Little Churches

How do you define church?

Dictionary.com offers these top definitions of the word “church”:

1. a building for public Christian worship.
2. public worship of God or a religious service in such a building: to attend church regularly.
3. the whole body of Christian believers; Christendom.
4. any division of this body professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority; a Christian denomination.
5. that part of the whole Christian body, or of a particular denomination,belonging to the same city, country, nation, etc.
6. a body of Christians worshiping in a particular building or constituting one congregation: She is a member of this church.
7. ecclesiastical organization, power, and affairs, as distinguished from the state.
Every one of those definitions falls short of the true meaning of what the Church is, and even all of them taken together still doesn’t measure up to it. Our English word “church” can be traced back to the Greek word kyriakos, which literally means “the Lord’s dwelling.” Where does God dwell? Paul writes in Eph 2:22 – “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” In other words, God dwells in his people.
Whenever you see the word “church” in Scripture, we’re actually translating a different Greek word, ecclesia. This word can either mean “a called out people” or “a gathering.” Words like “assembly” and “congregation” work as well. But the most important point about this word is that Scripture never uses it to refer to an organization, a hierarchy, a building, or a function or event. It refers to people – people called out of the world gathered together in the name of Jesus.
Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” While the Church can be all the people of God in all the world, it is also present where two or more people come together in the name of Jesus, united by their saving faith in him.
Have you ever thought of your family as a church? It fits the definition. If you are a Christian parent seeking to raise your children as disciples of Jesus, you should know that your family is a little church all on its own. You might not be called by a larger congregation into public ministry, yet you have a responsibility to shepherd – to pastor – your family. This is especially true of fathers, to whom God has given the role of leadership in the family, but it’s also true of mothers (all the more when the father is not present or not a believer), grandparents, uncles and aunts.
As a Little Church, your family can do all the things a larger congregation, and the Church as a whole, does. Think about the main things you do at church:
  1. Worship: In corporate (large body) worship with your congregation, you sing, praise, pray, and hear the Word. At home, you can sing songs of praise and devotion to Jesus. You can lead your children in prayer, confessing sins and asking God for what you need. You can read the Bible to each other.
  2. Grow: In your congregation you have Bible studies, Sunday School, and other activities to help you grow in your faith and knowledge of Scripture. At home, you can study the Bible together, talking about its meaning, and read devotions that help to explain what Scripture says.
  3. Serve: In your congregation you have opportunities to give of your time, talents, and treasures to bring the Gospel to others and to help meet people’s needs. As a family, you can find ways to financially support someone you know who is struggling, or reach out to people with the Gospel, or do work to benefit someone who needs your help.

 

Really, the only difference between your local congregation and your family is size. So start looking at your family as a Little Church, and use some of these practical ideas to help you worship, grow, and serve:

  • Who is the “pastor” of your Little Church? If you have the nuclear family, God’s clearest call is to the dad. But not every family is the same. Determine who is the natural “head” of the household, bearing in mind the roles God has given us in Scripture. If there is no dad, then it’s mom. But maybe it’s Grandpa, or an adult son, or an uncle. That person should take responsibility to lead the family spiritually.
  • Set aside time for study of the Word and for prayer. Not sure where to start? Remember that the Word has power all on its own, so the simplest thing is just to open the Bible and read. There are also many great devotion books, kids’ Bibles, and other resources for families. (see the bottom of this article for some links to some good resources)
  • Look for ways to serve. Sit down as a family and brainstorm the things you’re interested in and can do in your community. Try to come up with a family or an individual you know who needs your help. Look for a mission opportunity through your congregation. Find a way to serve together as a family, using the gifts God has given you.

 

Resources for growth:

  • The Story Bible – a beautifully illustrated Bible written toward kids, with questions for discussion about each story.
  • The Jesus Storybook Bible – a cute kids’ Bible aimed at helping children see Jesus in every story.
  • WELS.net Daily Devotions – a resource site from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod with daily devotions on many topics.
  • Focus on the Family – a conservative Christian organization aimed at helping families be spiritually strong, with lots of great devotional content
  • Seeds Family Worship – a site full of Scripture songs and devotional content designed for families
  • Mike Westendorf’s blog – the blog of Christian musician Mike Westendorf. Why his blog specifically? Because he’s the one who got me thinking about this topic a lot lately, and he has lots on his blog to encourage and get you thinking about how to grow your Little Church.

Rio Indio and the Soup Kitchen

There’s a phrase in a Bebo Norman song about “the depth of human need.” He’s describing the power of God’s grace to find its way to the deepest part of every person, to fill every hole in a heart that is hungry for hope.

Many times when people describe “human need” they are referring mostly to physical needs – food, clothing, shelter, medical care. But there’s a deeper need that we all have, that need for grace, for salvation. We need to know that we are loved in spite of the constant failures with which we are all too familiar. We need to know that we are loved when it seems that the whole world is against us. We need to know that we are loved when we feel completely unloved in any and every way.

That is the depth of human need. But make no mistake – physical need can run pretty deep as well.

A typical home in Kilometer 55

In Mahahual there is an area of town known as “Kilometer 55.” Years ago many of the locals owned pieces of land in this area, and though they were the poorer people of the town, what they had was theirs and they did what they could to live off it. The Mexican government came in and convinced them to trade their land to the government in exchange for government built houses, and were promised working water, electricity, and septic. What actually happened was the people signed over the one thing that was actually their own, the government built concrete boxes barely big enough to fit a family of four or five, and after nearly a decade is only just now beginning to keep their promise of electricity. Water is collected in cisterns on roofs or makeshift platforms. If a family has a septic system of any kind they probably installed it themselves. The power comes from a massive bank of junction boxes at the edge of the area, which the people must connect to themselves and run their own electrical line to their home.

The “power grid” for Kilometer 55. This is the bank of junction boxes that people string their wires from to power their homes. The word on the sign – “murete” – means “death.”

What can a small Lutheran mission do for such a people? Well, we can make sandwiches. We can bring the kids and their parents over to the church, give them a good lunch, pray with them and give them God’s Word. We can invite the kids back the next day for a Bible lesson and some snacks, and we can give them a backpack stuffed with basic hygiene supplies and school supplies. Is it enough to make a major difference in their lives? Maybe not today. But is it enough to show them they are loved? Is it enough to open a door for the Gospel? Is it enough to show them the grace of God and to give them a chance at maybe knowing him, so that they have hope? Maybe. Si Dios quiere – If God wills it. But… El Señor es siempre bueno – The Lord is always good. So not “maybe.” God can and will work good from the work we do. We leave it to him what that good will be.

Bible Study group at Rio Indio

We went to a place called Rio Indio for Bible study. It is run by a man called Gallo (pronounced “YAH-yo”, a sort of nickname for Gerardo), a gracious and friendly man who loves the Word, loves to study it and learn from it, loves to talk about his Savior, and enjoys speaking English to gringos (that last part was what he told me). He went around and got his friends and neighbors – including his boss, an old man called Santos – to come over for the Bible study. He was also very encouraging when us gringos read the Bible passages en Español.

After Bible study we loaded up in the van, and the people from the Bible study helped prepare and serve the food at the soup kitchen. I say soup kitchen because that’s what it was called for a long time, though now they mostly serve sandwiches, chips, and granola bars. A member of the church drives around Kilometer 55 picking up children and some adults and bringing them over to get a meal. We had a prayer, we interacted and talked to them about Jesus, and we invited them to the Saturday kids’ program.

Being here for such a short time, and only providing such small help can make one wonder if there’s really any good that can be done. The need is so great, and what can I do with just a few hours, just a few days? But I was able to tell a little niña about Jesus. I was able to build a relationship with a woman whose kids live in AZ, who really wants to learn English. I was able to remind a pregnant mom of three that God is good and will take care of her, even if she’s nervous and already somewhat overwhelmed. It helped to see men like Gallo and Pedro sitting nearby and reassuring her – men who seem like they carry in their heads and hands a wealth of know how. If she has something she needs, there are people ready to help. El Señor es siempre bueno.

There are so many opportunities to help people here. Making the most of them, being truly helpful to them, sometimes it is hard to know what to do. But even the smallest effort is appreciated, and even if all anyone does is speak the Gospel to someone when they are ready to listen, perhaps they have planted or watered the seed that God is using to change not just that person’s life, but the lives of many others.

Pulticub

Our first day in Mexico we spent some time sorting out supplies donated by our brothers and sisters in Bloomington. They sent flip flops, toothbrushes, tooth paste, coloring books, crayons, soap, and so on. Many useful things. We sorted them into little packages that we could deliver to children and families. Once that was done, we spent a little time picking up people who would join us, and a few other supplies, and went out to Pulticub.

Some of the children we met in Pulticub

Pulticub is a seaside settlement north of Mahahual. The people there build their homes out of whatever they can scrounge together – tin roofing, fiberglass sheets, scrap boards, flattened soda boxes, etc. They survive mostly by eating what they can fish out of the sea or pull from a tree. But many of their young men will do random odd jobs for people with money, and then use the money to go into town, buy what they can from a general store, and then barter or sell it to the other villagers. A couple of people actually run little shops, which are almost indistinguishable from the other shacks in the village.

Some of those young men also manage to get drugs and booze, which impacts the quality of life for everyone else there.

We went into the village and gathered some people together for a Bible study and a meal. There were about ten kids, four women, and a couple of men. The missionary here presented them Law and Gospel from Genesis chapters 1-3, and watching the faces of these people, you could see a light coming on behind their eyes. They understood that there is a God – their lives are free from the intellectualism that plagues the civilized world and allows us to convince ourselves we’re too smart to believe he’s real. They understood that there is right and wrong – they have experienced human goodness and human wickedness in its various forms.

Everybody gathered for the Devotion on Genesis 1-3.

But they learned the weight of sin and its terrible consequences, and they learned the life giving truth that there is a Savior from sin. At least one young mother of two seemed to react with a small sense of awe at the understanding of Jesus’ love. A seven year old girl was delighted to the point of big smiles and an eagerness to hear more, and to sing about it. When we taught them the song, Alabare a mi Senor, she was eagerly repeating the words after the missionary.

We had brought two chickens, some rice and potatoes, and pineapple. After Bible study, the women went into the kitchen – nothing more than a sand floor with three walls and a firepit, with cast iron kitchenware – and cooked up a meal. We ate it off of styrofoam plates, of all things (the villagers had a supply of them), but we had to use our fingers and tortillas. No utensils.

After that we spent time playing with the kids, showed them how to put stickers (“stampia!”) up their arms and on their siblings’ faces. Put cross necklaces and bracelets on and colored together (“Crayola!”). Then we took some pictures together, had hugs and kisses all around, and we left.

A young man named Eliseo. He was running the little store, but he wanted us to see the iguana he caught.

To say these people are destitute would be inaccurate. They’re not just a few meals away from starvation. They aren’t disease ridden and filthy. They live by the ocean and can fish every day, and have access to fresh water from a nearby lagoon (and understand how to boil it for drinking). And it would be wrong to say they are primitive; they are familiar with things like radios and TVs and even computers and smartphones. But they aren’t inundated with these things. They don’t have a plethora of modern conveniences at their fingertips. Many are illiterate, and live by their own rules and customs.

In some ways, this makes them very ready for the Gospel. They are not too busy to take time to hear the Word. They are not too learned to believe ancient truths. They are not too jaded to believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. They are not too immersed in tolerance to accept that Jesus is the only way.

Giving out flip-flops. As one of our group members said, one thing seems to be familiar across all cultures – women and shoe shopping.

So how are we going to serve the people in Pulticub, and other settlements in the area? Well, Cruz de Cristo is working on long range strategic plans right now for what is our best approach. Obviously, there are human needs we can work to meet, but we have to be careful to do things that are sustainable – that is, we don’t want to change their way of life significantly without a plan to support that change. But we can explore things that will help them live safer and healthier lives. Education is another great step, because it is a lasting investment.

Most of all, of course, we will give them the Gospel. As we show them love we find open doors to bring them the precious truths of Scripture. Bringing them to Jesus is an eternal gift greater than anything money can buy, and the fruits that grow from faith will be a lasting blessing to their communities.

Why Mexico?

Why Mexico? And more specifically, why Cruz de Cristo, our mission in Costa Maya, Mexico? Why should we organize mission trips there, or offer our support in other ways? Don’t we have plenty of missions we can be supporting? Let me give you just a few reasons:

  1. The Costa Maya area is hungry for the Gospel. There is only one functioning Christian Church in an area populated by thousands – Cruz de Cristo.
  2. Costa Maya is just a small portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, an area larger and more populated than all of Wisconsin. Cruz de Cristo is the only Lutheran Church in the Yucatan Peninsula. Our church body, with its solid declaration of the Gospel in its truth and purity, has so much to offer a part of the world that is steeped in what I’ll call “superstitious Catholicism” – a belief system that is part Catholic doctrine, part Mayan tribal custom, and almost all works righteousness.
  3. Poverty, addiction, abuse, and illiteracy run rampant through this area, leaving significant human need in their wake. Along with the primary goal of making disciples, we also want to show the love of Christ to people in need by helping them with their human needs. We are blessed here in America with an abundance – let us reach out to those in need.
  4. Cruz de Cristo is not funded by a World Mission Board or supported by a Synod. It grew up organically, and can only continue through the support of individuals and their congregations.

 

It is for these reasons and more that I’m excited for what we can do working alongside our missionary and the members of Cruz de Cristo. Sure, there are missions all over the world – and even in our own backyard – that we can be helping. Yet, God has not prescribed, “Here you must do work!” or “This is the mission you must support!” He opens doors and invites us to serve him. But if you’re wondering how we got connected with Costa Maya ministries, and why I see this as a great opportunity for us, I’ll need to tell you the story. As I do so, I want to start with an interesting part of the book of Acts:

“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” – Acts 16:6-10

Every time I have read this section I’ve been somewhat fascinated by the question of how exactly the Holy Spirit showed Paul and his companions that they were not to enter Bithynia. What obstacles did he throw in their way, and at what point did they finally conclude, “God doesn’t want us there right now”? I don’t have answers to these questions, and it’s probably good that God doesn’t give them, because then we’d be looking for signs far too specific. Instead we’re left with the simple understanding that sometimes God has a plan for our ministry and the spread of his Church, and whatever plans we might think make sense, he knows better and will guide us the way he wants.

While I don’t know what Paul and his companions experienced, I can say that I’ve seen the hand of God pushing my ministry around at times. I’ve seen it recently, and though I haven’t had any visions or heard any voices, I can see in the circumstances how God has directed my work.

If anyone ever asked me, “Are you interested in any kind of foreign mission work?” I would have said, “Absolutely! But…” I might have talked about the practicality of trying to care for my family in a foreign place. I might have talked about the many opportunities to reach out to people right here in our own country. I might have noted that the Call I currently hold involves serving people here in southern Minnesota. I might have expressed my interest in specific cultures; I’ve always been interested in the Far East, its languages, culture, and food. If anyone had said, “How about Mexico?” I would have said, “Not my first choice…”

A few years ago some of our leaders on our Board of Outreach were looking for a way to connect with a specific mission and pursue a mission partnership. We got in contact with one of our missionaries in Eastern Asia and were working on establishing communication and finding out what we could do to support them. I was pretty eager for the project, thinking that maybe down the road this would be a way to connect with mission work in a part of the world that really interests me and also coincides with the Call I hold.

But it didn’t work out. There were technical difficulties that disrupted communication. There were logistical problems that made it hard to connect with or support the missionary, or arrange meetings with him while he was on furlough. One of our board men, who was invested in the project, had health issues that got in the way of him being able to keep pursuing it. At the time I saw these as frustrations. Looking back, I suspect something larger at work.

About eight months ago I had a few conversations that inspired me to start working on a foreign mission trip opportunity for my teens. I had an inkling that we’d find our best opportunity in Latin America, but I wanted to go through the process . I started by contacting our Synod’s administrator for World Missions. He pointed me to our coordinator for Latin American Missions, who pointed me to a man named Jerry who, along with a handful of others, worked to organize our mission church in Costa Maya, Mexico.

Jerry and I started communicating, and his response when I talked about bringing a teen mission team down to help was enthusiastic and encouraging. He told me a little about what was new with their ministry, and it was clear that we had an open door.

This door is not open only to us. Without Synod or Mission Board support, Cruz de Cristo had been blessed by the Lord to have the people of Bloomington Lutheran supporting them financially. A few of them made a plan to go down for a few days, get to know the mission better, and help with the work. I was invited to join them.

The days we spent down there showed me how much the people there need our love, our kindness, our compassion, our help, and above all, the saving message of the Gospel. The entire Yucatan peninsula is starving for the Gospel in its truth and purity. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, and the door is open.

Mission: Costa Maya

The Lord is good. I am humbled that he has Called me to serve on behalf of his people. Even though it is often quite challenging, the fact that I can make a living out of bringing God’s Word to people and building relationships with them is pretty incredible. I’m thankful that God has allowed me to do this.

And all the more so when he opens doors to exciting new ways to serve him and spread his Church! Recently I had a chance to visit Mexico’s Costa Maya region; some of you reading this already know that, but maybe you’re wondering why I went there, what the purpose was. In a nutshell, I was exploring opportunities for our members to do mission trips to that area, and how our congregation can support the mission there.

After spending just five days there, I can say without a doubt that there is a ton of opportunity, and I am excited for what the future holds. Over the next few days I’m going to be sharing about why we’re working with this mission, what we did down there, and what’s coming down the road. Much of this is pull from stuff I journaled while I was down there, so I’m giving you a little glimpse of my day-to-day thoughts while on mission.

Now, if you’re a member of St. Paul’s, I hope you’ll join me in getting super excited about this. Even if you’re not, I’d ask your prayers, and for you to consider being a partner for this ministry as well. For now, check out for yourself what Costa Maya Ministries is doing, and catch the video below, put together by Bloomington Lutheran.

[Note:  All the pictures in this and following posts are shared with permission.]

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fbloomingtonlivinghope%2Fvideos%2Fvb.433131086737146%2F1156242244426023%2F%3Ftype%3D3&show_text=0&width=560

The Power at Work in Us

I had the opportunity to present the chapel devotion at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School this week. These were the thoughts I shared:

I don’t know what Zacchaeus imagined was going to happen the day he climbed that tree to see Jesus. Did he expect that the experience of seeing this new rabbi would change him in some way, or was he just caught up in the idea of catching a glimpse of a celebrity? He certainly didn’t know he was going to be hosting Jesus in his home, and I don’t think he had any clue how much his life would change that day.

A woman caught in adultery in first century Judea would have no hope for the future. The most she could look forward to is a quick death. She certainly wouldn’t expect freedom and forgiveness. Yet, that’s exactly what happened to one woman, who was dragged out to be stoned to death, and then encountered Jesus. Where she imagined that he would, like every other religious person there, condemn her, instead he rebuked her accusers and offered her forgiveness and a new direction in life.

The mother in the little village of Nain, following her son’s corpse out to the graveyard, could not have imagined that her grief would turn to joy. At best she might have hoped that as Jesus walked up to her, he would show her some kindness and compassion. That within a few moments her son would be alive and well again would have been too great for her to hope for. Yet, when Jesus said to her, “Don’t cry,” he didn’t just mean, “It’ll turn out okay someday, so don’t be too sad.” He meant, “I’m about to take away any reason you have for tears as I prove that I am the Lord of Life.”

As these people – and so many more – encountered Jesus, they found that even the best they could hope for or imagine came short of what Jesus would do for them. His power at work in them was so much more than they anticipated.

Paul’s words that are our text for today talk about this, as he says, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” What is the power he is referring to? To understand that, we have to back up a little. In the verses that comes before this, Paul writes a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and he says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” The power that is at work within us is the power of knowing the depth of Christ’s love for us, and knowing how he has shown us that love.

Paul was familiar with this power. He had lived it. Of course, there was the miraculous event in which Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, changing him from one opposed to Christ to a witness for Christ. He had been healed of blindness, saved from death a variety of times, and had multiple personal interactions with the risen Lord. But it wasn’t in those miraculous experiences that Paul saw the greatest demonstration of God’s power. It was in his grace. Paul wrote in Romans 1 that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” Paul, who saw himself as the worst of sinners, knew that he had been saved from death and given access into eternal life. To know the love of God in Christ was far beyond any earthly good for Paul.

And so he wraps up this prayer for the Ephesians by talking about the power of God’s love that is in Christ, and says that according to that power, all those who are in the church, from generation to generation, give glory to Jesus, the one who can do more than we ask or imagine.

That power is in you. Through faith in Jesus, given to you by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, you know the love Christ. Maybe you know it because, like Zacchaeus, you’ve seen a change in the way you live, and the selfishness you used to hold on to has given way to love for God and love for others. Maybe you, like the woman caught in adultery, have known what it’s like to be caught in a sin and afraid of the punishment to come, only to experience grace and forgiveness and release. Maybe you’re like the woman in Nain, and at some point you couldn’t see beyond grief and sadness, but God turned things around and showed you a joyful future. Maybe you’re like Paul, fully aware of your sin, fully aware of your need for forgiveness, feeling like there is no one who has fallen as far as you have – yet you know that at your lowest, Jesus is there with his forgiveness and peace, and you know that you have been saved.

However that power has shown itself in your life, you can trust that it will continue to show itself again and again in your life, in ways you would never ask or imagine. I can’t tell you what that will look like; only God knows how he’s going to prove his grace to you. But he will do it, and he will do so for his own glory, that through your life his glory will be revealed.

And maybe right now you’re in a place where it’s hard to see it. Maybe there’s a sin that has you feeling trapped, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape it. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find freedom. Maybe your future doesn’t look so great right now, maybe you’re afraid of what you see on the road ahead. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find strength and peace. Maybe you feel crushed by guilt and can’t imagine how anyone would forgive you, let alone a holy God. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find the assurance that his love is greater than any sin. Maybe you’re just struggling with spiritual apathy, unable to feel much of anything when it comes to your faith. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and be filled, and remember that whatever you feel, God’s love for you never changes.

Listen once more to the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, and for you: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”