Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Pesky emails. . .
Now before some think I am just being hypercritical, let me say that I am sure that the writers of such things are sincere and earnest. I just think they are wrongheaded. They are separating things which belong together and focusing on one thing without focusing on the other. The complaint in the email was on pastors and parishes intent upon making attenders but not disciples, pastors who had been taught to preach, teach, administer sacraments, conduct meetings, administer programs, visit the sick…but had no modeled how to disciple people, statistics that focused on attendance instead of disciples... You get the picture.
What is so strange is that attendance is contrasted with discipleship. Does that mean that disciples do not attend? Are disciples somehow less in need of or constrained by the need to gather weekly around the Lord's Word and Table? I do not know how to take a statement like that. Disciples are those who attend, who attend regularly, who attend faithfully, even weekly, at least in my book. Disciples understand that there is no higher priority to their time than the weekly gathering of the baptized to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd and to be fed by Him upon His own flesh and blood. Or do disciples have something more important to do that this? Is not this Divine Service the fount and source of our baptismal life and vocation and that to which we return?
Second is the idea that disciples are made with means other than the means of grace the Lord has provided. Can we accept such a premise? Does the Lord work either primarily or secondarily through means other than His Word in aural or visible form? What is discipleship if it does not lead people to that place where the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered? Can you lead a person to Christ and leave that person without a church to hear the Word, to be taught the faith, to be called to repentance, to be absolved of his sins, to be baptized into Christ, and to live by the food of His Table? Again, I don't know how to take such talk.
To be sure, it sounds good. The organized church is a pain and a mess at that. Wouldn't it be better and easier if we could be Christians without the Church or lead people to Christ without having the mess that is the Church get in the way? Everyone feels that way at one point or another. But the Church is not optional. The invisible nature of that communion does not trump or replace the need to see the Church where the marks are and to be joined into that visible gathering of the people of God around the means of grace. Christ nowhere suggests to us that the Church is in our imagination or His but always speaks of it in concrete terms. St. Paul can exhort the Church in error and commend the Church in faithfulness but nowhere does he suggest that the Church is optional or does not matter. Hebrews insists that we are not to neglect the gathering of the people of God in the assembly that is the Church around the Lord's Word and Sacraments. So when those in the pews on Sunday morning are characterized as pew potatoes contrasted with daring disciples, we have a problem.
We may not like the Church, we may be frustrated by the fact that her people and leaders are sinners, and we may find it too often preoccupied with institutional goals rather than the Lord's calling, but we do not have a choice. To be Christian, to be a disciple, is to belong to a community of believers with faithful confession, true Gospel, the Word in all its fullness, the ministry, and the Sacraments according to Christ's institution. So I find it unhelpful to the end goal to denigrate attenders as if they are less than members of the Church, Christ's body, and entirely distracting to suggest that making disciples is not connected to bringing people into the Church.