Wednesday, December 14, 2011
How do you do it....
His answer startled me... though I should have seen it coming. "For me and for the people in the pew, the Church is the Mass. We just keep on saying Mass and they keep on coming and, whatever happens, we will keep on saying Mass and they will keep on coming and the Church will go on..." In other words, the identity of the Church is not in the programs or ministries or ministers but in the Sacraments.
Living in the neck of the woods I do, I hear a lot of negativity about the shelf life of Lutheranism unless we radically re-invent ourselves. Sadly, I am sure some of this negativity comes out in the form of frustration in this blog and for that I apologize. But the truth is that we as Lutherans are in great position to fulfill our calling and be the Church -- if we would only believe what we confess. This Roman priest has good advice for us as Lutherans. It is great advice for Lutherans living among the naysayers who would insist that Lutheranism is a graying church body that will close the doors and shut off the lights unless we get with the times, technology, and become like the newest and greatest of the mega models. We just keep on saying Mass and preaching the Gospel and the people will keep on coming.... that is where the life of our Church and its road to health leads -- through the means of grace.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting for a moment that we be closed communities, existing only for the insiders, the people already in the pews. The Church is always a welcoming community, introducing the Gospel to those who hear it for the first time, initiating the new into the life of the community through baptism and catechesis, acting in the community in agencies of mercy and service simply for the love of Christ and without any other agenda. Absolutely! We continue to do these with a passion. But the heart and center of our life together is the Mass, the preached Word of God, and the community of faith gathered around that Word and Sacrament(s). We will continue because of the means of grace. We will be successful because of the means of grace.
No church body gets as much bad press as the Roman Catholic Church. Even Muslims get more of a break in the media! We Lutherans do not have the bad press to worry about but we are often our own worst enemies. I constantly hear from various official and semi-official Lutheran media and jurisdictions that we are a dying church, a graying church, an uncaring church, etc... Sometimes we get to believing our own bad self-image. I am convinced that most of our problems in the areas of contemporary worship and music proceed not from bad Pastors but from Pastors who desperately want to SEE growth and who, despite internal misgivings, are willing to sacrifice just about anything of Lutheran identity and piety for the sake of better numbers. In many cases, they are being force fed this disposition because of their District press for improvement, success, and victory.
We have forgotten what this good priest reminded me -- our life as a church does not flow from programs or press but from the font, the table, and the pulpit. Where the Gospel is proclaimed within the twin polarities of Law and Gospel, where the lives of the people are rooted in the action of God in baptismal regeneration, and where we are fed and nourished in the Eucharist, the Church will grow, the mission will grow, the work of the kingdom will go on -- because these flow from the means of grace and flow back to the means of grace.
Christmas is a great opportunity for us to proclaim this great good news. Though our world seems to have room only for the culture of me, the culture of technology, and the culture of consumerism, there is, underneath, the soft belly of fear, want, and need. Rather than spend our whole time condemning the excesses of our worldly Christmas culture, we need to spend it proclaiming positively what answers our fears, what speaks to the emptiness and want in side, and what will meet our crying need for peace, joy, forgiveness, and life stronger than death. Here on Christmas we remind our people regularly in the pew and those new to the pews that our life flows from the Word that keeps its promise, from the water that cleanses us from the inside out, and from the altar that gives us heaven's bread and salvation's cup until we hunger and thirst no more.
We will always have naysayers inside and out. We cannot afford to waste the precious moment by spending our time always saying "no" and we need to be able to say "yes" to the yes God has said to us in Christ. Our success will not come because we have become masters of the media or because we have our ears to the changes within our culture or because we have the latest and greatest program or paradigm. Our success will come because we faithfully proclaim the Word of God in all its truth and fullness and because our lives are rooted and nurtured in the sacramental grace of saving water, bread, and wine.
The Roman priest friend said to me he did not pay much attention to the way his church body was portrayed in the media or the critics always ready to tell him what to do to be more effective or successful. He knew that the life of his church and his own personal life as a Christian flowed from the Mass -- that is what the folks in the pew understood, as well. As imperfect or fragile as this might be, it is enough. If that is true for them, it should even be more true for us as Lutheran Christians whose Divine Service has its twin peaks of sacramental Word proclaimed (and preached) and sacramental grace (we eat and drink).