregations who hold to one or the other of these philosophies with similar results—they continue to struggle with low attendance.

Does worship style really matter?

So what’s my point? It’s simple. The style of worship is merely a personal preference. If you do either of them well (and I stress the word, “well”), I suspect you will be pleasing in the Lord’s sight. Your neighborhood might not be attracted to it, but God will know you have worshiped. Our big problem is not our style of worship. It’s our belief that somehow our style of worship is going to be our big attraction.

A while back, I attended a Small Church Seminar. The speaker came up with an interesting term. He averred that small churches who don’t grow any larger can have “dynamic equilibrium.” Chew on that one for a bit. His point was, we might not be growing numerically, but we can still be a dynamic congregation equalibrium(regardless of our style).

The deeper question is not our worship style. It’s our approach to everyday ministry. Dynamic churches have a good approach—dying congregations do not. (To be continued.)

 

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

Blue Haired Ladies (and Gents)

bluehairI once heard a Christian leader commenting on the aging of their denominational   congregations. He said, “As we look across the pews these days, we see a lot of blue-haired ladies.” Everyone got a chuckle out of that little observation, but the truth behind this giggle producer was the fact that the denomination was slowly dying.

The stark reality in many churches is that the backbone of their ministry is the blue-haired woman. This is a testament to the perseverance of these mighty saints of God. Unfortunately, it’s also a testimony to some problems within.

“I don’t mean that in any sexist sort of way.”

One of those problems is the lack of male leadership. We men-types have often abdicated the throne (and I don’t mean that in any sexist sort of way). We just aren’t doing what the Lord called us to do. Our position is often, “Hey! If the women are willing to do it, let them.” That, of course, points to an underlying attitude of laziness or apathy. Active churchwomen become a convenient excuse for our willingness to do nothing. It also puts the females in the position of having to pick up the slack. It’s a vicious cycle.

blue hairAnother of those problems is the dwindling number of young people in our congregations. I don’t have time to write a book about the reasons behind that one. Suffice it to say, it’s becoming more and more of a reality.

It has dawned on me that we need more blue-haired ladies. I know that’s not what you expected me to say at this point, but hear me out.

I’ve noticed the past couple of decades that many of our youth are sporting various unnatural hues of coiffure. In other words, wildly colored hair. Blue is one of them (not to mention purple, candy apple red, and Kelly green). I’ve noticed this in the malls, on the street, and in our schools. I have to say, however, I haven’t seen much of this in the various congregations I’ve been privileged to visit.

Our attitude stinks!

One of the reasons for this is probably the attitude of the riotously stylish ones. If they’re radical enough to dye their hair blue, they probably think Christianity is uncool (or at least boring). I fear the problem runs much deeper than that, however.

davidlynchThe real problem for us is our own attitude. How many congregations would welcome these new blue-haired ladies (and gents) with open arms? How many would take them seriously? How many of these young folks would experience the coldness of a shoulder or the iciness of a stare if they dared darken our church doors. Frankly, I shudder to contemplate the probable answers to these questions.

If any of you reading this today are of the blue-haired variety, let me say this to you. You are welcome in our congregation. We would be excited to have you as part of our worshiping community. That goes for both the old ones and the young ones. We could use a few more blue hairs.

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

Don’t Tell Anyone

PublicityWhen it was revealed to his disciples that he was the Messiah, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone. That, my friends, is how to display a wonderful sense of security.

The same thing occurred once when he healed someone. He told them not to let his secret out. Hmmm…

I have to be honest and tell you, I would have a dickens of a time doing that. If I had cast out a pile of demons or caused the blind to see, I would have been quick to spread the good news. “Hey! Did you see what I did? Did you notice the kind of power I can wield?”

“Egos need stroking…”

Fortunately for all of us, I’m not Jesus. I do, however, desire to be more like him. But unlike him, I’m too insecure to let my little victories slide by unnoticed. Sometimes I try to use someone else to spread my legend. I’ve developed some pretty sneaky techniques to garner a few pats on the back. After all, egos do need some stroking from time to time.

Jesus, of course, changed his tactics when it came time for him to leave the planet. At his Ascension into Heaven, he told everyone it was time to get the word out. I have to say; I think I would have mustered a better plan than to trust a small gathering of very fallible people to do my PR work. Still, it seems to have worked fairly well.

It seems to me, we can take a pointer from Jesus here about taking credit for extrastuff. We often worry more about our status than we do our results. Jesus deserved to be lauded—not just for what he did, but even more so for whom he is. Outside of Jesus, I’m nobody. Yet my constant striving is to be somebody important (or, at least, to be liked). I want to be like Jesus, but I’m so far from there that I can’t see it from here.

If I could just do what I do and leave the public relations to Jesus, I’d be a whole lot better off. I suspect this is a common malady.

About our Father’s business…

I’m not sure why we think we’re our best promoters (or why we even need promoting). Yet, blowing our own horn is a temptation that’s almost impossible to overcome.

When Jesus was twelve years old, he became separated from his family on a trip to Jerusalem. By the time they figured out where he was, he had spent a considerable amount of time with the elders in the Temple. When his parents asked him why, he simply answered that he had to “be about [his] Father’s business.”

That seems to me to be a good philosophy for life. If we were going about our Father’s business each day, we would undoubtedly be better off than we are. Plus, if we’re doing our Father’s business, there’s no need for self-promotion. The Lord will be our publicity agent.

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

Divine Interruptions

A while back, I read a news article about a young woman who was on her way to her own wedding. As she was making the jaunt to her nuptials that day, she came upon a car accident. The bride-to-be was a paramedic.

The circumstance that presented itself paramedic-bride-800gave her a choice. Stop and help—maybe saving a life or at least alleviating the situation—or continue on to the venue where her wedding was about to take place. It was basically a “do for myself vs. do for someone else” scenario. Putting myself in that predicament, I think I may have opted for, “Get me to the church on time.”

The young lady in question was not like me. She stopped to lend her expertise. As I think about it, I can only hope I would be that valiant in a similar situation.

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” ~Yogi Berra~

It seems to me that life is full of moments like these. It’s full of choices that will either move us toward altruism or self-gratification. And while the end results might not be as stark and polar opposite as that, the ultimate road we choose will probably lead to one or the other in the end.

Yogi Berra once said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” As nonsensical as that seems, it appears to be our philosophy so much of the time. By that, I mean we don’t plan ahead of time to be unselfish. We don’t think far enough into the future to prepare ourselves to give if the occasion arises. Giving is an attitude.

Are you an impulse giver?

In life, we are often impulse buyers. We’ll shop for one thing and buy another. It doesn’t matter to us if it fits into our budget. We see something, we want it, and we buy it. We’re the same with our giving.

Way too often, we’re impulse givers. We don’t plan to give. Then once in awhile, God interrupts our lives with moments of choice. We either choose to give, or choose to walk away from the giving moment. If we have not planned ahead to be generous with our time, our money, or our possessions, we will often choose the road most followed—to be selfish, self-centered, or self-gratified.ParamedicWeddingRing

In early adulthood, my family and I used to participate in the Fresh Air Fund. We would host an inner city child for a few weeks so he or she could spend some time in a rural, open-air atmosphere. During one of those times, I ran into a guy who saw what I was doing and proclaimed, “I raised my own kids! They can raise theirs!”

Do you have a plan for giving?

His plan was not to give. I presume his life was like that in general. I suspect that in those times when God interrupted his daily routine with a choice similar to the one our paramedic bride faced, he opted for self.

God just might interrupt your life today. Please be prepared to give.

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

“You Must Accept or Reject the Story”

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “‘What are we to make of Christ?’ There is no question of what we can make of him, it is entirely a question of what he intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.” (From God in the Dock)

holy_spirit_fire_by_jpsmsu40Sometimes we Christians make a grievous error thinking we have a say in our salvation. Even worse, we occasionally think we have a say in someone else’s salvation. Other times we know better but still act like we’re the ones with the sway.

“God opens our eyes, we see.”

I know I’m treading into hot waters here, but even in the Calvinist/Wesleyan debate, there is common ground. That ground is God’s call upon our lives. Jesus calls, we react. God opens our eyes, we see. The winds of the Holy Spirit blow, we bend.

John Wesley explained this holy phenomenon with the term, “prevenient grace.” In other words, we can’t choose to follow Christ unless he first gives us permission to know him—grace to open our mind to his call—ears to hear his beckoning voice. God is the proactive one. We are merely the responders.

We humans don’t really like that arrangement. We like to have absolute power—especially we Americans. We are independent and free. We are in control of our own destiny (or so we like to think).

“Try to box him up and you’ll fail miserably every time.”

Even we in the church attempt to make what we want out of Jesus. For some he’s the Gentle Lamb. For others, he’s the Warrior King leading us to ultimate victory. In reality, he is who he is. Remember Exodus? “I AM who I AM!” Try to box him up and you’ll fail miserably every time.

fire_lionIn Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the Christ-figure is a lion named Aslan. When asked about him, one of the characters exclaimed, “He’s no tame lion!” Lewis was right. When we try to tame him, make him what we want him to be, we are committing downright heresy. He is who he is.

“The Holy Spirit grabbed me by the throat.”

I had a friend in seminary who once said (when asked why she was there), “The Holy Spirit grabbed me by the throat.” I never forgot that description. I think it’s reasonably expressive of many of our faith journeys. Sometimes we come kicking and screaming.

I have another friend, a layman, who’s a good preacher in his own right. A visiting missionary once told him he ought to become a pastor. My friend related that he just didn’t have that call on his life. The missionary then knowingly answered, “Yes. If you can do anything else and be happy, do it.” These are definite words of wisdom. It’s God’s story, not ours.

Oh, to be sure, we have a part to play. We have the privilege of being a portion of what God is doing in this world. It’s when we take undue credit for the fruit of our labors that we get far afield.

Accept God’s story, and relish the fact that you have a role to perform. Accept the Story

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

Distracted From the Truth: Just Another Snake in the Grass

cottonmouthsnake3 A friend of mine went fishing early one day. He’s usually well prepared, but on this day, he ran out of bait early. Just as he realized this, he happened to glance down the riverbank and noticed a cottonmouth with a frog in its mouth.

Apparently, frogs are good bass bait. Being an avid fisherman, he just couldn’t help himself. He snuck up on the snake and grabbed it right behind the head. Deftly, he took the frog and put it in his bait bucket.

Of course, now, he had a slight problem. How would he get rid of the snake without getting bitten? Fortunately for him, he always carries a flask of whiskey when he fishes. He snatched the flask and began to pour some down the snake’s throat.

The snake came back.

The snake’s eyes rolled back, and it went limp. My friend released the reptile into the lake without incident. He then took the frog, baited his hook, and continued angling.

About half an hour later, he felt a nudge on his foot. He looked down and was a bit startled to see the snake there and jumped back. Then he saw it. The snake had come back with two frogs.

This is, of course, a fictional story. My friend never carries whiskey. But the snake… He’s the real story. He got sidetracked.

frog_snakeSnakes, like all animals, only have to concern themselves with very few things in life. They eat, reproduce, and… Well… I guess that’s all. This one, however, got distracted from the truth. He gave up three meals for a couple slugs of joy juice.

He stumbled (or slithered, I guess) across something that was new, exciting, and somewhat irresistible. It’s an all too familiar story.

We all get distracted from the truth.

You’ve heard a lot of stories like this in your life. Most of those stories are about human beings, though. Someone stumbles across something that entices them, and they’re off traipsing after the elusive dream, the temporary high, or the wild goose. In short, they get distracted from the truth.

As you probably know, there are many truths in life. Unfortunately, for every truth, there seem to be a hundred temptations to lure us away from the reality that keeps us grounded.

Jesus told us that we should get to know the truth, because “the truth will set you free.” He also told us that he, himself, is “The Truth.” In fact, he proclaimed that he is “the way, serpents_apple_bite_cider__37096.1440379697.480.480the truth, and the life.” Plenty of non-believers know that verse as well as believers. Still, people (believers and non-believers alike) get distracted from the truth of Christ.

Sometimes I’m right there with everyone else. Sometimes I just want to do my own thing. I get a taste for something I shouldn’t have and I do crazy things to quench that new thirst. Fortunately, after sixty-six years on this planet, I’ve discovered that it’s always better to get back to the truth—and that it’s much better to do it sooner than later.

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

We’re Just Little Boys Trying to Grow Up (Or Not)

Some of my old high school buddies and I try to get together at least once a year for a long weekend. We call it the “Big Chill” Weekend (quite original, don’t you think?). I believe we’re currently working on number eight (BCVIII). Each time we get gather, we can always count on a lot of yucks.IMG_1020

Almost every time we’re together, I think the same thing. Somewhere about half way through the weekend, I look around at these precious souls and say to myself, “We’re just little boys trying to grow up.”

I’m the baby of the group, and I’m currently sixty-six years old. We all graduated the same year from the same high school. When we get together, we tell a lot of the same stories (from our glory days), relish in our victories, and relive our defeats (sometimes). Either my memory is beginning to fade, or the stories are getting a bit embellished along the way.

I’ve always assumed this is a good thing. I’m not sure why. Living in the past is not considered healthy, but revisiting it from time to time seems to be therapeutic. The older I get, the more nostalgic I become. I suppose this is normal—or at least I like to think so (although I’ve never been accused of being particularly normal).

I think part of the therapeutic value lies in the forgiving of past transgressions. IMG_1013Like most other teenagers, we did a few things that were not quite kosher. As we matured, we probably began to realize how awful some of those things were. We weren’t criminals or anything, but we undoubtedly caused a little angst along the way if not some real hurt. Occurrences like BCVIII are as healing as they are fun.

I think this is very Biblical, in fact. Have you ever read about the night Jesus was betrayed? Peter was gathered around a charcoal fire with some people when they asked (or accused) him of being a follower of the prisoner, Jesus. He adamantly denied it—three times, in fact. That had to be a memory that left an extremely foul taste in Peter’s memory banks.

“The Creator understands his creation.”

After Jesus’ resurrection, he met the disciples on a shoreline in Galilee. He was cooking some fish over a charcoal fire. As that familiar charcoal fragrance wafted in the air, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter answered in the affirmative.

Jesus didn’t let it lie there, however. He asked him two more times. In the presence of that charcoal smell, Peter answered three times that he loved Jesus. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see what was going on there. Peter was being healed of the horrible memories of that fateful night. The Creator understands his creation.Brothers

Nostalgic or not, we need events that allow us to revisit the old days. They’re restorative, and they’re necessary. My friends and I might never really grow up, but we will be healed. Thanks be to God!

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

I Think I’ve Become Methuselah

methuselah-oldmanA young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner.  While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having. “Goat,” the little boy replied. “Goat?” replied the startled man of the cloth, “Are you sure about that?” “Yep,” said the youngster. “I heard Dad say to Mom, ‘Today is just as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.'”

“I’m the patriarch.”

I ran across this story recently and realized I’m now the “Old Goat.” It’s not that this ever happened to me, but the more I hang around, the more I know it to be true. Sometimes, I’m the old geezer. It’s not all that uncommon to look around and note that I’m the oldest guy in the room. This never really bothered me before, and it still doesn’t. It’s just different.

My Dad and Mom passed away several years ago. After they were gone, one of my sons got married, and we (my family and I) were all gathered together in one place. As I looked around, the revelation hit me. I was now the patriarch. I have to tell you, that was a weird feeling. Not only had I become the oldest, I was supposed to be the wisest as well. That’s a responsibility I grew into with age and experience (at least I hope I did).

I just saw a t-shirt that said, “I can’t adult today. Please don’t make me adult.” I Monty_Python_Methuselahsmiled. I can relate, because there are days when I don’t want to adult (although I never knew the word “adult” could be used as a verb). Then I frowned because I don’t have a choice anymore.

I don’t think patriarchs are allowed to be anything other than adult. There’s something about the gray hair I suppose. Maybe it’s the wrinkles or possibly just the momentary losses of memory. At any rate, we patriarch types are definitely supposed to be the adults in the room.

I haven’t kicked any kids out of my yard yet.

That realization took place a few years ago, and I’ve pretty much gotten used to my new role. I kind of like it, but my bride says I’m getting ornery in my old age. Maybe my newfound responsibility is wearing on me. I’ve never pictured myself as the crotchety old man type, but I suppose it’s finally happened. I haven’t yelled at any kids to get out of my yard yet, but I’ve felt like it a couple of times.

The great thing about getting older is that it can be used as an excuse for a lot of things. If there’s something I don’t want to do, I can always say I’m too old.

My perspective has changed as well. For example: I used to get bent out of shape if my hair got messed up. Now I don’t even bother to comb it half the time. I’m just happy to have some left.

If you’re chuckling as you read this, just remember… This will happen to you too.

methuselah-motivational

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

Building Our Earthly Kingdom

Many moons ago, before I became a pastor, I was asked to preach at a church located several miles from my home. When I got back from that responsibility, I spoke with my pastor about it. During the conversation, he made an interesting observation. He said to me, “That guy is building his own little kingdom over there.” The “guy” to whom he was referring, was the pastor of the congregation to which I spoke. Castle_Saumur_France

That was almost forty years ago. I’ve forgotten the rest of the conversation with my pastor that day, but I’ll never forget that line.

There is always a great temptation to do just that—to build our own little kingdom. It not only falls to pastors, but it’s a lure in many walks of life. Let’s be truthful here. There are many benefits to having one’s own kingdom.

“We want to call the shots…”

One thing that stands out is control. Who among us doesn’t like to be in control? Sometimes we say we don’t, and maybe in certain circumstances we like to hand the reins over to others. Yet the fact remains, in most instances, we want to be in control. We want to call the shots and have things go our way.

Another perk of having one’s own kingdom is a lack of accountability. If the kingdom is truly ours, we don’t have to answer to anyone. We have no equals, so the old “jury of peers” doesn’t come into play. It’s a dangerous position to be in. As the old saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Building our own kingdom is an invitation to disaster.

“This world is not my home…” ~Larry Norman~

Every Christian (according to Scripture) is a citizen of Heaven. Conversely, this earth is not our home. We’re just passing through. Still, we seem bent on amassing whatever we can as we traverse this life. This is in direct contradiction to the old truth we know from time immemorial—“You can’t take it with you.”

Jesus, himself, set the standard for earthly power when he told Pilot, “My Kingdom is not of this world!” If Jesus was not interested in setting up an earthly kingdom, why in the world should we?

A while back, a friend of mine published a devotional on this very subject. He said the following: “If Jesus had been interested in geopolitics, he would have taken over Israel. Calvary would have remained a nondescript hill on the edge of Jerusalem. I’m not sure what would have happened next, but no blood sacrifice = no forgiveness = no salvation. If his Kingdom had been of this world, things would be a lot different. We would be bowing and scraping and attempting to earn the King’s favor.” (Don Hunter–Awakening Alliance Church, Ridgway, PA)

As you know, we don’t have to earn the favor of King Jesus. His grace is ruined castle wallsufficient, and his forgiveness secures a place for us in his heart.

A man’s home might be his castle, but the drawbridge is really insecure. Don’t count on the fleeting things of this world to get you through.

 

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