Thursday, August 20, 2015

Absent Saints. . .

Listening to a few things on the background, I had to stop when Iowa East District President (the one whom this geographical area of the LCMS has elected to exercise episcope over them) Brian Saunders made an offhand comment about ending the use of the term delinquent members.  He briefly but forcefully called to account those in the pews who dismiss the folks who have been absent from the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.  He spoke again of the need for the congregation to engage these people and not ignore them.  Then he spoke on how we react and respond to those who absent themselves from the Lord's House. 

I will admit that I am not always the most charitable in my own reactions to those who choose to absent themselves from the Lord's House.  I find it impossible to imagine myself surviving being away from the Lord's Word and Table and the assembly of the baptized.  I know that there are those who have disputes with the congregation, with the leaders, and with the pastor(s).  It should not be surprising that every pastor preaches to, teaches, serves, and communes people that he does not always like, some of whom have offended and wounded him or his family, yet, as difficult as this is, this is his calling.  Some pastors do better at this than others.  If the pastor can separate feelings for the person from the ministry to that person, then I often wonder why the people in the pew cannot separate these things from their place within the fellowship of the baptized.  But that is a topic for another time. 

Saunders has urged both pastor and people to take a hard look at the way they look at these absent members.  He reminds us that we are not the ones given to judgment and we must assume that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  They have been baptized.  They belong to the Lord.  Whatever the reason or reasons for their absence, it is not given to us to sit in judgment of their hearts.  It is given to us to speak the Gospel to them, to seek them out as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to pray for them with the longing of a family missing family members from the family gathering or reunion.  They are the saints with us, absent, but still the saints and there is something wrong with us when we so casually and easily shrug off their absence or forget their place among us.  He indicates that he believes this is a flaw and failing not simply for pastors or elders or parish leaders but for all the folks in the pew.

I found it hard not to be at one and the same time convicted by his words and convinced that he was right.  The sad truth is that most of us do not lament those who have gone astray, do not carry in us the burden of their absence, and do not express this to those who are missing from action on Sunday morning.  Those are hard but truthful words.  I am humbled by his words and his witness and I hope the people of God in the pews will be as well.  No, it is not necessary our fault that they have left but it is our responsibility to miss them, to lament their absence, to pray earnestly for them, and to seek them out in the hope and prayer that our missing members will be restored to the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.

In a typical congregation, you do not have to look far to find the places where some of the folks we knew once sat, to recall those who once labored with us in the vineyard, or to remember the absent saints.  None of us know them all but all of us know some of them.  The real question then comes down to whether or not we love them enough to seek them out, care enough for them to not ignore their absence, and feel responsible enough to hold them accountable for their loss and ours.  If our hearts do not burn within us for those who were once numbered among us on Sunday morning but now are gone, how can we expect to receive new people into the fellowship and care for them as fellow members of the Body of Christ and fellow partners with us in the work of the kingdom?

I will make this part of ministry a renewed priority for me and for our elders over the coming months.  I cannot make the folks in the pew take up again this cause but I will not let them forget their responsibility to the absent saints of Grace Lutheran Church.  And I encourage you to take up this cause anew.  No, you do not have to argue them back into church nor should you.  But you need to express to them they are missed (even if it has been a very long time since they were once numbered with us).  And you ought to pray for our absent brothers and sisters with the same earnestness we pray for the new folks in the Kingdom.  If we are praying neither for the absent saints or for those who will hear and believe through us and be assembled with us, then this is another matter worthy of some honest repentance and forgiveness.


Unknown said...

I think the term, "delinquent saints" should stand. A delinquent is someone who is (for whatever reason) failing in a responsibility. The absent saints are those who have gone before us into communion with Christ.

That said, I agree with the need to make these members aware we miss them. We should be peacemakers where there is srife. We should make uncomfortable those who are slack becaus of sin. We should comfort those who have been hurt. And above all we should pray that our Lord preserve us from falling awayas well.

Anonymous said...

And we should experience some discomfort at their absence!

Anonymous said...

Doesnt' matter what term you use to refer to those who stay away. The point is that we need to and should care for them, calling them, and showing concern for their souls. Good post and a good reminder to us all.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

We should care for them, showing concern for their souls, but God will save His elect from their sin whether we do or not. I cannot save anyone, or can I damn them. Simply fulfill your vocation and speak the Word of truth when appropriate in your vocation, leaving the salvation of souls up to God. People shouldn't come to church because other member miss them. This is to misunderstand what the divine service is about. We come to church for forgiveness, life, and salvation to be delivered to us in Word and Sacrament. It is not wise, prudent, or theologically correct to call absent/delinquent saints back to the church by saying we miss them. That completely misses the root of the problem and further confuses the delinquent member. Ask them why they haven't been coming to church. Get them to think about their reasoning, and perhaps confess it, which is nothing but sin against the Third Commandment. I don't want someone to come to church because I miss them or because they enjoy my friendship or company. I want them to come for the same reason all true Christians come... with a broken, repentant heart to receive Christ's gifts of grace and mercy... to be killed by the Law and made alive again through the Gospel. The church is not a club, and we need not worry about whether we call those who do not attend "delinquent" or "absent."

Kirk Skeptic said...

The real issue here is that, outside of our cliques, we really don't give a rip about anybody. Thre ar church-hoppers, and then there are the shafted who will see a balanced federal budget long before they ever get an apology from a church officer. If you want laity to stay and the drifters to return, try showing some grace.