Sunday, February 11, 2018
An email haunting me. . .
The email hits the Achilles' heel of every pastor. I do not know of a pastor who does not want their congregation to grow, to find an end to conflict if there is conflict, to do a better job of reaching out with the Gospel in words and in deeds, to do a better job teaching the faith, to better encourage husbands, wives, children, families, singles, middle-aged, and elderly. . . and I could go on. I honestly know of no pastor who does not want to see the congregation and their life together around the means of grace flourish and prosper inwardly and outwardly.
But I can also say I really do not know of any congregation which is not set upon the same goals of growth inwardly and outwardly, of better efforts at evangelism and outreach, of better works of love in the community, of better efforts at education, catechesis, and encouragement across the board. . . and I could go on. I honestly know of no congregation resistant to growth in the person and their faith and in the congregation and its numbers and effectiveness. Pastors and congregations sometimes have differing ideas about how to go about this -- don't we all -- but the desire to grow exists on both sides of the pulpit.
The email hits pastors where they live. But the temptation to make leadership about taking resistant congregations where they must but do not want to go is a false temptation. The people are not the enemies of the pastor as he "leads" the congregation in his care. If we start there, we will inevitably end with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, those who are right and those who are wrong.
I can understand why people are resistant to change. Change and decay, all around I see. . . so we sing. And it is true. The breadth and pace of change is ripping the fabric of our society into shreds and the church is caught in the tensions as well. In a very short period of time we have seen gender definitions explode, long time media and political faces disappear in disgrace, the world threatened by nations and terrorist leaders who a generation ago could not even feed their people. . . and the list goes on. When people walk in the door of the church, they are seeking a refuge from this rapid pace of change and from the fears and threats all around them. When in that church pastors or experts tell them that the things they learned from their parents and grandparents must give way to a new kind of church, it is hurtful. Toss out hymnals and hymns, liturgy and the pipe organ, pews and pulpits and altars and it seems like the refuge of the Gospel goes with it all. What is left?
I can understand why pastors think some things need changing. Numbers have dropped, pews are empty, Sunday school rooms are dark, money is tight, the world is unfriendly to the church, and the Gospel itself is viewed with uncertainty as good news worth believing. . . and the list goes on. Hymnals, hymns, liturgy, organs, pews, and pulpits are easy targets because we have had them so long and it is tempting to make them the reasons why things are not better. But if these had been the problems, we would see growth and vitality in all the congregations that don't have them and the truth is that all Christian churches are struggling no matter what they do on Sunday morning. Sure, a few of the mega stars put on the appearance of great success but they are more adept at moving people around that really making a dent in the numbers of the unchurched. Furthermore, there are serious questions about the gospel that they preach and whether or not those who come for the show leave with anything remotely similar to the Gospel.
In the end Satan has done well. He has turned congregations and pastors against each other, defined leadership as taking people where they don't want to go, and put the blame on the past for the problems of the present and the future. Worse than all of this, he has been quite successful in robbing us of our confidence in the Word and Sacraments to the point where we are focused on gimmicks, techniques, and programs more than anything else.
My suggestions are simple. Trust the Word and Sacraments of the Lord. Teach them and do them well. Keep the focus upon the Lord and His means of grace and off of ourselves (thoughts, feelings, preferences, fears, anxieties, and worries). Pray the promises. Live lives that reflect what we confess with our lips. Go to church every Sunday, bring the family, invest fully in the educational ministries of the parish for every family member, and find a place to serve. If we are faithful in preaching and teaching the faith, administering the sacraments, welcoming the stranger, serving the neighbor, and showing forth the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light, the rest is God's to do. One thing is sure. The gates of hell will not prevail. Unless we surrender them. This is the real leadership of church and home. Maybe it is time we tried these instead of sticking our fingers into the wind so we can see where we ought to be going. . .