retailchanges

Ask ten people what is behind the massive shake-up in the retail industry and you will probably get eleven different answers. The truth is probably found in a combination of them. E-commerce has changed shopping habits, to be sure. A generation that grew up on malls no longer has as much need to buy what retailers are offering. They are trying to rid themselves of all the "stuff" they've accumulated over the years! Millenials' tastes in products and shopping venues are not those of boomers. The Amazon juggernaut seems unstoppable.

In a similar way, if you ask ten people what is causing the change in America's worship habits and attitudes, you will probably get eleven different answers, too. Observers note that denominational loyalty is off (much as it is in retailing). While traditional worship still has its followers, even among some young adults, so-called contemporary worship holds the first place today. Ways of engaging members has changed, too. Whereas one first had to belong to a church before being asked to participate or hold an office, no such "rule" exists in many non-denominational churches. Couples who come from different denominational backgrounds find that going to a non-denominational church is a workable compromise.

But there are some false explanations, too. Contemporary worshipers are accused of being drawn in by "feel good" worship and messages. Others criticize them for promoting "experiential" worship. But those phrases need much more unpacking. What worshiper in a traditional service does not wish to go home feeling good? In fact, if they don't, we say that they heard too much Law and not enough Gospel. Several worship settings urge the worshiper to leave, "thank(ing) the Lord and sing(ing) His praise, tell(ing) everyone what He has done." And what He has done has been done for me! As for criticizing "experiential" worship, this, too, needs to be unpacked. What worshiper in a traditional service does not wish to go home without having had an experience of God? One of our hymns says it clearly, "Here, O my Lord I see you face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen." Still another criticism is an apparent lack of concern for doctrine among the non-denoms. Explain to them that you don't need to be rebaptized because you were already baptized as an infant. See how unconcerned they are about that! Talk about the end times from an amillenial perspective and see how they react to that! Talk about what happens in communion and see if they agree.

Do you really want to see what's attracting people to those churches? There's no better way than visiting your local "big box" church and see it for yourself. Far better than assuming what you see on network TV services is what you will find in your hometown version. It may be, but you won't know until you've been there and asked others, "What drew you to this church?" Nobody wants you to become an imitator, but it would help you get a better picture.

charlottesville

As part of one network's news analysis of the protests in Charlottesville, someone quoted Nelson Mandela, "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." Sounds nice, but is it true that love comes more naturally to the human heart?

Not according to the Bible. True, we humans were created in the image of God. It would stand to reason therefore, that since God is love, we would share that same attribute. But already in Genesis 6:5, "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." Something happened between the time when God pronounced his creation "good," and God's later severe evaluation of mankind. Christians recognize that "something" as the Fall. The condition we find ourselves in has been laid at the foot of "original sin." That is defined as the innate inability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Were this pristine condition still in place, there would be no Charlottesvilles.

But of course, we are not born fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. So fear and hatred develop quickly when we encounter those who would prevent us from having all things go our way. There are only two ways out of this situation, and neither is foolproof. First, the government can compel the behavior it desires for the good of the community. Brandishing financial penalties, physical punishments, and rewards, the government seeks to encourage or coerce outward behavior that it believes is best for the common good and for the protection of all its citizens. Success depends upon the government's willingness to make and enforce laws that will achieve such ends. Still, it cannot change hearts that are bent on hating others. It can only force outward compliance with its laws, and with such compliance often comes resentment. When resentment builds to a certain level, outbreaks of resistance and revolt are not far off.

The second way out of the situation addresses the problem of the heart, from which this hatred springs. Here the solution is conversion which the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel's preaching and teaching. If you remember, I said that neither approach is foolproof. The problem with the Gospel solution is that Christians remain sinners even as they are saints. We still can be driven by our own insecurities and resentments that lead us to look at others with prejudice. Every time those inclinations break out, however, God calls us to repentance and a return to Christ for forgiveness for this sin. Our common sinful humanity put us all under God's judgment; our common sinful humanity is what Christ came to redeem. As Paul says, God condemns us all so that He might have mercy on us all.

Christians who understand our common plight and our common Savior need to deal with the sins of racism and prejudice on both fronts. As citizens, we can promote and support laws that address prejudice and hatred. We can admonish racism and the like wherever we find them (and that sometimes includes one's own family members). As Christians, we are called upon to address sinful behavior with Law and Gospel in hopes that the Spirit will bring about repentance and faith. Over time, the Spirit produces the fruit of such faith and behaviors and attitudes that are changed from within. In addition, Christians will take every opportunity to denounce any philosophy that hijacks the name "Christian" in service to twisted and decidedly unChristian causes.

sermonseries

Sermon series – there hasn't been a time when pastors haven't used them. They usually appear during Advent, Lent, and summer. They provide a nice "break" from time to time. But there are preachers who move from one sermon series to another the entire year. They often attempt to answer relevant questions: How can I have a stronger faith? How can I be a more patient person? What can I do when I feel adrift? Perhaps this format springs from a desire to create a "hook" that brings people back each week, much like movie theaters ran weekly serials along with the regularly scheduled movie in the '40s and '50s. the goal was to bring the customer back each week. Sermon series may also reflect the style of writing in some current TV shows, whose weekly episodes build on those of the previous weeks. Still, the question comes, "What if I'm not interested in the subject matter of this series?"

Perhaps the most universally interesting "series" is the four Gospels narratives. Each week the hearer experiences an episode from Jesus' life and ministry from beginning to end. The genius of this series is that Christ is always front and center and not tacked on at the end of the sermon as the quick fix to solve the particular problem which the series raises that week. On a small piece of paper taped behind more than one pulpit, I've seen the words, "Sir, we would see Jesus." That is a powerful tap on the shoulder to every preacher. Your hearers have come to meet Jesus. They have come to hear Jesus. They have come to receive Jesus in word and Sacrament and to express their thanks and commitment to Him with praise and thanksgiving. I could read a dozen books that tell me how to be a better parent, how to cope with loneliness, how to secure for myself financial peace of mind. Our preachers did not go to seminary to learn answers for those problems. The Bible was not written to provide those kinds of answers. But what we did go to school for was to learn how to diagnose all of those worries and anxieties as forms of idolatry and call the hearer to repentance. We went to seminary to learn how Jesus forgives and heals from such idolatries. When the man shouted to Jesus, "Make my brother divide the inheritance with me," I wonder how many of today's preachers would reply, "Next week I'm beginning a new series on how you can find financial peace of mind. Come and listen to it."

Jesus offers better, and so should our preachers. The preacher's challenge is to address concerns in such a way that Jesus' words are fulfilled: "He that hears you hears me."