Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The problem of the local. . .

Sadly, one of the unintended consequences (or were they?) of the liturgical movement, the advance in technology that allows customization, and our limited attention spans has been the elevation of the local over everything else.  Surely this is true of congregations.  In whatever church body you belong, the worship is more and more localized -- and not simply in terms of a little idiosyncrasy here or there but a wholesale re-ordering of what happens on Sunday morning.  Worship reflects the assembled and the assembly often bears little resemblance to what is happening elsewhere in the denomination.  Even in Rome there is a diversity of Vetus Ordo and Novus Ordo and within the Novus Ordo everything from Gregorian Chant to bluegrass and rock and roll.  It is often hard to identify the actual denomination of the congregation from what happens in worship.

In my own church body there are many congregations and pastors who do not bother with the smaller gatherings of clergy generally monthly, the larger regional gatherings of pastors, or the lay/clergy conventions or assemblies held every few years or so.  They have no time for anything but that which is right before them and no interest in that which is not directly in their self-interest.  In addition, there is something more than disinterest but suspicion and skepticism about anything beyond the local.  There is nothing pastors love to do more than complain about the jurisdictions of their church!  The bloated bureaucracies and layers of management and waste of resources are a constant topic of local conversation and they slant the views of our people in the pews to mirror the prejudices of their pastors.

As true as all of this is, it is tragic.  There is an inherent loneliness among the folks who gather and those who bring them God's Word and Sacraments.  Although it often seems that it is just me'n Jesus against the world, it is not.  Although it often appears that the regional and national leaders of our churches are either disinterested or against the local congregation and her pastor, they are not.  In fact, it is more than tragic.  This kind of isolation and individualism is harmful to our faith.  

From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. Or so says the Psalmist.  How can that be true if it speaks only of the congregation you see gathered at one place at one time?  It is only true in the larger sense of the whole church, the church catholic.  While it is surely true that no one sees that whole church and that its individual members are not visible to us, the church is where the means of grace are, where the Holy Spirit has called and gathered a people around them, and where a pastor stands to distribute to them the gifts of God for the people of God.  It is where baptismal water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit reclaims from the death and gives new and everlasting life.  It is where absolution speaks and the chains of sin fall away.  It is where Christ has set His table in the presence of our enemies and a people come in repentance to receive His body and blood.  It is where faith is born to challenge the fear that once ruled the heart unchallenged.  It is wherever these take place -- in grand cathedrals or simple chapels, in crowded urban cities and deserted plains, in places that shine with our greatest technology and in the places where life seems almost primitive by comparison.  We are the church gathered in one place, the marks of the Church being the Word and the Sacraments, but we are not the fullness of those who believe, who also gather around those means of grace, and who rejoice in the promise of Christ's death and resurrection.

I well recall when on Mission Festival we invited a furloughed missionary to tell us of his work.  His family gathered with him and they recounted a world I did not even imagine as I grew up on the plains of Nebraska.  It was exiting to imagine but incredible to know that this was not an imagination at work but the reality of Christ and His Church.  I recall also the times when a district president or Lutheran Hour speaker would come to our area and how the church would be full as people strained to see and hear those who led us in God's name or preached to us from the radio.  Even a small congregation in a corn field did not miss the opportunity to send the pastor and a lay delegate to the district convention or smile at the surprise that our pastor or a layman we knew was going to the national convention of our church.  We poured over the Concordia Publishing House catalog when it came in the mail and were like kids in the candy store looking at what our church body was offering in book, music, and curriculum.  It is not that way anymore.  Most places look at the missionary as a cost they are not sure they can or want to bear, could not tell you even the name of our church leaders or Lutheran Hour speaker, and toss the religious catalogs in the trash without even a glance.  

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that everyone elected to office in our church is the best and brightest among us but they occupy offices worthy of our respect.  Even more so, being conscious of the church at large is to celebrate and rejoice in what God is doing even if where we are at seems a struggle we are losing.  We need to recover a sense of our connected-ness and re-establish the community that extends not only among those locally gathered but throughout the larger church.  We would be enriched by it and we are poorer for the isolation and indifference that typically pervades both congregation and their clergy.  God's name is being praised and His Word working all throughout the world.  To know and celebrate this is to rejoice in the grace and mercy of God every bit as much as rejoicing over our own salvation.  We have enough to isolate and divide us and it is time we paid attention to the church beyond our borders.  Others need to be held accountable and we also need to be held accountable but we need to learn to celebrate the work of God in other places just as others need to celebrate with us the work of God where we are. 

1 comment:

Rev. John Koopman said...

Perhaps this has something to do with our LCMS understanding that the local congregation is the church, but the synod is not. DPs aren't pastors or bishops to the pastors and congregations, just advisors. Our polity is so congregational that what we have now is the natural outcome.