Frederica Mathewes-Green: How to Revive a So-called ‘Dead’ Church

The author writes from the perspective of the Orthodox Church but what she says is easily true of Lutheran, Reformed, or any other. They are wise words about something that is immanently practical as well as spiritual. Please read it to the end. Also, a theologian might have some qualms about some of Frederica’s points, so be aware she is speaking from a perspective that may not be your own. Still her points about not being judgmental, seeking out people whom you think are positive and are involved in worship, prayer, and outreach, and of course speaking with the pastor, these are all bound to be effective, and who knows, God may use your efforts to breathe life into a ‘dead’ church.

How to Revive a “Dead” Church

By Frederica Matthewes- Green

 

Here’s something I hear from time to time: “I’d like to join the Orthodox Church, but I visited a local church and it just felt dead.”

When I hear this it’s about Orthodox churches, but that needn’t be the case. It could be any church or denomination; it might sound good on paper, but the local church on Sunday morning feels empty and drained.

It’s tempting to say, “That shouldn’t make any difference. Focus on your own prayer life.” But, actually, I know what these people mean. Sometimes, when you visit a church, something just feels “off.” It makes you really eager to get out of there.

I’ve puzzled over what this is, exactly. It seems like, anywhere the same people gather regularly—a school, an office, a church—a hard-to-define quality develops, an atmosphere or a mood. Even though I know that quality or mood shouldn’t affect me, it does. I can’t just ignore it.

The first impulse, when that happens, is to get out of there, and look for a church that feels more alive. But there’s another possibility: a “dead” church can be revived. There are things you can do to bring a church, of whatever denomination, to life.

Go back to that moment when you were looking around the congregation and feeling dismayed. It’s been said that 20 per cent of the people in a church do 80 per cent of the work. When you first visit a church, most of what you see will naturally be that 80 per cent. It seems like they aren’t really engaged with worship; maybe, you think, they’re there for social reasons, or just out of habit.

But the 20 per cent whose faith is strong, the ones who pray and read the bible, who sincerely seek the Lord—they’re there too; they’re just not as visible. In every congregation, there is a hidden “starter set” of committed people.  Your task is to find them, band together with them, and begin to fan the flame.

You’ll find, no doubt, that the pastor is on your side. A pastor’s life isn’t easy, and it doesn’t pay well, either. People take up the calling despite this because they sincerely want to help others deepen and strengthen their faith. If things feel “off” in church, if there’s a vacant feeling, a rattling-around chill, it not because that’s how the pastor likes it. So, if you want to understand this church, listen to him. He knows the people in the congregation better than anyone else does, and he knows what prayer groups or book studies have been effective in the past.

Now, where are you going to find these more-committed people? One place is mid-week services. People who take the trouble to go to church when it isn’t Sunday morning probably have a motivation similar to yours.

Say you notice somebody who comes regularly to mid-week services, or arrives early on Sundays and stays late, or carries a well-worn bible (or prayer rope, in an Orthodox church)—any kind of tip-off. Take the initiative and make contact. On Sunday, look around for them during coffee hour, and go over and start a conversation. Find out if you are reading the same books, or mention something in worship that you found meaningful. Build bridges.

This next part might be shocking, so brace yourself: these people might not be the same age you are. They might not dress in ways you find attractive. They might not read as much as you do, or not read the same things. If you walk with them to their car, you might see a bumper-sticker you don’t like.

Don’t let these things throw you off. As you become fond of someone, the very things that were initially off-putting can transform and become endearing.

It’s likely that some of these people will literally be little old ladies. That’s OK. Someone who’s had decades of experience with prayer might be just what you need in your life right now. Also, sometimes old ladies turn out to be interesting. I know because I am one.

If you attend a liturgical church, you can also remind yourself that, even if the church’s atmosphere dismays you, you are still receiving communion. The Prophet Elijah, alone in the wilderness, was sustained by ravens who brought him bread. In the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Spirit gives you the Bread of Life; ultimately, that’s all you need.

Remember also that bitter, discouraged Elijah was less alone than he thought he was. He complained that he was the only faithful person remaining in the land, and the Lord revealed that there were another 7000 who had never abandoned the faith.

Here’s another practical suggestion: Pray through the church directory, a page or two every day. When you get to the end, start over. Invite your church-friends to do the same, praying for each person by name. Don’t pray for God to change them; just call them to mind, remembering them, as St. Paul did (“I remember you constantly in my prayers,” 2 Timothy 1:3; “I remember you in my prayers,” Philemon 1:4). Just lift them up before the Lord; The Lord knows better than you do what they need.

If you know of specific needs, for healing perhaps, of course you can include those requests. Let the pastor know that you and your friends are glad to pray for any needs he thinks it right to share.

This habit of praying through the directory has the practical benefit of teaching you the names of everyone in the church. It will help you remember who’s married to whom, which kids go with which families, and so on.

In time, this habit of praying for all the congregation by name will change something inside of you. The worshippers will stop seeming like a mass of indistinguishable faces. They will be revealed instead as what they always were: unique individuals, each of whom is thoroughly known and loved by Christ. The congregation is not a block of stone but a mosaic, composed of countless faces.

That’s so often the way with spiritual growth: you realize something was true all the time. Christ was already present, already working in these lives, long before you walked in the door. He was already loving them and calling them into a closer relationship with himself. And, fortunately, they’re people who are already in the habit of coming to church. A line in a hymn, a scripture reading, a sermon illustration, may be just the spark they need. Your role is to pray.

There probably are more prayerful and faithful people in the congregation than you’ve been able to see. Superficial factors, like clothing and age, may be rendering them invisible to you. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil teaches a young devil how to corrupt his “patient.”

“Although the young man in question has started going to church, it’s not necessarily a lost cause, because of his preconceptions about what the Church should look like. When he gets to his pew and looks round him, he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on [God the Father’s] side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to [the Devil], is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”

As time passes, and church members who are prayerful and intentional find each other, a kind of chemical change takes place. They find that they constitute a living community within the congregation. They sense that they are upheld by each other’s prayers. When they come to worship, the do so prepared to love and serve God.

A quality of warmth and illumination accompanies them, and it begins to pervade worship. This is something others can sense—even those people you’d written off. Christ is Life, and everyone seeks life. The warmth of faith is attractive in the sense that a magnet is attractive, and it draws people forward. You are moving toward a tipping point, in which the Light of Christ becomes so perceptible that the feeling of worship on Sunday morning is transformed.

If you think a congregation you visited while looking for a church is “dead,” you have an option besides going somewhere else. Where Christ is, there is resurrection. By finding and befriending other church members who are prayerful, by following the pastor’s vision, and by giving prayer support to the work God is already doing in worshippers’ lives, you can help bring a congregation to life.

Frederica Mathewes-Green
www.frederica.com

What does it mean to say “It Is Well With My Soul”?

white little bells

It Is Well With My Soul

The peace Jesus gives brings a sense of assurance that no matter what happens you know “it is well with my soul.” He says to us, “Peace I leave with you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and… afraid.” (John 14:27)

The peace Jesus gives doesn’t depend on conditions and circumstances. It comes from knowing you’re God’s child and that your Father controls the universe, loves you and always has your best interests at heart. That’s why people who’ve lost everything will often tell you they wouldn’t trade what they’ve learned, even if it meant recouping all their losses.

Joni Eareckson Tada discovered a supernatural peace when an accident confined her to a wheelchair, and Corrie Ten Boom found it in a Nazi death camp. Missionary Elisabeth Elliot found it ministering to the Indian tribe who massacred her husband. She wrote, “Only in acceptance lies peace… not in resignation.”

There’s a big difference! Author Creath Davis puts it this way:

Resignation is surrender to fate. Acceptance is surrender to God.

Resignation lies down quietly in an empty universe. Acceptance rises up to meet the God who fills that universe with purpose and destiny.

Resignation says, “I can’t.” Acceptance says, “God can.”

Resignation paralyzes the life process. Acceptance releases the process for its greatest creativity.

Resignation says, “It’s all over for me.” Acceptance says, “Now that I’m here, what’s next, Lord?”

Resignation says, “What a waste.” Acceptance says, “In what redemptive way will you use this mess, Lord?”

Resignation says, “I’m alone.” Acceptance says, “I belong to you, Lord.”

The Word for Today – UCB,18 August, 2009

Luther’s ‘Becoming’ Prayer

Mountains

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

-Martin Luther

Pray without Ceasing

prayingPray without Ceasing
Johann Christoph Blumhardt
The words “pray without ceasing” are not to be understood in the way we usually think of prayer. For this would mean that we should incessantly be on our knees before God, addressing him with prayerful words. Then the statement would be in direct contradiction to the Lord’s command not to use many words when we pray.
This simply cannot be applied to the way we usually pray. For “pray without ceasing ” is too strong an expression to be translated by words like “pray frequently and diligently” or “pray as often as you possibly can.”
“Without ceasing” implies something more? It can only be understood as the turning of the human spirit toward God in prayer.
Here one can say that what should be present without ceasing is a prayerful and beseeching, supplicating attitude; one might say that there should not be a single moment when God does not find us praying to him as if we stood physically in his presence.
There is a different kind of prayer without ceasing; it is longing. Whatever you may be doing, if you long for the day of everlasting rest, do not cease praying. If you do not wish to cease praying, then do not cease your longing. Your persistent longing is your persistent voice. When love grows cold, the heart grows silent. Burning love is the outcry of the heart! If you are filled with longing all the time, you will keep crying out, and if your love perseveres, your cry will be heard without fail.”
-Augustine
David expresses this same thing: “To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens” (Ps.123:1). Here also, he compares this raising of the eyes to the Lord our God with the way servants watch the hands of their masters and maids the hands of their mistresses, without a word being said.
This looking upward can be present in every activity and wherever we are, even in the midst of conversation, and even when our mind is occupied with the practical task of the moment. If we undertake or perform a task which separates us from God and prevents us from raising our eyes to him, we can easily lose our bearings.
Only think of the many wrong emotions – so much anger, rage, vanity, envy, pride, greediness, touchiness, as well as unnecessary worry – which would not be there if our souls were directed toward God instead of being concerned with all these things.
Indeed, there is no other rule which costs so little and needs so little effort, but which has such a significant effect on a person’s nature; “pray without ceasing!” is to be understood in the sense of good advice rather than as a veto.
How much protection and safekeeping, how much deliverance from the snares of darkness, how much redemption and response to our need could we experience as a matter of course, with no exertion on our part, if we were to stand before the Lord in prayer in every situation?
Used with permission.

Veterans Day

Flags in a field

 

Lord God, You have sustained our nation in the past and continue to bless us. We recall on this day how so many have given their lives for the cause of freedom. Men and women continue to sacrifice and serve in the Armed Forces. Today, we pause to reflect and honor those who gave, and continue to give, their lives. We remember the great courage and selfless service of so many throughout history. We remember their honorable sacrifice for the freedom of others.

Be with the families who mourn the loss of loved ones. Comfort also those who suffer permanent injuries as a result of serving our nation in the military. Bring solace to those who are home yet still fight against the enemy because of post-traumatic stress.

We remember with thankfulness the millions of Americans who give so generously of their life and labor in times of national conflict. We are grateful for the devotion and sacrifices of military families. Grant us willing hearts to support them in their needs.

 

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by Sören Kierkegaard

one thing smaller

 

Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass the world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, Thou that giveth both the beginning and the completion, may Thou early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may Thou give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing. Alas, but this has indeed not come to pass. Something has come in between. The separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption. So in this time of repentance may Thou give the courage once again to will one thing. True, it is an interruption of our daily tasks; we do lay down our work as though it were a day of rest, when the penitent (and it is only in a time of repentance that the heavy-laden worker may be quiet in the confession of sin) is alone before Thee in self-accusation. This is indeed an interruption. But it is an interruption that searches back into its very beginnings that it might bind up anew that which sin has separated, that in its grief it might atone for lost time, that in its anxiety it might bring to completion that which lies before it. Oh, Thou that givest both the beginning and the completion, give Thou victory in the day of need so that what neither a man’s burning wish nor his determined resolution may attain to, may be granted unto him in the sorrowing of repentance: to will only one thing.

 

What is True Prayer? Pray on Purpose!

Lutherrose746What is True Prayer? Pray on Purpose!

Martin Luther wrote instructions on prayer in general in his Large Catechism concerning the Lord’s Prayer. It is good to take a moment to reflect on this wisdom when it comes time to pray. His word’s are true no matter where you are or whatever you are doing.

When reading Luther we notice that Jesus is always there and so is the Father.  This is true whether we are reading Luther’s commentaries, letters, apologetics or catechisms.

Luther holds up the Lord’s Prayer as a model prayer containing the range of our needs. We commend this whole section of the Large Catechism to you, especially if you haven’t read it recently, and we take this opportunity to highlight one thing: Real prayer is really praying for what we really need.

Luther notes that God wishes to draw us to Himself so we can humble ourselves before Him, lament our misery and pray for grace and help. God does not regard prayer on account of the person who is praying, but rather on account of His own Word. Therefore God hears all of our prayers the same as if St. Paul himself is praying. What matters is that we trust God’s Word that commands us to pray for what we truly need and also that we trust He is listening. When we trust God for our needs, we begin to humbly share with our families and the world what we know they need.

Luther gives an example: He asks us would we would think if the Emperor told a beggar he would give him whatever he asked for and the beggar answered by merely asking for a bowl of broth. Not only would we think the beggar to be a fool, but we would come to the conclusion that he was actually showing disrespect to his lord. Luther goes on to say the following about how we should pray:  “Where there is true prayer there must be earnestness, we must feel our need, the distress that impels and drives us to cry out. Then prayer will come spontaneously, as it should, and we will not need to be taught how to prepare for it or how to generate devotion.”

Luther reminds us that just as Jesus came to forgive real sin, so we should also offer real prayer. Give your laments to God – all of them – and give Him all your praise.  Our need has often been great, but so has been our Lord’s supply.  In our prayers we thank God for people like you who not only listen to God’s Word, but who also share your blessings with us and with others.

We pray that according to the riches of His glory, God grant that you be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being

DSCN0524-001For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21 ESV)