Friday, November 14, 2014
The Church is the biggest roadblock to church growth?
We heard the sad statistics of congregations closing every year, the numbers of back door losses that bleed like a wound from the church, and pastors and parishes so focused upon paying bills and keeping the programs going that they are oblivious to needs of the lost all around them. The statistics are certainly true but not the whole truth. While you can say all of these things with facts to back you up, there is much more to the picture than selected statistics can say.
We were encouraged to renew our passion for those outside the Kingdom, those who are not yet among the company of the saints, the unchurched, under-churched, and de-churched. All of this is true as well. But, again, it is not the whole truth. There is more than passion that needs renewal – not in the least of which is our identity as Lutheran Christians. What it means to be Lutheran and how this is lived out in the practice of the faith (mission or established congregation), is a fairly large question in our Lutheran circles and we have yet to fully address it.
Let me note a few things. At the time that churches are declining (even Roman Catholicism would be declining in the US without the infusion of immigrants), we should acknowledge that the times have changed and our culture is hardly friendly to Christianity (at least the orthodox kind). At the time when we are losing old members and failing to win new members, we have a plethora of parachurch organizations, church growth gurus, and resources of every kind available to every pastor and parish interested in broaching the subject of decline. You might think that with all the experts and their abundance of expertise we would be better situated to turn around the pattern of decline in the churches. Let me also remind folks that we face a highly individualized culture in which doctrine, piety, and truth are largely seen as individual choices and determination. In other words, people do not seem to think they need the Church to be Christian or to have anyone look over their shoulder to tell them if their estimation of truth and morality is on target or way off base.
Let me remind the nay-sayers that God grows His Church. We do not. I believe one of the great issues before us is our loss of confidence that God will do what we want Him to do. So we turn to gimmicks, navel gazing, and polling to figure out what we can do to jump start the Spirit working through the means of grace. God is not tame. Though we want a predictable God, a controllable God, what we have is a wild God whose time is not our time and whose ways are not our ways. We walk by faith and not by sight. As long as we are faithful in proclaiming His Word (carefully distinguishing Law and Gospel) and administering His sacraments according to His institution, God has told us we have done our part and He will make sure that these do not return to Him empty handed (but it may well seem that they return to us empty handed). Now I am not at all saying that we are all or always faithful in the proclamation of His Word or administration of His sacraments – we are not and we owe nothing less than sincere repentance for the casual way we handle His truth and the means of grace! But what the Church needs is not a new program or a new perspective or even a new paradigm. What we need is trust in the Lord and do what He has called us to do, to do it faithfully, and to trust that God will fulfill His promise whether we see the fruits of our efforts or not.
I reject the premise that there would be more Christians except for the Church and the Christians who already exist. Surely we are our own and God’s worst enemies sometimes but the Word reaches out to more people through so many mediums and the Church is doing good in so many different ways that it is not as simple as saying we are not doing enough. Maybe we could never do enough but what happened to the idea that people can and will reject the clear preaching of God’s Word, that the speakers of this truth and those who live in its way will suffer the same rejection and even violent anger of the world to whom the Word is sent? If any are saved it is God’s doing and if any are not saved it is their responsibility. Ours is not a calling to be successful in the Lord’s work but to be faithful (Mother Theresa). If we were more faithful, it is entirely possible and probable that we would be more successful but the key to the renewal of our witness to the world is more faithfulness and not more programs, church growth experts, or gimmicks.
I am daily convicted by my weakness, failure, and faithlessness. I hope every Pastor is. Repentance is not some perfunctory act but an attitude of faithfulness in which we daily deliver to the Lord our sins and He rescues us with grace and absolves us. Even the Church could use a dose of repentance now and then. For the fruit of this repentance is that we are drawn away from confidence in our own efforts and learn to lean upon the efforts of Christ on our behalf. Even this example would be better for the world to see in Christians and their churches than the smoke and mirrors too often peddled by those who say they know what ails us and how to fix us.