Saturday, April 7, 2012

I might go back to church if....

Every Christian congregation has its share of lapsed members -- those whose names may still be on the role or those who consider themselves members even if they have not attended for years and years.  What we do with them has absorbed a fairly significant amount of thought and energy of parish pastors.  Some counsel us to forget them as it is often much easier to replace them with new member than to win or woo them back.  Others insist that we cannot focus on the front door when the back door is bleeding us dry.  I have no special wisdom here -- having only limited success in restoring those who have abandoned the good habit of meeting together.

I read recently where lapsed Roman Catholics were given an opportunity voice (maybe vent would be a better term) against their church about why they left and what it might take to get them back.  We saw all the usual excuses.  Complaints about clergy (who doesn't), about church and politics, about politics in the church, about doctrine, about practice, about past issues involving the Church but not necessarily them personally... In response the RCC thought about those things it would not or could not change but could explain better and those things which could be and, perhaps, should be changed.

To be completely honest, I have never heard someone say "I might go back to church if....."  I just never have.  In nearly every case, the lapsed has left this one unanswered -- perhaps because they did not know the answer themselves or perhaps because there was no real conceivable circumstance in which they thought they would return.

In nearly every case, these lapsed have considered themselves fully Christian and still "Catholic" (or "Lutheran" or whatever...).  That seems to be the greater issue.  The whole idea that you are still a member or still in good standing even though you have abandoned the sacramental life of the Church is the culprit here.  We have made faith so very individualistic and our standing before God separate from our life together around His means of grace, that it seems an uphill battle to restore those who have wandered, fallen away, or become disenchanted with the Church (whatever the reason).

Yet, if you are like me, you continue to seek them out and address them with the Word of the Lord that one day you may find them restored to their place within the communion.  More often than not, the problem is internal rather than external.  Only the Spirit will change them.  The Spirit works through the Word.  So as long as you address them with the Word (truth spoken in love), there is always a chance... and hope against hope... But, if you are like me, you probably wish for a silver bullet or an instantaneous fix.  Alas, God's Word does what it says and accomplishes His purpose but seldom on our timetable...

Still and all, Easter seems to bring some of them back -- if only for a Sunday -- to hear the sound of God's voice.  So make sure that you speak the Word to them so that God can do His bidding.


Anonymous said...

Only through pray for there souls and the Holy Spirit work in their souls to return.

Anonymous said...

Although this may not bring people back to church, the paper by Rev. H. R. Curtis, “Freed From the Shopkeeper's Prison”, gives some reasons why this question might be less important than we think. After all, according to its thesis, nothing that we do or fail to do will affect the number of the Elect that will enter Paradise.

But as one who has been going to church almost every Sunday (and sometimes on other days) for at least the past 60 years, I know why I go. It is for the joy!

Fairly recently I discovered support for this notion from an unlikely source, the diary of the late Rev. Schmemann. On 12 October 1976 he wrote, “The beginning of “pseudo religion” is the inability to be joyful, or rather – the rejection of joy. At the same time, joy is so absolutely important, because it is without doubt the result of knowing the presence of God. It is impossible to know that God is, and not to have joy. And it is only in connection with this joy that the awe of God, contrition and humility are proper and genuine and bear fruit. Apart from this joy they can easily become a “demonic” perversions of the depth of the most religious experience. The religion of fear. The religion of false humility. The religion of guilt, which says, “This is all temptation, it is all spiritual “rapture.” But how strong this religion is, not only in the world but within the Church. And for some reason, “religious” people are always suspicious of joy. The first, the most important, the source of everything is, “Let my soul rejoice in the Lord …” The fear of sin does not prevent one from sinning. Joy in the Lord does.”

Elsewhere he wrote, “Protestantism is the denial of the Church as Paradise – it is its sin and heresy.”

Even on the night our Lord was betrayed, inasmuch as His concerns were always for others rather than Himself, He spoke about joy, John 16:22 “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you,” thereby making “joy” one of the marks of the child of God. To indicate how important “joy” is in the life of the faithful, it is written about many times, and here are just a few, “Rom. 14: 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Rom.15: 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gal. 5:22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

We Lutherans are dedicated to killing joy, because it is a requirement to remind people at every opportunity how tenuous their hold on salvation is. Oh yes, and then the sweet Gospel. But by that time the joy has been killed.

Please don’t misunderstand that I am advocating some kind of “fun” in the Church. I am speaking of “holy joy”, which recognizes that the Shepherd gives His life for the sheep, and that God works to preserve His children in the Kingdom. He is not sitting there waiting to do a “gotcha.”

This is a bare outline of what I am thinking, and is subject to misunderstanding (shall we sin so that grace might abound), and misinterpretation (no, I don’t think the Law is irrelevant). But I know from most of the people with whom I have attended church during my lifetime, that they lack joy.

That is one reason why I usually sign off with:

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

Quote: We Lutherans are dedicated to killing joy, because it is a requirement to remind people at every opportunity how tenuous their hold on salvation is. Oh yes, and then the sweet Gospel. But by that time the joy has been killed.

I am struck by your words. When we preach the law it is not to remind us how tenuous our hold on salvation but to remind us of the very cause for holy joy -- the pure and unmerited grace of God in Christ our Savior.

What I might posit is that our hold is always tenuous and its strength or weakness should not be cause for our joy or our sorrow. Our joy, holy, wonderful and overflowing -- is the result of His hold on us which is not tenuous at all. Nothing can separate us from this love. Yet the truth is that we do abandon Him at so many opportunities -- with words that betray Him and accent what is vulgar instead of what is holy; with actions that are often at best oblivious to what He has done for us in love and at worst disdainful of His mercy so full of pride are we; with thoughts that seem to choose misery over joy and doubt and fear over confidence.

We need to recover this sense of holy joy that permeates our being and flows not from our great affection for our Lord but His unchanging affection and smiling countenance upon us. When we get this right, our hearts will be filled with the joy that is the Spirit's gift and blessing.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

Has the approach taken by the Roman Catholic Church yielded positive results? If so, then why aren't the LCMS Lutherans copying this model:

When people actually do return to the church after years of not attending, what reasons do they provide for their return. Testimonies of returning LCMSers would be far more interesting than the complaints of former churchgoers.

~~Cafeteria Lutheran

Anonymous said...

The Church Growth Movement may have good focus on getting new members in the front door, but it does nothing to keep established members from fleeing out the back door. Either a staunch confessional who grew up with the liturgy eventually leaves for another congregation or denomination, or a new LCMSer discovers the non-denominational church down the street and leaves for the better praise bands and for the Starbucks coffee.