There is a reason why I get to church so early on Sunday morning. I purposefully avoid driving past other churches at a time when I might see how full (or empty) their parking lots are. I can only guess. From what I have been told, there are usually empty spaces all throughout the churches in my town. Of course, there are also churches whose parking lots are packed to the gills (as we used to say). And that is the problem; that is the source of my frustration.
I can thoroughly understand why the Roman Catholic parish is packed. There is one Roman Catholic parish in the county and it covers all 150-175,000 people in this area. One priest, a couple of temporary assistants, a couple of deacons, and a somewhat small facility is all there is for 3500 families. It is easily the largest congregation in town (though, being Roman Catholic and this being the South, it lies under most folk's radar).
And I suppose I can understand the two big Baptist congregations. They are not parishes but mega complexes of buildings and staff. They have exercise rooms and cafeterias and coffee bars and sprawling facilities (even satellite campuses) and ATMs. The old families of this community call these home. The political families in town call these home. They have a full service mentality complete with music academies, sports programs, and so on. It is the South, I keep reminding myself, and Baptists are strong here. This is their heartland (just as the Midwest is to Lutherans).
I find myself less understanding to the non-denominational enterprises. They have no history and some of them popped up overnight. They have no identity except that they have traded creeds for deeds and most of them cater to the technology and success oriented theology so prevalent among Evangelicals today. Their core beliefs tend to favor the Baptists (believer's baptism among them). They have full parking lots in front of their warehouse style complexes. They seem to like the word Community because it shows up somewhere in their names. Their pastors wear the new uniform of polos and khakis or tees and faded jeans. Come as you are, believe what you want (within rather broad limits), and enjoy the trip along the way. The music has a beat you can dance to and the message will not kill the mood with doctrine.
And then I look at the parking lots where I serve. We have a decent size congregation with about 300 in church every week, about 150-175 in Bible study and Sunday school, and an active (maybe too active) program. But we have more seats than people and more parking spaces than cars. Which is my frustration. I have looked for better alternatives than Lutheranism and a better denomination than the Missouri Synod but have not found anything to beat them (even with all their warts). Every Sunday good preaching comes from this pulpit (even when I am not the preacher :-)). Every Sunday there is great musical leadership from the organ bench and from the choir. Every Sunday the liturgy is done well and the people sing well. Every Sunday we have hot coffee and Bible studies. Every Sunday new people tell us that we are welcoming and friendly. So where is everybody? Why are our parking lots not full and those of the evangelical mega-wannabe churches so full? I wish I knew. Well, I do know but I don't like it.
Itching ears seem more predominant than the ears attentive to the Word of God. People looking over the fence into the yard next door while devaluing the things they find here every week is a problem. Consumeristic religion based less on truth than perceived relevance or particular preference is certainly a problem (even among Lutherans!). Lutherans who seem to find everything to do on a Sunday morning but go to church is not unusual to this parish or rare among the breed. So, I am left frustrated. As I am sure was St. Paul (though I am not at all trying to equate myself with him -- I am sure I am better looking and can chant better than him LOL).
All of this is to say that pastors get frustrated, too. Pastors are tempted by the immediate signs of success that tempt everyone else. Pastor's look for the self-gratification of being bigger and better than the competition. Yes, we are sinners and we have faults and foibles like everyone else in the pews. But there is another weakness prone to pastors. We want people to hear the Gospel and feed upon Christ's flesh and blood in the Sacrament and show forth the piety of the faithful which reflects their baptismal new life. Even if we have no ego for ourselves, we pastors believe the Word and truly desire to rejoice with those who come to faith and to their place among the assembly around the Word and Table of the Lord. We are not looking for statistics but for people who hear and heed the voice of God calling them to repentance, covering them with forgiveness in Christ, clothing them with His righteousness, and directing them to live holy, upright, and godly lives. We believe that God is here, at work to accomplish His purpose, and doing what He has promised through the means of grace.
All of us would just like to see the good guys win, every now and then. That's okay. Who would want a pastor who did not want to see this? So, we do what you do. We take our frustrations to the Lord and He bids us to judge not with our eyes but with His Word, to see not what is before us (only) but what only faith can see (God doing what He has promised), and to trust in Him whose grace is sufficient for all our needs and whose mercy is our hope. Maybe a pastor's frustrations are not all that different from those of the folks in the pews. . . or maybe they are. But in the midst of this frustration, we meet on the common ground of faith. God's Word will not return empty. God will accomplish His purpose. The gates of hell shall not prevail. Though devils all the world should fill, they are done, judged, and on their way out. The Kingdom of God is eternal. And the Kingdom of God is ours.