God Moves On…

thechurchisemptyingI 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.


Comments

God Moves On… — 30 Comments

  1. I agree with that concern to a certain extent, but I would also caution against thinking in the opposite extreme, which is that large attendance numbers automatically equals a healthy church. Certainly bringing in more people is a good thing, but I’d rather see a vibrant congregation of fifty instead of a five thousand member church whose parishioners have little more than a superficial understanding of Christianity and possess a shallow, weak faith.

  2. Is a congregation’s noncompensated assistant pastor, having occasional preaching, limited visitation, and no administrative responsibilities given the title of “Bishop”? The congregation doesn’t seem to refer to either its pastor or assistant pastor with the title of “Bishop.”

  3. Pastor Chris Thoma: “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.”

    One wonders if the commentator was inebriated when he made the speculation.

    The NFL has a 17-week season and a November 21, 2014, article, “More people attend church than you might think,” estimates that 2 million people attending NFL games each week. Thus there are approximately 34 million people attending NFL games in a season.

    The same article also estimates from Gallup and Pew studies that between 50 and 125 million Americans attend church services every week. For a whole year the combined attendance in all the churches in America would be around 2.5 to 6.5 billion people.

    Even the lower estimate of church attendance is far, far more than a season’s attendance at NFL games. In fact, it is likely that more people attend church weekly than attend NFL games for a whole season.

  4. @Carl Vehse #4
    Dear Carl,
    Once again, satire is NOT my forte…you allude that Rev. Harrison is wrong for being a pastor at said Church listed. Or I took it for that. Is there something wrong with him being an unpaid pastor will a valid call?

  5. @Pastor Prentice #6: “you allude that Rev. Harrison is wrong for being a pastor at said Church listed.”

    Where did I allude to (e.g., suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at; mention) that?

  6. @Carl Vehse #7
    Dear Carl,
    OK, OK, all good. I think what Rev. Harrison, assistant pastor is just fine. I have the same thing at my Church, a “once” emeritus man, now assistant pastor, all good.

    I guess I inferred it a bit, since many on BJS think it is wrong.

    And I guess the flock their certainly could call him Rev. President, or simply pastor.

  7. @J. Dean #10
    Dear J.,
    That will be hard, they are Big Ten (my son went to Illinois), “could” lean that way. But we rooted hard against Michigan (and MSU) when they came to town. Like it or not, I think BAMA takes it all.

  8. @Pastor Prentice #9

    To this uneducated slob (me) issues like “bishop” titles and intinction seem pretty inconsequential.  On the other hand, alledgedly having a Concordia professor who presides over devil/idol worship gets my attention. 🙂

    Best New Year’s Blessings, Pastor Prentice.

  9. As has already been said, the “concerned commentator” is not just wrong, but super wrong. Always doubt your sources. There is enough doom and loom already.

  10. @John Rixe #12: To this uneducated slob (me) issues like “bishop” titles and intinction seem pretty inconsequential. On the other hand, alledgedly having a Concordia professor who presides over devil/idol worship gets my attention.

    The BJS blog, like this one, with comments on the title of Bishop, or another one with comments on intinction, do not argue for equating the consequence of the respective topic with the topic of devil/idol worship in this BJS blog.

    Comments on each blog deal with the topic or other comments made on that blog.

  11. @Pastor Prentice #14

    This would be great news. I haven’t seen any evidence or documentation of recanting. If true, what was the purpose of the BJS article? The links in the article were very disturbing.

    CUI and/or Professor Faraji could easily clear this up for us.

  12. @Carl Vehse #15

    No comparison intended.  “Bishop” title is inconsequential and irrelevant to the topic of this fine article on its own.

    Blessed New Year, Dr Strickert.

  13. @Carl Vehse #18
    By “problem” do you mean “using language consistent w/ AP XIV even if our current synodical constitution doesn’t require us to do so”?

    AP XIV 24:
    Concerning this subject we have frequently testified in this assembly that it is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church, even though they have been made by human authority. For we know that church discipline was instituted by the Fathers, in the manner laid down in the ancient canons, with a good and useful intention.

    Is your quatenus showing?

    Christmas Blessings+,
    -Matt Mills

  14. @Matt Mills #19: “Is your quatenus showing?”

    Is your loaded question showing?

    My previous question was about the title of bishop being applied to a congregation’s noncompensated assistant pastor, having occasional preaching, limited visitation, and no administrative responsibilities.

    The applicable excerpt from the Lutheran Confessions is SA.III.X.3:

    “Therefore, as the ancient examples of the Church and the Fathers teach us, we ourselves will and ought to ordain suitable persons to this office; and, even according to their own laws, they have not the right to forbid or prevent us. For their laws say that those ordained even by heretics should be declared [truly] ordained and stay ordained [and that such ordination must not be changed], as St. Jerome writes of the Church at Alexandria, that at first it was governed in common by priests and preachers, without bishops.”

  15. @Carl Vehse #20
    The title of Bishop was, more than probably, used in light of Pastor Harrison being designated, by human authority, as the ecclesiastical supervisor of the DP’s designated, by human authority, as the ecclesiastical supervisors of the Pastors in our Synod.

    Bishop is a good title, with a solid pedigree and, from my best construction perspective, Pastor Toma used it because, like the confessors, his greatest wish is to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church, even though they have been made by human authority. Your antagonism to the use of “Bishop” for an ecclesiastical supervisor shows a very different spirit than the confessors.

    As to SA.III.X.3, Until the SP of our synod starts refusing to “ordain and confirm us and our preachers” or acting like the “worldly lords and princes” I’m not sure how it could possibly be germane to the issue at hand. Pulling the end of SA.III.X.3 out of its proper context (Bishops acting like secular rulers [Presidents?] rather than churchmen) doesn’t support your argument.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  16. The Apology only wishes for a church polity within the 16th century Germany and gives no Scripturally-based command for a church polity in the 16th, or in the 21st century. Neither the Church at Alexandria (as noted in SA.III.X.3) nor Village Lutheran Church appears to have included “Bishops” within their clergy.

    It is very doubtful that Rev. Thoma has the authority to assign polity titles for Village Lutheran Church (or even the Church of Alexandria) ministerial staff. For several years Rev. Thoma has been in the English District, which has a long history of episcopist malthinking needing repeated correction (1981 Synodical Resolution 3-19, CCM Opinion 00-2202, CCM Opinion 00-2215, CCM Opinion 10-2578; see details and links).

    Perhaps Rev. Thoma can offer his own explanation for bestowing such a title.

    Since its founding, the Missouri Synod, which is not a church, was established with a congregational polity, and makes no mention of bishops in its Constitution. So the Missouri Synod needs an episcopal set of titles like a fish needs a bicycle.

  17. All of which has exactly nothing to do with the original article. Did someone just want another chance to take a shot at Harrison?

  18. @Carl Vehse #22

    Thank you, Mr. Strickert (Vehse) for the phone conversation and the willingness to hear my concerns regarding what I interpreted to be an insulting frame of reference with regard to my pastoral qualifications. Lastly, I appreciate your retooling of the comment, and with that, will consider the issue at its end.
    By the way, and for all others following this thread, I mentioned on the phone that I referred to Harrison as Bishop simply out of respect. There was nothing in my article intending to stir a conversation regarding synodical nomenclature. Let the readers understand.

  19. @Dave #26

    Does the LCMS have bishops?

    If it was a serious question… not in the synodical structure and nomenclature; the equivalent for some purposes is District President. DP’s do not have the same duties as a Roman Catholic Bishop (e.g., confirmation) so LCMS tends to avoid the term… (and some are violently allergic to it). 🙁

    Nevertheless, as Matt Mills says, the title “Bishop” is used in the Confessions and if LCMS had chosen to do so, it might have Bishops. It was on that road, if Bishop Stephan had been an honest man.

    In another context… vicars have a custom of referring to their supervising Pastor as “Bishop”, but it is purely honorary. I took Pr. Thoma to mean it in that way.

  20. @Carl Vehse #15

    Comments on each blog deal with the topic or other comments made on that blog

    Good idea! Except we’ve been wasting time and space with comments on the “bishop” title, which has nothing to do with Pastor Thoma’s topic at all!

    Perhaps wandering off topic, rather than discussing people’s willingness to put anything/nothing ahead of attendance at Divine Service, is another indication that the Word has less importance than it should have among us.

    Pastor Thoma, we needed the reminder in that article, though you may be “preaching to the choir”. But if the choir is the only group that comes to listen, continue preaching! There are sinners in the ‘choir’, too.

    I apologize for adding to the digression.

  21. I don’t think it’s “wandering of topic” to ask about details in the text written for laity to read. I am not aware of the use of the term “Bishop” in any Lutheran setting that I have seen personally, and one would assume that an author of an article to non theologians might be aware of their audience.

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