Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The desire to thrive. . .

Though it should not be great wisdom, it probably is.  What I am speaking about is how our desire to succeed and thrive can come at a great cost to our identity and integrity.  In business it is not unknown that a great idea and a small company soon can give way to bad business and a large but lost corporate structure.  Who has not watched a movie about just that?  The Social Network, whether factual or imagined, chronicles the story of an idea that soon betrays friendships and ideals to become a behemoth that wants to control the media and not simply create a platform for digital social relations.  But it happens in other places also.

In education the desire to succeed on a larger scale often comes at the cost of the very things that made it work.  Packing the classrooms and trying to become all things to all people soon sinks the school -- from preschool to university.  Harvard University has become such a bully that it has tacitly approved an article suggesting that home schooling is too dangerous to be allowed and that only trained professionals should be allowed to teach our children.  This is ironic coming from a school with a $40+ billion dollar endowment that once began by training clergy.  About 5% of those who apply get in and the school is small -- 6800 undergraduate students (though with 14,000 graduate students).  Now Harvard is a recognized voice of the elite, the rich, and the progressive thinkers of our time.

Perhaps it was the desire to succeed and thrive that put our own church body into such a conundrum.  We had a small system of high schools and junior colleges set up largely to train church workers.  They were fed by a large system of local, congregational schools.  It was modeled after a German style educational structure.  It was actually quite successful.  Then things began going south.  Part of it was due to the fact that the world around us had changed.  Part of it was due to internal struggles.  Part of it was the desire to gain acceptance and prominence in the educational world.  In a series of rather quick decisions, we single handedly transformed our system to look more American than German.  Gone were the high schools and junior colleges and the small church campuses suddenly became colleges welcoming all kinds of students with many programs unrelated to their former core mission.  With this change came the desire to see the colleges succeed in the marketplace of universities and thrive.  Could it be that where we are now is in part due to our desire to thrive and succeed outside the Church?  Why else would we begin to pay vendors to help us reach markets unrelated to our narrower mission?  Why else would it be that began to make our mission large enough to justify such ventures -- at a time when the smallest of percentages of those students are either Lutheran or Missouri Synod Lutheran?  Not to mention the fact that the numbers of 18 year olds looking for a college is less than before while the competition for that scarce student is more than ever before.  We won't even go into the question of whether or not our colleges and universities are fulfilling their original mandate of preparing church workers.

The desire to succeed and thrive is not without its problems with respect to the congregation itself.  Trying to be all things to all people creates a busy calendar and the appearance of relevance but if it comes at the cost of our core mission to preach the Gospel, maintain our confession and doctrine, and faithfully serve the baptized people of God, what have we gained?  The pressure is on small congregations is to mirror what happens in large congregations.  This is too often not only unsustainable but wears out those who must constantly switch hats to keep the cluttered calendar going and leaves them with few signs of success to justify their labors.  We in the church have developed an envy of successful (meaning large in number) secular programs and we think that this is what we must do in order to please God.  The reality is that it is always a fight simply to survive and has always been that way.  More than we would care to admit, success as the world gauges it and faithfulness pleasing to God are in competition or conflict.  Could it be that this is one thing that has so quickly given those outside as well as some inside the impression that worship is a social gathering and church is a non-essential activity?

I have been a pastor of a very small congregation, vicared at a very large congregation, and watched the parish I serve grow into a mid-size church from a smaller one.  Along the way I have come to realize how easy it is for me to substitute my dreams for God's desires and, I suspect, this is the case among many of us.  Being large is not a fault unless the greater size comes at the cost of our very identity.  As I look at some of the largest congregations in our church body, it is clear that they do not look or act or sound much like the rest of us on Sunday morning -- or the rest of the week for that matter.  They believe that smaller congregations are not being faithful and we believe that they are not being faithful.  In the end we have yet to talk about whether or not success and faithfulness can exist together without one or the other suffering.  I wish it were not so but if our desire to succeed and thrive causes us to drift away from our Confession in faith and practice, perhaps our desires are the problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Striving for success is hardwired in human nature. Larger LCMS churches may be more contemporary in general, but they are shrinking just as the small churches are. One fact that makes Clarksville a unique outlier is that metro Nashville is one of the most desirable and fastest growing areas in the nation.

LCMS challenges remain:

1. Secular education and national narrative. See Poland, which recently declared Jesus as King of Poland, versus largely atheist “Lutheran” Sweden or Germany for example. America has been heading towards the latter for generations now.
2. Children who we snickered at for living at home with crushing educational debt and poor employment and marriage prospects while we did nothing.
3. Watching rural congregations, the majority of the LCMS, dwindle as urbanization continues.
4. Church work is not a desirable profession for smart young men anymore.
5. Lutheranism is still seen as being an ethnic, regional denomination, perhaps respectable in the upper Midwest but irrelevant everywhere else.
6. Erosion of Lutheran identity. The “melting pot” effect.
7. Little sense of a genuine shared community.
8. Exodus of our children from the LCMS for all of the above reasons.