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Pruning and Cold Hardening of the Church

Recently I read a commentary by a pastor that identified American Christianity in a stage of pruning, of winter hardening. Cold hardening is the physiological and biochemical process by which an organism prepares for cold weather. 

When the temperature drops, a plants membrane’s fluidity changes. The cells shrink as water is drawn out. In order to maintain surface area cells form more and stronger strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast to the cell wall. Even while the cell is shrinking, it is building stronger connections that will allow the cell to remain strong during the winter and prepared to expand when the warmer weather arrives.

Image by nightowl from Pixabay 

The temperature for Christianity appears to be dropping in America. The number of people in America that identify as Christian is dropping. In 2018 and 2019 the Pew Research Center telephone surveys revealed 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians. This is a decline of 12% from a decade ago. The people who identify with “nothing in particular” has increased over that same period from 17% to 26%. (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/).

Rates of affiliation are not the only thing in decline. All Christian denominations are experiencing a decline in attendance. More Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say they attend at least monthly (45%). The rate of attendance is even more alarming as the numbers are looked at by age group. About two-thirds of Millennials attend religious services a few times a year or less often, including four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go.

Christians are declining as a share of the population in the U.S. and as an absolute number.

The causes of this decline are difficult to pinpoint. There is not just one cause and so there is not just one fix. Carey Nieuwhof wrote an article explaining ten reasons why church attenders are attending less often (https://careynieuwhof.com/10-reasons-even-committed-church-attenders-attending-less-often/). Most of his explanations demonstrate that Christianity is not convenient in our culture. 

There is some research that points out that the number of people in churches that clearly identify with the teaching of their denomination and consistently attend church has not significantly varied. The number of people that are culturally Christians as a matter of convenience has declined as Christianity has become less convenient. This evaluation of the data tries to explain the decades long drift away from church attendance as a demonstration that cultural Christianity no longer exists.

The summer season of easy growth in congregations has passed and congregations are moving into a winter season filled with challenges for survival. Tim Keller (https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/witness_winsomeness_and_winter) has identified four “seasons” in the cycle of the church’s relation to the culture. You can read about this framework in more detail in his book Center Church.

  • Winter - the church faces hostility from the culture, is weak or underground, and sees limited evangelistic fruit
  • Spring - the church is embattled but growing and signs of life are beginning to break through
  • Summer - the church is highly regarded in the public square and Christians are involved in the center of cultural production
  • Autumn - the church experiencing a decline in cultural influence and believers are increasingly marginalized

The move between seasons will create conflict in congregations as expectations for previously successful strategies are not reframed for the changing context.

Does this mean the end of the church? No. A church built by human hands may fall apart, but the church that is the communion of saints built by the Spirit of God will never fall. 

During the transition between autumn and winter seasons of the church, we will be marginalized and persecuted. We will experience a decline in cultural influence. We will no longer be the center of cultural movements. This shrinking of the church in the public square will be difficult. People who are not prepared to see this changing of seasons will be confused and angry at their cultural church being taken away.

Winter seasons are necessary for deciduous trees. Unchecked growth of trees without winter lead to soft and mushy trees that have overladen branches that lack the structure to feed them. Winter hardening provides a tree the opportunity to strengthen the Hechtian strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast with the cell wall. The shrinking of the plant’s cells during winter allow it to release some of the unsustainable growth which did not have supporting structure. The winter season can lead to deeper roots but the difficult pruning of winter may make a tree look bare until the blooming leaves of summer again appear. 

detailed image of Hechtian strands

The church has gone through these seasons before and emerged stronger and better prepared. We will endure if we build on the strong foundation of Christ. We will tumble and fall if we build our identity on having a central place in American culture. Our roots are deep when they are nourished by the savior God that created the world. Our roots are shallow when they are nourished by the praise and pomp of the latest viral trends of the internet. When the storms of winter come the trees with shallow roots will be uprooted. John the Baptist told the Phariseesa and Sadducees come to his baptism, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9-10).

The pruning of the branches is difficult to understand, but we trust in the wisdom of the Lord. Isaiah wrote, “For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away” (Isaiah 18:5). Jesus also references this work of the Lord in John 15, and confidently declares, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear fruit” (John 15:1-2). We should be praying for the vinedresser to prune us so we may bear fruit.

Posted by Evan Gaertner

In the Fullness of Time

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In the Fullness of Time

So many of the events that surround this Christmas time are out of my control. I have been forced to change traditions and give up on some planned events. This Christmas time in my family, in the church, and in this world appeared out of sync. Nothing lines up for me the way I expect. When will the time arrive I can do what I want how I want?

The first person mentioned in the account of the Christmas told by St. Luke is neither Mary, nor Joseph, nor the Shepherds. Fifteen hundred miles away in Rome Ceasar Augustus determined it was time for a census. Paul Maier, in his book In the Fullness of Time, writes, "Luke, more than any other New Testament author, is very careful to anchor biblical events into the secular history of his day.” It was the decision of the Ceasar that led to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The home of Joseph and Mary was in Nazareth. Since both Mary and Joseph were distant descendants of King David, they traveled to Bethlehem, David’s city.

The time to travel was not convenient for Mary who was pregnant. The events in this world continue to seem inconvenient for God’s people. Yet God has a good sense of timing. He knows exactly the right moment to arrive in this world with His grace and mercy. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5). I am reminded each Christmas season that this season is a wonderful time because of what God has done. We can make all sorts of plans and work to make the celebration of Christmas perfect but the timing of Christmas always arrives in a world that needs a savior. 

Christmas time is perfect because of Jesus and not us. Our calendar divides our time into years B.C. and A.D. But even the timing of this pivot in our calendar can remind us that this world misunderstands the timing of God. It is not likely that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1. The Gospel of Matthew tells us about the wise men visiting Herd the Great. Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C., and this king was very much alive during the visit of the wise men. Jesus was therefore likely born during the winter of 5-4 B.C. Dionysius Exiguus, a monk-mathematician-astronomer in the sixth-century, reformed the Roman calendar to make it pivot upon the birth of Christ instead of the founding of the city of Rome. Dionysius placed the birth of Jesus in year 753 of the founding of Rome. Herod died only 749 years after Rome’s founding. Dionysius got the date wrong, but he did understand that all of history pivots on the birth of Jesus.

We do not celebrate the date on the calendar. We do trust that our lives pivot on the promises of Jesus. Our lives do not pivot on COVID, vaccines, government mandates, or anything else in this world. Now is the time to rejoice that God is with us no matter what time it is on the clock or the calendar. Your Christmas celebration may not look perfect this world but trust in God and rejoice that your life pivots toward eternity because of Jesus Christ.

Posted by Evan Gaertner

Response to MDHHS Epidemic Order from November 15, 2020

Please note: A summary of our responses to yesterday's MDHHS order is located at the end of this letter.
 
November 16, 2020
 
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
 
As I'm sure you're aware, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from Covid-19 are on the rise here in Michigan and across the country. We mourn with those who have lost loved ones and who are suffering from this disease. 
 
On Sunday, November 15, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a new epidemic order. This order aims to try to slow the growing spread of COVID in the state. Between November 18 and December 8 there are a number of mandates the residents of our state will experience. 
 
The MDHHS Order Article 10, d. states “Neither a place of religious worship nor its owner is subject to penalty under this order for allowing worship at such place. No individual is subject to penalty under this order for engaging in religious worship at a place of religious worship.” Therefore, we will use our discretion with regard to worship services, although social gatherings and other programs and activities may be limited.
 
We certainly want to take seriously the guidance and advice of our public health officials. This is a good reminder to us that we should continue to observe proper distancing, face covering, and hand hygiene. I know that we've been following these protocols for months now, and it's easy to start to get relaxed. The risk of infection still remains, and we need to do our best to minimize this risk, not only for ourselves, but also for others around us.
 
Our Shepherd Lutheran Church will continue to offer regular Saturday and Sunday worship services, as well as midweek services on Thanksgiving Eve and Day, and during Advent. We have already adjusted our service opportunities on Christmas Eve to spread out the attendance across five worship services. We are thankful for everyone who has participated in worship and followed safety protocols. We are moving all Bible studies at Our Shepherd toward online methods until December 9.
 
As you consider what activities you consider to be "essential," I trust you will recognize that hearing the Word of God, receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and simply gathering together as His people is important to who we are as Christians. Besides our regular worship opportunities, we provide small group communion opportunities on Sunday afternoons beginning at 12:15pm. Groups of no more than 10 people gather safely for the Lord’s Supper. Please call or email the church office (248-646-6100 or ) to make a reservation for the small group communion.
 
I also know that many of you have health conditions and risk factors that may lead you to minimize your exposure in the community. We will continue to make videos of the services available on our Facebook page, YouTube, and our church website. OS@home remains a valuable resource for you to find all the ways we support worship at home.
 
If you are not able to join us for worship, we encourage you to remain faithful with your giving. Electronic giving is available on our website (OurShepherd.net/give). 
 
If you are feeling sick or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the Coronavirus, stay home. Please keep in touch with the pastoral staff, so we can continue to provide you with pastoral care.
 
This virus and the mitigation protocols present risks not only to our physical health, but our mental health as well. The winter time and the holiday season typically see a rise in cases of depression and suicide. As people feel more isolated from one another, this risk increases dramatically. If you are feeling down, the pastoral staff at Our Shepherd want to help. Please check in with your loved ones and fellow members of this congregation. Remember not only the elderly, but the young as well. Speak the Word of God to one another. Pray together. Seek the strength and the hope that only Christ can give. 
 
 
Pastor Evan Gaertner
 
 
"But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5).
 
 
 
Summary of our actions due to the
MDHHS epidemic order of Nov. 15, 2020:
 
  • Worship services will continue to take place as scheduled on weekends, Thanksgiving Eve and Day, Advent, and Christmas.
  • All in-person Bible classes, meetings, and in-person events scheduled between now and December 8 will be moved online or postponed.
  • Wednesday Word and Sacrament on the school campus will NOT take place November 18, but will take place as scheduled on December 16.
  • Small group communion will continue to be available by appointment on Sunday afternoons, beginning at 12:15 PM. Please call 248.646.6100 to schedule.
  • Live-streaming of worship services and Bible studies is always an option. Navigate your device to Facebook, YouTube, or OS@home.
  • Please continue to support Our Shepherd’s mission and ministry. Our in-person attendance has decreased, but our costs remain the same! Donate at ourshepherd.net/give. Thank you for your faithfulness.

 

Posted by Evan Gaertner

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