Back on June 9, 2018, the congregation of St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church voted unanimously to divest our church property and re-establish our congregation as a mission church. Our goals and reasons are many-fold as to why we are doing this, but primarily we are driven by the call of our Lord Jesus Christ to build His Church on earth.
Pastor Iovine has prepared a structured plan to re-establish our congregation as a mission-driven church. It is centered around the hope that our faith is something to be shared.
This page outlines Pastor Iovine's ideas and how we can, as a people of God and a community of faith, remake St. Matthew's into a vibrant, mission-driven church that can be an example for the greater church as to what it means to trust God above all things.
Pastor Iovine's "Living Hope" Plan
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Three years ago, I mentioned in a Sunday morning sermon that St. Matthew's should sell its property, move and become a mission church. The idea was centered around the fact that our missional hearts had bumped up to the reality that as a congregation, we were not growing fast enough to keep up with the reality of our expenses. Essentially, we became more worried about finances than we were about reaching people with Gospel. We were quickly exhausting funds we had in savings. Our two greatest assets outside of the Word of God - the people who call St. Matthew's their spiritual home and our property - provided us with a good starting point to relaunch our ministry into the community.
During the past three years, our assets have dwindled. We've lost members. New members have not come fast enough. Our building has started to cost us more money than expected. There are a number of structural issues with the St. Matthew's campus that require a lot of cash expenditures, of which we do not have available. Stewardship programs to raise the funds are fine, but when congregations shrink, the ability to raise funds becomes more difficult.
Three years ago, this idea of divesting was laid upon the table not simply because of the reality of our financial situation, but because our missional hearts were being overcome by the financial realities of St. Matthew's. So, I asked: "What type of congregation could we be if we started over?"
On June 9, 2018, the congregation voted to begin to answer that question. We voted to be a beacon of light to the people of our community and region where the love of Jesus is put ahead of everything. We voted to divest to become a mission church that can help young people and millennials, middle aged and seniors, the sick and needy, people who believe in Jesus and want a place to belong to put their God-given gifts to work for the betterment of people, and most especially for people who don't think they need or believe in God.
The new mission of our congregation took root that Saturday, June 9th. And now we begin!
Part 1: Why?
I believe that our church body is "The Tale of Two Churches." On one side, you have larger congregations with good financial resources who can do amazing things for the Gospel. The other side is a landscape littered with smaller to barely-medium sized churches who struggle with money, membership levels, and the ability to effect change in their communities. On an annual basis, more churches close in our Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod than are established. There are more pastors on lists who do not have calls because more and more churches cannot afford to pay a pastor's salary. The Christian Church in America has contracted for many decades, especially in urban centers where churches have closed because of lack money and declining membership and a loss of missional hearts.
Under District President Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, the New Jersey District has embarked upon an exciting program to rebuild the Lutheran Church throughout New Jersey. One important pillar of this program is the Kairos Network, led by Pastor Matthew Peeples (Bethlehem, Ridgewood), that is focusing on connecting people to Jesus Christ. Their goal is establishing 10 church plants in 10 years and developing 300 biblically grounded and culturally relevant church leaders in that time.
Another pillar of the NJ District's program is encouraging established congregations to take a serious look at their ministries and answering the Christ-centered question, "Can our church do more for the Gospel?" Over the past number of years, this question was sadly answered by a number of churches in our district who decided to close their doors. Their properties have been sold, monies that are now going towards the renewal of ministry in New Jersey.
But what if churches can do something dramatic and partner with each other to turn around a landscape dotted with shuttered churches and closed ministry sites? What if churches can come together to challenge each other to become mission centers focused on serving people throughout our New Jersey communities with the Gospel of Jesus' love and mercy?
St. Matthew's took this challenge on June 9th. We want to be leaders in this church revolution in New Jersey.
This choice was not easy. St. Matthew's has been around for 123 years. That's a lot of history and tradition here in New Milford. And it is not as if we're throwing away our history and traditions for something new. We're standing on the shoulders of those Christ-led people who made the choice back in 1895 to start a Lutheran congregation. We are standing with those same people who made the choice in the 1960s to move from the church that was founded decades before to a new site where a new and vibrant building would become St. Matthew's home.
Our congregation today is acting just like those great people in 1895 who trusted God that He would lead them as they formed a new worshiping community. We are acting just like the people in the 1960s who trusted God that spending money to build a new church would help strengthen His church in New Milford. Today, when a group of like-minded Christians and Lutherans stood up with one voice proclaiming that we want to be real beacons of the Gospel throughout our region, we are acting just like our forebearers in the faith. I believe the true tradition of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church is that we trust in God above anything else. And this will never leave us!
While we are going to divest of our church property, we are going to begin a new vibrant future. I believe that our church's faithful foreparents - people who established and built St. Matthew's on the foundation of faith alone, Scripture alone, and grace alone - are truly proud of what we are planning.
Part 2: Mission Centered Church
My plan includes opening mission centers in our region focusing on a particular ministry effort. I write "my plan" because that is what it is. It doesn't mean this is the final plan - it is what I perceive as a good direction we can go in as a congregation.
Mission church can mean a million different things depending on the person doing the talking. Just a few examples of what I call "mission centers:"
- Establishing a mission center dealing specifically with youth and families.
- Establishing a wellness center mission to help people become healthier, both spiritually and physically.
- Establishing a homeless mission to feed, clothe, and guide the growing homeless population in Bergen County.
These or whatever mission efforts we embark upon will be centered on how the Gospel makes lives better, how the Gospel itself brings living hope to those in need of God's love and mercy.
Whatever mission we first establish, this becomes our spiritual home. So not only are we going to worship, study God's Word, have spiritual sing-alongs, and praise God, we are also going to embark on the mission theme of the center.
We should consider partnering with our fellow LCMS congregations in our area. Could we hold worship services at their congregation? Would mission-minded members of other LCMS churches be willing to partner with us to build the mission's directive? Could they help us raise money for our mission center to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus? Or could we work together to support other missions in our New Jersey District, like the new congregation in Hoboken, Mile Square Church?
I need to be honest - partnering is tough.
This requires congregations to trust God that by building up His church regionally, their congregation will be impacted positively. Smaller and medium sized congregations are dealing with financial issues and the first thing to always get hacked in the budget process is missions' spending. When finances and congregational control become the primary concerns church councils and voter's bodies, trust in God is weakened.
So, partnering is tough.
It requires give and take on all sides. But the primary motive must and always be the spreading of the Gospel to all people! We cannot retract and navel-gaze; we must be bold for the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
That is why we need to lead.
I believe partnering can work to help build up the church throughout our county. But we all must trust in God that the work we do will be blessed by Him.
Longterm, I believe our mission centers are to become worshiping communities. Whether that means contemporary worship or traditional or something in between, we'll let the people decide. By having our landscape filled with self-supporting churches focused on a thematic mission, we don't need massive churches with huge overheads. We instead have smaller, self-funded churches who change lives with Jesus Christ. And when these mission centers partner with our larger churches in our district, the work can continue.
- Our first mission center is the home for our new congregation. We decide on a mission directive, establish it, and this center becomes the home for our new congregation.
- The next mission site we open will not just focus on the decided particular mission, but have as a goal to establish a self-supporting worshiping community in that place in the coming years.
- We work with congregations in our region to establish additional mission centers in their communities. Worshiping opportunities will be at their church, if possible.
- We rename St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church to Living Hope Lutheran Church, giving us a new vibrant name and a hopeful start to our bright future. A new church with a new mission that can be marketable to our community. It will signal to our brothers and sisters that we are embarking on something new and dramatic.
I know that this is a lot to take in right now. It is not that my plan is the only plan on the table. This plan is something we can talk about, update, tweak a bit, change. Maybe you have a great idea that can be included. Maybe our New Jersey District has additional ideas, as do our possible partnering churches.
This is just a start.
Update: August 17th
I wrote a statement earlier that should cause a shiver down your spine: When churches face budget crunches, one of the first things to go is mission spending.
That makes sense - missions spending is easy to reduce. People don't want to cut the pastor's or music director's salaries. So, churches cut other things.
A few years ago here at St. Matthew's, we established our evangelism group, our "Vision Team," as an entity that would be able to solicit and collect funds from outside of the regular budget process. Through the years, members have donated directly to the group to support missions-oriented work. I thought this was and is a good idea - it allows the budget group in church to minimize spending on certain projects and allows the evangelism group at church to work freely and support mission work.
But by having the "Vision Team" part of the regular budget process, some argued, would provide for better accountability to the church as a whole.
Both sides make good arguments.
I make a suggestion for a new missions-directed church, an idea that will cause people to sweat: We establish a special fund whose only function will be to support missions outside of the church. I believe we should set aside ten percent of every monetary donation made to the church for this fund and allow the church shareholders (the church's members) an opportunity to decide what outside missions should be funded. Whether allocations are done annually, semi-annually, or monthly, this would be a good way to support missions projects around our district, Synod, and globe.
This money cannot be used to pay for regular operations of the church; it can only go to outside missions.
If the church collects $500 a week, then that means $50 of it goes into the fund.
If the church collects $1,000 a week, then that means $100 of it goes into the fund.
If the church collects $2,000 a week, then that means $200 of it goes into the fund.
And then, whenever the church leadership decides, money can be disbursed to missions groups that the shareholders of the church select.
I call this missions' project: "The 10%."