We have spent a good deal of time in the first few months of 2017 focusing on becoming a more inviting and welcoming congregation. Now, we turn our attention to retaining those who walk through our doors, to help them connect with Jesus and with our community of faith.
Robert Schnase tells the story of a woman who was going through a rough time in her personal and professional life; and in her search for connections, hope, and direction, she began to visit a few churches. After her first two worship experiences to which she came alone, sat alone, and left alone without anyone speaking to her or greeting her, her prayer for her next visit to another church was simply, “I only pray that someone speaks to me today.”
What an indictment! Could that happen to a guest in our congregation? We would like to think that it would not happen here. To be sure, we make a great effort to see that people are greeted warmly. We try to welcome newcomers in worship, and have a regularly scheduled fellowship time after worship. We try to follow-up with our guests post-worship. Still, how easy it is for a guest who has mustered up the courage to come to worship and even to share a cup of coffee, to find themselves sitting alone because no one noticed them or reached out to them.
I have had this experience many times during the summer months when Terri and I have visited churches while on vacation and found that frequently no one greets us or welcomes us. No one speaks or helps us find our way. Did you know that poor connecting with guests is the number one reason those guests don’t come back? It is all about connecting people to Jesus and this community of faith. Oh, we think we are a friendly church, but that can often mean we are friendly with each other and not necessarily with the guest that walks through the front door.
As part of our focus on connecting in the next couple of months, I will suggest to our Deacons a little experiment. Just as retail stores employ agencies to provide “secret shoppers” to test the responsiveness of their employees, so we will invite a couple of people from another congregation to show up for worship and provide a “secret visitor” analysis. You won’t know when! But we will try to gauge how we are doing at genuinely and authentically welcoming people; at helping them find their way, and to feel at home here.
We all have a need to feel connected, so that will be our focus in the next few months. I will offer a class on the topic in June for a joint session of our adult classes. Let’s do all that we can to help those who come through our doors connect with a community of faith that offers strength, comfort, challenge, hope, and yes, a place to belong, grow, and serve.
In Christ, Pastor Joel
Has anyone heard any good news lately? It can be difficult to find. There is much sadness and pain to be found. A young high school student was brutally attacked in Rockville. There was another terrorist attack, this time in London with many left dead and injured. More recently, there was a shooting in a Cincinnati nightclub with more loss of life. North Korea continues to test missiles in the hopes of increasing their capability to strike even the United States. I could fill this newsletter with more such stories. It is difficult to maintain perspective today. I try to remind myself however, that a spate of bad news stories does not mean there are not many good news stories to tell.
On Wednesday evenings we are studying a book called, “Who is This Man?” “This man” is Jesus. We have been reminded of his staggering influence on our lives and our world. In every corner of the globe, we find people engaged in doing good, building hospitals and schools, combating hunger, contributing clothing, medicine and food, opening their homes to strangers, advocating for the poor and the oppressed, and working for justice and dignity for all people. Jesus was, and is, the greatest influence for good in our world today. He is our good news in a bad news world.
Jesus once told a story about some workers who were distressed to learn some evil man had sown weeds among the wheat. They went to tell the owner; “Shall we burn it all down?” they asked. And the owner replied, “No, for in so doing you will destroy the harvest.” The workers saw weeds, but the owner saw a harvest. What do we see as we look around – wheat or weeds? It is a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I remember the old quote, “Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw mud, the other saw the stars.”
To be sure, there is much that seems broken right now, and the future seems dreary; nothing but a plethora of grave stones out there too heavy for us to move. But I invite you to join us this month to hear again the best news we can ever know. Oh, at first, it doesn’t seem like good news. When Mary and the others bring spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus, they were not expecting to be uplifted, but they were! The stone was rolled away! He was alive!
The Easter story is the greatest story ever told; a story that overshadows all the other stories of death, disaster, terror, illness, corruption and division. We can live with a new perspective – victory born out of defeat! Good news overcoming bad news, hope that can dispel the deepest despair, sins forgiven, and most importantly, life that steps out of death’s empty tomb to live. I encourage you to worship with us on April 16th and join with me in that ancient Easter affirmation shared by Christians for 2000 years. I will say, “Christ is risen” and you will respond, “He is risen indeed!” Happy Easter!
In Christ, Pastor Joel
The season of Lent is upon us, the season of forty days leading up to Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday. The forty days refers to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism and the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert.
Lent brings with it a whole host of traditions and practices. For Christians of all kinds, these weeks are weeks of discipline and devotion. Lent is a time to consider what we need to release. What do we need to let go of? What will we “give up” for Lent? What has a hold on us to the degree that it keeps us from recognizing the love and grace of God? There was a hymn we sang in years gone by, “Turn Back, O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways.” (forswear made spell-check crazy!) The truth is that we all have foolish ways that need reflection. So we take time for prayer and worship, reflecting on our lives and on how we live them.
Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of the Lenten Season and our journey with Jesus to the Cross. We will be observing that tradition with our brothers and sisters in Christ from First Baptist Silver Spring on March 1 in our MHBC sanctuary. We will begin the evening with a pancake supper in Bethany Hall. We encourage you to join us for this inspirational time of fellowship and worship.
We can also use the weeks of Lent, not only to “give up” something, but “to take on” something. A lawyer once asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered his question with a question, “What is written in the Law? How do you understand it?” The lawyer replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responded, “That is the right answer; DO that and you will live.”
As important as it may be to give up something, candy or smoking, or desserts for Lent, it may be equally helpful to DO something positive, or to take on something for Lent. We might take on meeting a need without anyone else knowing about it. We might take on financial support for an important ministry or cause. We might provide food for the hungry or clothing for the homeless. We could send an encouraging note, or make a call and let someone know how glad we are that they are in our lives. We could help a stranger, or lighten the load of a friend. There is no shortage of ministries or kindnesses that we might take on for Lent.
Giving up something for Lent is a tried and true Christian practice that reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus made for us to show us how much God loves us. I suspect God would be perfectly fine with us if instead of giving up something for Lent, we used this season to take on something positive. Don’t you?
In Christ, Pastor Joel
During our last quarterly church conference, I explained briefly to those gathered, that when our new Board of Deacons convenes in January, it is my intention to focus our attention and their significant giftedness on studying how we can develop four strategies that will guide us in our mission of making Montgomery Hills a place where all people can belong, grow, and serve. We will devote a significant segment of our monthly meetings to studying together, using materials from NET RESULT. This is an organization that exists to aid churches in fulfilling their mission. These four strategies include:
Somewhere in our sphere of influence, there is someone who needs Jesus, who needs faith, and who needs the church. These persons need to be on our radar screens this year. They are just waiting for you and me to say, “Hey, come on in! The door is open!” If we do not say that, who will?
In Christ, Pastor Joel
A new year is upon us. The joys and calamities of 2016 will pass away, and a new year fresh and full of possibilities and uncertainties will be ushered in. Some of us bring in the New Year with a party. Others will spend New Year’s Eve watching football or that silly ball drop from high atop a New York skyscraper. Some of us fight sleep in order to stay up until midnight and kiss the ones we love. Still others mark the occasion with champagne or by making resolutions or setting off fireworks. We celebrate in different ways I suppose.
The common denominator in these rituals is the focus on the passage of time. But in our heart of hearts, I suspect that many of us harbor the suspicion that 2017 really won’t be all that much different from 2016. There will undoubtedly be terror attacks, war and rumor of wars, many of the same stresses, trials and tribulations; Déjà vu all over again.
Still, I believe that in the strength of God’s Spirit, the New Year can be filled with joy. Jesus knew the sad and seamy side of life; he traveled about feeding hungry people, healing the sick, and preaching Kingdom values only to be killed by those he came to save. And yet, he often spoke of joy. He said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”
Joy comes, I think, when we are grateful. We need not whine over what we do not have, but we should be thankful for all the gifts God has given us, and that there are those who love us. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise; be thankful and bless his name.” Psalm 100:4
Joy comes more easily with a positive attitude. “As a person thinks in their heart, so they are.” A little girl was asked one day why she was having such a happy day and she said, “Yesterday I let my thoughts push me around, and today I pushed my thoughts around.” Not bad counsel!
Joy comes too, when we seek out ways to help and serve others. As Jesus came not to be ministered to but to minister, so can we; by investing our time, our energies, our gifts, our money, and ourselves for others. Joy comes when we ask God to bring our lives into harmony with His will so that our lives are in tune with how he wants us to live. Joshua once challenged the Hebrew people to decide. "Choose this day whom you shall serve...!" January is a great time to do that - a great time to make new and better choices so that our lives are in harmony with God’s will.
One man I read about tried that: doing justice, showing mercy, and walking humbly with God. Whenever he felt that the day had gone well, he would read a portion of scripture and pray, “Well Lord, we are still on good terms.” May we as individuals and as a church find great joy and deep peace in seeking first God’s will and God’s kingdom. May God bless you all in the New Year ahead.
In Christian love, Pastor Joel
“I Wonder as I Wander” has always been a very meaningful Christmas carol for me. It was discovered by John Jacob Niles who spent many years wandering around the Appalachian Mountains in search of the origins of folk songs. On a cold day in December in North Carolina, he heard the sound of a little girl singing a song.
This was a song that was new to Niles, and when she finished he asked her where she had learned the song. She explained that her mother had taught it to her, just as her grandmother had taught it to her mother before her. Niles wrote the words to this beautiful carol in a small tablet, and they stayed with him for a long time, for in his mind they were deeply spiritual, thoughtful, and contained in a profound way, the joy and wonder of Christmas. Just before the beginning of WWII, Niles introduced this song wherever he could and those who heard it were in awe. Until his death, Niles searched for the source of the carol but he never did find the author. He concluded that the little girl was an angel sent to deliver a message of the wonder of Christ’s birth.
To me the words capture the wonder of Christmas; the wonder of a star and of a young woman and young carpenter who received wondrous dreams and angelic visitations. I see in the Christmas story the wonder of Incarnation, of angelic choirs filling the night sky with songs of promise and praise. I see the wonder of lowly shepherds becoming the first witnesses to God’s salvation, and the wonder of the Magi bearing wondrous gifts to a small child who would be king.
Advent begins on Sunday, November 27. Advent is often thought of as a countdown to Christmas. Each Sunday we will light the candles of our Advent wreath, remembering how our celebration of the arrival of the Light of the World draws near. We will also anticipate that one day, he will come again. Our Advent theme this year is “The Wonder of Christmas.” We will explore the wonder-filled aspects of the Christmas story and reflect on the wonder of God’s great love for us, a love made real when we share it with others.
I encourage you to join us each Sunday as we embrace and celebrate the wonder of Christmas, believing that because of God’s great love and light in Jesus Christ, anything is possible! Oh, the wonder of it all! He is here, among us, beside us, with us, and for us. I pray for each and every member and friend, a joy-full, meaningfull, and wonder-filled Christmas!
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die,
For poor ordinary people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
In Christian love, Pastor Joel
Jesus says: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." [I John 14:12] Can you believe that Jesus said that? If anyone other than Jesus had said those words we would call it blasphemy; greater works than Jesus? How is that possible?
We will be wrestling with that question during the month of November in our worship services as part of our Stewardship emphasis entitled “Even Greater Things.” As we look to the future, I am sure that you join me in praying that God will make us more effective in our witness, service, and stewardship than ever before. I encourage every member and friend to be present for each of these important services. We will not be observing a “Commitment Sunday” format this year. Rather, there will be numerous opportunities for each of us to commit our tithes and offerings during each of the worship services on the first three Sundays of November.
In my estimation, we have had a very productive year of ministry. But I am convicted that even greater things are yet to come. Not that WE are greater or that we ever seek to be. Rather, we believe and trust that, as God’s Word promises, “Greater is he who is in us, than he who is in the world.” (I John 4:4)
Our Budget Team is preparing a new budget for 2017. We have much to be grateful for as individuals and as a church: family and friends, homes that shelter, friends to share our lives with, a country where we are free to worship as we please, and so many more blessings. God has gifted us so richly. In response, we give back to God, and when we do we are communicating something very important, “Thank you, God.”
Giving back to God financially and through the use of our gifts and talents are powerful ways to say thank you for God’s grace, and to practice gratitude. I hope you will consider joining me in responding to God with an “attitude of gratitude” by making a financial pledge to our church for 2017. This church makes such a difference in the well-being of people. But the best is yet to come!
An estimate of giving card is enclosed with this November's newsletter. Please bring this with you to worship on any of the first three Sundays in November. (The card will also be available via the Ushers each week). Let us all pray for a generous and faithful response that our ministry in 2017 will not only continue to bear fruit, but that we will do even greater things for Jesus. May God bless each of us as we commit together to become more fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. I also pray for each one, a blessed and happy Thanksgiving.
In the closing week of our Lord’s life, he gathered with his disciples to share a meal. He took a piece of bread and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you.” This was a picture of what would happen the next day when he was crucified. Then he took a cup and said, “Drink this, all of you, for it is my blood, the blood of the New Covenant shed to set many free from their sins.” We call it the Lord’s Supper because He instituted it.
Jesus went on to say, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This meal is also called the Lord’s Supper because it is a memorial to Him. We remember his betrayal and his sacrifice on our behalf. We remember Him! And as we do, our faith is nourished, our hope is kindled, and our strength is refreshed and renewed.
At a time when our world is splintered into so many factions and pieces; at a time when deep fissures of hatred, prejudice and terror divide nations and races, I can’t think of a better time for the Christian world to gather to celebrate World Communion Sunday, October 2, at 11:00 a.m.
A recent publication reports that “World Communion Sunday began in 1936 in the Presbyterian Church and was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches in 1940. Since then, the celebration has grown into an international ecumenical celebration of Christian unity. Donald Kerr adds, “The concept spread very slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole lot of thought. It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
WCS is a time to recall that around the world, in different languages, in churches of all sizes, with different traditions and customs, and with various forms of liturgy, the Lord’s Supper will be observed. WCS then is a meaningful sharing of the last meal Jesus experienced with his disciples and it is a way for Christians to experience different Christian traditions from around the world. The key word for WCS is communion, or unity. This unity is in Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.”
Here at Montgomery Hills, we will gather on October 2 for worship. Flags of every nations represented in our community of faith will be displayed. The Scripture for the day will be read in different languages. I will be speaking on the topic: “The Longest Table in the World.”
Jesus told us that people would come from east and west, north and south to sit at the table with him, and we do. And we will; as one. I encourage you to come and worship with us on October 2 as we share bread and cup together. We will be witnessing to our unity in Christ and with each other, and we will pray that our world will one day know this unity.
In Christian Love,
"Dear Pastor, I think a lot more people would come to your church if you moved it to Disneyland.” (Loreen, age 9)
Loreen, that sounds about right. Church attendance in our day is not exactly, shall we say, fashionable? Research reveals a continuing decline in Sunday morning attendance. Observe what America does on a typical Sunday and usually, going to Sunday school and worship are at the bottom of the list of varied activities. More and more people are opting out. Many see the church as irrelevant and out of touch. They see it as time that could best be used doing something else.
Of course I recognize that any talk of attending church by a pastor would appear to be self-serving, since we pastors can be seen as having a vested interest not only in our churches surviving, but also in growing and thriving! Pastors can get concerned when attendance in worship drops off.
Still, how are we doing in our attendance each Sunday? How faithful are we in supporting our church with our presence? James Moore asks these questions in a more creative way: “If our car would start one out of three times, would we consider it faithful? If our television worked sixty percent of the time, would we consider it faithful? If our newspaper delivery person should skip our house every other day and an occasional Friday, would we call that faithful? If our water heater should greet us with cold water three mornings a week, would it be faithful?
If we fail to come to work five or six days each month, would our employer consider us faithful? If we should miss a couple of house payments in a year, would our mortgage holder say, “Oh well, ten out of twelve months, that’s not too bad?” If we attend church once or twice a month, 25% or 50% of the time, would we say that we’re faithful?
In a real sense, the church year begins anew after summer break. Vacations are over; school is back in session and full church programming resumes. I encourage everyone to be present for Bible study and worship throughout September. God’s Word was written not just for information, but for
transformation. Come to study the Word and hear it proclaimed!
I believe this might be an apt time to share with you a series of messages on just a few of the myriad of reasons why it is so important that we gather together each Sunday morning for study and praise. The Series is entitled, “Church: Why Bother?” and begins on September 4th. Why bother? There are more reasons than I can number. So, “Let us draw near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:22) God desires a relationship with us. I encourage you; don’t miss out on all that God has for you.
We are enjoying a productive summer of ministry thus far. Our church has hosted almost 80 teenagers and leaders in our building who were participating in the Mission-Serve project sponsored by our D.C. Baptist Convention, repairing and renovating homes in the District of Columbia. We have also completed another successful Vacation Bible School under the direction of Dee Wells. Our heartfelt thanks go to Dee and the incredibly gifted and enthusiastic ministry team members who served in order that the children in our church and community would hear the good news of Jesus’ love. We also have a group of teenagers who are doing a mini-VBS at Overland Garden Apartments in Landover, Md. Our youth will be responsible for Bible study, arts and crafts, and music for 70 children. Thank you one and all.
Things will slow down a bit in August, and I am hopeful that many of us have the opportunity to enjoy some time away from our busy Washington Metro area. There is a lot to be said for taking some time off and getting out of town to the seashore, or to the mountains, or some other peaceful venue. Walt Whitman famously said that human beings need occasions when they can “loaf and invite the soul.” Amen, Walt!
It is important that we give our best to the work we do, and to the ministry that we engage in, but it is also important to slow down to restore and renew. Sometimes we just need to rest our tired bodies, minds, and spirits. Take time to play! Go fishing, sail, hike, play ball, or play golf. Just have fun. Take some time to grow too. Read that book you have been meaning to read. Look up an old friend! Take time to serve someone in need. Think of new ways to enjoy God’s creation. Grow in your knowledge and love of God. Attend worship wherever you are. My wife and I always do that, and we almost always find a blessing.
Even God rested after six days of creating the universe. And knowing that time to rest is important for the people he created, God instituted the Sabbath. As the old hymn says, “I need Thee every hour.” The 23rd Psalm reminds us that it is God who restores the soul. So, locate a church wherever you are vacationing. Let your hearts be lifted by the praise of God. Listen for God’s Word to be read and applied. Join in the prayers of brothers and sisters in Christ. As the hymn says, “summer and winter and
springtime and harvest . . . join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”
To me, worship is not something we give up in June and pick up again in September. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but it seems that the night before her family was to leave for their annual summer vacation, a little girl was heard to end her bedtime prayer with the words, “Goodbye God, we’ll see you in September!” I encourage you; wherever you are, in the country, or by the lake or sea, find time to worship. When you are in town, come and worship with us. Let God restore your soul. And don’t fret. The work will still be there when you return!
Pastor Joel Hawthorne