Sunday, February 11, 2018

An email haunting me. . .

It was an email generated from a computer designed to find the right recipient.  It was written by a person who struggles with you, the pastor, in carrying the burdens of leadership.  It acknowledges all the changes that we have seen in the last year, decade, and generation that have added to this burden.  It lamented the difficulty in being a church leader at this time, trying to balance the need for change with the congregation content to live only within its comfort zone.  It offered help to frazzled and frustrated leaders (pastors) who are trying to do the right thing amid people not so sure it is right and pretty sure it is not what they want -- even if it is the right thing. . . Perhaps you have gotten those emails as well.

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. . .


John Joseph Flanagan said...

People inside and outside of the church are always discontented about one thing or another. In Paul's epistles, as well as Jude, James, Peter, and so forth, there is a continuous need to encourage, admonish, teach, repeat and uplift people. So I would say, that encouragement and continual prayer are needed in every church. We should strive to be encouragers, not complainers, and things will get done.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters, you wrote, "Keep the focus upon the Lord and His means of grace and off of ourselves (thoughts, feelings, preferences, fears, anxieties, and worries)."

This is the big issue in the Church. Evangelism focuses on the individual's ability to "share" Jesus. It makes the Great Commission the main thing, the chief article of faith in the Church and is dependent on everyone a minister in the priesthood of all believers. Jesus becomes for us the Great Example of sacrificial living. Jesus gave His life, now we make our sacrificial contribution to have an impact on the Kingdom. We live and act as if there is no such thing as universal objective justification but rely more on the teaching of Pelagius.

I'm sorry, but Jesus is not some grand example for us to follow. He is The Savior of the world and we are not. Listen to this sentence from an LCMS Bible study: "As an example to those who would follow Him He held up Himself - the Son of Man whose express purpose in coming was to serve and to give His life to ransom people from sin and death."

Is that what we do? Do we serve and give our lives to ransom people from sin and death? No, the ransom has been paid. I have a problem with asserting that Jesus is "an example." Jesus in me does not give assurance to my neighbor. My neighbor needs the means of grace that come in Word and Sacrament. I have a vocation in which to make a defense to anyone who asks me for a reason for the hope that is in me; doing it with gentleness and respect. But I am hardly a sacrament that bestows the forgiveness of sins. Why look at me?

We need to step away from the temptation to make it about us when we read Scripture. To be sure, God has prepared good works for us to walk in but they are often lowly and not glamorous. Such good works prepared in advance are walking in obedience to the Ten Commandments as we live out our stations in life. The doctrine of vocation doesn't allow for formulaic evangelism or offices that God Himself has not commanded.

Pastors, with all due respect to the Office of the Holy Ministry, stop making it about the people doing more and doing better to bring unbelievers to faith when it is the Holy Spirit who works in us/them, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. God's elect are brought to faith with or without our best efforts. Therefore, train you eyes on Jesus. He is not an example. The word denigrates Him. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Don't look at me. I'm already busy in my vocations in life.

Anonymous said...

People who see their LCMS congregation imitate a non-denominational church will eventually leave the "copycat LCMS congregation" for the non-denominational church. Either that, or they will look for something deeper, historic, and more authentic in the Orthodox church. In both cases, the layman has concluded that the LCMS congregation has deliberately abandoned confessional Lutheranism due to an inherent flaw in Lutheran theology.

As the non-denominational megachurch model of "doing church" gradually changes all mainline congregations all over the USA, will there be any faithful, traditional, confessional Lutheran congregations left in 20 years?

Anonymous said...

World powers come and go. Everything in the USA is in terminal decline. The American century was the 20th century. The 21st century will soon be the Chinese century.

We badly need Chinese versions of Fisk, Wilken, Rosborough, Wolfmueller, et al. How many millions of Chinese can become confessional Lutheran if the Chinese world had such a team. Can the LCMS make it happen?