Sunday, February 28, 2010

Where do we begin...

There are countless companies offering solutions to how to fill the pews on Sunday morning.  Usually what they offer is incompatible with our Lutheran identity.  Sadly, we often listen to their offers anyway because we look on on Sunday mornings and see so many empty seats.  If you have been in one place a long time, like I have been here, these are not just empty seats but the faces of people who have come and gone, whose faith and life together with us has waxed and waned.  When it becomes personal like this, the need to find an answer becomes similarly personal.

Looking back upon the Missouri statistic of some 3/4 of a million folks (out of 2.3 million) in church on Sunday morning, I am reminded that if we had nearly everyone who claimed to be part of us together with us in the Lord's house, on the Lord's day, we would multiply by three or more the numbers of folk to marshal for the work of God's kingdom and for the welcoming and bringing of others to church each week.

It occurs to me that so often people fall away or their attendance wanes because we fall victim to the secular way of thinking of Sunday morning.  How many times haven't people missed Church only to ask someone who was there "What did I miss" only to have them reply "Nothing - just the usual."  Now that is a scary thought and perhaps one of the most telling ways we see what happens on Sunday morning -- and perhaps one of the prime reasons why people are not so regular in their attendance.

What did I miss?  You miss heaven opening and the voice of the Lord speaking to us "This is My beloved Son; listen to Him..."  You miss the cleansing of heart and soul through the voice of the absolution that declares in heaven and on earth "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit..."  You miss God setting His table in the midst of our enemies and then feeding us on nothing less than His body as our bread and His blood as our cup "for the forgiveness of your sins..."  You miss the fellowship of believers (not with coffee cup but with the cup of the Lord) that tells us "and each of us are members of His body the Church..."  You miss the celebration of God's wondrous deeds -- not only in olden times but among us still with every power of His grace and urgency of His purpose...  You miss the offering of our selves as living sacrifices and God's acceptance of what we bring -- including the tithes and offerings that also glorify Him and do His bidding...  You miss the music that gives the Word a melody to plant in our hearts and in our minds the message of the cross and empty tomb... You miss the wonder of sitting at the feet of Jesus with all God's children in this place and being told the stories that tell THE story of His redeeming love... You miss the blest reunion with the saints of old whose voices blend with ours, with the angels, and with the archangels singing "Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth!"  You miss the presence of God among us as a mothering hen calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying us that we might be His flock...  You miss the company of those who with us were elected unto salvation in the waters of our baptism so that we might become one family, the Church, with Christ our Brother... 

As long as the answer is "nothing -- just the usual" there is no compelling reason to be there.  Unless and until we raise the expectation away from sentiment or humor, entertainment or pleasure, we will give those who stay away no compelling reason to be there and those who are new will learn from us the dullness of heart that misses everything that happens in the Divine Service... and they too will become names on a page without bodies in the pew... raise the bar... preacher in the pulpit... raise the bar... presider at the altar... raise the bar... musician at the console... raise the bar... choir member in the loft... raise the bar... acolyte in the chancel...raise the bar... usher at the door... raise the bar... greeter in the narthex... raise the bar... child of God in the pew...


Sue said...

This is just wonderful! I needed to hear that! As do, I suspect, most of us. I will take this with me through my life - thank you for giving me the words.

"The Right Rev" said...

ABSOLUTELY hot stuff! What a great reminder of the extraordinary value of something as seemingly plain as church attendance!

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: How can anyone not regret missing the things you have listed? The problem is that most people who come to services, even though they hear and see what is going on, do not feel that they are really a part of what is happening; therefore they cannot see what is before their eyes. I say this without judgment, knowing that the fact that I am fully involved in the service with all my being is not something I achieved, but a gift given to me through those few people who fed me with the true Gospel when I desperately needed it. This gift is there for all believers. I also say it based on my experience over many decades, when I want to speak about some aspect of the service with my fellow parishioners, and they don’t even remember what happened.

I am convinced that there are just a few reasons for this lack of “ownership”:

1. Most people do not know what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of God. They have heard the Gospel repeatedly, but it usually ends with our Lord’s resurrection, and only rarely does it extend to what our Lord did when He “opened the Kingdom to all believers” and “transferred us to His glorious Kingdom 0f Light.” Instead they hear something that starts with, “So now, out of gratitude for what our Lord has done for us, we should do so and so.”
2. Most people feel that because they continue to sin, there is something wrong with them that prevents God from accepting them completely. Much of that is the fault of preachers and theologians who use modifiers like “complete”, “real”, and “genuine” when they speak about repentance and conversion. By doing this, rather than pointing to the sure words of Scripture which speak of what God has done and promised, they instill doubt in them about their status as children of God.
3. Most people do not realize that in Baptism they are born as new creatures. They do not realize that the old man who was drowned in the waters of Baptism has nothing to do with the new man. They do that because they think that if they were really new people, they should be much “better”. In this way their own perceptions become the judge of what is a child of God, not the words of God Himself.
4. Most people do not realize that in Baptism the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has made His home with them and dwells in them, and that He comforts them, strengthens and sustains their faith, helps them in temptation, and gives them His priceless gifts, including love and joy. 5. Most people think that God is there watching for every misstep, rather than being their Shepherd, who provides for them, guides them, protects them, and nourishes their bodies and souls.
6. Most people do not realize what our Lord meant when He said, “if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed”, or St. Paul, when he wrote, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” What they hear from the pulpit day after day (present company excepted; I have read your exposition of the Gospel enough times to know you do not do that) is that since we have been forgiven, we now have a series of obligations which we must fulfill in order to remain in the Kingdom. Because they fear that chaos will result, many pastors fail to tell their people that there is no compulsion in the Kingdom of God. They do not trust God to work His will in people without force, or “apart from the works of the Law.” The walk of faith is like walking on water: God gives us the power to do it, and holds us up when we begin to sink.

No, I am not for Cheap Grace! No, I am not against the Law! No, I do not believe that we should sin so that grace might abound.
But I am for the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the people of God who are fully cognizant of the Kingdom.

Why do I think that making these things clear to people will make a difference? Because I find them so rarely in our churches, but so often in Scripture and our Confessions.

Peace and Joy,
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

There is a sad loss of the sense of immediacy in our Sunday gatherings, this is true, and part of it goes back to the fact that for too long the debate has ended with whether the Bible is true. The next question is more pivotal to daily life -- does Scripture (and we might add the Sacraments) do what it says (they say)?

It is mystifying how we can be so casual with the grace of God -- those who are stewards of this grace on Sunday morning and those who carry in them throughout the week.

As Christians we grieve as people who have no hope and we live as people who have not been born anew and we believe as people who keep rules out of fear instead of people compelled by love and we serve as people who watch our steps instead of people equipped to serve the Lord and do His bidding. And then we wonder why God seems so far from our lives, why faith is so weak to make a difference in us, and why it is so hard to read Scripture and pray... We have much work to do...

Rev. Richard Habrecht said...

Rev. Peters, I saw your post last Sunday morning as I was preparing for the day. The picutre brought to mind the words at the end of the Proper Preface "With angels and arch angels and all the company of heaven ... ." Then your recounting of what we miss if we don't attend the Divine Service convinced me that I needed to suspend the first part of my Bible Class and share this with the class. They were grateful as was I. One woman said she would never think about the Divine Service in the same way again. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In Christ, Rev. Richard Habrecht

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters, may I have permission to share this with the Ohio District Board of Directors at our September meeting?

Joe Strieter
Maumee, Ohio