Monthly Archives: December 2022

Christmas Shopping Procrastinators, You Have Good Company

Attention Christmas Shoppers the days to get your final Christmas presents have arrived. It’s the mad rush, the final push, the “buy-that-dearest-love-one-something-anything” time. We are closing in on the infamous gift-card-remedy-hour (that’s when the $20-$500 Visa gift card recipient gets to see just how much you really love them. “You love me only $20 worth?” Sigh).  

Before meeting Karla, I would have yawned at this date and said, “What are you talking about? I’ve got until Christmas Eve at 6PM—even later if I want to do a little shopping at Walgreens*?  

Walgreens last minute shopping isn’t so bad. I’m not throwing any stones. Great grandma gets a package of extra-large depends; Uncle George gets a bottle of Listerine (make that two bottles); Mom gets cologne; Dad gets aftershave (I hope he likes Brute); and all the kids get candy (although Walgreens does have a row of toys containing playthings the likes of which no child would ever touch). Shopping at Walgreens on Christmas Eve is not out-of-the-question for the Christmas Shopping Procrastinator.  

There is no shame from me towards the Christmas Eve Procrastinator. If anything, this person is a hero. Braving tough conditions (the pressure of finding the “perfect gift” as the clock is winding down); the ability to wrestle with a 83-year-old, arthritic fellow procrastinator in Walgreens over the last lawn gnome at Walgreens (Walgreens sells lawn gnomes?); and displaying the everlasting hope that Walgreens hasn’t run out of Christmas wrapping paper and tape. “Happy Birthday” gift-bags count, right? Technically, it is Jesus’ birthday. There is no humiliation coming from this direction, my friend (Karla might have a different opinion of the Walgreens last-minute shopper, but not me).

The Christmas Eve Shopping Procrastinator is in very good company. As you know the Bible’s main agenda is to get people to repent and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world; and in so doing, experience the Living Water that quenches one’s deepest desires as the new believer joins with Jesus in building his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As the words of the Bible are coming to a close, God almighty is doing a last-ditch shopping effort to bring into the fold any procrastinator who has read the words but not yet believed. 

The Bible has a grand total of 783,137 words (depending on the version used, of course). If one were to begin reading at word number 783,016 through 783,039 (the closing comments, in other words—“in other words” ha ha, pun intended). This is what the Bible says:

“Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

God Almighty with the last few words in the last chapter of the last book is still aiming for that last second procrastinator. “Come,” He says, “Come.” Let the thirsty receive the free gift (see what happens there? Hey Shoppers, there’s a free gift. It’s a better offer than anything at Walgreens. It’s free. Totally free. The Living Water is free!). In the closing moments, as the clock is winding down on the Bible, with the final “Amen” in sight, God makes one last-ditch effort to save just one more. “Come all you who are thirsty. Come!”

Praise the Lord!

Questions Regarding Why Central Church is Meeting on Christmas Eve AND Christmas Day

Central Church is having Christmas Eve AND Christmas Day Service?

Two completely different services?
Yup. Traditional Candle lighting on Christmas Eve. Unplugged Joel Close and family (and me) on Christmas day. 

Aren’t you “guilting” people into coming to church?
Hope not.

Christmas is about family.
No, actually, Christmas is about Jesus.

Doesn’t the church prioritize families and family time?
Families are important, really important, but as in all things, nothing comes before Jesus.

I don’t remember going to church on Christmas.
Christians have been meeting on Christmas Day (whether it fell on a Sunday or not) for centuries. In fact, it’s just been in the last 100 years or so, that some Christians have felt the need to NOT meet should Christmas fall on a Sunday. 

When was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday?
2016. We had a Christmas Day service then too. A lot of people were here.

When is the next time Christmas will fall on a Sunday?
2033. We won’t be having this discussion again for eleven years (Three leap years are between now and then), and I won’t be pastoring when we do (I’m getting too old for these discussions).  

Will Jesus think less of me if I’m not there?
Nope. (See question on “guilting” people). Jesus always loves you.

Will the pastors think less of me if I’m not there?
Nope. (See question on “guilting” people). Pastors mostly love you too. 

Can’t the church take the day off when Christmas falls on a Sunday?
Help me out here…. Does the Bible say, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy unless Christmas falls on a Sunday or unless your kid has a soccer game at 10AM or unless you really don’t want to roll out of bed or unless…” Well, you get the idea.

Doesn’t the staff need a break?
Our staff works hard, but we are a church and the church meets every Sunday to gather, celebrate, remember and rejoice the Good News that we serve a Risen Savior. Every. Single. Sunday. (unless we are in a pandemic and the government shuts us down).

My kids will want to play with their new toys.
They will still be there after the service

I’ve got to prepare a big dinner for the family.
Plan accordingly.

I’ve got a lot of people coming to my house.
Invite them to go to church with you.

Some won’t go.
Tell them, “we will miss you and don’t let the potatoes boil over while we are gone.”

My family will not understand if I am not with them on Christmas morning.
OK, make a decision. If it is better to be with them, be with them. But we are still meeting.

Will it be a good service?
Are you kidding me? It’s going to be a great service. 

Who is leading the worship portion?
Did you forget question #2? The Close family are leading.

Who is preaching?
Again, it’s in question #2. Yours truly.

Will it be a “normal” service?
Nope. Singing carols. A little preaching. More carols. Scripture reading. More Carols. More teeny tiny homily.  More carols. And prayer… it’s Jesus birthday, of course, we are going to talk to Him.

That’s a lot– how long will the service last?
An hour, maybe a little less. You’ll be out by noon for sure.

What times are the services?
Christmas Eve is at 5PM. 
Christmas Day is at 11AM (New Year’s Day is at 11AM too).

So why are we meeting again?
How would you like it if it were your birthday and no one showed up to celebrate?

I hope you can join us for BOTH Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you can only catch one of those services, Great! If you can catch both, GREAT GREAT! Bring friends!!!

It’s Christmas! Jesus birthday! Let’s celebrate!

Interesting Facts Concerning the Church of the Nazarene Churches (USA) Over 1000 (COK)* 

There have been at least 51 different churches in USA/Canada region that at some time in their history have averaged over 1,000 in Sunday morning worship attendance.* These churches have been labeled “COK” for “Churches of 1,000.” Of those COK and former COK churches, 19 continue to average over 1,000 in 2022. Four COK churches, of the 51, experienced its best year ever in worship attendance in 2022 (Beavercreek, OH; Oro Valley, AZ: Wooster, OH; and Crossroads Cowboy Church, AR). Of the 19 COK churches still averaging over 1,000, eight reported growth in 2022; nine reported a decline and two churches remained the same.

There have been 13 USA/Canada churches average over 2,000 in the history of the Church of the Nazarene. Only three churches currently are over 2,000 (Oro Valley; Be Hope in Beavercreek; and Bethany First Church). For Beavercreek, 2022 was the first year over 2,000; Oro Valley has averaged over 2,000 for the last two years; while Bethany First has continually averaged over 2,000 since 1982. 

26 of the 51 churches have an average attendance in 2022 that is less than half of their highest point yearly attendance.  There are 14 former COK churches that averaged less than 500 in worship attendance. Three churches average attendance was less than 200 and one averaged 90 in attendance in 2022. That particular church averaged 1450 in worship attendance in 2004. Several churches experienced steep declines during the pandemic– one church dropping 1488 and another 899 in attendance from 2019 to 2022. 

What do these statistics indicate?

  1. It’s hard to maintain an attendance over 1,000 (only 37% of the COK churches have done so). 
  2. It’s even harder to maintain an attendance over 2,000. Only Bethany First church has steadily maintained an average over 2000 for a prolonged period of time. Why is that? Good pastoral and lay leadership of Bethany First church is a major factor and having a college next door doesn’t hurt. 
  3. Numerous factors play into the declining attendance. The pandemic, a post Christian America, church splits, church satellites organizing as separate churches; poor pastoral transitions, moral failures of leadership, change in community dynamics, etc.
  4. Today’s reported numbers do not equal tomorrow’s growth and health. In fact, if anything, today’s numbers indicate the necessity to prepare for sustainable ministries with less reliance on the person occupying the pulpit. Leaders retire or change. Some fail. Wise churches are those that develop strategies for growth that are not dependent on its current pastoral leadership. 

Who cares what happens in the big churches?

We all should care. Large, strong, healthy churches are good for all the churches on the district and denomination. This is true for the financial benefits when COK churches are paying their fair share of apportionments. It is also true when COK churches are being the best neighbors in their community. It is good name association for the surrounding Nazarene churches when a large church is doing well and blessing its community (The opposite is also true. A moral failure in a large church, hurts the surrounding churches in a guilt-by-association” sort of way). Moreover, generally large churches cluster together. They might not all average over 1,000 but strong healthy churches, frequently breed other strong healthy churches. 

As life in a post pandemic, post-Christian America becomes more into focus, we need strong, healthy Nazarene churches. We need churches that the denomination can point to and rely upon to lead the charge and win the lost. Oro Valley church reported 126 conversions and bringing in 204 new Nazarenes in 2022. Be Hope (Beavercreek) did even better: 232 conversions and 187 New Nazarenes. We need churches like these and we need to go and do likewise. Strong large congregations are good for the denomination. We need more of them serving Jesus and blessing the church.

Current COK Churches averaging over 1,000 in attendance in 2022:

  1. Oro Valley, Arizona (2590)
  2. Be Hope- Beavercreek, Ohio (2192)
  3. Bethany First, Oklahoma (2065)
  4. Lakeland Highland Park (1912)
  5. Wooster, Ohio (1796)
  6. Grove City, Ohio (1774)
  7. Crossroads, Goshen, Indiana (1665)
  8. Fairview Village, Pennsylvania (1503)
  9. Flint Central, Michigan (1488)
  10. Cincinnati Springdale, Ohio (1468)
  11. Pismo Beach, California (1374)
  12. Crossroad Cowboy, Arkansas (1235)
  13. Olathe College Church, Kansas (1234)
  14. Prairie Heights, North Dakota (1210)
  15. Richmond Southside, Virginia (1181)
  16. Medford, Oregon (1080)
  17. Jackson First, Michigan 1030)
  18. Valparaiso, Indiana (1016)
  19. Nampa First, Idaho (1003)

*A few disclaimers: 

1) These stats are for discussion purposes. They are not official stats, but taken from the Nazarene Website from churches that I recall as being over 1,000. There may be others. This is especially true if there is a church that had not previously averaged 1000 in attendance. A Top 100 list was requested, and not received; 
2) These stats do not include those churches over 1,000 that have left the denomination (I recall at least one or two such churches);
3) These stats do not include churches that no longer exist (I can think of one such church); 
4) These stats do not include churches that have (amicably or not) divided into two churches and were re-organized under separate names (i.e. College Church—Kankakee, Illinois became Gathering Point and College Church—University Avenue. Together these churches averaged over 1,113 in 2022.  Kankakee College Church at its height also averaged over 1000 in worship attendance); and
5) I’m a stats nerd. That’s why I looked into this. 

The Church of the Nazarene’s Massive Decline in Attendance (USA/Canada) and What to Do About It

A quick perusal of the official statistics from the Church of the Nazarene website will tell you the Church of the Nazarene in USA/Canada is in a steep worship attendance decline. A historically, massive abrupt free fall. The church was already in decline for the last 10+ years, but nothing like what has happened in the last two years. The pandemic coupled with life in a Post Christian America, the very public failures of the notable Christians, the backlash against many evangelicals’ politicization and other factors have contributed to this decline.  

There are exceptions (like in most any rule). For example, Oro Valley in Arizona went from 2223 (2020) to 2590 (2022). Last year, they took in 204 new Nazarenes and their income was up $800,000. There are others exceptions too. Praise the Lord!

For every victory story, there are 10 churches (or more) in utter and massive decline. Large and medium sized churches are taking the biggest hits. Smaller churches have seen less dramatic decline but have had little attendance growth (there are exceptions too, no doubt). On the district where I serve, 17 churches (23% of the district) have an attendance 25 or less. Attendance on the district is down 2000 people in the last two years (-28%). This is not atypical. The good news (is it good?) is that giving has not experienced a similar decline. It may be off slightly in some churches, but many churches have experienced deep attendance cuts, while their income has remained steady or even increased.

What’s happening? It would appear that the nominal, non-tithing members have disappeared and the rock-solid members are coming and giving. The attendance decline could be in part because “regular attendance” is less “regular” than prior to the pandemic. “Regular Attenders” are coming less often. Instead of two or three times a month, now it’s once a month. 

Is the steady income “good news”?  It may be steady now, but how sustainable is it if those giving are older (in many cases) or if those giving are watching on-line and have kept sending in their tithe. As on-line viewers get more and more disconnected from the church will they continue to tithe with the same frequency? Probably not.

The Church of the Nazarene is not unique. This same steep decline is happening is all denominations in all places in the USA.  We are dealing with a new reality. These are uncharted waters for churches in America.

There is no one-size fits all answer, but here are a few suggestions in moving forward:

  1. Move to “a circuit rider” system to save smaller churches. One pastor serving two close proximity perishes. Churches, not be able to afford a pastor (and his/her health insurance) on its own, will need to have one shared pastor.
  2. Recruit second career pastors. The denomination needs to prioritize an urgent call to pray for God to call men and women who have retired in another field, yet still have energy to serve in smaller churches that could otherwise not afford a pastor. A small church might offer a parsonage or small housing allowance, while the early retiree will have a pension/health insurance to supplement his/her income. 
  3. Pastors will need to be bi-vocational. Ministerial training in our colleges need to focus on teaching skills other than ministerial so that the pastor can enter the marketplace. The days of churches fully supporting a pastor and his/her family are coming to an end.  
  4. Be prepared to close churches. A lot of churches. Will the 17 churches on my district running 25 or less still be around in ten years? A few will. Many will not. 
  5. Use money from the sale of closed churches for non-traditional church plants. The way we have done things in the past will not work in our new reality. Some older, decrepit buildings will be difficult to unload or have little value, the district leadership will need to think creatively about these buildings usage.
  6. Be open and honest with the church and pastoral staff about attendance and income declines. Shrinking large and mid-sized churches will mean the need for less pastoral staff. Cutting salaries are the most difficult decisions, but frequently it is the only way to save significant income. 
  7. Pray for revival. Only God can change the current trajectory. 

There are challenging days ahead. But be hopeful. Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it.” That is still true in a post-Christian, post pandemic America.

*Full disclosure. In the church where I serve (Flint Central) attendance has gone up (1364 to 1488) and Income up (about $200,000); but we will experience a decline in 2023 (unless something changes in the next three months). 

If only we could give a yellow card to bad behaving church members…

The best thing in soccer (in my opinion from watching the World Cup) is when a player does something unbecoming or commits a foul.  The foul isn’t what’s great, it’s what happens next. The referee runs up to the misbehaving player; doesn’t say a word; but holds high a yellow card. If the untoward behavior was really bad, the player gets a red card and the athlete is kicked out of the match. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could hand out yellow cards in church too? 

No words. 
Just stand before the deserving, misbehaving individual holding up the “yellow card of shame.” 

Here’s my list of deserving a yellow card church offenders:

  1. Cell phone owners whose ringtones blare during a funeral service. (It’s a red card if the song is Cool and the Gang’s “Celebrate Good times, c’mon.”) 
  2. People who can’t afford to tithe, but can afford luxury cars, trips, the latest designer clothes and other extravagances.
  3. Drivers who don’t take turns in the duo drive thru lanes at Chick-fil-A (technically this is not church issue, but come on– It’s Chick-fil-A, for crying out loud. 
  4. Anyone thinking that women preachers are less than men preachers.
  5. Church members who exit because “they are not being fed.”
  6. Social media users who pick fights; air grievances; and are your garden variety jerks.
  7. Authors of cowardly anonymous letters
  8. Any person who brings a salmon or Spam dish-to-pass to a church potluck.
  9. Those who angrily complain to the pastor about the youth pastor 30 seconds before the worship service is to begin
  10. Pineapple on pizza people. (not church related, but true)
  11. People who complain about the commercialization/secularization of Christmas but who do not attend Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day services (Prioritize one if not both). 

Some of those were silly, others are far more serious. I’ll not be handing out yellow cards anytime soon, but this is meant to be reminder this Christmas Season: Let’s be kind. Don’t do any yellow-card-worthy annoyances. Do nothing that would land you on the “naughty list.” Keep in mind that kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (being right and annoying is not). 

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:13-15

Let the 2023 General Assembly Countdown Begin

After a two-year delay (thank you Covid) the Church of the Nazarene will finally have her “family reunion” (General Assembly) in June of 2023. All resolution changes for the Manual were due by December 1. Delegates received their housing forms for General Assembly last week. Guests can register through the Nazarene website this Friday. We are officially in General Assembly 2023 Count Down Mode. It’s just 27 weeks away. Let the speculations begin…

  • Will the Church of the Nazarene pass a resolution to allow for social drinking?
  • Will the church address transgender individuals? 
  • Will there be a statement regarding capital punishment in the Manual? (There’s not one? Nope).
  • Will the church pass a more readable and explainable Article X (sanctification)? (Please).
  • Will the closet fundamentalists among us want to change Article IV (Holy Scripture)? (ugh)
  • Since we’ve gone six years in-between Assemblies, will this be the year when the GMC bean-counters gets their wish for a cost effective five-year General Assembly cycle instead of the current four-year?
  • Can there finally be a review process for District Superintendents? (There’s not one? Nope)
  • Will there be a job description for Regional Directors? (There’s not one? Nope)
  • US Presidents can serve well into their 70’s, why not General Superintendents? 
  • Is it possible to have a General Assembly without any craziness on the floor– i.e. passing a resolution that defies biology? It’s happened, then rescinded upon further review.

(There will be plenty of other resolutions than those mentioned above, the delegate’s book of proposed changes is usually an inch thick).

And, of course, with two General Superintendents aging out (Eugenio Duarte and David Graves), the question everyone is asking: Who will be elected General Superintendent? (Maybe the question that should be asked: “Who in their right mind would want that crazy, difficult, stress-filled, hotel-hopping, away-from-home job?”)

The United Methodist Church fireworks won’t occur at the 2023 Nazarene General Assembly. (The UMC is splitting, for the most part, over the issue of human sexuality. In the last General Assembly, the delegates passed our current statement on human sexuality with 97% agreement). But are we travelling down the United Methodist road? We have generally lagged 20 years behind the United Methodists in practice and procedure. Will we eventually land where they have landed? Is a church split inevitable in 2043? Can we take steps even now stave off such eventuality. Stay tuned.

The theme of this General Assembly is “Jesus is Lord.” Everyone should be able to rally around that theme. There should be 100% agreement. We should be united in mission and message.

In the meantime, everyone who calls themselves “Nazarene” should be in prayer. The world still needs the message that the Church of the Nazarene has historically given: “Holiness unto the Lord is our watch word and song;” Making Christ-like Disciples in the nations is our strongest desire; and We are a Christian, Holiness, Missional people. Pray not for uniformity, but for unity. Pray that the Holy Spirit pours a holy fire upon us. Pray. It’s not too early to pray. We’ve got 27 weeks. Let the countdown begin.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 1 Corinthians 1:10

Ornament Shopping in a Rough Year

Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is the world’s largest Christmas store, and is located in Frankenmuth, Michigan. It has every type of ornament and Christmas item imaginable. Jim Shore? Got it. Thomas Kincade? Got it. Hummel’s? Got them. Want a glass Big Foot ornament? They got it. Need a professional $999 Santa Suit? They got it. Must have a pink and purple unicorn stocking (what does that have to do with Christmas? I have no idea, but…) They got it. Harry Potter fans need a “Hogwarts Great Hall & Tower” for your Christmas village. For $299, they got it. How about a “Bob-Ross-with-Pallet” Nutcracker? They got it. 

Every year, Karla and I make the trek to Frankenmuth to get our boys (and their wives) an ornament for their tree (The District Pastor’s Christmas Dinner is held in Frankenmuth at Zehender’s Restaurant this coming Monday, so we will be in Bronner’s on Monday afternoon). Usually the ornament has something to do with some happening of that year. When Alex and Blaire bought their first home, we purchased an ornament commemorating that event. The year our family went to Italy, we got them ornaments in reference to that very special trip. I’m sure this year, we will get one about a baby-on-the-way. You get the idea. 

If you were to go to Bronner’s shopping for an ornament that best characterized your 2022, what ornament would you purchase? Have you had a defining moment in your life this year? Was there a special trip or a milestone of some kind to celebrate and remember? 

What if you truthfully say: “I have nothing good to remember from 2022. It’s been a hard and horrible year.” Not only was there no special trip and the kids or grandkids did nothing spectacular, but the year was full of grief and heartache. What if looking back on this year brings tears not cheers? Could you buy an ornament at Bronner’s?

Now, I don’t know if they have such ornaments (they have everything imaginable so maybe they do), but maybe your ornament would be something engraved saying: 

A rotten, terrible, very bad year… 
it was for years like this…
that Jesus came. 

Maybe it’s a little long for an ornament, but it’s true. 

The Good News of Christmas, of course, has nothing to do with unicorns, big foot or anything from Harry Potter. Instead, Christmas celebrations are a reminder of the simple truth that God is with us. In good years and bad, God is with us. When on the mountain top or in the valley, God is with us. Maybe the 2022 ornament should be a mountain as a reminder that when at the top of the mountain looking down or at the bottom of the mountain looking up, God is always with us.