Friday, December 21, 2018

The Easy Choice Isn't the Best Choice. . .

After a round of parish consolidations and closings two decades ago, Pittsburgh is consolidating and closing more parishes over a long stretch, reducing the number of church buildings to a fraction of what there were 40 years ago.  It is not alone.  Dioceses all over the USA and the Western world are struggling over what to do with the declining numbers of priests and parishioners.  That is not simply a Roman problem.  My own parish recently purchased an altar, pulpit, font, rail, hymnboards, and floor candlesticks iin pristine shape from an ELCA parish that had recently closed (at fire sale prices, by the way, so missions should take a look at buying used!).  My own LCMS district has listed parishes that are closing or on the verge of closing in nearly every annual report and it is not alone in this sad statistic either.

In a conversation about this very thing my wife's response was wise and blunt, "Why is the church surrendering?"  Why, indeed!!!  Rome has a choice -- do the work of renewal to bring more parishioners back and welcome new converts OR close nearly empty buildings.  Rome has a choice -- either reduce the need for priests by closing churches and consolidating them OR work harder to recruit candidates to the priesthood.  The easy choice is always to close down the buildings.  The hard choice is to renew the faith around the building targeted for closing and recruit more priests to serve on the front lines of the this evangelization.

For Lutherans the choices are remarkably similar.  as I write this I lament that my own home parish has been forced to beg around neighboring parishes to serve as a dual parish -- after having their own pastor for more than 100 years.  They were never large -- seldom had a regular attendance of more than 80-100 -- but they were dedicated and sacrificial and from this faithfulness they produced a significant number of pastors and teachers for Lutheran churches and schools -- more than most large parishes!!!  I am in their debt for the faithful witness that inspired and encouraged my own journey to ordination and financially supported that pathway so generously.  Why does it have to end up this way?

At a recent district pastoral conference, a list of statistics was sent around showing the numbers and percentage of unchurched by county throughout the geographical region where I serve.  This is the Bible belt, the heart of Baptist country, the home of the Church of Christ and a host of other rather uniquely Southern denominations, and Trump country.  There is no county in which the majority of its population either claims a church home or worships there once a month or more.  In other words, whether rural or urban or suburban, the field is ripe, the Lord is calling, and the work of the Kingdom awaits those who will serve the Lord's purpose with the Lord's Word.

The easy choice is to close and lament the closure for a few days and then to look to innovative and creative ways to plant a-traditional missions.  The harder choice and the better one is to use what remains as resource for a renewed effort to reach the people with the Gospel and rejoice with the angels in heaven over every sinner who repents.  It is hard, there is no easy way, but it is the hard choice of those who went before us and it cannot be anything less than our choice today.  The church will not be saved by doctrine lite or worship lite or by forms and buildings that look more like retail centers than churches.  The church will not be saved by changing the beat of the church music or by replacing one instrument with many.  The church will not be saved by realized efficiencies and cost savings.  The church will not be saved by parachurch entrepreneurs who repackage failed retail strategies and offer them back to our parishes as the current recipe for success.  The church will not be saved by quietly ignoring Biblical witness and catholic tradition in order to embrace the new wave of cultural, sexual, gender, or technological choices emerging around us.  The church will only be saved by faithful preaching of the Word of the Lord within and outside the buildings where the faithful gather.  The church will only be saved by the faithful witness of those who hear and believe and believe and follow the voice of their Good Shepherd.  The church will only be saved by holding to the truth that is forever in the Word of the Lord that does not change -- without embarrassment or shame.  The church will only be saved by the hard work that accompanies the Lord's Word faithfully preached and lived out in neighborhoods and cities and across the prairies of our land.

Can we learn from those who look at what is happening around us?  Sure.  We can learn much from them but we cannot learn how to do what God has called us to do or what to speak to those not yet of the kingdom.  These come from Scripture and the catholic witness across the ages.  Renewal has always come from renewal in the Word -- the preaching of that Word and the teaching of that Word.  Yes, we need to be welcoming and we need parking and we need signage and we need to be deliberate in our work of making known who we are and where we are.  Yes, we need to warm up to the natural witness of the faithful to those with whom they work, live, and play.  Yes, we need all of these things but we dare not mistake these for what makes the church grow.  That is the Word of the Lord faithfully preached and taught, the water that welcomes with new life, and the table where the Lord welcomes with His flesh and blood.  We are not to argue people into the kingdom or even make the path easy.  We preach repentance and forgiveness and we call the faithful to worship which is the highest priority on their time, minds and hearts open to the teaching of Scripture and the catechism, knees bent in prayer for the church, the world, and those with special need, and wallets upon to support this mission here and everywhere.

The easy choice is not the faithful one. . . now is not the time to surrender but to rekindle our efforts to do what God has called us to do and to be whom God has called us to be. . .


Anonymous said...

Well said Pastor Peters; Confessional preaching, Water and Word, Communion....
"The Church will only be saved by the hard work that accompanies the Lord's Word faithfully preached and lived out in neighborhoods and cities and across the prairies of our land" ....Please say and define VOCATIONS.
We Lutherans don't say and teach VOCATIONS enough. Say VOCATIONS "People in the pew living out their various VOCATIONS of serving God and serving their neighbors..those they love." VOCATION is a missing element in what we teach the people in the pew. The "VOCATIONS of Well-Catechized Lutherans" is probably the key element to the "Revitalization" we talk about so much.
God Bless the Preacher. Ex-Deacon, Timothy Carter, Kingsport, TN

Anonymous said...

The inscription on the cross seems to be in Russian, with the cross superimposed on a map of Crimea. The names on the map, appear to me to be in Latin letters, although I cannot see them clearly. In any event, the picture could possibly be a Ukrainian protest piece against Russia’s seizure of the Ukraine.
Иисус - Jesus
Назарянин, - of Nazareth
Царь – Czar
Иудейский – of the Jews
Peace and Joy and a joyful Christmas to all.
George A. Marquart

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Some see the decline in mainline denominations as a reflection of a long term erosion of religious faith and a post Christian Era. I see it differently. While it is true that in times of relative prosperity many are lulled into lethargy and worship false idols of their own self interest, becoming less dependent on Our Lord, it is biblically acknowledged that only a remnant of every generation are saved. Reading the Old Testament and history of the Jews, one can see the frustration of the prophets, voices crying in the wilderness, knowing that most Jews had become spiritually dead in a cycle that lasted year after year. While captivity, famine, persecution, and other corrective discipline brought many back, another generation would come and require God's judgment. Christians today who are too busy and preoccupied with worldly pursuits and pleasures of the flesh may someday face God's discipline in the forms recorded in the past. War, famine, want....these things bring some back to God, while still others remain hardened and unrepentant. The future of the LCMS as a church body will continue to follow the same pattern of decline as other churches, given the fallen nature of humanity and the lack of religious fervor prevalent today. We must believe God when scripture says only a remnant will be saved from this untoward generation.

Pastor Peters said...

Or George, it could just be the Russian language version of the Scripture: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Anonymous said...

'Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum'

Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor Peters: I did not mean to say that there was anything wrong with the inscription. It’s just that I had never seen it before. Superimposed on a Ukrainian language map of Crimea, it made me curious.
The mystery resolved itself when I found out that what looked like Crimea to me was actually the Czech Republic. Without its neighbors in Europe on the map I took it to be Crimea, because it appeared as if it were surrounded by water. The image was used in a very interesting letter to the Catholic Bishops of the Czech Republic from Gloria TV, an interesting organization in itself.
From a history of the development of Russian crosses, “Note that while the use of the inscription 'І.Н.Ц.І.' does not usually appear in the Russian tradition, examples of its occurrence are occasionally found on newer Russian Crosses.” I suppose I am not one of the newer people.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart