Monday, November 13, 2023

Programs are not the answer. . .

The programing model of the Church is hard to shake.  One might have thought that shrinking dollars and people might have presided over a blessed end to the incessant programing that replaces the real work of the kingdom with invented distractions.  It seems that the death of the programing model of church administration and growth has been greatly exaggerated.  Too bad.

At one point in time most of the energy was being directed away from what happens on Sunday morning and into the so-called meat of the ministry Monday through Saturday.  It was presumed that if you had people on site for any reason, it would help for the right reason.  Foot traffic became more important than where those feet were going and the Church tried to become a mega business concerned with giving the customer what the customer wanted and the consumer satisfaction that resulted in rave reviews.  Apparently it is still with us.

We judge the health of the congregation less on who is there on Sunday morning (or non-Sunday worship times) and more in terms of loose affiliation and impact (usually measured in online visitors).  How foolish we are to presume that anything we do outside the Divine Service replaces what happens there when we gather around God's Word and Table.  The health of the congregation is defined by one statistic -- who is there for the Divine Service and how often they are there.  There rest of it all is interesting but hardly profound.  This does not mean that programs are all bad but that programs are not the beating heart of who we are or why people come.  That is always the gifts of God for the people of God.  Fixing a broken congregation usually means restoring worship to its primacy and improving the quality of what happens there (better liturgical leadership, better music, and better preaching). 

Pastors of the Church and the lay leaders need to stop acting like business people and leaders.  Pastors are set apart to be the loving fathers who lead the family of God and church leaders are to make sure that the family has a place to gather for the family meal and to manage the affairs of the congregation so that the focus can be on the Divine Service.  For too long we forgot this and now that the pandemic is over we are too quickly back to our old familiar ways.  The people have plenty of recreational choices and do not need the Church to mimic what is available around them.  Neither do they need the Church to crowd their already too busy schedules with social, amusement, or entertainment options.  Everything we do Monday through Saturday must flow out of the Sunday Divine Service and lead the people back into it.  The Gospel is not a product but a message.

Let me say something controversial.  Bible study is not the same as worship.  Indeed, every time we read teaching in the Scriptures we falsely presume that means a group of people gathered in a room with coffee and Bible in hand reading the Scriptures together.  That is NOT what teaching means.  Indeed, preaching and teaching are the same thing.  Apt to teach is not a reference to a good Bible study leader but to the teaching that comes from the pulpit.  It is the fallacy of reading the words within our current context instead of reading them through the lens of that Word itself.  Nobody in the world knew this thing we know as Bible study until modern times.  Luther never led a Bible study.  Neither did Augustine.  Neither did the Apostles.  Their preaching and teaching was either the public witness of the faith (what we might call evangelization) or within the Divine Service of God's people gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Furthermore, we do not learn Scripture for the sake of curiosity or trivia but so that we might be strengthened in faith and walk as God's children.  This is what the pastor does as the dad of the congregational family -- treating “each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 11-12)

This teaching and preaching is hard.  It is not easy to do or to hear.  Indeed, we are reminded that when it got too difficult,  “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)  But the message did not change even though people turned away or fell away.  Faithfulness is how God judges us and not by the success factors of the spreadsheet.  Our churches are not dying because we are not practicing good business decisions.  They are dying because either we are no longer distinctive for the cause of the Gospel and so have been judged irrelevant by the people or else we have been faithless and merely offer them a faint echo of what the world is already saying.  Nobody in business cares about second best and the churches who say back to people what they have said to them are a day late and a dollar short.  We ought to be saying what God has said -- back to Him in worship and before the world in witness.  

Programs will not save a church in decline facing a world unfriendly to the cause of Christ.  But the witness of Sunday morning will stand unmistakably among the nations in testament to the eternal Gospel by a people who confess this their highest treasure and unity.  Faithful preaching will flow out of this liturgy and call the hearer back as the singular most important claim upon them and the time of their lives.  Catechesis is not a supplement to what happens on Sunday morning but what flows out of that Word and Sacrament, strengthening us in the face of opposition and persecution and building us up so that this Gospel may be the center and foundation of our lives and our homes.  The Church will not decline for lack of programs but she will surely suffer for the lack of faithful preaching, faithful liturgy, and faithful catechesis.


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