Friday, February 27, 2015

Keeping the Faith as a Young Adult

This month’s guest author is Natalie Bender, who shares some thoughts in this post on staying connected to the church as a young adult in our increasingly "Churchless" culture. Natalie, a "Minnesota girl at heart, Kansas girl by choice," is a junior at Kansas State University, where she's majoring in speech-language pathology. She also blogs about faith and life at Be Still and Know

Natalie Bender
I was incredibly blessed by being brought up in an active household who kept Jesus in the center. I am grateful for living under the great faithfulness, commitment, and love my parents had for Christ. Having parents who actively kept Jesus a priority in our family's life, not just through church attendance, but through daily conversation and prayer, had a huge influence on how I maintained my faith as a young adult. It's hard to explain how to maintain your faith as a young person in today's culture and age. But I've tried to pick out three significant factors that have aided me in my maintenance of faith.

1. Find a community
Community has always involved an immense amount of effort from me. My youth group experience in high school was more of a duty than a desire - so finding a community of believers in college wasn't a walk in the park. I can say after two years jumping from different campus ministries, I have finally found my people. Having a solid community of believers that can offer fellowship and friendship nurtures your faith. It encourages you to grow in and share the love of God. Community also gives you a place to safely struggle. Living for Christ is not an easy calling. There will be struggles. However, having a group of brothers and sisters in Christ gives you a safe and honest place to experience those struggles. God is glorified and the body of Christ is strengthened when His children share in that struggle.

2. Ask questions
I'm a firm believer in the existence of no stupid questions - especially when it regards your faith. Don't be hesitant to ask questions - and don't be hesitant to look for the answers. By searching for answers, you grow in your faith and in your relationship with Christ. You might not always get the answer you were hoping for, or even an answer at all. But through your seeking, He will find you. He will form and mold your faith through honest and vulnerable questions.

3. Plan according to the Gospel
Being 20-something can be scary. Making decisions actually holds weight. The future isn't so far off anymore - things quickly change and quick adaptation to those changes is socially expected. During this time of constant decision making and planning, keep the Gospel at your center. Plan your life according to the Gospel. Keep the Great Commission as your plan. Understand that no matter where you end up or what you do, as long as you are living for Christ you are fulfilling your duty - your calling. The beautiful part of this calling is that God's grace allows us to live out this calling no matter where life takes us. Things like GPA, employment, or our future hold no significance when you compare them to the Gospel. Keep your daily living and future decisions pointed towards the Gospel.

These three factors or "steps" are only accomplished through the grace of God. No matter where you are in your faith, He will meet you there. Recognizing the power in His grace allows you to grow and endure the race that He has set before us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Rising Tide of the Churchless

It’s no secret that church attendance is on the decline. You can see it in the pews. You may see it among family and friends. Maybe you’ve even been part of the “churchless” population at one point or another.

This month’s book, Churchless (Barna Group, 2014), documents this trend, offering insights about who the churchless are, why they’re disconnected, and how churches can reach out. (If you’re curious about the study but don’t have access to the book, check out this interview with general editors George Barna and David Kinnaman.)

Before getting into the findings, it’s important to note how the Barna Group defines “churchless.” In their research, a churchless individual is “someone who has not attended a Christian church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or funeral, at any time during the past six months” (p. 6).  

According to Churchless, 43% of the population currently meets this definition. (In 1990, the figure was 30%). Of the 43% who are churchless, 33% are “de-churched” (i.e., they once attended and now don’t), and the remaining 10% are purely unchurched, having never attended a service (see Churchless, ch. 1).

These results are largely consistent with a 2014 Gallup poll on church attendance. Figures vary by state, but in my state of Kansas, which is considered average for attendance, 33% attend weekly, 21% nearly weekly or monthly, and 46% seldom or never.

So what’s going on here? The Barna Group points to myriad factors, but the biggest issue, based on the data, is a perceived lack of value in church attendance (p. 52). When the unchurched were asked why they avoid church, nearly half cited reasons related to this value criterion (e.g., no interest, no reason, too busy, can practice faith at home, haven’t found a church they like).

Near the end of the book, the authors revisit the issue of perceived value, stating, “If we hope to stem the swelling tide of churchless adults, we must make a compelling case for the value of church life” (p. 168). They then identify a list of benefits, including godly relationships, doing good, peace, worship, wisdom, witness, mentoring, unity, discernment, and faith focus (pp. 169-172). The deepest value of a church, they say, is the opportunity to express love—love of God, and love of neighbors.

All of these things resonate with me on some level, but here's a question for you: How would you answer the question, “What’s the value of church? What’s the point of going?”

My own answer isn’t on the Barna Group’s list, likely because my worldview is Lutheran, and theirs is more generally Christian.

For the record, here’s why I go: Forgiveness of sins. Word and Sacraments. Prayer.

God is there in the Divine Service with His gifts. I go, receive those gifts, express my gratitude, and leave strengthened.

Maybe we could do more to communicate that core message to the churchless (whether de-churched or unchurched). Ultimately, though, this whole business is in God’s hands, a point I was reminded of recently when reading about University Lutheran Chapel (ULC) in Minneapolis.

Over the past year, ULC has welcomed 26 new members. The chapel’s pastor, Rev. David Kind, had this to say about the growth: 
And what are we doing to attract new members? Nothing really. Nothing, that is, but what we have been doing for decades: worshipping the Lord reverently, gathering around the faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel, and celebrating His sacraments. Whatever success we enjoy, whatever growth we see – it’s all by Christ’s grace alone. He has sown the seed and He is bringing it to maturity and to fruit-bearing.
Sound words, Pastor Kind.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Friday Figure: Chiasmus

In his 1961 Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy uttered the familiar line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but . . .”

How does that sentence end?

I’ll bet you've already finished it. The “Ask not” quotation is probably one of the most well known examples of this month’s Friday Figure, chiasmus.

Chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus) is a pattern of inverted repetition. Words or ideas in the first part of a sentence (or passage, or poem, or even entire book of the Bible) are repeated in reverse order in the latter half, creating a mirror effect. The word comes from the Greek χιασμα (chiasma), “crossing,” and χιαζω (chiazō), “to shape like the letter X” (X = the Greek letter chi).

The pattern of chiasmus is ABBA (or in longer passages, ABCCBA, and so on). JFK’s quotation is a textbook example: “Ask not what your country (A) can do for you (B), but what you (B) can do for your country (A).” (This type of chiasmus is also known as antimetabole; it features reverse repetition of the same exact words.)

Other examples:
“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)
 “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (John 15:16)
 “The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursues him.”  (Voltaire)
 “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me.” (Shakespeare, Richard II)
 “Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.” (Herodotus)
 “And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall surely be put to death: all the congregations shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses. (Num. 15: 35-36)

Chiasmus is a clever stylistic device, but, like many figures of speech, it’s more than just an artistic embellishment. It’s also a powerful tool for emphasis, magnifying key ideas and the relationships between them.

The figure is so significant, in fact, that entire books have been devoted to it, including Chiasmus in the New Testament (Nils W. Lund), Chiasmus in Antiquity (John W. Welch), and Discoveries in Chiasmus (edited by Yvonne Bent and Scott L. Vanatter).

And then theres chiasmus in advertising. Remember the Band-Aid jingle? I am stuck on Band-Aid, cause . . .

You can finish it, Im sure. (Bonus points if you know who wrote the jingle.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Preaching and Public Speaking

I don’t usually laugh out loud when reading the works of St. Augustine, but then I ran across this quirky chapter heading in his treatise On the Catechising of the Uninstructed: “Of the method in which grammarians and professional speakers are to be dealt with.”

Ha! Those oratores. Such troublemakers.

Pastors, if a professional public speaker ever shows up in your office, here’s Augustine’s advice on what to do:

It is in the highest degree useful to such men to come to know how ideas are to be preferred to words, just as the soul is preferred to the body. And from this, too, it follows that they ought to have a desire to listen to discourses remarkable for their truth, rather than to those which are notable for their eloquence; just as they ought to have friends distinguished for their wisdom rather than those whose chief merit is their beauty. (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, p. 292).

I may have laughed at the chapter header, but Augustine makes an important point here. Public speaking is one thing, preaching another. Both are rhetorical arts, but they shouldn’t be conflated, nor should they be judged by the same standards.

That goes for verbal artistry, which Augustine highlights in his remarks, as well as audience engagement, which gets so much attention in the modern public speaking arena. Successful public speakers today are audience-centered: knowledgeable, authentic, “relatable,” and importantly, “not boring.”

You might be saying, “Hey, my pastor has all these qualities!” Fantastic. Public speaking skills are an asset in preaching, no question. They become a problem only when they take on too much importance. You might see that in sermons that look more like rousing convention speeches. Or in sermons that bypass careful teaching in favor of uplifting motivational messages. Or in complaints about boring sermons.

Martin Luther
It can be a tricky balance to strike, but Martin Luther offers some good ideas in his description of a good preacher (from Table Talk, “Of Preachers and Preaching,” CCCXVII).

A good preacher should have these properties and virtues: first, to teach systematically; secondly, he should have a ready wit; thirdly, he should be eloquent; fourthly, he should have a good voice; fifthly, a good memory; sixthly, he should know when to make an end; seventhly, he should be sure of his doctrine; eighthly, he should venture and engage body and blood, wealth and honor, in the Word; ninthly, he should suffer himself to be mocked and jeered of every one.

Mocked and jeered by everyone? For a popular public speaker, this would mean failure. Not so for preachers, who are committed to teaching and proclaiming the Word faithfully, regardless of listener reactions.

Public speaking is one thing, preaching another.

Augustine by Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Martin Luther, photo by Andreas Praefcke (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 13, 2015

Websites, Part 2: A Lutheran Mini-Gallery

Remember the 7-Second Website Challenge from last week? The idea was to create a list from reader suggestions, which would then be available for anyone who volunteers or gets drafted to work on a church website. My thanks to readers Kathy and Daniel, who took on the challenge and recommended Risen Savior Lutheran (Kathy) and Christ Lutheran (Daniel).

That’s a start, but a mini-gallery needs more than two websites, right? Below, I’ve added a few more sites (six churches, all from different synods, and one classical Lutheran school).

Before you move on, please note: This is NOT a “Best Lutheran Websites” gallery. I’ve looked at hundreds of sites over the past month or so, but I haven’t been too systematic about it. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of good ones. (If you know of any, please add them in the comments.)

First St. Paul’s Lutheran (LCC), Wellesley, Ontario

This site is clean, simple, and easy on the eyes. I’ve become a much bigger fan of sans serif fonts after doing all this website research.

Concordia Lutheran Church (ELS), Eau Claire, WI

Another example of a clean and simple website. Several ELS churches use a variation of this design, which features the “I’m New” flag in the upper right corner. A nice touch.

Immanuel Lutheran (CLC), Mankato, MN

Immanuel’s logo captures one of the church's distinctive features: its two steeples. The rotating pictures and phrases under the navigation bar clearly say “Lutheran,” as do the CLC cross and Luther’s rose at the bottom of the page (not visible here).

Prince of Peace (ELCA), Burnsville, MN

This design is similar to those showcased in the Vandelay gallery—clean, sophisticated, and easy to navigate. Prince of Peace is a thriving megachurch, and the site conveys that.

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church (LCMS), Alexandria, VA

This site says “Lutheran” in so many ways, from the cross in the header to the handwritten “Augsburg Confession” to the pastor in front of a crucifix, conducting the Divine Service. There's even a semi-transparent Luther's rose next to the name of the church. Nice.

Our Redeemer (WELS), Madison, WI

This is one of the most unique sites I’ve seen—strong visual appeal, well chosen information, and beautiful pictures. It’s not immediately identifiable as a WELS site, but if you click around, you’ll see the familiar blue and red WELS cross logo in the footer. 

Wittenberg Academy, Online Classical Lutheran School

This isn’t a church site, but it could be. It does a great job of communicating Lutheran identity in multiple ways (e.g., the name, the text, the picture of Christ, the shield logo, Luther’s rose in the section headers). And it just looks classy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Koinonia and Goodwill

I’ve been hearing a lot about koinonia lately. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) has launched a Koinonia Project. My pastors attend Koinonia meetings. Koinonia is a focus of the current emphasis of the LCMS: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.”

Life together—that’s koinonia. The word, translated variously as fellowship, communion, and participation, appears numerous times in the New Testament, as in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

In recent history, life together in the LCMS has been strained by persistent disagreements over several issues (e.g., communion practice; worship forms). The Koinonia Project is an effort to strengthen unity, concord, and harmony through the systematic discussion of these issues by theological study groups throughout the synod. 

Good idea. As I think about it, this country could use a Koinonia project. Consider this comment on a recent story about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (tweaked a bit for clarity): “The majority in WI are low info dolts. The repubs it is obvious, the libs are too stupid to vote so our high school diploma holding gov keeps getting elected. This may sound harsh but it is correct. There are just plain a lot of folks in WI who are dumber than a sack of dirt.”

Ouch. For the record, I don’t agree with this claim, and I would NOT recommend this approach to persuasion.

A far better idea: foster a sense of goodwill, as suggested by these familiar figures.

From Aristotle’ Rhetoric: “There are three reasons why speakers themselves are persuasive; for there are three things we trust other than logical demonstration. These are practical wisdom [phronēsis] and virtue [aretē] and goodwill [eunoia]. . . . These are the only possibilities. Therefore a person seeming to have all these qualities is necessarily persuasive to hearers (Kennedy trans., 2.1.5-7)   
From Cicero’s De Oratore: “For nothing in oratory, Catulus, is more important than for the orator to be favorably regarded by the audience. . . . All qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate the audience from those who do not possess them” (May and Wisse trans., 2.178-82).
From Ben Franklin’s “Closing Speech at the Constitutional Convention”: “The older I grow, the more I am apt to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. . . . For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?” 

In other words, be kind. Think of others. Recognize your limitations. Don’t say people are dumber than a sack of dirt.

These are useful reminders, whether discussing political policies or open communion.

But for the purpose of koinonia, there’s one other critical element to keep in mind, and thats reliance on God. As noted in The Koinonia Project Concept Paper (2013), “The true goal of the Koinonia Project will not be reached without repentance, forgiveness of sins, and renewal of faith by means of the Word of God” (p. 7).

That’s not something you’ll hear from Cicero, but it’s the very lifeblood of Christian goodwill.


The Last Supper (with Luther amongst the Apostles), Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Title Page of the Book of Concord, 1580, by Finn B. Andersen at da.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.