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Worth the wait

The wait is over! After a long 14 months of the pandemic, we are finally able to enjoy many of our favorite activities again. Whether it’s flying to visit family, going to a baseball game, or simply giving someone a hug … as we finally get to enjoy these activities, we realize that we appreciate them more than ever. They were “worth the wait.”

The same thing holds true at church.

2020 was an unusual year for Intown Lutheran Church. The pandemic forced us to cancel most of our events and limit most of our gatherings. For nearly 6 months straight, we held “online-only” worship. It was all very unusual and unexpected. But as it turned out, something else about 2020 was unusual and unexpected too: the tremendous opportunities for outreach.

You might think that with extremely limited options for either gathering at church or going out and meeting new people in the community, our congregation’s outreach ministry would slow to a crawl. But surprisingly, we saw the exact opposite happen. The year 2020 turned out to be by far the strongest year of outreach that we have ever had, in 4 years of existence as a congregation!

How does something like this happen? Only by God’s guiding hand. It seems that during 2020 God used all the chaos and turmoil in our society brought about by the pandemic, politics, social justice issues, etc. to create a real spiritual hunger in many of our city neighbors who had previously been uninterested in church. Even though we were unable to do any of our normal outreach events, again and again God kept leading people to us “out of nowhere,” searching for spiritual guidance. During 2020 we brought more prospects through Bible Basics Class than ever before, and we confirmed more new members than ever before!

But nearly all of it took place online. The Bible Basics Classes were taught over Zoom.  The “New Member Sundays” took place over Facebook Live. Although many people were studying God’s Word and joining our church, in many cases they had yet to meet a single church member or come to a single in-person worship service. The blessings of Christian fellowship were sorely lacking.

But in the past few months, we’ve been able to gather again. The blessings of fellowship have come flooding back. And it has all been “worth the wait!”

On May 16 and May 23, we held back-to-back New Member Sundays, during which we officially welcomed 6 new members from 2021, as well as 10 of our new members from 2020 (most of whom had only been able to participate “virtually” up to this point.)

New member Sunday at Intown Lutheran Church

As new members stood before their congregation and heard the words “Welcome to the family, and welcome to the team…”

as they shared the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ for the very first time…

as they experienced the smiles, friendly handshakes, and warm hugs of Christian fellowship…

as they watched excited kids sink their teeth into a celebratory post-church donut…

it was clear that all of this had been “worth the wait.”

So what comes next?

Members at Intown Lutheran

There is no fast-forward button in ministry. We can’t “skip ahead” to the next episode. Only God knows what special friendships will grow between old members and new. . . what growth will occur in the hearts of all the new people who have already enrolled in Bible Basics Class for summer. . . or what additional new people he plans to bring our way this fall, when we can finally start doing outreach at community festivals once again.

There are many things we don’t know, but there is one thing that we do. Wherever God decides to lead our growing congregation next – it will be “worth the wait.”

Written by Lucas Bitter, home missionary at Intown Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Ga.

 

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Member roles from scratch

“My name is _______ and I’m the official _______ at my church.” How easy is it for you to fill in that second blank?

God the Holy Spirit gives gifts, talents, responsibilities, and roles to every believer in Jesus. We’re like parts of a body (Romans 12 and Corinthians 12). We depend on each other’s gifts to build each other up.

Unfortunately, an old phrase echoes around churches: “20% of the members do 80% of the work.” Why? I doubt anyone would say, “I don’t sign up because I’m lazy and afraid of commitment,” or “I don’t think my church’s ministries are worthwhile.”

More likely, a member who isn’t serving in any organized way in his or her church has more sympathetic reasons, like, “No one ever asked me directly,” or, “I think other people are already doing that,” or “I would like to serve, but the roles they offer just aren’t interesting to me.” Rather than thirsting for law or gospel, that Christian might be craving guidance toward a clear ministry role that suits his or her gifts and passions.

We at Citrus Grove Lutheran Church in Wesley Chapel, Florida, are novices at everything, including member ministry. But as a new mission, we have the opportunity to organize all our ministries from scratch.

We decided to make Member Roles an early priority. They’re one of only four programs we offer (with weekly worship, Bible study groups, and quarterly mission outings). We want to make those roles obvious and official, so that every member with a role, has a title, understands the value of that role, and does it really well.

The “big board” that members put “pen to touchscreen”

On Ascension weekend, we renewed our confirmation vows—all members of all ages. On Pentecost, the members of Citrus Grove chose their ministry roles. These roles are the manpower for our four ministries: Gather, Grow, Give, and Go. Names were already filled in for the Pastor and Ministry Council, but 75 other blanks waited on the Big Board for any confirmed member to claim.

Some people had already found “their thing” during our early months of loosely-organized gatherings. They simply made it official by putting pen to touchscreen: Musician. Coffee Brewer. Women’s Bible Study Host. Others felt torn between two or three possible roles, so friends helped them pick the best one for their gifts.

Be careful if you’re thinking, “One? I serve in a whole bunch of roles at my church!” The right number of roles for each member is somewhere between zero and too many. Wearing too many hats can lead to its own problems: Pride, burnout, or guilt over unfinished or low-quality work.

We also started at one for another reason: None of these roles have job descriptions. (See how brave the members of this mission church are!) Over the next few weeks, members and leaders will work together to clarify the details of each role: Why is mine so valuable? How does mine connect people to Jesus? What exactly do I do, step-by-step? How long is the commitment? What if I run into an issue? What about substitutes? And anything else that will help the next member who serves in that role.

Earlier, I mentioned 75 blanks. Citrus Grove doesn’t have 75 members. That means the unfilled blanks await God’s timing. Those are the talents of people we haven’t met yet, but we’re already praying for them and looking forward to their fruitful service here. Until then, it’s a joy to see current members committing to serve Jesus, his church, and our mission field in roles so clear they can write them on their nametags.

Written by Rev. Phil Hunter, home missionary at Citrus Grove Lutheran Church in Wesley Chapel, Fla.

 

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A head-start on the restart

Our mission in Wesley Chapel chose to get a head-start on the restart that every church is experiencing right now. Two years ago the members of Emmanuel in Zephyrhills, Fla., decided to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. They chose to sell their property and everything but the hymnals, font, and communion set. They chose to work with their District Mission Board, call a home missionary, and spend time as a wandering church. . . a restarting church that would find a way to evangelize nearby Wesley Chapel, Tampa’s booming northern suburb.

I accepted the call to the Wesley Chapel home mission a week before the March shutdown. We knew back then we were joining a church choosing to restart. The group had taken this leap of faith and was seeking a shepherd for their next steps. Members dreamed of the future, but first we needed to answer some fundamental questions: What is the Bible’s blueprint for a church? What’s absolutely critical, and what can we let go? What ministries and programs should we offer? How will we invite the community? As 2020 wraps up, our group is still studying God’s answers to those questions, and we’re still studying our Wesley Chapel mission field. We plan to spend 2021 setting up our primary ministries.

What’s changed since March is that every church is now forced to answer similar questions: Why do we gather? Are we essential? What will we offer online? Is it worth restarting that program or not? See! Our group was just ahead of the pack!

Home missionary Phil Hunter’s installation – poolside!

Our Wesley Chapel home mission has navigated the same practical puzzles as all other churches (meeting location, online worship, safety measures, etc.) Again we just happen to be very flexible–for such a time as this! We didn’t own a building anyways, so we were prepared for simple services in unusual locations. We met in a family’s yard. We held a poolside installation service. We now lease space from a beautiful new school and meet on their covered patio. We adjust the sound system for each new space, laugh at ourselves when the candles won’t light, and consider it all part of the adventure. We’ll likely own another facility soon, but for now we enjoy a camaraderie with Christians across the ages and the globe who worship outdoors or meet in houses.

The pandemic has not hindered our home mission start. However, it has slowed down our communication. In normal times, we could all gather for a meal and an open forum or brainstorming session. Now it’s an in-person forum for some, a Zoom meeting for others, an e-mail and online form for others who can’t Zoom, plus letters and phone calls for the few beautiful souls who have managed to avoid the internet. It is still possible to gather input and distribute info. . . but it takes more time and effort. In the big picture, that’s a pretty easy yoke for us to bear.

A final bit of news: A new name for this new church year. We spent a month gathering name suggestions. Our leaders discussed them, compared them to other area churches, and narrowed them down to a final four. We took those finalists and surveyed area WELS school kids, core group members, and dozens of people at parks and stores around Wesley Chapel. The result of that research is a name that’s both fresh and iconic, appealing to WELS kids and unchurched families, and connects well with Biblical imagery and local geography: Citrus Grove Lutheran Church, launching in late 2021 here in Wesley Chapel, Fla.

Jesus bless your church’s restart. . . and ours!

Written by Rev. Phil Hunter, home missionary at Citrus Grove Lutheran Church in Wesley Chapel, Fla. 


 

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Growing God’s garden

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

– Galatians 6:9,10

Not everything grows down here. This past quarantine, my wife and I, like millions or other amateur gardeners and do-it-yourselfers, decided to plant a garden. After a few weekends, several hours, and countless trips to Lowe’s, we had our own budding garden, with okra, raspberries, zucchini, tomatoes, and grapes.

But not everything grows down here. The peonies failed to thrive. A dogwood tree and an elephant ear rotted in the boggy clay. A few berry bushes withered; one snapped at the base with a gentle pinch.

It’s easy to grow weary of that kind of work, isn’t it? To toss the gloves in the garage and ignore the yard. All that caring, feeding, and nurturing, only to have the fate of a crop slip from your hands. What went wrong? The soil? The seeds? Did I do something wrong? Could anything grow here? Could anything grow now?

A little amateur gardening experience leads us to appreciate some of God’s great truths about his kingdom and how it grows: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” – Mark 4:26,27

Have you felt the same way? Pastors and members alike have spent time maintaining interpersonal bridges; exploring mysterious livestream glitches and problems; calling, texting, and brainstorming to find some way of hanging onto everyone. At times, church work can feel like starting a broken lawnmower. Bursts of energy trying to get something going, only to puzzle over what the problem could be.

Worship at May River

Not everything grows down here. What grows near you? Do you feel fatigued? Perhaps a creeping sense of futility? Frustration?

There’s a reason Paul says not to get weary. Because while not everything grows immediately, some things do. And they grow. . . and they grow. . . and they grow, bearing far more fruit than one might imagine. As I write this, we are currently on our second crop of Okra. The first grew to a height of four feet. After we chopped them down in September, another crop appeared.

How much more wonderful to see what God is doing with souls here! Even in the midst of a pandemic, God blessed us with the opportunity to finish teaching Bible information class to seven adults and two of their teens now enrolled in catechism classes.

Beyond that, God’s people continue to bear fruit. New members step up into service and longtime members keep serving. God’s people still make it a priority to clean, decorate, coordinate, serve, and pray for one another. After church, you overhear members building one another up. In the midst of uncertainty and tension in our nation, generosity holds strong. In uncertain times, God still works in beautiful ways.

No, not everything has grown. The new, thoughtful sermon series, your friendly invite, the hours spent tweaking the tech may not have yielded results (yet). But God still promises—yes, even in a pandemic—that his Word produces fruit.

Just as every hardship is an opportunity to gain a better grip, a deeper appreciation of God’s promises, so he nurtures and tends a young home mission congregation. He draws us closer and closer to his Word. He shapes our hearts, gently tugging us from our own strength and capabilities, laying us back on his shoulder for his grace every day. And in our Savior Jesus, we regain a fresh sense of optimism and hope. As we turn, again and again, to his promises, we catch our breath and make our way back out to the fields, ready for the harvest.

Written by Rev. Erik Janke, home missionary at May River Lutheran Church in Bluffton, South Carolina

Want to learn more about the ministry at May River? Watch Pastor Janke’s Moments with Missionaries video update from Taste and See.


 

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