I heard a concerned commentator speculate recently that NFL games see twice the number of people in attendance in a single season than all the Christian churches in America see in all of their worship services in a whole year.
I don’t know if his speculation is actually accurate or not, but if it is, then trouble is close at hand in America.
A little over a year ago, I wrote and preached a sermon which at one point drew attention to the fact that we are living in a time of the church experiencing a notably incredible decline. Essentially I attempted to bring to my listeners’ attentions the fact that the pace of church membership decline is quadruple today what it was fifty years ago, and then I went on to talk about how pastors today are dealing with what I would consider as amplified versions of troubles past. For example, I’d offer that compared to the generations before us, it’s a major accomplishment in folks’ lives if they even consider attending church on a Sunday let alone if they actually arrive in the pews. The priority just isn’t there like it used to be.
I’m sure you can tell that particular portion of the sermon was a little more “Law” than “Gospel.” It needed to be. The text appointed for that day in particular, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, was Matthew 8:23-27 (“The Calming of the Storm”). It was calling listeners to serious reflection with regard to priorities in this life. In whom or in what do we trust? The goal, of course was to recognize that Jesus is clearly the only One in whom trust is secure for life in this world – and for the world to come!
Eric Metaxas records in his book Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy that in the late 1930s, there was a Lutheran pastor, Gerhard Vibrans, who wrote a letter to his well-known friend and mentor, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it he said:
“My parish of six hundred souls at Schweinitz…on average only one or two people go to church every Sunday… Every Sunday, wearing my vestments, I make a pilgrimage through the whole village primarily to bring home to the people that it is Sunday… The people try to comfort me by saying that I will get my salary even though no one goes to church” (p.291).
Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote back and rejoined rather straightforwardly: “If one village will not listen, we go to another. There are limits.” Metaxas points out that this is reminiscent of Matthew 10:14. While I agree, I also think it begs identification with Paul’s observation in Romans 1:18-32 where the Apostle writes three times “God gave them up…” I preached that very perspective in the aforementioned sermon on Jesus’ calming of the storm. And then about seven months later, while I was in Washington DC, I heard Bishop Harrison cap that thought with a similar comment. He brought to mind that in the face of deliberate disregard, after a while, God gives up and moves on. You know, Luther shared Saint Paul’s and President Harrison’s belief:
“Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today; certainly we read nothing of it in history. If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. O my beloved Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year” (LW 45:352).
Metaxas adds that eventually Bonhoeffer went to visit Vibrans to see the trouble for himself. After the visit, Bonhoeffer counseled Vibrans to write a letter to the people urging them to understand that this could be “the last offer of the Gospel to them, and that there are other communities whose hunger for the Word cannot be satisfied because there are too few workers” (p. 292).
What a difficult thing for a pastor charged with the care of souls to discern and do.
The point of this particular article is to highlight that while it may be frightening, troubling, and difficult on the soul to warn those who show willful disregard for God’s gifts, it absolutely must be done. And by the way, no church is immune from what will always be the culture’s mass-teetering on willful disregard. It’s happening in every congregation. We’re seeing it. And so you aren’t alone in the situation and you won’t be alone in the effort.
The people need to be told rather plainly that they need to be in worship. Why? Because they need the verbal and visible means of the Gospel. We all do! It’s why their church exists. If they slip toward a half-hearted disregard, history proves that the doors of their church might eventually close. They just might. And not necessarily because the congregation was receiving less in the offering plate and being found unable to keep the lights on, but because God will have moved on.
And still, notice the opportunity for communicating the Gospel here? Notice how that which has the muscle to convert and convince the heart is readily provided? Above all, these people will know through this urging that their Lord loves them so very much that He did not hesitate to do what was necessary to save them. This Gospel message will provide the strength by God’s great love in Jesus Christ to repent and to retreat from this world to His house to receive His grace as often as it is offered. Indeed, it is only by the Gospel that the eyes of the parched sinner are opened to see that the rain showers of God’s grace are plentiful in the Divine Service. It’s there that we see that it was never God’s first inclination to give up on us, but rather His first motion was to give up His Son.