Saturday, January 29, 2022

My 2022 Annual Report for Lanse Free Church

Lanse Evangelical Free Church exists to glorify God
by bringing people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ
through worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and service.

Celebration Sunday Photo by John Kristofits

The Annual Pastoral Report
Pastor Matt Mitchell
Year in Review: 2021

Dear Church Family,
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares
[We] have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought [us] safe thus far,
And grace will lead [us] home.” 
- John Newton (1779)
Praise God! Once again, our Lord has faithfully carried us through yet another difficult year by His amazing grace.

We began 2021 wondering how, when, and even if the unique challenges of ministry during a global pandemic would resolve. As the year unfolded, many things did improve greatly–though often more slowly than we might have wanted. In the pages of this report from our church leaders, you can read about some the encouraging gifts that the Lord gave us along the way (including two new missionary families and a remodeled ladies’ restroom!). Some things at LEFC got back more towards how they used to be such as Family Bible Week, the Good News Cruise, in-person congregational meetings and fellowship dinners, candlelit Christmas Eve worship, the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper, and just one single worship time on Sundays. Other things we used to employ and enjoy have not yet returned, and their future is still not clear. It is clear that the pandemic will continue to have significant effects on our church long into the future.

Of course, covid is only one of the “dangers, toils, and snares,” we experienced in 2021. The world in which we minister is fraught with trouble, just as our Lord forecasted, yet, thankfully, He has overcome the world (John 16:33). So we take heart because we know that our Great Shepherd is carrying us in His powerful arms close to His heart (Isaiah 40:9-11). I consider it a deep honor, true privilege, and sweet joy to serve this precious flock as one of His undershepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4).

We Were the Church in 2021

My vision statement for our congregation in 2021 was simply, “Be the church.” Regardless of the pressures upon us, we are called to stay faithful to the mission the Lord has given us. The main thing is not for us to get things back to “normal.” The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing–the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe that’s what we did in 2021. Through it all we remained focused on bringing people into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ through worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and service even though it often looked different from how we did it in years past. This year, the Lord continued to bless our church family with amazing unity, creativity, innovation, persistence, resilience, diligence, and faithfulness. Thank you for your generosity and for your service in ministry.

Numerically, our church family has grown remarkably. It doesn’t always seem like it because we are so spread out inside and outside on Sunday mornings, because many of our families have been participating more sporadically, and because some, sadly, have left our fellowship. However, we have more total families participating than I can ever remember, many of them new. Even with some households doubling up and sharing space, all of our “mailboxes” in the foyer are taken! We are blessed to see so many new faces.

Our average Sunday attendance on campus across 2021 was 114 people per week and 122 per week for the second half of the year (when we returned to one worship time). That was a 22% increase over the previous year and an 88% return to our pre-pandemic weekly average. But those encouraging statistics can also obscure the greater reality that across a three week period we regularly have had 170-200 different people worshiping on campus with us! In fact, we have counted about 240 regular worshipers that call LEFC their church home which means that about half of the church family may not be on campus on any given Sunday. We are twice as big as it might seem! This presents all kinds of challenges, especially for building community and keeping us all moving forward together on mission, but it is also exciting to see how the Lord is drawing people together in worship of Him. Our highest attended Sunday in 2021 was Resurrection Sunday with 184 people gathered out in the parking lot to praise our risen Lord.

Servant Leaders

As your pastor, I am incredibly grateful for the many leaders, volunteers, and staff who worked so hard to serve the church family in 2021, often in thankless ways behind the scenes. All of our church ministry teams continued to show up week after week and did what needed done, and they did it with love. It was a joy to be able to retire the “Clean Team” midway through 2021 as we no longer had multiple services to prepare for. Thank you to Cindy Green for leading that team and for her ongoing work of keeping our facility looking sharp each week.

For the last decade, Marilynn Kristofits has served our church family with cheerfulness, compassion, wisdom, and excellence as our Administrative Assistant. We have all come to rely on her support and help in getting just about anything done around here! As she has now taken a full-time job at Penn State she will be transitioning out of the church office over the new few months. I am immensely thankful for her ministry of details over the last ten years and especially the last twenty four months as we have navigated a world changed by covid. I am especially grateful for her wise and earnest counsel as we partnered in church ministry, and I look forward to seeing what the Lord does through Marilynn in the future, both in her new work at PSU and in her ongoing ministry as a vital member of our church family.

I also praise the Lord that I got to serve with our 2021 Church Elders Team–Keith Folmar (chairman), Bob Gisewhite, Todd Dobo, and Joel Michaels. The breakneck pace of change continued to be relentless in 2021, and I am grateful for the hard work these men put into absorbing the details of the various health guidelines and government mandates, praying together, and then making wise (and sometimes hard and always to some degree imperfect) decisions about how to keep people safe, be submissive to authority, and be supportive of families’ different choices all at the same time. I’m happy to report that though the five of us often came from very different perspectives, we always reached complete unity on our decisions together–praise the Lord! 

Pastoral Ministry 

Being a pastor during a pandemic like this one is hard even with a wonderful church such as ours. In 2021, I was often unsure of how to faithfully fulfill the key responsibilities of my ministry–preaching the word, equipping the saints, and shepherding the flock (2 Timothy 4:1-5, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Peter 5:1-4). I frequently felt disappointed, discouraged, and stymied in my efforts. At the same time, I knew that I was deeply loved by the Lord and His people and was being shepherded myself by God’s amazing grace. As the year progressed, the Lord gave me many gifts in each key area of pastoral ministry.

Preach the Word

Getting to preach from the fortifying truth of the Psalms was one of the highlights of 2021. The Psalms beautifully and evocatively express and transform every movement of the believer’s heart. I don’t know how I could have gotten through the last two years without them, and it was a high and holy privilege to teach them to you.

In September, we turned back to the New Testament, and I started our current series, “As Foreigners and Exiles: The Message of 1 Peter.” Interestingly, I preached this same letter exactly twenty years ago in 2001, sometimes even the same particular passages on the corresponding weekend exactly two decades later! Apparently, the Lord has some things He wants us revisit and relearn right now.

I got to preach in many different ways in 2021. When we had multiple services, I would preach up to three times each Sunday morning. I continued to pre-record video messages until we went back to one worship time, and then we began recording a live video of the teaching to share afterwards for those who missed it or need a review. Between video and FM transmission (also begun in 2021) to the parking lot, the tent, and the far reaches of our building, I’ve learned to preach to people I can’t actually see. Often, I got to preach outdoors. I will never forget standing on a folding chair so I could see to the furthest car in the parking lot on Resurrection Sunday and proclaiming and exclaiming about how good we have it because Jesus was not abandoned to the grave! And I’ll never forget how you all honked your horns in a great, “Amen!”

We had some terrific guest preachers in 2021, as well. Not only did Joel Michaels, Kerry Doyal, Rich Hoyt, Matt Cox, Abe Skacel, and Chris Grella give me a much appreciated break, but they gave us all the priceless gift of God’s Word.

Equip the Saints

In 2021, I got to come alongside and help all of our ministry teams be as effective as they could be in their work. This meant many meetings, phone calls, emails, and texts to help to solve problems and empower our church leaders to make the decisions they needed to restart their ministry, keep it going, or keep holding it back for the right time. We even started new ministries in 2021 like sending out a team for Christmas caroling on a Sunday afternoon!

The top highlight of equipping in our church this year for me was leading a LEFC Membership Seminar in October. With twelve participants, we had the biggest class I can remember, and we had at least twelve other people interested in taking it next time. The highlight of the seminar was listening to Vera Edgren teach on the 129 years of our church’s interesting history!

This year, I got to return to a ministry of equipping beyond our local church body. One day I was able to teach in the Miracle Mountain Ranch School of Discipleship. I continued to lead our Allegheny District Constitutions and Credentials Board (CCB) and participate in both a licensing examination and an ordination council over Zoom! Representing the CCB, I was privileged to travel to the Rochester area to teach in one district church and speak at the welcoming service for our newest district church in Marion, New York. I also continued to serve on the EFCA Spiritual Heritage Committee which provides theological resources for equipping our entire association of churches.

Surprisingly, my book Resisting Gossip continues to have a wide equipping reach, as well. Last spring, I was interviewed about gossip and whistleblowing by Christianity Today as a source for the cover article of their May/June issue, and I was also honored to contribute a short essay for DesiringGOD on a biblical definition of gossip. Thank you for supporting me in these broader endeavors.

Shepherd the Flock

The words “SAFE FROM ME DAY” are marked in big letters outlined in red on May 11th of my 2021 personal calendar. That was the day that I was officially two weeks past my second vaccination shot against covid, and it represented to me a turning point in the pandemic when, because of increased immunity (and while still being careful), I no longer had to keep so much distance from other people out of love for them. I could, once again, increasingly move towards people to shepherd them. I praise God for that day and every day since that I have been able to be near to my flock. I love to visit you in your homes and workplaces and to see you in person if you are at the hospital or in the nursing home. 

One of the highlights in 2021 was being with many of you on playing fields. This autumn, I got to attend several football, soccer, and volleyball games, and I’m looking forward to basketball, wrestling, and cheer in the winter as well as baseball, softball, and track in the spring. I look forward to concerts and theater performances soon, too. I’m eager to be with you all as the Lord leads.

I made a lot of shepherding phone calls, sent a lot of shepherding texts, and wrote a lot of “pastor pen pal” letters to church kids in 2021, but I still often felt disconnected. There are a lot of you and only one of me. In fact, one of the things I miss about having three services on Sunday was that I had more personal time with many of you because you showed up in smaller, more manageable, shifts! Thank you for your patience and understanding. Please continue to stay in touch with me and tell me how I can be praying for you.

In 2021, we celebrated the births of three precious girls: Blair, Lucy, and Eden. We rejoiced because of the weddings of Joshua & Schenley and Miles & Jennifer. We also mourned the deaths of several loved ones. I had the solemn privilege of leading nine funerals: Gail Wagner, Larry O’Connor, Jolena Hampton, Velma Francisko, Pat Quick, Howard Hall, Beverly Lumadue, Jane Ann Goodman, and Cliff “Whitey” Knaul.

One of my favorite moments of 2021 was getting to baptize Beverly O’Connor and Charles “Copper” Crumrine in the portable pool we set up out in the field for Celebration Sunday. Not only did I get to be near these sheep, we got to splash together in the waters that celebrate our great salvation! May the Lord give us gifts like that more and more in the days to come.

A Personal Note:

I want to thank you for praying for me and my family in 2021. Pretty soon all four of our kids will be adults, and it’s a sweet joy to have them still at home or nearby. Who knows where in the world they will all be a short time from now? Heather and I appreciate your intercession for our whole family–not only for our health as we recently had our own brief bout with covid in our home–but for growth in wisdom, love, and holiness as we walk into the days ahead.

Thank you also for your financial support. Many churches are struggling these days to make ends meet, and ours not only continues to improve our facilities, but to take on new missionaries and fully support their pastor with generous pay and benefits.

Thank you, as well, for supporting the district and national ministries of the EFCA. I have never been so glad to be a part of an association of churches like ours (and I have always valued it in the past!) as I am right now. I have been well-shepherded myself by our district superintendent, Kerry Doyal, during these turbulent months, and I am very grateful.

2022 Vision - “The Lord Has Promised Good”

My hope and prayer for the year ahead of us is simply that it will be GOOD.

Good Deeds

We are learning from the Apostle Peter that God wants us to be known in our neighborhoods for doing good deeds. He said, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). The Lord wants us to do those good deeds even if we are persecuted for them because even then we will be blessed.

Our good deeds might be things we do for one another in the church family. Our church has many needs, and everybody can find a way of using their gifts to help fill those needs (1 Peter 4:8-11). Our good deeds may also be things we do for others out in the world. We need to remember that we are living in a fishbowl, and the world is watching us swim. What do they see?

It’s easy to get worn down and stop doing what we know we ought to be doing. In 2022, let’s keep encouraging each other to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:9-10).

Good News

Our methods may change, but may our message never change. We have the best news there ever was to share. In 2022, let’s fill our mouths with the gospel. The Lord Jesus Christ has come, has died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God (see 1 Peter 3:18)! That good news is greater than any of the problems and troubles we will face this year, and that good news saves those who believe in Him.

Recently, I have changed from always capitalizing “COVID-19" to using lowercase letters to write about the virus that has disrupted our lives. It’s a little symbolic thing, but I’ve made this change not because I expect the virus to disappear in 2022 (though I certainly hope its negative effects are greatly diminished as this year progresses), but because I don’t want it to capture my focus and occupy an outsized proportion of my thoughts. Instead, I want to be even more focused on the GOSPEL-22. Come along with me.

Good Plans

We have a lot of planning to do. We need to prayerfully search for our church’s next Administrative Assistant. We have a team coming together to re-think, re-imagine, and re-tool children, youth, and family ministry to make disciples of the next generation. We need to prepare for the Wild Game Dinner that is roaring back this March. We need to plan out new ways of building community and growing in fellowship with one another. We need to plan for improvements to our facility and campus. We need to plan for more ways to get our life-changing message out into the world.

But we cannot trust in our plans. If the Lord has been teaching us anything through covid, it is that we need to hold our plans lightly and trust in His.

Thankfully, His plans for us are very good. I’m hoping to begin preaching the Prophecy of Jeremiah this year. Jeremiah reminded the Israelites heading into exile that the LORD had plans to prosper and not harm His people, plans to give them a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). And that is true in a greater sense for us today and forever because He plans to give us Himself, and there is nothing better.

“The Lord has promised good to [us]
His word [our] hope secures;
He will [our] shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.” 

In 2022, we can count on the Lord carrying us through another year of dangers, toils, and snares by His amazing grace until we are safely home. 

In His Grip,
Pastor Matt