Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The reason for counting sheep. . .

Our Lord commanded Peter (and those who, like Peter, serve as pastors/shepherds of the flock) to feed the sheep not to count them.  That is true.  But counting is part of caring for the sheep -- not primarily in the sense of charting the success but rather keeping tabs on the flock so that none are lost.  The primary numbers that ought to demand our attention have to do not with the number of new members received but the number of our members in worship and how often they are in worship.  Sure, we do keep tabs on the new people but what does it matter if we are receiving new people while the old ones are not in worship or walking out the back door? 

I grew up in a small congregation.  It is much smaller now but when I grew up we had about 120 communicant members and 100 of them were in church every Sunday.  That is a pretty decent percentage. In the parish I serve, half our people are in church every Sunday.  Unfortunately, that is now considered a pretty decent percentage.  Typically, our congregations see between 20-30% of our people in worship every Sunday.  Work this out Synod wide and it means that a membership of roughly 1.8 Million translates into half or less on Sunday morning.  Meeting new people with the Gospel and catechizing them into the life of the congregation is important.  Only an idiot would deny that.  But what happened to the names on the list and their relationship to the congregation on a Sunday morning?  If we are counting the new sheep in the door we ought to also be counting the old sheep who never make it through that same door.  That is at least as big a problem as the lack of new faces around our Synod.

Counting the sheep on Sunday morning tells us not only how many were there but also how many were not.  If we did a better job of increasing the frequency of our people attending worship, our congregations, districts, and Synod would become profoundly stronger and more effective -- even at sending forth the Gospel and welcoming new folks as a consequence of the people who ought to be there actually showing up.  This is the number that troubles me and the number that keeps me awake at night.  In order to feed the lambs, the lambs need to be there.  

Wouldn't it transform our parishes and our Synod as a whole if we increased the percentage of our members in worship to 60 or 75%?  Of course it would.  The place where we need to begin is to convince our people that the number that counts is not the number of names on a roster kept in a computer but the number of sheep gathered around the voice of their Good Shepherd, cleansed in the still quiet waters of their baptism, and fed on the rich green pasture every Sunday.  Maybe I am foolish but I think it has been too long since we made a public push to tell our people that the bare minimum is every member in worship every Sunday (or other day when worship services are held) and every member in Bible study every week.  

Every business worth its salt knows that you cannot survive long haul on new customers.  Repeat customers are your bread and butter.  While the Church is not a business and the Gospel not a product it speaks volumes about what is wrong when we see how many of our people are not "repeat customers" and how much attention we give to new ones while forgetting those who were once with us but are no longer.  The future of any congregation is at least tied to the retention of her current members and their regular weekly participation as the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord every Lord's Day as it is to finding new faces.  No, do not choose between the two goals but rather make sure that the first goal of our people in God's House every week supports and strengthens them in their witness before the world the rest of the week.

1 comment:

jdwalker said...

A truly excellent post. This is a much better response to a post by Raabe at the Concordia Theology site than I managed to muster in my outrage (to reference your prior post). The problem with the LCMS and its focus on mission work is twofold.

First, it is an idol that is seen as the (as in singular) way to save the synod. As you note, it does not grow out of the strength of our people and their faith, but rather it is the response/solution to the weakness of our people and their faith. It supplants the need to actually turn inactive members into active members or to live out our faith in having and raising children in that faith, which means keeping those children in the faith or bringing them back to the faith when they stray.

Second, the preoccupation with identifying who we should target with our mission work based on ever shifting demographics is distasteful. Demographic data can certainly be helpful in some ways, but the idea that it should shape mission work as the future is just modern day idol worship of data and science. Fifty or more years ago, I can assure you that the data was much different, and the projections of where the demographics would be today were wildly wrong. There is no basis to believe that the current demographic trends and the predictions of where we will be in another fifty years will be any more correct. The focus on racial and ethnic demographics as a justification for targeted mission work is misguided and not a Godly way to approach mission work.

But, as you say, even if the church is not a business, there are some fundamental realities. And this includes that mission work costs something, and when churches are struggling, they should rightly consider what should be their primary focus, and what takes a lower priority. While I think many people these days would rather pay $5 to support mission work than spend $5 in gas to visit a delinquent member of their congregation, I would argue that the latter is a better use of your resources. Maybe not for the LCMS/synod, but is that really the point of mission work anyway? To secure the future of the synod?