Some years ago I was working with a small congregation in a small town during a vacancy in the pastoral office. The congregation, never large, had been declining in recent years. The previous pastor had left for a more attractive position in another state.
When I asked them why they had no Sunday School, they told me there were no children in the congregation. When I asked them what their mission was, they insisted that just about everyone in town already had a church. They thought there was no mission field.
I decided to challenge them. “Go to every other church in town and find out what their average church attendance is, then add up those numbers for all the churches in town.” Several weeks later I heard their discovery. On any given Sunday less than half the population of the town was in any church, and many of the congregations also drew from the surrounding country-side. “There’s your mission field,” we said.
Every one of our congregations is surrounded by a mission field – even yours! I do not know of a single county in the USA where more than half of the population is found in church, and in many, many locales the percentage is far less than half or even 25%.
No, this is not the time for blame! Don’t be saying, “Well if these people were more welcoming or if our members were truly Lutheran, or whatever, we’d be able to do more.” Don’t be thinking, “Well, if our pastor were a better preacher, or more with the times, or whatever, then we’d…”
Instead, here are some other questions, some basic “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” questions, to ask together, and with God’s guidance seek positive answers, TOGETHER:
Witness: Who are the people around us who do not know Jesus? Or have become disconnected from Him? How might we connect with some of them? Where are they? Who among us meets them as part of our various vocations? How might we get to know them so that we have the opportunity to confess the name of Christ? How might we find ways to baptize and teach them?
And we have seen and testify (witness!) that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God (1 John 4:14-15).
Mercy: What are the needs in this community? Who are the “invisible” people in the community? The people no one else notices? How many folks in your community are hurting? Why? Who are they and what are their needs? What do we have to offer them in the name of Christ? How can we be the arms of Christ’s mercy for them? How can we find them?
We love because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:19-20).
Life Together: What is the health of our fellowship? How are we connected to one another? More importantly, how are we connected to Jesus Christ? Are we regularly in the Word of God, remembering our Baptism, receiving our Lord’s body and blood, in which He gives life? How many of our people are? Does our congregation live in love with one another as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us?
If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).
In other words, the things we do as the body of Christ in “Witness, Mercy and Life Together” are part of sanctification. That is, they grow from our justification. Christ has made us His own, forgiven our sins in the blood of His cross, and declared us righteous by His resurrection. Receiving these gifts by faith, we can revel in them, knowing our connection to Christ is sure. Living as His forgiven people, witness, mercy and life together are simply what we do as the body.
Our congregations are all outwardly different. The communities we serve vary significantly. The specific answers to these questions may also look different on the surface. But the purpose is the same – drawing people, by the Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament, into the worship of the Holy Trinity, the only worship that gives life. We witness so that the Spirit might connect some to Jesus. We show mercy that hurting people may receive the love of Jesus. We live together in Christ’s Word, because
God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
Well, what happened to the congregation I was visiting? The Lord sent them a pastor who helped them discover children in the community who needed a place to go after school. Their Sunday School never really revived, but their three hour program for kids Wednesdays after school regularly drew dozens, and even brought parents and families. People were connected to Jesus, and the Spirit grew the congregation.
How will you prayerfully ask these questions in your congregation?
+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice President