Monday, March 15, 2010

An Easy Religion...

One of my great frustrations is how we are caught between people's perception of themselves and congregation's perceptions.  When it comes to "membership" we find Gallup telling us that there are some 12-15 million Lutherans out there - at least by their own perception.  Unfortunately, Lutheran congregations reporting membership figures can account for about half that.  Even more regrettable is the fact that only 1/3 of those are actually in worship on a given Sunday.  Makes you wonder what it means to be a member, huh?

We (and I include myself in this) have worked very hard to make it easy to be Christian.  I tell the people that God's expectation is every member around the Lord's Table in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  I say over and over again that Scripture is not to be some dusty encyclopedia but the familiar Word of the Lord and that this happens only when you are in the Word (reading and in Bible study).  But if you are not, we do not kick you out.  We do just the opposite.  We spend countless hours and energy speaking with you, writing to you, and working to draw you back in.  If you wanted attention, it seems to me, you would stay away from worship and Bible study because that is how you get attention.

Now I am not saying we should kick people out when they miss nor am I saying that we should use the LAW as a weapon to guilt or shame people back into the Church.  What I am lamenting is that we have taught people there are no consequences for missing.  What I am lamenting is that we have taught people to believe that Christianity is an easy religion.  You do nothing to save yourself -- God does it all.  You have to do no good works -- you are saved by grace and not by works.  You do not have to avail yourself of confession -- God forgives you as quickly as you sin.  You do not have to contribute anything -- God only wants your money if you want to give it.  You do not have to do anything -- you can be Christian at home by yourself just as easily as being together in a congregation.  As Lutherans we perhaps the logical ones to blame for this epidemic of cheap grace that is no grace at all.

Apparently half of all those who self-identify as Lutherans do not feel that they are missing anything by not being a member of a local congregation.  And apparently more than half of those who do become a member do not believe they are missing anything by not worshiping or reading/studying God's Word or by speaking the Gospel to others etc.  Who gave them that impression?  Did we IN the Church?

I remember somebody suggesting that they should make it harder to get married and easier to get a divorce and then maybe there would be less divorce.  I am not so sure that it might not result in less marriages.  Period.  So I am not suggesting that if we made it harder to become a member, the members would stay active.  I think we would just have fewer new members.

What must be done is a sea change of attitude.  We cannot allow Christianity to become an easy religion which asks nothing of you, gives you everything, and then allows you to be as distant from the faith as you want to be without losing any of the benefits.  We must do this by raising expectations.  I am not so sure that Pastors can do this.  They can start it and they can support it but they will simply be voices crying in the wind until the cause is raised up by the folks who are in the pews every Sunday.

Christianity is not a low maintenance faith.  It is a high maintenance faith.  Until this changes we will have low maintenance Christians who grow ever more distant from the Word and Sacraments that impart to them Jesus Christ and the fullness of His gifts and graces.

Yes it is a counter-culture movement but it is an urgent one.  We keep packing people in the front doors to Lutheran congregations but we are ignoring the mass exodus leaving by the back door -- in every Lutheran group from the liberal ELCA to the very conservative WELS and in the Missouri in the Middle (maybe that should be the new name of our Synod).

Cheap grace is no grace at all.  Until we begin to realize it we can all be Ablaze but all we will do is burn ourselves up and we can Fan into Flame but it will be a destructive fire that offers heat but no light.  We need more than chits on the wall to show how we share the Gospel.  We need to bring people to God's House, explain to them what is happening in the liturgy, teach them to know Law and Gospel, the theology of the cross and the theology of glory, and the means of grace.  Cheap grace has not served us to well over the years.  It has turned Christianity into an easy religion that requires nothing, expects nothing, and supplies nothing (over the long haul).  We dare not foist this cheap grace upon those who grace our doors for the first time or hear the Gospel from us.  They don't need an easy religion.  Neither do we...


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

But perhaps this will always happen. How often did people leave Jesus after He preached? Did He not tell us that many will receive with joy, but the cares of life will choke them out? Now, this is not to encourage despair or inactivity on our part, but perhaps to direct our expectations.

So often, folks who attend regularly, who know the importance and need for worship, who say "Lord to whom shall we go - You have the Words of Eternal Life?" - these folks become frustrated by the back door folk. We don't understand them - and to a certain extent we can't -- it would be unthinkable to abandon the Word. But perhaps we should view them as a warning to ourselves, lest we abandon repentance - and perhaps we should work on calling them to repentance more.

A few will show up and start returning now and again - the Word still works upon people - but there will be no glory days, no golden age. Never was, never will be. Ours is always a religion of the minority - surveys only speak of the delusions of the masses.

the fact that I’m me said...

I converted to Christianity at age 22 from zero background in Christianity. My divorced parents had no faith background-and I was a self proclaimed Buddhist. I am 31 now. I have experienced the multifaceted Protestant experience-indeed, like many, struggled with it in order to be a faithful Christian-from being baptized in an African American congregation in the Deep South, Southern Baptists, and Presbyterians. In this journey, I have struggled most with understanding the Gospel of Grace-and my deep penchant for legalism and works righteousness.

In 2005 I discovered Luther. I found a man, with obvious weaknesses and flaws, who himself struggled to grasp and understand the Gospel. He has been a very large source of encouragement to me-as he always points to the cross. Without realizing it, I would say he has shaped my understanding of the faith greatly.

I have immense trouble understanding relatives who claim an emotional relationship with Jesus but refuse to attend church and seem to walk with zero reflection on faith and repentance. It could be that I am a Pharisee; and for that I am sorry. But I don’t understand it. How can they understand God’s grace outside of the church? But they are evangelical; they don’t hold that the sacraments are more than mere symbols. For them, worship is not God giving to us but us having an emotional high and giving that to God-and they don’t need church for that.

As frustrating as that is for me (which does reflect my own struggles with legalism, no doubt) even more troubling is that Lutherans, who hold that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ, would routinely miss the Divine Service that offers that.

This world is a cruel place. But the Lord is good…and Sunday morning offers a sure glimpse of that reality to come.

So….how do we explain the importance of weekly attendance to church without being accused of holding to works-righteousness?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Pastor Peters,

I think you may have shaped my weekly e-mail meditation which I send out each week based on the Epistle. It is here.

Ariel said...

>>So….how do we explain the importance of weekly attendance to church without being accused of holding to works-righteousness?

I think you just answered your own question: "This world is a cruel place. But the Lord is good…and Sunday morning offers a sure glimpse of that reality to come."

The first statement cannot be disputed, that is my experience many times. The second is a promise that God fulfills constantly, to bring me to only small, constantly satisfying taste of the Paradise to come in His house.

ErnestO said...

The following humble distillation of my thoughts is in response to the ideas presented in your posting Pastor Peters.

We are saved by God's grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, as taught by Scripture alone. What a wonderful message complete and instructive - yet the words of Billy Graham seem so pertinent. "Lutherans have the theology, they just don't know how to use it."

We Lutherans need the poor, widows and orphans. Fill the church (with the least of these) until the congregation has to stand during services and leave the rest to the providence of God.

In humble prayer, I ask that we as a church might make known the love of Christ by word and deed within our churches, communities and the world.

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

We the Body need no chits or programs, we need true excitement. Enthusiasm not in the form of pleading ("Oh, please come to our 500 session study on Jude! We need you!") Enthusiasm (sorry, I know that's not a good word for a Lutheran to use) in the form of our own excitement about what we read and learn. Real joy about what we receive from the Lord each Sunday in Word and Sacrament.

Don't we sometimes hold back with the verbalization of our joy? We might get weird looks from that missing member, be accused of being Pentecostal. That person we're speaking to might not understand... Well of COURSE they don't understand! That's why they are absent, why we need to tell.

One of the wonderful things that our Lord used to draw me to Lutheranism is the truth that the Gospel is not only for the lost. Is there some sort of disconnect between pastor and people? Why do we expect the pastor to preach Gospel every Sunday, and we think we should only "use" it on our lost neighbors? We who are "faithful" in attendance must speak Gospel to our lagging brothers and sisters, and pray that our Lord will use that to draw them back.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of "cheap Grace." Have we the members cheapened it by keeping it inside amongst ourselves the family?