As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century. Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist. I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.
That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be. First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right. There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed. One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews. Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God. Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed. But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.
If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation. That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives. If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth. Anything else would be a false “church”.
In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation. The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members. If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.
There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church. A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member. There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church. Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects. But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on. The point is that a living congregation is one in which all members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.
I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation. One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there. F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)
Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”
That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week? Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways. Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me. Some see the caring pastor, but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive. Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships. Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).
Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification. In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”
So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?
In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were the principal leaders of something called the Great Awakening. The Holy Spirit moved with might and power in the American colonies with thousands coming to an assurance of their salvation and many more finding their faith strengthened and renewed. In the early 20th century there was another great revival in Wales. And there are many more we could name. These mighty works occur when the Church of Jesus Christ has fallen into a spiritual stagnation, a time when we go through the motions but we don’t live the faith. Friends, the Body of Christ in this country is now in just such a state.
Many people share my view of the situation, some are even trying to do something about it. But few are doing the things that have led to widespread revivals in the past. Too many believe that marketing techniques and entertainment oriented worship services will make the Church grow, and if it grows it will necessarily be revived. But revival is not about crowds. Revival is not about how we make people feel for an hour on Sunday morning. Revival is not about any of things the people who are focused on church growth are doing. Revival is about changing lives.
God used Jonathan Edwards, a thorough going 5 point Calvinist, to lead the Great Awakening in New England by preaching both Law and Gospel in their purity. It wasn’t through gimmicks and meeting the “felt needs” of the public that there was such a mighty movement of the Spirit there. No, friends, it was the proper preaching of the full counsel of God.
I told my confirmation class last week that if they ever hear someone get into a pulpit and preach, but omit the proclamation of the Gospel, they may have heard a good talk, but they did not hear a proper sermon. The job of a preacher in the pulpit is not to tell people how to make their marriages better or raise their kids better or any number of other good things that might be said. Such things belong in a Bible study, not a sermon. The sermon is the public proclamation of the Good News that sinners like us don’t have to go to hell because Christ Himself bore the punishment for their sins on the Cross at Calvary.
When people hear the pure Gospel and the Holy Spirit changes their hearts, that’s when lives are changed. That’s when renewal appears in a spiritually sluggish church. We don’t need gimmicks, we need the Gospel.
It’s time for a sleeping church to wake up. It’s time for pastors to return to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. It’s time, friends, time to rise and shine.
I usually check the obituaries every morning before I go to the church. I want to see if there is anyone listed who could be connected to a member of my congregation so I can be what they call proactive if that happens. Some obituaries are long and filled with all sorts of details of the person’s life. Others are short on information. But all of them mention the people who are grieving the impact of the death of a loved one on their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is the decline in the number of people with a church affiliation. We used to at least see that someone was “of the Protestant faith”, but now we don’t even see that. Instead all we find are that they were alive and did stuff, now they’re dead and we’ll have a party to talk about them. It practically breaks my heart to see how many people are going to spend their eternity outside the presence of God–frankly, in hell.
When I perform a funeral (and I only perform funerals–never life celebrations) my sermon is always an evangelistic sermon. I know that there is almost always someone in front of me who does not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and at least on that day they’re going to hear the Gospel. As someone else wrote recently, a funeral is not about the deceased and it’s not about those who remain–it’s about Jesus and His substitutionary death on the Cross and His resurrection from the grave, the first among many. If I know the deceased was a believer we’ll close the service singing Victory in Jesus.
What do you want your obituary to say to the world about you? Do you want it to recount your successes in this life? Maybe you want it to say how much you loved your family or your dog and how much you liked playing golf or bingo. I guess an obituary can have many things in it without going over the top. But I pray that the one thing it will say to the world is that you confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believed in your heart that God raised Him from the dead that you might be saved unto eternity.
The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. Now there is some wisdom in that statement. An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future. And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future. God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.
Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced. As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s been true in my life also. I was raised in the church and taught its importance. But then I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell. But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway. Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.
The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday. There have been times of success and times of failure. Times of growth and times of decline. There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving. The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely. A lot of things can happen in 191 years.
I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons. My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century. We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery. Looking back will teach us something. It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.
I hate filing. It’s boring and I can always find an excuse for doing something more “important.” So for quite some time, rather than filing my sermons neatly in appropriate folders I’ve just been dropping them in a drawer, rendering them fairly useless if I want to look up something that I may have already said–or just about anything else for that matter. So I’ve hired my granddaughter to put my files in order.
This got me thinking about what else I may be failing to keep in order. Is my spiritual life organized and in the process of deepening? Are my prayers as full as they ought to be? Is the rest of my labor at church focused or is it just a hodgepodge like my files were? Am I being the type of pastor God wants me to be to the people here at St. Paul’s or am I failing to be that which I should be just because I’m too lazy to do what needs doing?
My wife and I are going on vacation next week and I want to spend some time pondering how I can be a better servant, a better pastor, a better subject of the King of kings.
Now I suspect many who read this are just as likely as I am to avoid unpleasant tasks. No one wants to do boring things and no one, especially, wants to do hard things. But putting them off just makes more trouble down the road, and there won’t always be someone like my granddaughter to pick up the slack. So here are a few questions for you to ask yourself this week:
+How go things with your soul? Is your life a good reflection of the life of a follower of Jesus? +What work for God and His people have you been putting off? +Are you simply drifting in your spiritual life, showing up on Sunday for church but not doing to much else? +Are you praying for anything other than your self and your immediate loved ones?
There are a lot of other questions you could ask, but you get the idea.
Last week my wife and I were at our national conference in Minneapolis. It was a good conference, a chance to catch up on what is going on in the AFLC at large, and an opportunity to touch base with old friends and make a few new ones. We drive to the conferences because flying became such a hassle–long lines, TSA searches, 3 inches of leg room–that the time savings isn’t worth it to me anymore.
Unfortunately, driving has its own issues. We got a flat tire going around Chicago which I managed to keep inflated by stopping frequently on the way to South Bend. That’s when I had to stop and buy a new tire.
Right now you’re probably asking, So what? We all have problems every day. And that is most certainly true. But sometimes those problems seem to have a cause that isn’t necessarily random acts of irritation–and my flat tire might be one of those.
Sven Oftedal, one of the founders of the Lutheran Free Church wrote that our annual conference is “the great powerhouse of the LFC.” In other words, the conference is where those who attend get recharged and ready to go for another year. It does have that effect on me quite often. So I’m driving back to Maryland thinking about all we could do here at St. Paul’s and the possibilities ahead of us and suddenly those thoughts are driven out of my head by this irritation. It is possible that Satan did that, for our enemy hates the Church and any thoughts of making it better. It’s also possible that the problem was satanic in origin but simply another event in life. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that for a short time, I took my eye off the ball and stuffed all the good things from the conference into the back drawer of my mind and focused on the bad thing in front of me.
I think we do that all the time and it is not good for us. Yes, of course we have to solve our problems and deal with the irritating things in life. But too often we let those things take over and create grumpiness. Too often we lose sight of the big picture and focus on the little smudge in the corner. It would be far better for us to look at all we have and all we are and all that God is doing around us and save our mental energy for the things of eternal importance.
My wife read something really cool last week as we were driving. Someone wrote, if you woke up tomorrow and all you had were those things you thanked God for today–what would you have? Think about that a bit.