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June 14, 2013

"One in Christ."

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

morning coffee graphicThis afternoon, I had a rather lengthy conversation with a brother pastor from another part of the country. While I have never met him in person — in my book, chatting on Google doesn’t really count as “meeting” someone — he said when he read my blog post from the other day, he was a little confused. First, he was slightly baffled at the notion that the New Jersey District would ask congregations to take a survey to gauge whether or not they are “healthy” simply because of the amount of money in a collection plate or the numbers of people who attend worship services on a given Sunday. Second, he wanted to know why I felt so down.

I said that the district is trying to “fire up” congregations in an effort to urge them to focus on their churchly direction in terms of general mission and reaching out to others. They are also preparing to be of help to congregations who want to move in a more “missional” direction. For us here at Saint Matthew’s, this survey is not shocking; it didn’t tell us anything more than we already knew. But reading it on paper brings new light to our current situation and provides us with the impetus to motivate our mission as a congregation.

Yet my brother pastor said that if Saint Matthew’s didn’t want to move ahead with changing or improving our mission outlook, the district shouldn’t force us into any kind of change. I said that the district was trying to do just the opposite — motivate us as believers to take up the Great Commission.

I explained that before I was called to Saint Matthew’s, the congregation undertook a massive inward look and decided they wanted to embark on what could be called a five year plan to move ahead in a number of areas. First, they wanted to extend the number of worship services offered at Saint Matthew’s. Second, they wanted the worship to be focused more toward younger people. Third, they wanted to grow in the Word. Fourth, they wanted to grow numerically by reaching out to others. Fifth, they wanted to grow as Christians and Lutherans in a deeper understanding of the importance of Christ.

The church’s Vision Team lead these efforts. By the time I arrived at Saint Matthew’s, these ideas were still percolating in the minds of everyone. Groundwork was being laid, planning was taking place, prayers were being prayed. And when I started as pastor, with the encouragement of our Vision Team and of the entire congregation, we added worship services to where our church is open 7-days in a week. Within the first month of my being here in New Milford, we added Morning Prayer, a short prayer service that started our individual days in Word and prayer. Soon, we added a Saturday evening worship and Wednesday evening worship service. While growth was not on a massive scale, families joined. Some who rarely attended regular worship started coming more frequently. We offered bible class in the daytime, but for one reason or another, it never was well attended. I hope during my nearly 8 years here, my weekend sermons are well balanced to provide a clear understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Overall, Saint Matthew’s has reached nearly all of its stated goals of its Vision work from years ago.

Of course, Saint Matthew’s in 2013 is not like the Saint Matthew’s of 30 and 40 years ago. We are older. We are fewer in numbers.

But even in the midst of that reality, we continue to be forward looking for Christ. Our Samaritans’ ministry that helps the homeless and needy continues to serve meals at the Walk-In Kitchen in Hackensack. When needed, members step up to help this vital ministry by baking, cooking, buying, volunteering, and praying. This mercy ministry is strong and shows a great heart that beats here at Saint Matthew’s.

And with our congregation as it stands today, who would have thought that in 2011, our congregation would embark upon starting a food pantry where families come for help. Each month, because the incredible and generous donations made by you, hungry children are going to bed fed each night. The struggling are finding that the help we give lightens their fears about going hungry. This mercy and witness ministry shows that even though this place may not be overflowing with people on weekends, the work we do is vital to people.

The district report gives us an opportunity to ‘take the next step,’ both as a people in Christ and as a faith community (yes, while both appear similar, I see them as different but intertwined). Essentially, the district is giving us a chance to ask a bold question: How can we bring Christ to more people?

What mission projects can we realistically take part in that will touch people? Can we serve the Lord in the mission field of New Milford and our surrounding communities to bring people into our fellowship who are not of our Lord Jesus’ sheep pen? Or what about reaching those who are fallen away Christians – can we provide a spiritual home where they can receive the love of God and His blessed forgiveness?

Our district’s survey is good for us — and I know, a number of you read my post from the other day and were a bit confused as to my opinion as to our future.

I believe we need to harness our strengths as God’s people and embark on this journey together, a journey that at its core is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

My brother pastor, after hearing my lengthy explanation (imagine that, me being lengthy?), believed that at the heart of any mission effort and revitalization of a church is Christ. “Without Him, what’s the sense,” he questioned.

After we hung up, I thought a bit about my post from Tuesday. Yes, it appeared like I was giving up. I wasn’t. Pastors, just like you, go through vocational and personal challenges. The district survey just happens to be a vocational challenge for me. When leaders from within our church body take a direct look at my ministry and that of Saint Matthew’s and raise questions about our viability, it cannot help but lead me into a deeply reflective moment. Maybe I am not a good fit for Saint Matthew’s. Maybe there is someone else out there who could do a better job as pastor. Maybe there are better pastors with better mission ideas that could get more “out of you.” When I read the results of the survey, each of those questions went through my mind. And even as I sit here in the office on a Friday afternoon drinking a cup of King Joe’s Coffee, the questions still pop up in my mind.

Yet as I go through this pastoral challenge inside my head, I cannot help but think of the LWML regional meeting I went to a few years ago. One of the leaders of our local LWML chapter spoke up either the worship service or the post-worship fellowship and reminded us all, “We are all one in Christ.” She is right.

All of us here at Saint Matthew’s are one in Christ. Our mission is not individual – it is one together as His Baptized people, working and striving and loving and telling the Good News of Jesus Christ to others.

Saint Matthew’s –  serving, loving, witnessing, together as one in Christ since 1895.

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