In 2017, we had a new phenomenon in the church—we actually grew for the first time in over 20 years, having more members at the end of the year than we had at the beginning. Part of my call to this congregation was the realization that this church had everything you would want to make growth possible. However, with any hope for growth, the question every congregation needs to ask is: Do we want to?
Every church can grow, but there is a sacrifice that needs to be given. And often that sacrifice is the hardest one: letting go of what we know and letting go of the power of the past. As I often highlight in evangelism training, with every new person that comes through our doors, the church changes. It really is not that hard to think of, because the world around us is always changing, no matter how hard we try to keep it the same. As a church it is easy to become an isolated fortress for the way things once were, but in doing so, no matter how hard we try to be open, we become an exclusive community with our own vocabulary and sense of insider or outsider. But we also fear how that will change the nature and essence of our identity as a congregation.
Simply stated, the major problem with growth for any congregation is the fear of change. This fear is what makes evangelism such a scary term, especially for Presbyterians, because at its root, it requires change. To be honest, typically by the time a Presbyterian church begins to change, the society around it has already grown past that change, because of our reliance of doing things decently and in order. Now that is not always a bad thing, but it also explains the denomination’s loss of membership.
In a very real way, we are not reaching the emerging culture. The emerging culture is a term that is increasingly used in church to break away from the historical understandings of youth and young adults. The main example is the phrase, “When they start having kids, they will come back to church.” While that is true of some, the emerging generation cannot come back to church because they were not part of it in the first place. This drastically changes the ways in which we approach and evangelize them, and it creates new struggles of overcoming stereotypes so that we can reach this new population.
We must begin to look and see this community and their needs, so we can be faithful to the message of Christ. Personally, the best ending of any book, movie, story, or song I have seen or will ever see is the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew. In a real way, it calls the reader to task. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It does not sum up the gospel but gives us a call to action: “GO. You heard the story, you know who I am, and now it is your job to do what you need to do to let others know of my story, knowing that it is I who will be working through you!” Thus, the responsibility of evangelism is a dual one which requires action both on God’s part and ours. We have to go out and find ways to attract people to the message of God, and moreover, we have the responsibility to spread this message.
Through the next year, we are going to try new things to reach out to the unchurched and those who need to hear God’s message:
A strong faith and a true hope are nothing if separated out from love. Unfortunately, in the English language, the word love has become a sterile catch-all, losing a great deal of the beauty held within the nuance of the words from which it originates. In the Greek New Testament, there are two words which are translated as love: philo and agape. “As to the distinction between agape and philo: the former, by virtue of its connection with agamai, properly denotes a love founded in admiration, veneration, esteem, like the Latin diligere, to be kindly disposed to one, wish one well; but philo denotes an inclination prompted by sense and emotion.”
Thus, agape love is actually a very different type of love than philo. Philo love is a temporal love, one based in emotion; this is your sexual love, the desire-of-your-heart love, the love of the moment. However, the agape love is neither temporal, nor is it really even emotional; some might even call it a transcendent love. The agape love, exclusive to the Bible, is the love which is most closely related to God.
One of the great problems in the English tradition is how we lose a great deal of meaning when we meld the two into one. Within the Christian context, it leads to so many problems. I can think of the televangelist asking the gathered, “Do you feel God’s love?” Unfortunately, that changes what the love relationship is between man and God. It is not a temporary feeling. It is a long-term calm.
When you mix the temporal, emotional love with the powerful, transcendent love, we reduce God to good feelings and warm thoughts. God’s love is more than a mere emotional experience. To be honest, this is where people have used emotion to take advantage of others. Because it feels good, it must be the right thing to do! The love that you have from God is much more than that.
I think of it in many ways. The day after Groundhog Day, I will celebrate 33 years since my first surgery on my stomach and esophagus. As a nine-year-old boy, I knew one kind of love, and that came from my parents. To be more specific, I can think of the love my mother demonstrated to me by staying with me during all of my surgeries. I know it was not pleasant, and I know I was not always pleasant, but no matter what the condition or what the pain was causing me to say or do, she was there. By the time I was a teenager and no longer would admit to wanting her there, she stayed anyway. That is an example of agape love. There is no emotional or momentary reward; however, the love that came with the feeling of safety and care transcended the moment.
God’s love is like that. God is there when you want God, when you need God, and even when you don’t think you need God. Just take a look at the laments found in the Old Testament. As you read the cries, which are quite vicious at times, you can begin to hear this powerful expression of love. Moreover, you can begin to see the powerful love relationship with God.
We started this journey looking at 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” At the foundation of our relationship is faith: knowing, seeing, and realizing God’s presence in our life. Out of our faith comes hope, which lifts us out of despair and into a life with new meaning. In faith and hope, we experience God’s agape, the love that surpasses a temporal emotion and is a constant presence in our life.
While we cannot ever fully understand this love, we know this love is there, and as a community, we are called to share in it!
 Thayer, J. H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA)
As we look back at 2017, so much has gone on that it is hard to say how history will remember this past year. At times, it almost seems as if it were made for late-night comedy shows. Though beyond the absurd things, as a country, we made historic decisions; some good, some bad, and some that we’ll have to wait to see how they play out. As we sit at the beginning of 2018, we have to keep in perspective where we have been and where God is calling us. While we continue to see the stock market go up and down like a roller coaster and media-laced panic, we have to search for a real sense of hope—for a new direction for our country, and hope for a strong future, and most importantly, a true hope In God.
According to the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, in the Christian traditions, hope is “the Christian anticipation of the future as the fulfillment of God's purposes based on God's covenant of faithfulness and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as known by the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.”
I think that true hope is sometimes more difficult than faith. With faith, there is a known element. We are here and we believe. We see faith through other people, but hope, true hope, is something which is hard for us to really see, since it is something that comes at the end. Ultimately, it is a hope for something yet to come.
Now, it is important not to go too far with this either, since hope is much more than our vision. Walter Brueggemann identifies four constructs of hope found among the Hebrew people of the Old Testament. The four constructs lead to the belief that God will not forget them and that God will follow through in his covenant. Whether we place a focus on the Christian or Old Testament view of hope, ultimately hope is something that is strongly pointed towards the future, and a powerful way of thinking. In the entry on hope in Reverberations of Faith, Brueggemann states: "A strong case has been made that a defining mark of a postindustrial, technological world is despair, the inability to trust in any new and good future that is promised and may yet be given. Insofar as despair marks the current social environment of faith, to that extent hope is a distinctive mark of faith with dangerous and revolutionary social potential."
I think that this is one of the most powerful statements on hope, because if we really have hope, we can overcome despair—though there will be a cost. Hope calls us to a new social reality, one that realizes that we are not held back by the things of this world, but propelled into a powerful new reality in God. Hope does not come from any temporal feeling, but from a constant longing and realization that God is part of our journey. Romans 8:24-25 reminds us that24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
To have hope, it needs to be firmly rooted in faith and placed solely within the loving and careful arms of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … 1 Peter 1:3
 Brueggemann, Walter. Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox: Louisville) 102.
As I was sitting down to write the newsletter, one phrase kept repeating over and over in my head, and that is the wonderful line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” In fact, I began to see that this would be a great trio of themes that go along with the ordering our lives for the New Year. So, I hope that when this series is done, you will understand this verse and powerful witness of Christian faith, hope, and love.
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms says that faith “in Christianity (is) belief, trust, and obedience to God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the means of salvation (Eph. 2:8-9) or eternal life (John 6:40). Faith affects all dimensions of one's existence: intellect, emotions, and will.” I only put this in here to provide a starting point. When we talk about faith, it means so many different things to so many different people. Some people have a great deal of faith, and you would never know it. Conversely, there are many who you think are deeply rooted in their faith who actually are not. To that end, faith can be a very touchy subject.
My basic theory as to why churches spend so much time arguing about budgets and money is that they are more comfortable with that discussion than to speak about their faith. When I was in seminary, I participated in a class offered at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. While there, I had a sit-down interview with Alexander Beloposky, who was in the Orthodox tradition working on issues of youth and Ecumenism. It was a fascinating interview for many reasons. Most interestingly, I vividly remember the discussion on faith. He said that one of the most difficult areas in ecumenical dialogue was to talk about what people believed, not because they were afraid of the discussion, but because they did not want to offend others.
My experience (after working in the church as a missionary, youth director, chaplain and pastor for the past 16 years) is that regardless of the age, many people have a difficult time talking about faith. Often, when people do begin to talk about their faith, they leave out those times of struggle, creating what appears to be a perfect and unquestioned faith, as if the individual's faith was untouched. I remember visiting a Presbyterian seminary where an individual was telling us the story of how God clearly spoke to him as he was eating a hamburger, telling him to go to seminary. I did not go to that seminary. The reality is that while there may be the occasional person who has never questioned their faith, I have yet to meet them. We all struggle at one point or another, and often it is in the struggle where we get that moment of clarity about our faith and begin to see God in a new way.
The further reality of faith is that it is messy and often not very clear. It sometimes puts us in difficult situations, and sometimes it lifts us up for no apparent reason. Ultimately, faith is this incredible relationship that we have with God. Paul speaks often about faith throughout his letters. He reminds those in his communities that the faith is open to all since it is not a faith owned by humankind, but one that is owned by God. He writes in Romans 4:16: “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
We just enjoyed the Christmas season. If you gave up everything and did not even have a dollar to buy a gift, could Christmas still be special? Well, of course! Christmas is definitely not about things in this world. It is about our relationship, our faith in God! Honestly, the greatest gift that you could give to anyone, or at least the one that would last the longest, is to share your faith story. THE GOOD AND THE BAD, the ups and the downs; it is all part of it. The faith stories of the Bible do not always paint a rosy picture of God, but they do let us know that in the midst of everything, God really does love us and in the end comes through for us. Now, that is faith!
My favorite thing about the new year is that it gives us a point at which we can move on from the past and embrace whatever new reality is before us. New Year’s Day is interesting because of all the new year celebrations, it is rather arbitrary. While close to the solstice, it is determined mostly because the calendar refreshed. We know that other cultures have their New Year’s celebrations at dates based in astrology or other traditions—just think of Chinese New Year or Yom Kippur.
Running through most celebrations of the new year is an understanding that the past needs to be dealt with in order to have a successful new start. In the Judeo/Christian/Muslim world, our concept of New Year’s is rooted in forgiveness. By forgiving transgressions which have been made, we recognize atonement and are given the chance to make a fresh start for the new year.
Forgiveness is a practice which is modeled for us over and over by Christ himself. Christ continually brings a sense of hope and a fresh start to people through his ministry of compassion and forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer is one of the best examples of forgiveness. In this simple prayer, we get the bold teaching that we are to forgive others just as God has forgiven us. It is simple logic: if you receive forgiveness, why not share that forgiveness with others? But more than that, it is a lifestyle. A forgiving person will lead a fuller life, because instead of holding onto the grudges and debts of others, they are freed to focus on God. It reminds me of what I like to call the parable of the greedy servant in Matthew 18:21-35:
1 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks we must perform as Christians. Forgiveness calls us to grow in immeasurable ways, and to mutually start anew. The problem with forgiveness, and the thing that makes it so hard for us, is that we have to forgive without strings attached.
In our society, this is difficult, because it requires us to do two things we most dislike: we have to change, and we have to start fresh. If we forgive something in a relationship, for example, our relationship must start refreshed and renewed. If we continue to hold the past in check, we are never able to fully forgive. We are then charged with exploring our relationship again so that growth may occur. Thus, forgiveness also causes change for both parties. In some cases, the change is slight; in others, it is dramatic. In either case, it is the forgiveness that brings us into renewal and allows us that fresh start.
I like a model of letting the new year start with a fresh outlook, working toward positive relations with others and toward releasing ourselves from the burden of anger and resentment which comes from not forgiving.
So, as you go into this New Year, follow the guidance that is laid out in the parable of the greedy servant. When it comes to forgiveness, we are called to forgive “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or as many as it takes, for we have received much more than that from God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen