Author Archives: Mark Zimmermann

The Drifters

two in pewIn his letter in the Summer 2017 Concordia Seminary magazine, Seminary president Dale A. Meyer makes an interesting observation. He says, “Some people come to worship rain or shine; almost nothing keeps them away. Others, sadly, have walked away from worship and don’t readily return. In the middle, between the always-come and never-come, are those who come but could drift away” (“From the President,” Concordia Seminary magazine, Summer 2017, p. 5).

Let’s call this group the drifters. What causes someone to become a worship drifter? I know for me, the rub comes on Sunday morning when you are cozy in bed and just want to sleep some more. So you drift off to sleep and skip church. For others it is other commitments and activities on Sunday morning that have taken precedence over worship. Sports practices, Sunday brunches, or shopping that needs to get done all can conspire to draw people away from worship. It does not take much for the drift to happen. Even a change in worship time can cause people to bolt.

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Dunbar’s Number

150 membersHave you ever heard of “Dunbar’s Number”? Discovered by British evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it is the human norm that the number of genuinely personal relationships a person can actively maintain is 150, give or take. Dunbar and his colleagues note that “150 people is both the approximate size of a typical small-scale human village and about the number of people who can live or work together without needing power structures to enforce cooperation. The group is small enough that social pressures can keep people in line” (“Does Your Pastor Need a Friend?” Christianity Today, October 2017, p. 62).

I find this interesting because at a recent conference I attended, the keynote speaker said that currently a majority of congregations in America have an average weekly attendance of guess what? 150 members.

It occurs to me that this is not simply a coincidence. 150 appears to be the sweet spot for most churches for the very reasons that research for Dumbar’s Number indicates:

It keeps the group manageable. People do not become just a number. People know them by name. Functions can happen without an overflow of people and not in an oversize room.

It keeps the group personal. Everybody knows each other and can keep relationships functioning. People care about one another because they know them well and see them often.

It keeps the group accountable. People notice when others are missing and can follow up with them. People can see when fellow members are straying and can bring them back into the fold. There is a sense that people are expected to be present at certain times and be there for one another in times of need.

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Simply Sow

sow the seedI recently attended the Best Practices in Ministry conference at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, in Columbus, IN. One of the breakout sessions was led by Lou Jander, a retired teacher and church leader. He and his wife Martha have a ministry called Sow the Word. Their mission is to give a booklet of the entire Gospel of John to as many people as they can.

In their travels, they have given the Gospel of John to waiters, bus drivers, store clerks, gas station attendants, whomever they meet along their way.

Lou talked about the fact that he and his wife serve simply as sowers of the seed, as in the parable of the sower. When you look closely at that parable, Jander said, you see that the sower simply sowed the seed with the expectation that not all the seeds would “take.” Some would fall on rocky, thorny or  dry soil and not take root. That was just part of the reality of “broadcast” farming in those days. But what seeds did take root would produce greatly, the parable says, “yielding thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8).

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Repurposing

coffee table crateThere is a lot of interest and energy lately around the concept of repurposing. I confess that I watch a lot of home improvement shows and they are always repurposing old crates into rustic coffee tables or making bookshelves out of old school lockers, and things like that. In the art world, there are many artists who create interesting art pieces from old-fashioned kitchen utensils, tins, banks and toys found at flea markets or antique stores.

The concept of repurposing came to my mind recently when read again the story in Scripture of the conversion of St. Paul. Here was a man  was zealous in his persecution of Christians. But God repurposed this man’s zealousness to promote the Christian message instead. The story of the repurposing of Saul to Paul makes us realize that God can do dramatic things with what is put before him. Like a craftsperson at a workbench with various pieces laid out, God can create something beautiful and unexpected from the most random of things.

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Let Your Song Go On

song birdWhen I was worshiping recently at the Chapel of the Resurrection at my alma mater, Valparaiso University, we sang this verse from “All Creatures, Worship God Most High”:

All who for love of God forgive,
all who in pain or sorrow grieve;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ bears your burdens and your fears;
still make your song amid the tears:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

The line “still make your song amid the tears” struck me. Our song of love for our Lord that our God has given us to sing is never drowned out by the sadnesses of our lives. That is not to say that the sorrows of our lives are not deep and sore and real. They are. But they are not the final refrain. I am moved by the fact that the word tears in this verse is followed immediately by 5 alleluias! The alleluias have the last word.

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A-literacy and the Church

no readingIn an interesting article in the October 2017 issue of First Things. columnist Mark Bauerlein explains that we currently live in a society where younger generations are a-literate, meaning that they can read, but they don’t read much of anything. A 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that only half of 18- to 24-year-olds read a book during leisure hours during the preceding 12 months.

What does that mean for the church? Quite a lot, actually. If no one is reading anything, and if the basis of our growing in faith is built on reading, learning and inwardly digesting the Word of God, then that is a problem.

If they are not reading, how are people being fed words and getting information, then? Our lives are filled the sound bites and short quotes and pithy statements on Facebook and Twitter and on TV scrolls. But are we getting deeper into the meaning behind these words? Most likely not.

The old models of in-depth Bible studies are lost on younger generations, and have led, in general, to a decline in Bible class attendance on Sunday mornings.

So what is a church to do to appeal to the increasingly alliterate society. One thought I have is that the church needs to be more and more present on social media platforms with intriguing words of Scripture that then start a conversation thread and a larger discussion moderated by leaders in the church of the meaning and impact of the Word of God on our everyday lives. That is one way of reaching the younger generations with the Word in the places where they are reading and receiving information.

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Spiritual Jet Lag

jet lagIn an article in the September 2017 Christianity Today, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken talks about the two spiritual time zones we live in. “On the one hand, by faith we are held secure in the love of God. On the other hand, though we have been made secure in Christ, we continue to experience uncertainty. We are sojourners, not yet home” (“Our Two Spiritual Time Zones,” Christianity Today, September 2017, p. 30).

Theologians refer to this tension between our two spiritual time zones ‘living in “the in-between” and in “the now and net yet” or in “the interim.”

McCracken relates this period to experiencing jet lag after a long flight. Things can often feel out of sync. Our bodies get weary, our minds get fuzzy about what day it is, and our thoughts get muddled about our schedules, but then we adjust, get back in sync and back on track about the business of living.

This metaphor of having spiritual jet lag is helpful to me because it acknowledges the fact that we can get weary and tired in our faith walk in the space between these two spiritual time zones. This is a natural part of being human. I think of the disciples who slept while Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. They were mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted in the time leading up to the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people by sending his Son to die for us.

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Spiritual Prepping

emergency kitBefore Hurricane Harvey and Irma hit, we witnessed all the preparations people were making to protect their homes and keep themselves safe. This is just one example of a burgeoning business called “prepping.” providing people with supplies to prepare for disasters of many kinds, both natural and man-made.

Janie B. Cheaney in “Ready for the Worst?” in the June 10, 2017 issue of World magazine, ponders this question: “What spiritual resources should you add to your emergency supply list?” (World Magazine, June 10, 2017, p. 14).

Surprisingly, the answer involves similar elements to our earthly emergency kits. Take a look:

Food: Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word of God in times of trouble and every day.

Water: Drown the old Adam in the waters of your baptism in hard times and be refreshed by the living water that only Christ can give.

Protective clothing: I think here about the armor of God from Ephesians 6: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the readiness of the gospel of peace fitted around your feet.

Back-up power: Be regenerated through prayer and gain new strength through your conversations with your Lord and Savior. i think of this prayer from St. Paul: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (Ephesians 3:16).

Back-up heat: When you are feeling left out in the cold, draw on the warmth of God’s love from family, friends and your faith community. Listen to the warmth of Paul’s love for his fellow believers in these words: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Philippians 4:1). That same warmth of love is available to you through your brothers and sisters in faith.

Be sure to pull out this prep kit the next time a spiritual emergency of any kind hits. You will be glad you did.

Hidden with Christ

hidden Jesus faceIn the article “Grace Alone” in the September 2017 issue of Living Lutheran, theology professor John F. Hoffmeyer pointed readers to Colossians 3:3: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” “We can be assured that, in Christ, God refuses to live without us,” Hoffmeyer says. “Our lives are bound to Christ’s life—regardless. God regards us with the same unbounded love with which God regards Jesus” (Living Lutheran, September 2017, p. 45).

Something in those precious words clicked with me in a profound way, like with Martin Luther in his Tower Experience after reading Romans 1:17. Like Luther before me, I felt reborn in my faith.

It struck me that when God sees me, he doesn’t see just me, he sees Christ first, and then me, hidden with him. The concept of being hidden with Christ is compelling to me. I am part of him now because of his death and resurrection for me. I am forgiven, free and forever loved. I am embedded within him. No longer is my face the face people see first. It is now the face of Christ. And my life is behind that face of Christ.

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The Art of Accompaniment

accompaniment in prayerOur sister company Twenty-Third Publications has published a booklet called The Art of Accompaniment, which talks about how parishes are called to journey with their parishioners through their lives of faith.

Creative Communications offers products that help with this endeavor. Shepherd Guides cards are for use by the parish to send at milestones and church year holidays to those who were married in the church, who had a child baptized and who buried a loved one within the last year. (See links below.)

http://www.creativecommunications.com/Products/GU1/shepherd-guides-resources-for-baptisms.aspx

http://www.creativecommunications.com/Products/GU2/shepherd-guides-resource-for-weddings.aspx

http://www.creativecommunications.com/Products/GH6/complete-set-of-five-cards.aspx

Creative also offers a journal for godparents to give to their godchildren to encourage them in their faith at their confirmation:

http://www.creativecommunications.com/Products/CA4/called-and-confirmed-confirmation-journal.aspx

There are many ways beyond these publications, of course, to accompany fellow members of God’s family on their faith journey. I know that I personally have been on the receiving end of some uplifting faith-filled texts or emails from church friends who knew I was having a hard week. Those little gestures go a long way to help people stay strong and keep growing in their faith.

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