We have all read that in the history of Christianity congregations and even denominations have come and gone. When this is just a discussion about history that’s fine. But when it is about my congregation I don’t want to hear pious, calm discussion about history. Whether I am the person in the pew or the pastor seeing and feeling the decline, I want to do something about it.
This building, in which the people of God have worshiped and gathered, and from which they have gone out to minister, is a holy place to us. This altar, this font, this pulpit, these pews, are the places where God has come regularly to receive, teach, comfort, and heal us. Don’t talk about statistics, inevitabilities, and finances. Talk about how to rescue or revive this place!
About a year ago nine congregations in the Southwest Conference of the Metro Chicago Synod met to talk about our future. Some worried that our congregations might have a very limited future. All were concerned that the ministry of these congregations should not be abandoned too quickly. We talked, prayed, visited one another, and looked for solutions.
In the short time that we worked together we heard some sobering statistics that seemed to confirm our fears. Many of our congregations, based on these statistical projections, would simply dwindle to nothing in about five years.
Throughout the Church as well as in this Synod, congregations and parish pastors are facing similar challenges regarding the future and the need for change. We are asking “What do we do next?”
Equally important, if not more so, is the theological question which precedes any recipes for renewal or strategies for survival. That question is: What is the Church? What is the essence of the Church and what are simply cultural or organizational holdovers from a warmly remembered past that we have snuggled up to in this cold secular world that keep us locked in on ourselves?
We experience church as a particular place where particular people have gathered for 50 or 100 or more years. It is a holy place. God has met a particular group of people. God has baptized, confirmed, and blessed the marriages of this group of people. Their children grew up here. Their loved ones were buried from here. Pastors have put their lives into this place. The people have invested time and energy and love and concern and tears into this place.
For us Lutheran Christians, Church is about people gathered around Word and Sacraments in order to be strengthened for ministry in and for the world. The Lutheran Confessions are clear about the essence of the Church. “[The Church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (The Augsburg Confession, Article 7). We also have the command of our Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
William Easum in his book “Dancing with Dinosaurs” says that there will be two categories of “healthy Christ-focused communities in the twenty-first century. “Some will be strong small communities focused outward; others will be strong large communities focused outward . . . The inward-focused small and large church will disappear” (p. 41).
The idea of a “strong community focused outward” should be an easy concept for Lutheran Christians to grasp, given our clear and strong theology of church in mission. However, even we sometimes have the overwhelming desire to stay huddled in those warm and cozy places where everybody knows everyone else and nothing significant ever changes. This may not be an option any longer, if it ever was. We are not the church if we do not do what our Lord does. And our Lord has made it clear that we are to go, get out there in that cold, unfriendly world where most people don’t know us, and invite and welcome them, then teach and form them into new (and in some cases renewed) disciples of Jesus.
By the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit they will come in and gather with us around Word and Sacraments. But as they join us in the gathering of the baptized they might want to bring new songs and new ways of celebrating in God’s presence. They might even want to hear things and speak things in a different language.
What can we do? How can we adapt to all this change?
We all know well enough that there aren’t going to be easy-to-follow directions. Pastors and other professional Church leaders will need patience and encouragement. We will all need to offer prayers to the Holy Spirit regularly and often asking for strength, guidance, and courage.
We will all need to look at our communities with renewed vision. Galagher the comedian likes to tell his audiences that we need to look at the world with “new eyes” to see all the possibilities awaiting us. We Lutherans believe that God is madly and passionately in love with the creation, especially the people. We need to see the world around us with God’s eyes. We need to delight in the exciting variety of people and cultures which surround us. We need to revel in the incredible variety of music and art God has created in people. And we need to let people know the wonderful gifts God has given us in the “holy places” where we gather.
We may not always do everything so well and we may not always succeed at the things we try. But we know what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. As pastors in congregations in the Southwest Conference of the Metro Chicago Synod, we have committed ourselves to the work of the Church. We will continue to gather ourselves in prayer, dialogue and serious study of Scripture. We will work to apply texts like Matthew 28:19-20 and Ephesians 4 to our worship, witness, organization, and outreach. We will continue to call and lead our people into the ministry God would have them do in the world around them. And above all we will trust that Jesus will keep the promise made to us and to the whole Church, “. . . I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).