St. John's Lutheran Church of Beloit, WI

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

November 2020

The other evening, Pastor Eddy, our confirmands, and I began our new series of catechism classes for this year.  One of the things that I like to share with the students is that I study the catechism every single day.  I figure that if Luther, himself, studied the catechism every day that I can do no better than to do the same.  I want our students to see the catechism, like the Bible, as an essential part of how they live out their faith in Christ Jesus.  Luther’s Small Catechism teaches us what the Bible teaches in a very succinct way.  If one knows their catechism, they also know the primary teachings of the whole Bible.  While reading the catechism should never be a substitute for reading the Holy Scriptures themselves, the one who reads their catechism regularly is better prepared to understand what they are reading in their Bible study.  You can study the catechism for free online by going to http://catechism.cph.org.   Concordia also makes the catechism available for free in their apps on Android and iPhone.

As we begin the new Church Year on November 29, I will be launching two new weekly video programs - one for children of all ages and one for adults.  Both of these video programs will be uploaded to Youtube and shared on Facebook.  The program for young people will be called “CATechism and Dog” and will premier every Tuesday, beginning on December 1.  In this program, Belle and I will work through a section of the catechism at a level that connects with young children and their families.  Our program for adults will be called “Catechism for Life” and will premier on Thursdays, beginning on December 3.  In this program, we will work through a section of the catechism and discuss how it applies to our lives.

Beginning on Wednesday, November 11th at 7:30 pm, our Prayer at the Close of the Day service will move to Wednesday evenings.  In addition to praying the prayers of the Church, we study a different section of the catechism each week.  This service occurs only on Facebook Live on the congregation’s Facebook page.  Moving this service to Wednesday’s will allow me to take Thursday as my day off.  Friday has not been a good day for me to take a day off, as it is normally needed to get caught up on things in preparation for the weekend.  I am hoping that I will be more inclined to take a day off if I know that I will have one more weekday available for dealing with things that need accomplished.

Since we will not he hosting our annual in-person worship service for Thanksgiving this year, Belle and I will include a special Thanksgiving emphasis in the service of Prayer at the Close of Day on Wednesday, November 25th at 7:30 pm (our usual time).

May God bless you as the weather turns colder and the Church Year comes to a close.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Precious Gifts of the Lord's Supper

Again yesterday, I had the joy of hearing from someone in our community who is not a member of St. John’s that they worship with us on Youtube.  I thank God that we are able to serve our Lord and the ministry of His Word in this way.  As with most things in this fallen world, there is a downside.  While our service to the ministry of the Word has grown tremendously during the COVID period, our service to the sacramental ministry of the Lord’s Church has suffered.  For a whole host of reasons, many of our members who previously received the Lord’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of their sins weekly in the Divine Service have received it only sporadically or not at all during the COVID crisis.

If you are unable to receive the Lord’s Supper with us in the Divine Service, I ask you to reach out to Berta so that she can place a time on my calendar for you to come to the church to receive these precious gifts that God delights in giving you through His Son. 

While it is true that the reception of the Lord’s Supper is not necessary for salvation, it is also true that the reception of the Lord’s Supper is one of the means through which God maintains saving faith in Christ among the baptized.  Please reflect with me on Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Supper in the Small Catechism.

What is the Sacrament of the Altar?It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Where is this written?

The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write:Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.”

In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?

These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”

Who receives this sacrament worthily?

Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.

http://catechism.cph.org/en/sacrament-of-the-altar.html 

____________

What seemed like a short interruption of normal daily life has morphed into some kind of a “new normal.”  While many adjustments to our daily routines are simply practical, Christians cannot allow absenting themselves from the Lord’s Supper to become a part of their new normal.  If you are not currently receiving the Lord’s Supper regularly, please email Berta at officestjohnsbeloit@gmail.com or call her M-W-F mornings between 9 am and 1 pm at (608) 362-8595, and she will place a time on my calendar for you to receive the Lord’s Supper.  Available appointments begin on October 14.  If you need to receive the Sacrament sooner, please call me at 608-713-2050 and I will make it happen.  I am very careful to follow all safety precautions in both the preparation and distribution of the Sacrament.  The Scriptures teach us that God creates and maintains saving faith in Christ Jesus through His Word, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  These gifts given for the sake of Christ Jesus are for you!   

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Reading Martin Luther's Small Catechism . . . .

 

Second only to the Bible in importance for the Christian is Luther's Small Catechism.  In 2017 - the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation - Concordia Publishing House released a new edition of the SC in which the explanations and questions/answers were updated to reflect the challenges of living in today's world.  You can purchase this updated edition for $15.99 from Concordia Publishing House (CPH) or Amazon.

CPH - click here

Amazon - click here

It's also available for the Amazon Kindle e-reader - click here

You may read the Catechism online for free from CPH - click here

CPH also offers free apps for your Smartphone and Tablet:

Android - click here

iPhone - click here

iPad - click here

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Prayers for a New School Year . . . .

 

Every year, since late August 2002, I have invited the children and teens of my congregations to come forward to God's holy altar to be prayed for and to receive a special blessing as they begin a new year of school.

Like nearly everything else in the year 2020, we were not able to do this today.  However, I have prayed this prayer on behalf of our young people and I ask you to do the same.  Parents and other grownups, I invite you to gather your students and pray this prayer, or one like it, over them.  May God be merciful to them - especially in difficult days.

Let us pray . . . .

Kind Father, in the new school year ahead, please grant your abundant blessings upon students and teachers alike.  May it be a year of joyful beginnings for some, and fresh starts for others.  May the friendships of classmates and colleagues refresh their spirits in ways that honor You.  Give to all students a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding as they receive wisdom from You all the days of their lives.  Father, we ask You on behalf of our nation’s schools, for the safety of each student and every classroom and for mutual respect for every student and teacher.  May there be enough challenges to call forth the best efforts of every student, and enough accomplishments to encourage and delight them.  We ask You to bless all students everywhere, particularly these students who now stand before your holy altar those students who comprise the youth of St. John's.  In the strong name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Please join us for this week's episode of "Belle the Church Dog"


Discipleship in the Time of COVID

Charles Dickens began his classic work A Tale of Two Cities with the following epic introduction:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”  While Dickens was contrasting the quality of life between London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution, his words are frequently cited whenever one is trying to describe the paradoxical nature of a given situation.  With a little creativity, one can apply Dickens’ words to just about any context.  I do not think that it is much of a stretch to apply Dickens’ words to the state of Christian discipleship in the time of COVID.  On one hand, Christians are returning a portion of their financial blessings to the Lord’s service in almost unprecedented ways; while on the other hand, churches are very limited in the opportunities for service that we are able to offer our members.  On one hand, Christians are excited by the digital opportunities for worship that their congregations have been offering; while on the other hand, in-person worship attendance among members 40 and younger has plummeted in many congregations.  

For many reasons, we are weary, disappointed, and restless.  I am not sure that hashing things out, again and again, is providing much solace to anyone.  The best thing that any of us can do is to take these things to God in prayer and seek continually the refreshment and comfort that He alone can provide.  This includes our anger and unrest.  If we are honest, we are all dealing with this to some degree.  For example, during the last few weeks, I have been angry and jealous by how news outlets and politicians are able to engage people’s passions and commitment in ways that the Church has not seen in generations.  I watch people who believe that the wearing of masks is necessary for the health of society and people who believe that the wearing of masks is detrimental to life in a free society argue their cases with equal fervor and commitment and I feel dejected.  My Facebook newsfeed is flooded with the arguments for and against wearing masks, while I struggle to get anyone to share the Bible content that I upload several times each week.  If I were to create a post arguing for or against the wearing of masks I would finally get some passionate engagement with my posts, but as long as I keep posting things about Jesus I will continue to get a few likes here and there - or maybe even a “share” if someone is feeling particularly generous.  Americans are passionate and completely devoted to their political positions and their take on social issues while becoming increasingly indifferent to the things of God.  I am jealous because it’s been quite some time since I saw people that “fired up” about the Lord Jesus Christ, and I’m angry because wearing masks and not wearing masks will not save those who do not know Jesus from an eternity in Hell.  Congregations, such as ours, who ask worshipers to wear masks are experiencing the boycotting of in-person worship by members who oppose the wearing of masks.  Congregations who do not ask their members to wear masks face opposition from the other side.  I recently heard about one congregation in our District who are offering two services - one for those who want to wear masks and one for those who don’t.  My problem is not whether people believe masks are vital to safety or whether the requirement of mask-wearing violates people’s rights - my problem is that the news outlets and politicians have captivated the hearts and minds of Americans in ways that I am not sure the Lord Jesus Christ still does.  My frustration with trying to show people that Jesus is Lord in a time in which so many other lords are more attractive isn’t going to go away any time soon.  Stewing in my anger and feelings of rejection isn’t going to serve me well or the people I am called to serve with the love of Christ.  What can one do?  Pray to God for peace and encouragement . . . . feast upon God’s Word . . . . cast our troubles upon the Lord . . . . and wait with anticipation for what He is going to do next.

In Matthew 11, Jesus says   28“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Many of us are weary and burdened by the problems and frustrations of this life and we need more than anything rest for our souls.  Seek Him out in His Word; speak to Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; and may your hearts be renewed and your souls refreshed.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Our New Temporary Normal

I suspect that our current worship life is going to be our situation for some time.  To that end, I want to make sure that everyone is clear about what we are doing.

 1.  We are offering in-person communion services on Sundays at 9:00 am and 11:00 am with social distancing and other precautions.  Berta sends a .pdf document of the full worship booklet out to our members via email each week so that people can work off of their tablet or cell phone if they choose, and we have print copies available in the narthex.

2.  We pre-record an online worship service that premiers on YouTube at 9:00 am each Sunday.  Since our in-person services are quite limited right now, we are not live-streaming at this time.  Instead, we are uploading a full Service of the Word with responses and song lyrics displayed on the screen.  Since we are not currently livestreaming our worship service, it doesn’t show up on Facebook in a normal way.  Once we are able to sing again in worship, etc., we will return to livestreaming on both Facebook and YouTube.  In the meantime, we upload the online service to our YouTube page and then place links to it on our Facebook page.  We also send the link via email each week.  If for some reason you are not receiving these emails please let me know at dennismroser@gmail.com.  You can go directly to our YouTube page by using the address:  https://tinyurl.com/stjohnsbeloit 

3.  I record a short podcast each Saturday in which I introduce the following day’s message.  This program is intended to get people thinking about the text that we will be engaging with more deeply in the weekly message on Sunday.  While I send out links to the podcast via email, you can listen to all of our podcasts by going to https://stjohnbeloitmedia.podbean.com/.  This weekly program is called “Talking about Sunday.”

4.  We host a weekly prayer service on Facebook Live each Thursday at 7:30 pm.  You can tune in by going to St. Johns’ Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/stjohnslutheranbeloit 

5.  While I cannot wait to get back to our normal in-person gatherings of worship, Bible study, and fellowship, I am thrilled by the way that the digital platforms of YouTube and Facebook allow church members to connect with their church every day.  Instead of connecting with St. John’s on Sunday and Wednesday, we are now able to connect with our members and friends Sunday through Saturday.  Please visit our YouTube channel for programs throughout the week.  https://tinyurl.com/stjohnsbeloit  The day will come when all of our in-person activities return, and our digital engagement will continue unaffected..

6.  For me, the biggest drawback of our “new temporary normal” is how it has and is limiting the work of our members in the congregation.  In other non-profits, this is called volunteerism but in the Church it is called discipleship and is central to what we do.  As restrictions are lifted over time, please be thinking of ways that you can be active in the life of our congregation.  Churches in which members are not sharing their time, talents, and treasures are quite frankly, “circling the drain.”  Even if we had the resources to employ a larger staff, I would not want that as we are supposed to be equipping disciples for the work of ministry among God’s people.

We recognize that not everyone is online and that not everyone wants to be online.  Even as we seek to more fully engage those who are online with St. John’s, we do not want to communicate that you need to be online in order to be an active participant of St. John’s Church.  We are committed to in-person ministry and long for its complete return.  In a similar way, we also recognize that going forward, we are going to have members here at St. John’s who are unable to be present for our in-person gatherings.  At the end of the day, we are not responsible for foretelling the future.  However, we are responsible for responding faithfully to what is going on in the present.  Our good Lord will help us to remain flexible in a changing world as we continue to share the unchanging message of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

This week's episode of Bible Clips for Kids . . . .


The Viral Nature of the Gospel

On the Day of Pentecost (the fiftieth day after Passover) around the year 33 AD, there were 120 Christians.  That day, as the Holy Spirit filled the hearts of those believers, the Church grew by 3,000 souls (see Acts 2).  Today, there are 2.3 billion Christians living in our world.  The good news that Christ Jesus has died in the place of sinners and answered for their sins so that everyone who believes this message will have forgiveness and receive eternal life is what we call the “Gospel.”  The history of Christianity is the story of how the Gospel has spread throughout the world during the course of the last 2,000+ years.

During her history, the Church’s gatherings have taken place in a variety of settings.  In the book of Acts, we find the Church meeting in the Temple area and in homes.  Later on, during the Roman persecution of Christianity, the Church gathered in secret - including among the tombs of the dead.  Following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 300s, the Church cautiously returned to gatherings of a more public nature.  Over the course of many centuries in Europe, majestic cathedrals would be built and believers would gather together by the thousands.  When Christianity made its way to the US, the wood-framed building that would characterize the Church’s gathering places for generations emerged.  These were augmented by Cathedral-style buildings, auditorium-style worship centers, and storefront churches.  The forms of the gathering spaces for the Church have been diverse, but the nature of the Church has never changed.  The Church has always been, is now, and will be until our Lord Jesus comes again the assembly of believers gathered by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel message. 

Consequently, St. John’s was never closed!  We needed to discontinue in-person worship for a time - but we were never closed.  The gathering of believers around God’s Word never stopped.  Additionally, those who are not yet ready to return to in-person worship continue to be gathered with us through Youtube, Facebook, podcasts, telephone conversations, blogs, etc.  What’s more, when the assembly of believers went online people whom we did not know before became a part of our gatherings.  We continue to see the Gospel spread from person to person as the Holy Spirit works among us.

In the lates 70s and early 80s, St. John’s had an evangelism group called LEO (Lay Evangelism Organization).  This layperson-led group went house to house throughout Beloit each week sharing Jesus with their neighbors.  The Holy Spirit worked mightily through the people of St. John’s in those days, and I believe that the Holy Spirit is starting a new work among us today.  My fear is that we are going to miss the Spirit’s work among us, because it doesn’t seem important to us.  What do I mean by this?  This new work is the sharing of the Gospel online, but many people will not consider the “clicking of a mouse” important enough to do.  And yet, in our current setting, sharing our messages and online content with others digitally is more effective than going over and knocking on their front doors.  If we are going to continue in the Spirit’s work of spreading the Gospel, we must make the shift in our thinking so that we recognize that our efforts to share Jesus online is a holy work of God that is every bit as important as knocking on people’s houses.

I invite you to take up your calling to spread the Gospel.  We need you to start sharing our social media posts on your newsfeeds and to forward the emails that I send to you with links to our content on to others.  We are working hard to create solid content, but if people don’t see our posts not a lot is going to happen.  Think people on the internet don’t want to see content that speaks about God - think again.  Yesterday, Kanye West released his new music video “Wash Us in the Blood” (an explicitly Christian song) and it has already had 4.4 million views on Youtube.  That’s right - 4.4 million views in one day - I think that some people are open to internet content about God.  Do I think that 4.4 million people are going to start to view our content?  I suspect that it will take us about a year to work up to it - just kidding.  However, our calling may not be to reach 4.4 million people, but I am sure that we are called to reach the hundreds of people that we are connected with online.  The Gospel, by its very nature, has always been viral - in the best sense of that word - spreading from person to person.

Looking for content to share, please begin here   https://tinyurl.com/stjohnsbeloit  

May God bless your service!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Digital World is No Longer a Frontier

An increasing number of companies, like Nationwide Insurance, for example, are moving away from the model of employees working in office buildings to the model of asking them to work remotely from home.  What had previously seemed like a risky experiment has now become mainstream in just a few months.  Sure, many people have been working remotely for decades, but they weren’t the norm.  After a few months of being forced into the remote-work model, many companies have discovered that their employees are just as productive when working at home as they were in the pricey office spaces that they previously occupied.  Company after company has been announcing that they are going to shrink the physical footprint that they occupy and move more of their operations online.  That is how disruption is distinguished from interruption.  In an interruption, something that we were previously doing is put on hold and then resumes after a period of time.  In a disruption, the resumption of “business as usual” doesn’t happen or at least not in a way that anyone would recognize.

We are living in a time of disruption.  While many of the pre-COVID activities that we enjoy will return, the pre-COVID world is not going to return.  When I say this, I am not talking about distancing protocols and masks - I am speaking about our society’s shift from physical to digital.  In the pre-COVID world, much of life occurred in the physical world with a lot of things also happening online.  During the shutdown, nearly all of life moved online to the digital world.  Many people and organizations found the digital world to be quite homey and sometimes preferable to the physical world of long commutes, traffic, and difficult weather.  In fact, to their surprise, many companies who were previously skeptical about the remote-work model found that their worst fears of this scenario were not realized.  Consequently, many companies are eliminating their physical office presence or downsizing the spaces that they lease.  In the post-COVID world, it appears that much of life is going to continue to occur in the digital world while a lot of things will also happen in the physical world.  That’s the shift that is emerging - a movement from “physical with some digital” to “digital with some physical.”    

How will this shift affect the Church?  We could say that it won’t - just as the shopping mall owners argued in the early days of Amazon and other online retailers.  They argued that people still want to see items in person before making significant purchases.  Have you been to the malls lately?  Many shopping malls across the country are going to close following the loss of business during the shut-down.  However, the shut-down is not the cause of their demise - it simply accelerated the trends that were already occurring, and have been occurring for many years.  The bankruptcies of anchor stores and the loss of many chain boutiques over the years have left many vacant spaces in our shopping malls.  This trend was not reversing course but was plodding along in the same direction.  The shutdown, unfortunately, pushed these trends into warp speed. 

Are there long-term trends in the Church that we can identify?  Will they too be hastened along by the shutdown?  If we’re honest, worship attendance has been declining in many congregations for decades.  When I was ordained 18 years ago, a family who attended worship once per month were considered infrequent worship attendees.  In recent years, those same families are now considered active members because such patterns of attendance have become relatively normal among us.  Fifteen years ago, almost every congregation was posting good numbers in their Sunday Schools and Bible Classes.  Today, many congregations scramble to maintain some offering in each of these areas out of a sense of duty.  It would be rather foolish for congregations to look around at all of the signs of disruption in our society and conclude that the Church will be unaffected.

Fortunately, we have choices.  We can ignore the inevitable shifts that are occurring and hope that the previous trends will reverse themselves.  That’s the approach that the shopping malls have taken.  Or, we can see this as a time of opportunity for the mission of the Gospel.  We can complain about those younger generations who “are always on their phones” or dream of how to get the Gospel onto those screens.  We can eagerly await the return of the 1950s when families had multiple children and raised them to love the Lord and His Church - or - we can figure out how to connect the people around us with the God Who has died in their place and answered for their sins.  I hope to remain in active ministry for at least 20 more years and so following the approach of the shopping malls is not an option for me.

Before I describe the wonderful opportunities for the mission of Christ that the digital world holds for congregations who do the hard work of learning to do ministry there, I want to clarify that I do not anticipate the physical presence of the Church going away - ever.  I have every reason to believe that when my retirement comes in 2040 or so, that I will still be leading in-person worship services and Bible classes.  God has chosen to work through the means of grace - Word and Sacrament - and while we are finding new ways to communicate the Word digitally this will never be the case with the Sacraments.  By their very nature physical presence is required for there to be a Sacrament and all of the technological advances in the world aren’t going to change that.

One of the first places I stop when disembarking from the train in Chicago is the Amazon store.  That’s right - “the Amazon store.”  This is not something I do on my phone, but something that I do with my feet.  I pull up the Amazon Go app on my phone, scan it at the turnstile, and enter the store where I typically purchase a small package of Lindt white chocolate.  Why would Amazon who mainstreamed online shopping open brick-and-mortar stores?  Because there will always be things that cannot be done online.  And so it goes with the Church.  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will always be administered among God’s people.  Human touch which encourages and comforts will always be sought by people in the fellowship of congregations.  The beauty and joy of congregational singing cannot be replaced by professional artists who do our singing for us.  The need for people to gather in face-to-face worship and fellowship are not going away - and in fact, in the digital world, they may become more urgent.  The Church will always have a physical presence, but woe to those congregations who think that they are going to thrive in our present/future reality while focusing exclusively on their physical presence.

The digital world is no longer a frontier for the brave and the bold, an increasing number of Americans are not only doing their shopping there but also their banking, entertainment viewing, insurance needs, transportation arrangements, and ordering delivery food from McDonald’s (there’s an app for that).  Given these shifts, it is unreasonable to think that people’s engagement with the Church will remain unchanged.  It has been changing - changing for decades - but as long as congregations have maintained a critical mass of attendees to support what they are doing, change did not seem necessary.  For thirty years or more, congregations have grown accustomed to disciplining fewer and fewer people and just hoping that the people will come back.  The other day, I was looking up someone’s baptismal record from the 1970s.  While looking in the records, I stumbled upon the attendance record of a special service that was held that year.  Five-hundred and eighteen worshipers attended that service, and it was not uncommon for St. John’s to average 400 or more worshipers a Sunday at that time.  Our average worship attendance today hovers around 72 to 73 worshipers.  While this is a respectable number for an urban congregation today, the number of souls that we are reaching for the Kingdom is significantly lower than it used to be.  The people who no longer frequent the shopping malls are still getting their stuff, but are those who no longer frequent congregations receiving what is needed for their souls?

If you are online, please visit the following sites.  

These four sites are at the heart of what we are doing digitally to reach people for Christ.  However, we need your help in order to be successful.  Please take some time to share this content with your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, etc.  We are working hard to upload solid content, but the people in your life will most likely never see it unless you share it with them.  Please consider forwarding my emails that contain links to our programming.  If you know how to start a watch party on Facebook, please host watch parties around our weekly services.  If you don’t know how to host a watch party, this video can show you:  https://youtu.be/EJSnOIE5FEI.  Please also consider sharing links to our content on your social media accounts on a regular basis.  In the 1970s, St. John’s members used to gather one evening per week to knock on doors throughout Beloit in order to share the good news of Jesus with our neighbors.  Knocking on doors in the neighborhoods is no longer as effective as it once was.  Perhaps it is because the front doors of people’s lives have changed.  The front doors are now online and God is calling us to work in His harvest.

*I am indebted to Carey Nieuwhof for his analogy of the shopping malls during the rise of Amazon.  You can read his excellent article by going to https://careynieuwhof.com/are-churches-behaving-like-malls-in-the-age-of-amazon-just-hoping-for-people-to-shop-again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Worshiping Online and In-Person

For the foreseeable future, gatherings in our city will be limited to 25 persons.  We are addressing this by adding an additional service at 11 am, and are prepared to add a third service on Sunday afternoon or evening.  In a previous parish I served, we had three services each Sunday morning - 8:45, 10:00, and 11:15.  However, we were not sanitizing the worship space between each service and so we did not need as much time between services as we do now.  It is a great blessing to be able to return to in-person worship, and like so many blessings from God, they come with great responsibility.  Every effort is being made to ensure that our worshipers are being protected from exposure to COVID 19, including the wearing of masks, being seated six feet apart, and refraining from singing.

Since our normal worship practices will be significantly adjusted during this time, we are going to upload a prerecorded Divine Service each Sunday morning at 9:00 am.  Once our worship life returns to some semblance of normal, we will return to livestreaming the service and provide digital worship booklets for those who attend online.  Until then, Alex Nohr and I will prerecord a Divine Service - including the upcoming Sunday's message - in the same fashion that we have been presenting via livestream.  Consequently, at 9 am on Sunday mornings, we will present a Divine Service on YouTube and Facebook with the day's readings, prayers, and message in the format that our online worshipers are familiar with.  Essentially, the live service on Sunday morning gives worshipers the opportunity to gather in-person, and the online service offers the availability of singing.  Other than that, the content will be identical.

Loving God and loving our neighbor during the COVID crisis demands flexibility and planning.  The Church like every other entity has learned to develop rigorous plans that can be abandoned on a moment's notice.  God's grace to us during these last few months have been nothing short of miraculous.  I want to thank you personally for your faithfulness in continuing to return to God your time, talents, and treasure.  I see the Kingdom of God reflected in so many ways among our St. John's family.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

St. Johns' 6 Weeks of Fasting and Prayer for Racial Equality and Peace

Tomorrow, we begin our six Wednesdays of fasting and prayer on behalf of our nation.  Wednesdays and Fridays were the traditional fast days when Christians fasted weekly.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "Whenever you fast, do not make yourself look sad like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show everyone that they are fasting. Amen I tell you: They have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that it is not apparent to people that you are fasting, but only to your Father who sees what is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."  (Matthew 6:16-18).  It is clear from this passage and others that those who follow Christ will fast.  We do not fast in order to impress God with our holiness, but in fact, we fast to humble ourselves before God.  As we deny ourselves physical sustenance for a time, our spiritual senses become sharper and our awareness of God's gifts becomes stronger.  This is what happens as we look to God for our care and preservation.  The process - hunger pangs and all - awaken us to our absolute dependence on God.

As Jesus teaches us, fasting is done before God - not others.  Therefore, fasting is to be treated as a spiritual discipline not an Olympic event.  What this means is that you do not need to conform to such rigorous standards that your health is compromised or your experience unbearable.  Making some adjustments in your fasting does not invalidate what you are doing.  For example, each morning I take medicine in the form of gel caps.  Unfortunately, gel caps give me unbearable heartburn unless I eat a hard-boiled egg after taking them.  Consequently, I allow myself a hard-boiled egg on the days that I fast in order to take my medicine.  Of course, there are probably people who would argue that I'm really not fasting because I eat an egg on the mornings when I fast.  However, they don't get to evaluate the legitimacy of my fast because this is something I do before God - not others.  For the next six weeks, people will only know that I am fasting because I am asking them to join me.

I want to share with you some helpful tips:

1.  If a medical condition prevents you from fasting - do not fast.  However, spend some additional time on Wednesdays in prayer and reading Scripture.

2.  Use your usual mealtimes to pray and study God's Word.  Fasting without prayer and meditating on God's Word will not give you the full experience.

3.  If you are fasting for the first time, start with a shorter period of time, perhaps 15 hours.   Regardless of how long one is going to fast, I highly recommend beginning immediately after supper.  In this way, a large block of time is taken up by simply abstaining from an evening snack and sleeping (perhaps being a combined 12 hours from supper until waking).  This makes a 24  hour fast seem more feasible – when you only have 12 hours to go.

4. Drink plenty of water – your body needs it and it will help you to feel more “full.”  The biblical teaching on fasting never calls for abstaining from water.

5.. Avoid sugary drinks at all costs.  When the sugar enters your bloodstream, your body responds by producing more insulin and this causes you to feel quite light-headed.  Fruit juices are not your friend when you are fasting – they are loaded with sugar.

6. If you begin to experience more than hunger pangs - break your fast.  You and I may not be called to martyrdom.  We always rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus, but we are not to seek it or inflict it upon ourselves.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences.  May God bless you as you seek His presence on behalf of our nation and her people.



Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Becoming a Phygital Congregation

It is quite common to hear people complain that the younger generations are “always on their phones.”  While I’ll leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to question its desirability and health implications, the question before pastors is “how do we get the good news of Christ Jesus onto those screens?!!!”  

People staring endlessly into smartphones is not a new reality - the iPhone debuted in 2007 - and so the question isn’t edgy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that we haven’t felt compelled to struggle with it.  However, the recent necessity for our churches to discontinue in-person worship for a while has forced us to consider how we do ministry online, or not, as the case may have been.  It is only after we needed to make this shift that many of us truly realized that we have been neglecting one of the largest mission fields in the history of the Church.  It’s one thing to have a presence on the web promoting what we are doing here at the church and quite another to engage people online with real-time ministry.  Going forward, we will be a congregation that is both physical and digital.  We will, of course, offer worship, Bible classes, fellowship, and prayer here at the church - but we will also offer worship, Bible classes, fellowship, and prayer for those who connect with us online.  If you have no interest in going online, do not worry because none of the in-person activity is being abandoned.  If you would like to interact with St. John’s every day instead of Sundays and Wednesdays connect with us on the web.  In the future, our “phygital” life together will follow the following pattern:

Sundays:
9:00 am - Divine Service (worship) at St. John’s in the sanctuary, with a livestream and digital bulletins available on Facebook and YouTube.
10:30 am - Fellowship & Learning in the Fellowship Hall.  (Fellowship will be offered online at other times in Facebook Rooms and our Facebook group).

Mondays:
All Day - We will be uploading a program for children in which Belle (the church dog) and I will read a story from the Bible and pray with them.  This will be available as a video on YouTube and an audio recording on the major podcast services.
1:00 pm - Women’s Bible Class (in-person)

Tuesdays:
All Day - We will be uploading a program for everyone in which I read a passage from John, comment on it, and pray with the viewers.  This will be available as a video on YouTube and an audio recording on the major podcast services.
10:30 am - Women’s Bible Class (in-person)

Wednesdays:
All Day - We will be uploading a program for everyone in which I discuss what Lutherans believe and pray with the viewers.  The first month or so will focus on Luther’s Small Catechism.  This will be available as a video on YouTube and an audio recording on the major podcast services.
5:30 pm - Bible Class in the sanctuary.  This class will also be livestreamed on Facebook.  When we resume, we will pick up with Matthew 18.  

Thursdays:
7:30 pm - Prayer Service on Facebook Live

Fridays:
*I am doing a better job at taking Sabbath rest.  All previously uploaded content will be available on-demand.

Saturdays:
All Day - We will be uploading a video or written blog post in which I introduce the Scripture passage that I will preach on during the next day’s Divine Service.

Some helpful links for finding SJ content:

Friday, May 29, 2020

Returning to St. John's . . . .


Returning to In-Person Worship

I am excited to report to you that we will be returning to in-person worship here at St. John’s on Sunday, June 21st.  Our leadership team and I met in-person on Wednesday evening to begin planning our return to St. John’s.  Our leadership team is comprised of the Church Council and the Board of Elders.  The two primary questions that we needed to address were:

1. What do we need to plan and prepare in our facilities in order to eliminate all obvious risks to our worshippers' safety?
2. How long will it take for us to fully implement these preparations?

It will take a couple of weeks for us to receive needed equipment and supplies, install hand sanitizer dispensers, post signage, and prepare instructions.  This extra time will afford us the opportunity to learn from those congregations who will return to in-person worship ahead of us.  Additionally, I will be attending a virtual meeting of the South Wisconsin District on Wednesday in which best practices for reopening will be discussed.

Thank you for your amazing response to our online survey last week!  Forty-six people/households completed this poll!  The first thing that we did on Wednesday evening was to review the results of the entire survey.  Your responses helped to guide our decision-making.  I want to share some of the highlights with you here.

1. As local governments begin to lift bans against churches meeting, which of the following best describes your attitude toward returning to a worship service at church?
  • l return the first opportunity we have - 27%
  • I will return at the first opportunity but with some concerns and precautions - 37%
  • I will wait several additional weeks before I attend - 17%
  • It may be quite a while before I return - 3%
  • Not sure - 17%

2. If local guidelines require all church attendees to wear a protective face mask, how would you feel about attending?
  • I am ready to attend in a mask - 53%
  • I would rather worship "mask free" at home - 33%
  • Not sure - 13%

3. Would you be okay if we had to check every person’s temperature as they entered the building?
  • Yes - 80%
  • No - 17%
  • Undecided - 3%

4. Would you be willing to attend a worship service at a different time than you typically attend to allow people to spread out more?
  • Yes - 77%
  • No - 7%
  • Undecided - 17%

We will continue to offer ministry online - including worship - going forward.  It is vitally important for us to move into the future as a “phygital” congregation - meaning both physical and digital.  My vision is that our congregation, as it celebrates her bicentennial in 2096, will look back upon our time as a turning point in which we moved from surviving to thriving.

May God bless you in these uncertain days with His unfailing love!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Expanding our Online Ministry

During the last three months, nearly every congregation has needed to develop an online presence in order to serve its members and others.  We were very fortunate to already be up and running with livestreaming our Sunday service.  God blessed us through the generosity, expertise, and efforts of many members and friends who made our multi-camera setup a reality.  What a blessing it was for all of this to be in place before we had to discontinue in-person worship here at St. John’s!

I have been learning a lot about doing ministry online and have enjoyed experimenting with new technologies.  Although it appears that in-person worship is going to be a possibility for us in the coming weeks, I am expanding what we are offering online rather than discontinuing what we have been doing.  It might seem natural to scale back what we are doing digitally as we prepare to reoccupy our physical presence here at St. John’s, but to do so would be a mistake.  We have not gathered in person here at St. John’s in 12 weeks and a lot of things in our society have changed during this time.  In fact, in many ways, the COVID crisis has acted as an accelerator for changes that were already happening.  Prior to the shutdown, an increasing number of people were beginning to choose digital interactions over in-person ones; more people were choosing on-demand television content over programs that one needs to make themselves available for; and the trend towards fast-food delivery services such as Grubhub, Door Dash, and Uber Eats was exploding.  The current crisis accelerated these trends to warp speed.  If things were already moving in these directions, what has happened in the last 12 weeks has moved them further along and a reversal is unlikely.

I pay attention to the blogs of church leaders who have a track record of equipping their congregations in reaching those who are not active in Christian congregations.  The experts I follow have convinced me that a shift has occurred during the last three months.  A shift is different from an interruption, in that things do not go completely back to the way they were previously.  Yes, we will still continue to gather for worship in our building, we will continue to have in-person Bible classes, and youth events will continue to be scheduled - but if we are going to continue to be effective in reaching others in the new reality (whatever that will look like) we will also need to be active in online ministry.  Many people who are not members of St. John’s have become active in our online ministry - which is the mission of the Church.  It is unlikely that they will immediately start attending our in-person worship when it resumes.  However, that doesn’t mean that they never will.  I am learning that online ministry is now replacing many of the previously-physical ways that we would introduce people to our congregation and welcome them in.  It is quite common for people to participate online in a congregation’s life long before they arrive in person.  Additionally, we are now serving the spiritual needs of many members who for a variety of reasons are unable to be present on Sunday mornings at 9:00 am or 5:30 pm on Wednesdays when we have Bible Class.

There have always been churches who are growing and those who are declining.  More often than not what has distinguished them is that those who were declining were attempting to freeze the life of their congregations in time - mostly the glory days of their history.  I am excited by the opportunities that are before us to connect others with Christ Jesus.  As a physical congregation with a limited digital presence we were struggling, but I am convinced that as a congregation with a vibrant physical and digital presence we are going to thrive.  The new normal that will emerge over the next several months is anyone’s guess, but I am confident that we are ready for it!

While we have content available in a variety of locations on the web, the three most important for you to know and share with others are the following:

SJ Homepage:  https://www.stjohnsbeloit.com
SJ YouTube:  https://tinyurl.com/stjohnsbeloit 
SJ Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/stjohnslutheranbeloit/?fref=nf 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Prayers for the Class of 2020

It may seem a bit excessive each year that we begin publicizing our annual request for the names of graduates in March, but this is our best strategy for not missing anyone.  In today’s world, we are inundated with information and so it is easy to miss a request in a single bulletin or newsletter.  Consequently, we like to place this request in our publications for a couple of months to make sure that we do not miss anyone.  This matters to us not only because we never want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but also because God hears our prayers and we want to lift up all of our graduates before Him.  In addition to the prayers that we always offer on behalf of our graduates, we pray for a double measure of God’s grace upon the Class of 2020.  Not being able to participate in long-awaited public graduation ceremonies is painful for students and families alike.  May the love of God in Christ Jesus encourage you even in the midst of great disappointment.  In the Church, we don’t give cheerful platitudes to people who are hurting - instead we acknowledge their pain and walk with them.  Consequently, I do not offer you corny advice about looking on the “bright side.”  Instead, I have for you a message of hope from the God of eternity.  Jesus, the man of sorrows, knew disappointment and loss first-hand and he is with you as you grieve for what should have been.  I pray that in whatever accommodations are made for you to celebrate this wonderful achievement that you will experience joy.  I thank God for all of the good things that He is doing in your life, and I know that He will bless you as you go forth to the next chapter.

Our congregation prays for and celebrates the following members of the Class of 2020:

High School:
Trey Griinke, Beloit Turner
Ashley Peterson, Beloit Memorial
Katrina Roser, Beloit Turner

College:
Matthew Carter, UW-Madison
Kc Crall,  UW-Whitewater

Graduate School:
McKenna Hereford, Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University

Please join me in praying the following prayer from the Lutheran Service Book:

Heavenly Father, we thank You for graciously bringing Trey, Ashley, Katrina, Matthew, Kc, and McKenna to this point of formal education.  For all of the efforts of parents and teachers through these years we praise You.  We ask wisdom and guidance for them as they make decisions about their lives that will have implications for years to come.  Give them a rich measure of Your Spirit as fields of study and opportunities for employment become available. Help them to accurately assess the gifts and abilities You have given them and bless the choices that they make.  May they ever grow closer to You in faith and with their lives honor the name of Your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Unity among Christians in Crisis

One of the ways in which the Church is rather unique in our world is the diversity of her members.  Very few organizations bring together in their membership such a grouping of people who may not otherwise rub shoulders in their daily lives.  The Church includes rich and poor, those who are old and those who are young, people of every ethnicity, Democrats and Republicans, rural citizens and city-dwellers, and a whole host of other diversities.  There are sisters and brothers in Christ who may not cross paths with one another anywhere else in the course of their lives, but in the Church are now one.  Those who might not otherwise choose to spend time in one another’s company are called to unity of confession and fellowship by our Lord Christ.  It has been this way since the very beginning!  Jesus called into the fellowship of the Twelve two men whose inclusion interests me.  One was Matthew the tax collector and the other Simon the Zealot.  Tax collectors worked on behalf of the Roman Empire to collect monies from the Jewish people.  The Zealots were a political entity within Jewish society who were always advocating for Jewish independence and were not above terroristic acts.  Among the supreme enemies of the Zealots were the tax collectors who assisted the Romans in collecting monies from those under Roman control.  In any other context, Matthew and Simon would have been mortal enemies (at least from Simon’s perspective), but within Jesus’ band of disciples, they were family.  Was it easy?  I very much doubt it!  Did they walk around with hidden resentments toward one another?  Jesus knew everyone’s thoughts, and given what he taught about forgiveness and mutual love, do you think that hidden resentments would have been permitted to fester within the Twelve?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I suspect that as they came to know the Kingdom that Jesus was ushering in, their passionate commitments to Jewish sovereignty and personal finances gave way to greater unity among them.

Paul teaches us that the identity that we received in Holy Baptism supersedes every other designation that may be applied to us.  He writes to the Ephesians:  “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in the one hope of your calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all.”  (Ephesians 4:3-6).  We need to be reminded of this reality because sometimes our attachments to the things of this world can blind us to the brotherhood/sisterhood that we share in Christ.  This entails a family bond that takes precedence over all other associations and attachments.

I want to place this reminder before us all at this time because the days ahead are likely to become quite contentious in our society.  Within our congregation here at St. John’s we have Democrats and Republicans, those who are strong proponents of medical innovation and those who are equally strong in their opposition to the use of vaccines, those who believe that the current government restrictions have gone too far and those who believe that greater precautions should have been taken, and people on both sides of whatever other arguments may arise in the US.  Regardless of where we may find ourselves on each of these issues, our identities as members of God’s family and the mission of connecting others with the Lord Jesus Christ has primacy in our hearts and lives.  If our sovereign Lord and the eternal salvation of others does not excite our passions at the level that politics and health crises do, then a reexamination of our lives and commitments is long overdue.

As we prepare to “reopen” St. John’s, I will be working very closely with our Elders and the Church Council.  I can assure you that whatever decisions we make they will be too fast for some and too slow for others.  There will be people who do not think that we have taken enough precautions and there will inevitably be those who believe that we have been unreasonably cautious.  That’s the nature of our humanity, particularly in the divisive age in which we find ourselves.  I am never concerned about being second-guessed or criticized - if I were, perhaps I wouldn’t provide so many blatant opportunities.  I like to tell vicars that if you want everyone to love everything you do - become an icecream salesman.  In the coming weeks and months, we will seek the Spirit’s leading, avail ourselves of all available information, and make a lot of imperfect decisions.  I ask for your prayers and I ask for your patience.  There isn’t a single person among our leadership team in whom I do not place complete trust.  My intention in all of this is that by the grace of God we will fail your expectations at a rate that you can tolerate.  I want to leave you with the words of St. Paul in Romans:  “For we have many members in one body, and not all the members have the same function.  In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”  (Romans 12:4-5).     

Thursday, May 7, 2020

A Difficult Mother's Day . . . .

Over the years, I have met the children of many of my members on Mother’s Day.  For many mothers, it is important to them that their children accompany them to worship on this special day before going out to brunch or other nice activities.  There have been occasions when families have made special arrangements to bring their mothers - who are normally homebound - to church that morning.  I love seeing their joy - both the mother’s and the children’s (knowing that they are doing something special for their mom).  It has also been heart-warming to see congregation members flocking over to see their friend who is normally unable to join us.  I am sorry that I won’t be able to witness that this year.  Mother’s Day will be very different for many families this year.  However, with a little creativity and planning, I am sure that many families will still find a way to make it special for the moms in their lives.

If you have worshipped with us previously on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day), you know that we always make a special effort to include in our prayers those for whom Mother’s Day is difficult.  For ladies who have been unable to have children or who have lost children, the pain of celebrating motherhood can be excruciating.  This is true for men on Father’s Day, as well.  For these women and men, these observances can feel like an annual reminder of their disappointment and losses.  When families are separated by distance or discord, these observances can also be quite painful.  Finally, at some point in our lives, most of us will wrestle with the observance of Mother’s Day following our own mother’s death.  This day is particularly difficult for those whose mothers have died since the previous Mother’s Day.

My intention with this article is not to depress you, but quite the opposite, to encourage you.  I encourage those who are feeling disappointed that Divine Service in-person and brunch at a restaurant are off-the-table this year to make the best of a difficult situation with thanksgiving.  I encourage those named above, for whom this can be a difficult day, to know that you are not forgotten and that your pain is acknowledged by the church.  I encourage those who have found alternate ways of celebrating this year to feel good about your efforts and thank God for His gifts.  I encourage all mothers to know that they are appreciated  - for, after all, this is the intention of this special day.  Our Lord has chosen to provide for future generations through the vocations of mothers and fathers, and God honors them for their work’s sake.

I want to close with a reflection from Martin Luther on parenthood:  “Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife [or husband], provide for her [or him], labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves?”  [Luther speaking for himself]:  “I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother.”  [Luther speaking now in general]:  Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other?  God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.”  (Luther’s Works, Volume 45, page 39).