Anonymity: The Desired Effect?

An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.  “Where would you elderly-womanlike to sit?” he asked politely. “The front row, please,” she answered. “You really   don’t want to do that,” the usher said. “The pastor is really boring.” “Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired. “No,” he said. “I’m the pastor’s mother,” she replied indignantly. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Good,” he answered.

There are times when we’d just as soon others not know who we are. It seems the more time passes, that attitude is becoming the norm. I was involved in a three-way conversation a few years ago in which we were discussing a nearby mega-church. My comment to this small group was, “The problem with that church is you can go there and get lost in the crowd.” Another person chimed in while chuckling, “I was just going to say, the good thing about that church is you can go there and get lost in the crowd.” I guess it all depends on your perspective.

I pastor a very tiny congregation as congregations go. We average less than twenty in worship. On a good day, we’ll hit thirty. I know darn well there are people who will never darken our doors because we’re such an intimate gathering. People want to be anonymous.

Two of our regulars tell their story this way. “We used to drive by the chapel and one of us would say, ‘We should try that church.’ The other would reply, ‘If we go there, everyone will look at us.’ We decided to try it one Sunday. We walked in and everyone looked at us.”

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I’m a terminal introvert. I would love to be anonymous wherever I go (especially to worship). I’ve worked hard over the years to overcome that malady. I’ve found, however, that one simply does not overcome it. What I do is deal with it and labor to keep it at bay. I do so to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the benefits of my social life (especially in worship).

Worship is part of the communal gathering we call “the church.” To go and not be a part of the community is antithetical to the meaning of a corporate service. That’s why mega-churches are big on small group ministries. They don’t want people to get lost in the crowd. Small groups are vital to the life of the church. The gathering I serve has a distinct advantage. We ARE a small group, like it or not. No one is anonymous—ever.

I invite you to attend one of our worship services. No matter where you sit, you’ll be in the front row. Just a warning, however… I hear the pastor is really boring.Anonymity

No worries, though. We have an excellent pianist, and the congregation is a joy. Come join us (but don’t expect anonymity)!

 

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

Same Bowl, Different Soup!

“Same bowl, different soup!

“Recently, I heard someone say, “Same bowl, different Soup.” In context, I understood what they meant (I think). It hit me as unusual because I’d never heard the saying prior to that day. It sounds like something that should have been around at least as long as I have (sixty-six years) so I was a little surprised by it.

It resonated with me, so I went home and wrote it down on a little notepad. I found that pad today, and it got me thinking about it all over again. It still bothered me that I couldn’t remember ever hearing it before, so I got on the Internet and checked it out. It was all over the place. soup-bowl

The interesting thing is that it’s sometimes said backwards (or inside out, or conversely—I’m not sure which, if any of those apply). Anyway, some people say, “Same soup, different bowl.” That really got me thinking. Do they mean the same thing? Is one correct and the other wrong?

“Different bowl, same soup!”

The Urban Dictionary says it’s “same bowl, different soup” meaning “same ol’ same ol’.” That’s what I figured it meant, but it seems to make more sense to me to say, “same soup, different bowl.” I’d run a contest to select the right one, but I doubt anyone cares as much as me about this right now (or ever). At least half of you probably stopped reading this already.

The point of all this is how easily we can be distracted by things that don’t really matter (at least I can—and do). Time management is probably not one of my best attributes. Since I began writing this, I’ve done ten different things—none of which I had planned to do at this moment. It’s a little embarrassing, but there seem to be a lot of squeaky wheels in my life.

“What would Jesus do?”

I often wonder how Jesus would manage life in the twenty-first century. We have a zillion distractions—many of which seem to be worthwhile (at least they seem that way at the time they pop up). I want to think he would find a way to simplify things. On the other hand, I wonder if he’d be a master at multi-tasking.soup

He once said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” I’m not sure how much I look back, but I sure look forward, sideways, katty-cornered, up, and down.

And there’s another thing. My spell check just told me it’s “kitty-cornered.” All my life I’ve been taught that it’s katty-cornered. Well, I’m not changing it. So there!

Okay… Where was I? Oh yeah. I get distracted easily. Life seems to be about distractions. Someone told me when I became a pastor that, if I had a list of ten things to do for the day, I should be happy if I get one done. Why? Distractions.

Same soup, different bowl. Excuse me, I just got an e-mail.

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

Living in the Book

John Wesley was said to be a man of one book. His “one book” was the Bible, of course. That doesn’t mean he read the Bible and it only. He was well read, well educated, and wrote a lot himself. What it does mean is that he lived by what he learned in Scripture. While he read other things, the Bible was his mainstay.12924503_754904354610182_4092805141949649821_n

Today, we live in a world of books. As an author, I find it amazing how far up the charts my book sails when even one is purchased. That’s simply because there are millions of books on the market competing for everyone’s dollars. A few sales can propel a book up the scale, leapfrogging it over several million others.

Putting that aside, the reality is there are many books that each sells thousands of copies or more. These days, people buy paperbacks and hardcovers as they always did. On top of that, many (if not most) books are purchased in some digital form. Nooks, Kindles, iPods, and phones are used to buy and read books. You can carry around your entire library on your smartphone to read at any time. It’s amazing there are any bookstores left at all.

“The Bible is the book of life.”

With all these books vying for our time, it’s gratifying to know that the Bible is still the best seller of all time (by an incredible margin). Like Wesley, tons of people read voraciously. Still the one place they keep going back is the Bible—often on a daily basis.

The reason for this is pretty clear. The Bible is the book of life. It transforms our understanding, our perspective, and our way of living. In short, it transforms us. It’s alive with the truth of God, and it can’t be replaced by anything else we read.

“Writing about the Bible cannot replace the Bible itself.”

We can write books about the Bible (I’ve even done that myself). But writing about the Bible cannot replace the Bible itself. It can certainly be helpful. As a preacher, I read about the Bible all the time. I want to know what other people think, how they interpret it, and how they believe it relates to life in the twenty-first century. But even then, I find myself going back to Scripture each time to verify, confirm, or refute what I’ve just read.

LiveintheBibleAnother great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once said, “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.” There really is no substitute for it. Many of the most significant people of history were greatly influenced by this marvelous book. In turn, they have influenced millions themselves. There is no end to the reach “The Book” has had, and will have, on humanity.

The importance of this tome is not merely that it’s “the good book” as many have called it. It’s not the fact that it has many moral lessons or fascinating stories (although all that is true). It’s “the good book” because it points us to Jesus. So live in it. You’ll never be the same.

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

Smite Me Friendly

A lot of folks don’t like John Wesley. He lived in a much different time, of course (the 1700s), and he could be rough and abrasive when he wanted to. On spiritual matters, he was influenced by the Moravians of his day. In a letter to them, he once used the phrase, “Smite me friendly.”

He was asking them for some guidance and direction. While he was predisposed to their opinions, they also had their differences. If they were going to admonish him according to any of those differences, he was hoping it would be in a gentle way.John Wesley

Wesley’s point was that they should disagree in love. He requested their patience in dealing with issues where he may have shown ignorance. He also said, “prod me and give me a kick when I need it.”

That seems like a rather balanced approach when dealing with others. I applaud him for his position. He was not afraid to seek critical advice (or give it), but he didn’t want to be tromped on either.

In today’s climate, it’s easy for us to veer from this attitude. We are surrounded by such polarization that it even infects the church. Disagreeing agreeably doesn’t seem to play a very strong role in the agenda.

Wesley wanted fellow Christians to desire what was best for others—including for him. He wanted the church to work together to iron out differences and to do the work of the Gospel hand in hand with each other. When differences remained, he was still adamant that we work together in the tasks of the Kingdom.

“We have little to lose and everything to gain…”

There’s little to refute in his stance (at least from what I can see). It seems to me, we have little to lose and everything to gain if we strive to do church Wesley’s way. I’m not talking about his theology, here. We are going to be at variance greatly when it comes to those kinds of differences. But when it comes to practical matters of mission and ministry, turning our backs on each other doesn’t seem like much of a winner.

I’m not pleading here for denominations to unite, or even for local churches to meld together into one body of believers. I am, however, asking that we work more closely together for causes that unite us. There’s plenty to motivate us to do so.

We all want to feed the hungry, for example. Yet, we’re quick to separate our efforts to do that. Everyone has their own deal and that’s that. We’re not interested in combining efforts with the congregation down the street because…well, you know what they believe about __________ (you fill in the biblefight_coverblank). I wonder how many fall through the cracks because of our petty attitudes or just a simple lack of trying to cooperate.

As I write this, I realize some will readily agree with me. Others will take offense and pronounce me wrong. That’s okay. All I ask is that you smite me friendly.

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

IC Light Revisited

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In response to my last blog (IC Light: A Beer and a Church), a friend of mine made this statement: “I do see the similarly between IC Light Beer and the IC Church. Both are imbibed with hope that neither will leave the burden of added weight or responsibility.” He’s much smarter than me, so please allow me to dumb that statement down a tad.

Neither a light beer nor a light church is going to weigh you down. Beer can put on poundage. Churches can put on responsibility. Most of us don’t want to be weighed down with either.

Is your church worth her salt?

The problem, of course, is that any church worth her salt is going to challenge us with the Word of God. God’s truth is generally going to be accompanied by personal responsibility. My friend’s point is spot on. We want neither the extra blubber nor the personal responsibility. Therefore, IC Light…

In case you didn’t read the previous blog, I encourage you to go back and do so. If you don’t have the time or inclination, please allow me to briefly fill you in. IC is the abbreviation used by former church attendees to derisively refer to the Institutional Church. They call us names, in part, because we have backed off from Scripture and have chosen what passages to emphasize (as opposed to iclightteaching, and living by, the entire Bible).

In 2 Timothy 4:3, the Apostle Paul tells his young protégé, “The time will come when people will not listen to sound doctrine, but will follow their own desires and will collect for themselves more and more teachers who will tell them what they are itching to hear. They will turn away from listening to the truth and give their attention to legends.” It seems like that time has arrived. Consequently, we have church lite.

As a pastor, I fully understand the temptation to preach around the tough parts of Scripture. Some subjects are difficult to address. Some congregations are difficult to address as well.

When we decide as pastors and congregations that we’re going to avoid certain parts of the Bible, we are proving the Apostle right. No pastor wants to be harassed by his/her congregation because of the truth. On the other side of that coin, some members leave because they just don’t want to hear it. Along with hearing comes responsibility.

“Resurrection power is found only in the truth…”

These two things work together to create local churches that are rendered irrelevant or impotent. Missions suffer, denominations shrink, and congregations die out. Resurrection power is found only in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (so help me God).

Our lack of pursuing the truth is shamefully prominent in today’s church. We have, too often, relegated God’s Word to a footnote on what we’d rather do. I have no doubt that I have unwittingly played a role in that from time to time myself. We can offer no excuses—only a promise to put on some spiritual weight from here on in.

IC Light: A Beer and a Church

I grew up in a little town near Pittsburgh, PA. We had a house-top antenna for our TV, so we didn’t get many channels. In fact, we only got two on a regular basis. (Occasionally, we got one or two extra stations, but only when the atmosphere was perfect. Even then the channels were so snowy, it was hard to tell the players without a program—if you know what I mean.) PIRATES-IC-LICGHT-IRON-CITY-RETRO-CANS-BRANDMILL

There were no remotes or DVRs, so I saw a lot of TV ads in those days. For much of my life, I watched Iron City Beer commercials during Pirate games. When the Miller Brewing Company introduced light beer, Iron City came out with one as well. It quickly became known as IC Light. To this day, the name IC Light resounds in my mind’s ear. If I’m not mistaken, it’s still around. I moved to Virginia many years ago, but I can still hear those commercials in my head.

IC Light has taken on a new meaning for me in recent years, however. When I hear the term, I still think of the beer. Yet along with that memory, I now also think of the church.

The IC has spawned a new attitude.

Of late, many people have given up on us (the church, that is). They feel like we have become irrelevant, passé, or ineffective. Numerous folks with that opinion have begun to call us the Institutional Church. While that’s hardly a new term, it has taken on a new meaning. Or maybe I should say, it’s now spoken with a new attitude—a negative one. The term, Institutional Church (IC for short), has become a derisive term used by those who have fled the traditional church trappings.

Since I’ve been a Methodist most of my life, I can relate to a derisive name. John Wesley adopted the name, Methodist, to spite people who used it to mock him and his followers. We’ve been Methodists of various stripes ever since.

IC-LightI don’t think I like being called the IC as much as he liked being called a Methodist. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that those who have fled our institution really have a point. In fact, they have several points—most of which are valid. And while I wish they were still around helping us to get better, I understand why they left.

In many instances, we have become a much lighter version of our former selves (thus the IC Light moniker). It’s not simply that we have fewer people (although that is often the case). It’s more that we’ve let a lot of people down. We’ve often abdicated the throne, so to speak. We’ve strayed from our Biblical moorings that always showed us what it meant to be the church.

It’s going to be a struggle to get back to what we were meant to be. Brewing beer would be a lot easier. (To be continued…)

What Size is Your Grave?

It’s rather amazing to ponder the things that become really important to us. Just sit around with a bunch of adults sometime and start a conversation about some high and lofty topic. Nine times out of ten, it will dwindle to some lesser subject (frequently, far lesser). On occasion, the speed with which the conversation devolves is almost startling.DSC_0034

We can begin talking about something like Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees or the meaning of prayer. The next thing we know, we’re jawboning about yesterday’s basketball game. It’s not that yesterday’s ballgame is unimportant…well, it kind of is.

What I’m trying to say is, in the grand scheme of things, we dwell on a lot of stuff that should be consigned to happenstance, hobbies, and interests. Those things are part of our lives, certainly. Yet they shouldn’t hold the foremost significance in our thinking. Some things take such prominence in our lives that they relegate really important things to the background.

“I’m no different than anyone else”

If you broach the subject of baseball, I’m right there with you (no matter what else we were talking about). It’s almost scary how quickly I can switch gears to head into the finer points of the rules of the game. Pretty important, huh?

For you, it might not be baseball. It may be some other sport. Or it could be politics, architecture, status, fitness, style, finances, government, education, diet, or pets. The list goes on and on. These things are all part of our lives. We need to address them to be sure. To be consumed by them, however, is unhealthy.

I suppose we do this for any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because we just don’t want to talk about any weighty subjects. We just want small talk. We don’t want the pressure of being responsible for spiritual matters.SameSizedGrave

Many times, I’m sure it’s because we’re selfish and protective of what we have. We’re somebody because we have nice clothes. We’re important because of our position on the job. We matter because of who we know in life or what neighborhood we live in. Therefore, we prefer speaking about those things.

I recently ran across a quote that said, “No matter how big your house is, how recent your car is, how big your bank account is, our graves will be the same size. Stay humble.” Death is the great equalizer, is it not?

“How long are you going to live?”

Each of us will live for a while—fifty, seventy-five, or maybe one hundred years. Then, no matter how many toys we’ve collected along the way, we end up assuming room temperature.

The best way I know to stay humble—to maintain a reasonable perspective on life and love—is to pursue the loftier things. The latest smash hit TV series might be a good distraction. We all need a good diversion or two. Let’s just not make our diversions our main things in life. They’re not going to increase the size of our graves.

Motorcycle Dreams

Dave Zuchelli will be the guest preacher this Sunday evening (April 3) at the Manassas Biker Church. The title of his sermon is “Motorcycle Dreams” based on Joel 2:23-29.

CrossTankThe gathering will begin at 6pm with a potluck supper followed by worship. The church is located at 7223 Nathan Court in Manassas, VA. Zuchelli will also be signing  his first book, The Last Wedding, following the service.

The Manassas Biker Church is an outreach of the Brothers in Christ Motorcycle Ministry. It is non-denominational, and the public is invited and welcome to attend.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, an author, blogger, and speaker. He is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA where he as served for the past twenty-one years.]

Sooner or Later, We Will Hurt You

handscrossWhen I pastored a larger church, I used to teach membership classes every year. Each year I would invite members of the congregation to take the class again as a kind of refresher course. It gave them an opportunity to brush up on a little denominational history as well as to reacquaint themselves with their membership vows. More importantly, their presence in the classes always added an extra dimension and perspective to the give and take of each session.

One such member was sitting in the class one day when I made the following statement:

“Sooner or later, we will hurt you.”

I remember glancing over at the long-standing member. His eyes got as big as saucers, and his jaw almost hit the floor. He was shocked that I would say such a thing.

I suspect the prospects were just as surprised (although they didn’t show it quite as much). Some of you reading this are probably surprised as well. Why would any pastor say such a thing about his or her congregation?

The answer to that is really quite simple. I said it because it’s the truth. Maybe more importantly, I said it because I didn’t want anyone to run blindly into the commitment of membership. I didn’t want any of them to expect perfection from our hearty band of believers.

I’m the chief sinner.

In case any of you hadn’t noticed, the church is not perfect. It is, in fact, quite imperfect. If we could just get rid of all the people, we’d probably be okay (I’m being facetious, of course). Human beings are always a problem because they’re…well…human. They have good days and bad days. They sometimes lose it with their counterparts. Occasionally, they display an inordinate lack of tact. As the Apostle Paul indicated, we’re all sinners, “of whom I am chief.”

We are human, and as humans, we are messed up. But, as we like to say, “Ya gotta love us!” (At least, that’s what the Bible says.) We have chinks in our armor and dirt on our faces. They call us the church, and sooner or later, we will hurt you.

The next thing I said to that class was, “And sooner or later, you’ll hurt us too.” It happens. We can’t seem to help ourselves. The real question is what do we do when it occurs?

holierthanthouThat becomes one of the real tests of discipleship. Unfortunately, we sometimes turn tail and run. We don’t need this, and we’re outta here. Regrettably, that’s all too often the case. If a brother or sister in Christ hurts us, it’s easy just to leave.

It’s also a real telltale sign. It implies that we were following people rather than Jesus. It’s not Jesus who wronged us, but it’s Jesus we blame. We tend to forget that we’re just another imperfect part of that imperfect whole. Maybe we should put on our big boy pants and deal with it. It might be another good time to ask, “What would Jesus do?”

A Response to the CUP Proposal

I have always been sensitive to the Apostle Paul’s prodding to “preserve the unity which the Spirit gives…” When I read the CUP Proposal to General Conference, I was a bit caught off guard. I’m not sure why. I should have expected it.

I recently read “Finding Our Way” in which Bishop Kenneth Carter, Jr. reluctantly suggested we might have to create three new denominations loosely held together under the banner of United Methodism (or ostensibly some other name). He suggested three “institutional expressions” which he called Progressive, Evangelical, and Mainstream. It seems we’re always moving away from the Apostle’s insistence on unity. Schisms are much easier to pull off than working to maintain what we have.

In recent years, the Episcopal Church has had the same kind of woes. As we watch things like the Anglican Realignment, it feels like we’re looking into our own future. Is it inevitable?

As most of you, I have loving friends on various sides of the issues we face. While I dread a divorce of this kind, it seems to me we’ve been headed toward this for years. In fact, this was a growing problem when I entered pastoral ministry thirty-six years ago. It’s only gotten worse over that time.

While the CUP (Covenantal Unity Plan) is an admirable attempt to save the UMC as we know her, I fear it’s only going to be another measure that will stem the tide for an instant or two. Sooner or later, the dam will break. Even now, voices can be heard lining up against the tenets of the plan.

I applaud the framers of the plan for their efforts. I wish them well and pray that the plan (or some offshoot of it) will take hold and be used by the Spirit of God to pull us back together. The energies used in all this wrangling could certainly be directed toward more profitable endeavors in God’s Kingdom.

My fear, however, is that this will become just another bandage that will inevitably have to be torn off to expose our wound to the air. Some hair and skin will be ripped away when that happens. More wounds will be suffered in the process of healing the main one.

Over these many years, our denomination has served me admirably. I hope I have done the same for her as well. Yet when all is said and done and the dust settles, I will serve Jesus Christ and him alone (regardless of the name on the sign out front). My earnest prayer is for the people affected by our disagreements. May they be spared the effects of our fallout, and may God’s Kingdom prevail in their lives.

 

Dave Zuchelli[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the author of The Last Wedding. He is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel UMC in Great Falls, VA where he as served for the past twenty-one years.]