Pastor’s Al Blog

August 10, 2022             Making Disciples Is All about Relationships!

Ask the average American church member how their church makes disciples, and they will likely respond: “Kids’ Club”, special evangelistic emphases (movie, outreach event, concert, etc.), or evangelistic meetings. During the past 50 years, many have prayed the sinner’s prayer in these settings. But it has often been acknowledged that only about 10% of these decisions are a step toward becoming like Jesus.

Discipleship does not begin with a decision; it begins with a relationship. I deliberately did not mention small groups as a means by which some churches are making disciples because some are using small groups effectively to that end, and some are not. Small groups that are built on friendship, being true to God’s Word, praying together, reaching out to others, and being accountable to one another will make disciples. But many small groups are simply self-help groups, prayer groups, Bible studies, etc. To make disciples, relationships must extend beyond the meetings to crying through trials together, sharing time, energy, and resources sacrificially to help one another, and bearing one another’s burdens with accountability. Discipleship begins with relationship.

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) First, love God with all your being (a personal relationship with God); second, love those God brings into your life with all you’ve got (a personal relationship with individuals); then, “you will be My witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) 

Do you have a list of 3-5 (or more) unbelievers for whom you pray every day? How are you endeavoring to build a friendship with them? Not, how are you making them an evangelistic project, but how are you working at becoming their friend – someone they can call in the middle of the night to drive them home from a bar or pull them out of a ditch … someone whom they can ask to feed their dog or water their potted plants while they take a 2-week vacation. Discipleship begins with relationship.

We don’t save people, only Jesus saves. We don’t convince people, only the Holy Spirit convicts. We just build honest, transparent relationships with people so they can see how God is working on our weaknesses, forgiving us when we fail, and enabling us to make progress toward being like Him.

August 3, 2022                            I Wish We’d All Been There

Larry Norman wrote a song in 1970 entitled “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” It cited numerous scenarios in which one person was raptured at the return of Jesus and another was left behind. After each scenario it repeats “I wish we’d all been ready.”

That song came to my mind as I was reflecting on the 2022 MB Gathering in Independence, MO last week. The line kept cycling in my mind, “I wish we’d all been there.” The theme was reaching the lost. We were inspired by the stories of individuals saved through the witness of friends, of ministries effectively presenting the Gospel to neighbors, and immigrants finding hope, not in the American dream, but in Jesus. I wish we’d all been there!

One church planter, with the person’s permission, told the story of a young man I will call George who came to church in the spring of 2022. He was a quiet man. When asked his name, he said, “George.” That was the only word he uttered. All other questions were met with silence. And after church he left.

The following Sunday, George returned but would still not respond to questions. And he repeated the scenario a third Sunday. That afternoon, the lead pastor told his associate that he wanted him to go find out what George is up to.

He learned that George was part of a dysfunctional family that received a flyer from the church when they launched public services. He asked his mother about going to this new church. She agreed to go with him but said, “We have to go immediately because after 2-3 weeks Christians will get to know each other, and we will not be welcomed.”

Well … something came up and they did not get there. George brought it up later, but his mother said, “No, it’s too late.” And no more thought was given to attending … until a flyer came at Christmas time inviting people to a special Christmas series. Again, George asked his mother about going with him and she said, “Not a chance. It’s too late. We will no longer be accepted.” And, again, the idea was forgotten.

As Easter approached, things were going really bad for George. He had decided to commit suicide, but he first had to find out if God is real. So, he attended church that first Sunday intending to take life that night. God seemed to be real to these people, so he delayed his plans and came back.

George recently decided to be a disciple of Jesus and has been baptized. Oh, I wish we’d all been there.

I came away from this gathering of Mennonite Brethren churches inspired about the opportunities God gives us to share the hope of the Gospel. I wish we’d all been there. We don’t save people, only Jesus saves. We don’t even convince people, only the Holy Spirit convicts. We just witness to what Jesus has done and is doing in our lives. I wish we were all there.

July 20, 2022                                    Polarization of Adults in America

I knew it, but it was interesting to read a promotional mailing from Barna Research verifying that adults in the United States are significantly more polarized today than in 2015, just seven years ago. And it is having a major impact on churches.

Taking a stand for truth is not without consequences. According to Barna Research, over one-half of adults (51%) believe that their ideas are usually better than the ideas of other people. And 68% hold that if they believe something confidently, there is very little chance they will change their mind. Furthermore, more than one in three adults feel threatened when others disagree with them on topics that are close to their heart.

In light of these trends in our culture, it was quite courageous of the Elder Board to approve placing an insert in the bulletin on July 10 telling how a church can be involved in an election. Of course, the “Value Them Both” amendment on the August 2 ballot was one of the driving motivations. And since that is a moral issue, not a partisan one, the church cannot with a clear conscience remain silent.

That does not make it easy to speak up, however. Stress levels rise. Friendships are strained. Even family members become distant from one another. In times like these it is essential to extend grace to those with whom we disagree. Which brings to mind the statement of Jesus when asked, as recorded in Mark 10, “Who then can be saved?” – “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

July 13, 2022                                            A Reading Bonus

I am grateful for the large number of people at Zoar who remain faithful to Reading the New Testament Thru in ’22. How are you doing with staying on schedule? I am sure it has not always been easy to take time to read each day. Or maybe you are a spurt reader and you catch up or read ahead every Sunday.

I have tried to stay a day or two ahead so I would not be behind if I missed a couple days. I struggle more with being discouraged if I fall behind than if I miss a couple days without falling behind. Quirky … I know … but that’s the way I am. Consequently, I have fallen behind only once and had to catch up.

If you got so far behind that you became discouraged and gave up, now would be a great time to rejoin us. This week we began reading the book of Acts which coincides with the sermon series we are doing this summer.

I have always thought there is great benefit in reading the Scripture passage on which the pastor is preaching either the week prior to hearing the message or the week following. At Zoar we usually have that opportunity because Melissa sends the bulletin, which usually includes the sermon title and text, by email each Friday.

But we get a reading bonus this week as the sermon series on Acts and the Read It Thru in ’22 reading plan converge. On Sunday, July 17, the sermon entitled “The Church’s Opposition” is a study of Act 4 which we are scheduled to read on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 19-20. Then we are scheduled to read Acts 5 on Thursday and Friday, July 21-22. That is the text for the sermon on July 24.

I trust that your hunger and appreciation for God’s Word is coming to be like that of the psalmist who said, “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” (Psalm 119:14-16)

July 8, 2022                                             Value Them Both

I was quite surprised during a previous interim when I was given a copy of two chapters from a book written by a Mennonite Brethren pastor about 60 years ago. He made “biblical” arguments for not being engaged in the world of politics – don’t vote, don’t hold civic office, and don’t support politicians.

Our view of politics has changed vastly! Today Zoar has the mayor, the city clerk, a township clerk, a township treasurer, a township trustee, school board members, and a candidate for state office in attendance. And we encourage our members to vote, to run for office, and to make a difference for Christ in the civic affairs of our city, township, county, and state.

This week the Elder Board approve placing an insert in the bulletin on July 10 telling how a church can be involved in the election without getting its hands slapped. Some of us may be surprised by the freedoms we have as a church to educate our constituency on issues and encourage them to vote accordingly. Just avoid becoming partisan in the presentation of facts.

The Elder Board also approved distribution of Value Them Both materials within the church facilities by individuals. However, these and other items related to the 2022 elections will not be placed in the bulletin or on Zoar’s website. We want our focus to be on worshipping God and growing in likeness to Him.

I want to conclude by commending our Elders for their compassion for those suffering circumstances causing them to consider an abortion or struggling with past decisions. This year Zoar has placed the Crisis Pregnancy Center in our budget and much thought and interaction centered on how to grow in sensitivity to needs and participation in solutions for the increasing demands in a broken culture. Jesus said, “As much as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

June 29, 2022                                         Are We Ready?

Don’t you hate it when you get your way unexpectedly and you are not ready for it? That may be what happened to conservative followers of Jesus on Friday, June 24, 2022. I read a challenge from a pro-choice advocate: “Conservatives only care about fetuses (they won’t say “unborn child”). Once they are born, they don’t care for them.” Well … SCOTUS has given us the opportunity to prove her wrong. But it will be costly.

First of all, what may be a bitter divisive battle that at times may become violent, will take place at the state level. For Kansas it centers around the amendment on the August ballot. In our fervent protection of life, we must be careful not to destroy the person who has made some unwise decisions in the past.

Then there is the realm of tangible care. 1] Pregnancy support. While done largely by Crisis Pregnancy Centers, they may become inundated with patients and need help and finances. 2] Adoption support. Can we create partnerships with Adoption Agencies like what has been done with Crisis Pregnancy Centers? How can we help with or reduce the high cost of adoptions? How can we care for the birth mother who gives her child up for adoption? 3] Post-birth support. Women who choose to keep their baby may face significant financial and emotional needs. Will our churches have diapers, formula, baby food, clothing, car seats, cribs, toys, and money for doctor appointments, food, and maybe even options for housing?    4] Foster care support. Will the church be there to help when babies are born into environments from which they must be removed either temporarily or permanently?

Then comes the question which every church will inevitably face … how will our church walk women through an unwanted pregnancy so they experience redemption and reconciliation, rather than shame and financial ruin? When a person confesses and repents, the church has an obligation to respond with the grace, the kindness, and the forgiveness of Jesus.

We know that we care for “the least of these.” Now is the time that we must put action to our concerns. Scheduled abortions are being canceled this week. (May it soon be true in Kansas.) Are we ready to address the resulting needs?

June 2, 2022                                     The Question Oft Forgotten

As I was praying and meditating this week, my mind was drawn to the story in John 5 of a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. He was lying by the Pool of Bethesda with numerous others – lame, blind, and paralyzed — waiting for the waters to stir because, when the waters stirred, the first one into the water was healed.

This man had remained by the pool for a long time. Every time the waters stirred he struggled to get into the pool but someone more agile than he got into the pool ahead of him … and once again he was disappointed. Still, he stayed to try again; this was his last source of hope.

Then Jesus came. When Jesus learned that this man had been an invalid for so long, he asked, “Do you want to get well?”

That’s a good question. You see, we make adjustments to accommodate our limitations. Our limitations, our handicaps, our impediments become a part of our life, our identity, our reality. If it were suddenly to disappear, we would have to learn a whole new way of life … people would relate to us differently … they would have different expectations of us … we would have to learn to live with a new identity, a new reality. So, the question, “Do you really want to get well?”

Change is hard, even when it is to our benefit! And this is true for any malady (addiction, negative character trait, or bad habit). It is also true for any system (family, church, or organization). When confronted with the opportunity to be healed, the question is: “Do you want to get well?”

Then, of course, there were those for whom the man was healed on the wrong day (the Sabbath) and in the wrong way (pick up your bedroll and walk).

We pray rather innocently, “Revive Thy church oh Lord” or “heal our land”. What if He chose to do that in a way that violated our traditions … our experience … our expectations? Is God responding to our prayers with the question, “Do you want to get well?”

That’s something to think about.

May 26, 2022                                   Living Blackmail Proof

Pastor Andrew made a statement in his last sermon that I hope you remember. Let me help you. He said, “No one can blackmail me; my life is an open book.”

I once knew a businessman in northern Iowa who often helped men get on their feet economically. I asked him if he would ever hire an ex-convict. He responded, “It depends on how I find out?” So, how do you suppose he wanted to find out? He told me, “If he puts it in his resume or tells me during the interview, I will hire him. If I discover it in any other way, I will not.”

This businessman and Pastor Andrew said the same thing – transparency builds trust. We may not have a perfect background; we may have areas in which we still struggle, but if we are honest and transparent, we can trust one another.

I mention this now because one of the most difficult times to be honest and transparent is when courting. We have even coined a term to make dating deception more palatable – “putting our best foot forward”. And Zoar is about to enter the courting phase in building a relationship with our next pastor.

Pray for the Pastor Search Team as they meet with Tim Sullivan on Sunday and begin to develop materials to share with prospective candidates. Pray that we will be as honest and transparent in presenting our church and community as we want our next pastor to be in presenting himself and his family to us.

May 18, 2022          Church Attendance After Two Years of Pandemic

Regardless what you think of the COVID pandemic, it has effected some lasting changes in the American church as well as the culture in general. I found some interesting statistics in the March issue of Christianity Today.

The return to church has plateaued. By September 2021, 64% of those who attended church at least once a month said they were again attending worship in person. That percentage increased to only 67% in March of 2022. Evangelical Protestants have returned at a higher rate, (72% in September 2021 and 75% in March 2022) but the return still seems to have reached its apex.

Encouragement is to be taken in that 18% of those who attended at least once a month prior to the pandemic are worshipping with us regularly online. And these people are not free loaders; Zoar receives contributions from people who worship with us exclusively online.

Who are those watching us online? The highest percentage of these people are elderly or young adults without children. Only 30% of married couples without young children attended religious services in 2021.

Why have they chosen to worship online? A high percentage of them are still uncomfortable in large crowds. (Some of them were before the pandemic.) But for many it is a matter of convenience. A young family can worship with their church on the beach. Cheryl and I worshipped with Zoar during our last vacation; we are comfortable with you and we didn’t have to dress up and go to an unfamiliar church.

I deeply appreciated David Gramkow’s thoughts a few weeks ago about the importance of being together in person. We are going to need to develop and teach the essential nature of in person corporate worship and fellowship. And while we do so, it is important that we refrain from simply bolstering attendance numbers. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not to store up statistics for ourselves.

May 3, 2022                                         The Two Generals

I am reading a bit ahead in the book of Luke. Today, in Luke 11, I was captured by the story of Jesus healing the man with a mute demon. Some people praised God, others said Jesus cast the demon out in the power of Satan.

But Jesus responded, “A house divided against itself with fall.” If Satan is turning on his own, he will fail in his mission. In verse 23, it is recorded that Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

It reminds me of the time Peter told Jesus that He would not need to suffer and die. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23) Jesus said that to Peter!

I don’t think Jesus was telling Peter that he had backslidden and was going to hell. Six days later Jesus took him up the mountain with James and John to witness Him (Jesus) being transfigured. I think He was saying that there are only two generals in the war for the souls of people – Jehovah God and Satan. Every word we say, every attitude we have, and every action we take supports, and possibly emanates from, God or Satan even if we are one of Jesus’ closest disciples.

I don’t think we take that truth seriously enough most of the time. I know I don’t! I am quick to justify or excuse being unlike Jesus in my actions, attitudes, or words when all Jesus asks is that I agree with Him about my failure, let Him forgive me, and ask the Holy Spirit to take control of my life again. (1 John 1:9)

So next time someone tells you that Satan is at work in our church, rejoice that they can recognize the difference between the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of Satan (Galatians 5:19-23). And ask them to pray that in this, too, God will work for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28-29). Then, go home and ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything in your life about which they may have been referring (Psalm 139:23-24).

Maybe next week Jesus will invite you to join Him on a mountain top, too.

April 19, 2022                    Sermon Series on the Book of Acts

We at Zoar are well on our way to reading through the New Testament in ’22. Today we begin the Gospel of Luke. This is a lengthy book; we will not finish reading it until June 5. In the introduction to the book, the author, Luke, indicates that he investigated everything regarding what had happened among those following Jesus thoroughly and decided to write an orderly account for Theophilus though others had already written about these things. So Luke writes less thematically and more chronologically than Matthew and Mark whom we have already read.

The Gospel of Luke is actually the first of two books which Luke wrote to Theophilus. The second book is entitled The Acts of the Apostles. It is the only orderly account we have of the expansion of the movement known as the Church from Jerusalem to the uttermost part of the “then known” world.

Luke’s first book was “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day He was taken up to heaven.” (Acts 1:1-2) His second book is about the continuance of what Jesus began by those He chose, trained, and commissioned. However, Jesus told them not to do anything until they received “the gift My Father promised, which you have heard Me speak about … the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5) For this reason, some biblical scholars refer to Luke’s second book as The Acts of the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts is the final historical book of the Bible. It is the account of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, coming to indwell and empower the followers of Jesus. It is our only record of the establishment and expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ. As a historical book, Acts tells us what happened; we will supplement that record with the teachings of Jesus and the epistles which are instructional writings.

Join me in praying that the Holy Spirit will minister powerfully among us as we explore the dynamics of the Apostolic Church beginning this Sunday.

April 13, 2022                              Training People NOT to Lead

I served a church a few years ago that was unable to find children’s workers for Sunday School and children’s ministries, members to serve on committees and boards, and leaders willing to make decisions. This story about a real situation involving a real church is a little long but it is worthy of your time. I am going to change the names to protect those involved.

Hope Church had not always been short of leaders. They had the strongest AWANA ministry in the area. They had a facility that was good for worship and adequate for the children’s ministries. Hope Church had a parsonage that was comfortable, well maintained, and attractive to any young family. And they were the evangelical church of choice for a rural area with 3-4,000 residents.

So, what happened? All evidence points to two things.

First, there were two “blessed people” in the congregation whom I will call Mia and George. A challenging need arose in Hope Church that no one felt capable of handling. Finally, George said, “I think I can do that.” And He did; and God blessed his courage to step out so that it went far better than expected. Some time passed and the church treasurer moved away. No one wanted that task, but, finally, Mia said, “I think I can do that.” And God blessed Mia in her management of the church’s finances; though they went through some economically trying times, she always paid the bills. When another challenge faced the church, George said, “Mia and I have been talking and I think we can do this.” Hope Church was grateful for their wisdom and willingness and rejoiced in God’s provision.

But as time passed, the church began to depend on George and Mia instead of looking for others to share the load. It wasn’t that George and Mia wanted to run the church; it was just that they understood the operation so well, and did things so well, that it was safest and easiest to let them do it. And talented young people who came to Hope Church were not going to volunteer to do what George and Mia had done so well for so long.

That leads to the second factor creating Hope Church’s leadership vacuum. A promising young leader whom I will call Kim accepted the leadership of AWANA. The people loved him, and the program was going well. Then he thought of an all-day venture for the children. Because the budget had not included this significant expenditure, he was asked to present it to the church. George was hesitant; he wanted to know if anyone else had done this. And Mia asked if Kim had talked with a ranger she knew with Game and Parks. Of course, he hadn’t, and the church decided to postpone approval until he had done so. After similar experiences a couple more times, Kim and his family began attending a church “that was closer.”

What can we learn from Hope Church? First, when we become overly dependent on the “blessed people” among us, we exclude the young leaders God is raising up among us or bringing to us. Second, when we do not follow the leaders God provides, they will either become afraid to make decisions or they will go elsewhere to lead.

Hope Church is in recovery! The church as well as numerous individuals within the church apologized to George and Mia for depending on them excessively. They have installed term limits on all positions except paid staff to help them avoid doing the same to someone else. Many have apologized to Kim for not allowing him to lead. And as a church they are learning how to follow the leaders God provides.

March 31, 2022                                         Zoar Core Values

About 70 people worked through a series of exercises on Sunday afternoon to identify the actual values of Zoar MB Church. This is an important part of letting potential candidates know who we are as they pray about the match of their gifts and skills with our needs.

The five core values identified are:

    • Provide outstanding ministries for children/youth
    • Bible knowledge – being familiar with Scripture truth
    • Supporting the ministry with a portion of one’s finances
    • Tradition — doing things in the customary or “tried and true” ways
    • World missions – spreading the Gospel around the globe

This, together with the aspirational values of Zoar, will be included in the church profile provided to prospective candidates.

Thank you to each of you who helped the PST with this portion of the process.

January 13, 2022                        Testimony about Reading God’s Word

I sent out an invitation by email to join me (and our church) in reading the New Testament in a year beginning February 1, 2022. I got this response from one of our young mothers. With her permission, I am sharing it with you.

“This is AWESOME! I read the Bible through for the first time in 2020 and it changed my life. I have since re-dedicated my life to Him after getting to know the Lord on a whole new level.

“God had put it on my heart to do it for a long time and I finally told myself that was my new year’s resolution for 2020. I was so eager to begin that I bought a new bible (one that I could easily read and take notes in) and began in October of 2019. Needless to say, God’s timing is perfect because he was preparing my heart for what was to come that year….and everything that has followed since then. I encourage everyone I know to get into the scriptures if they have never done so before.”

You can get the app with this link:
The link opens to an invitation to read this plan with Al Magnuson. It’s safe … click on “Accept Invitation” and you are ready to go. 57 people are using the app to read the New Testament through in ’22 with us.

For those who prefer to place a printed reading schedule in their Bible as a bookmark, printed copies are available in the south foyer.

Please join us. Read It Thru in 22!