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Indispensable Churches

The Garden Tractor Pull

Over at Indispensable Churches I have a comment or two on today’s meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society.  Here’s the link:

Indispensable Churches:  Focusing on the Poor

So often we pastors who are assigned to minister in these churches become tired and discouraged because we don’t “see any progress.” Our mailboxes (and email boxes) are flooded with mailings about seminars and conferences about the latest programs or technologies.  Pastors of churches larger and more “successful” than ours come around on speaking tours to tell us how they became “successful” and what we can do to be as “successful” as they were (if we only follow their recommendations exactly).  Even the district executive comes with his / her agenda as to how to make our congregation more successful, more “missional,” more “transformed.”  All operate on the premise that there is some way in which this Indispensable Church is not what it could be, and they have ways to make it better.

I suppose that works OK to a certain extent.  But here in Lodi at past Corn Festivals we’ve had a little contest called a Garden Tractor Pull.  Now a Tractor Pull works like this:  you get someone who soups up a standard farm tractor with a blown engine, supercharger, and whatever else he can think of to give that tractor more power that you can imagine.  He and a bunch of other guys and their super tractors get together, each to try to drag a huge sled filled with massive weights over a set distance.  The super tractor that drags the most weight over the longest distance wins.  A Garden Tractor Pull is just like that, only on a much smaller level.

The thing is, no matter how much you soup it up, a garden tractor is just a garden tractor.  It’s purpose is to mow the grass, to plow the garden, and to mulch leaves.  Not much more than that!  For the Pull you can get it to do things it wasn’t meant to do, but then it isn’t a garden tractor anymore – now it’s useless for mowing, plowing, and mulching.  Yet those things still need to be done, so what happens – you get another garden tractor for the mowing, plowing, and mulching.

Seems to me that in the church there are those who are building bigger and better tractors; and there are those who are bent on selling us all kinds of equipment to soup up garden tractors; and there are those who say “but we need something simple, plain, unremarkable – but indispensable! – to do the mowing, and the plowing, and the mulching.”

Do we really matter?

An Indispensable Churches Post

As you read the section below the first time, consider first “the church” as “the Christian church in its broadest, most all-encompassing definition.”

Then read the section a second time, considering “the church” as “any randomly chosen local congregation regardless of size, location, or influence.”

Finally, read the section a third time, considering “the church” as “the congregation I am personally currently involved in.”

Now ask yourself, What does it seem like God is saying to me through the words of these brothers?  How might I like to respond to Him?  and How might I like my congregation to respond to Him?

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live.  Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.  The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.  The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.

Unfortunately, an accommodationist church, so intent on running errands for the world, is giving the world less and less in which to disbelieve.  Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and bigger congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching).  At every turn the church must ask itself, Does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989.  pages 94-95

The Sermon on the Mount

An Indispensable Churches post

The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to our story, just happens to be true.  The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus, Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.  Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are and what has happened in the world, is true community possible. (page 77)

In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as a good in itself.  . . .  (page 77)

The Sermon [on the Mount, Matthew 5-7] implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples.  The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that?  The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?  (page 80)

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens(Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989)

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

We happened to be reading the “eye for an eye” part of the Sermon on the Mount last Sunday in Bible class, and commenting on how difficult it is for us to live the kind of life Jesus describes in those verses.  But we’re not alone – everyone struggles with the “love your enemies” words of Jesus.  We do the Christian quick-step around them with re-interpretations (“He didn’t really mean love in the same sense that you love . . . “).  We make exceptions (“I can love my enemies in general; but not that one in particular”).  We’re so hopelessly in love with the lex talionis because each of us has so idolized our individual selves that for Jesus to say things like “But I tell you . . . ” drives a knife right through the heart of our self-importance.  And yet we want to call ourselves Christians, too, and claim to follow Jesus.  The rock is firm, the hard place is hard, and we are caught firmly in the middle, unable to escape by ourselves.

Then come Hauerwas and Willimon (above), who tell us that it is precisely because I cannot escape by myself that I need the church, the community of believers, the communio sanctorum.  It is only in that context and in that community that I can be faithful to the words of Jesus.  It is only in the church, surrounded by other believers current and past, that I learn the truth about forgiveness, marital fidelity, and all the other things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.  We both know we won’t learn any of it in the world.  We both know that not just any community is up to the task, no matter how ethical it tries to be.  Only the church, the body of Christ, is uniquely designed by Jesus Himself to feed and nourish and nurture its members so that together we grow into the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.

I need the church that is the body of Christ all over the world – in India, in the USA, in Europe, wherever there is another believer.  I need that believer.  I need the church that is the denomination I belong to, and the denominations I see around me.  I need the church that is the body of Christ assembled in the building in which I preach, as well as those assembled in other similar buildings in our community.  I need the church that is the huge one in the big city, and I need the church that is the tiny one on the ridge overlooking the village of used-to-be.  I need them all – and so do you – because each and every one of them teaches me how to live the “But I tell you . . . ”  I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner.  I rejoice that Jesus has forgiven my sins!  But I need the Church Indispensable to teach me to be the disciple He calls me to be.

And I think you do to.

An Indispensable Church

An Indispensable Churches Post

The white frame church sits on a low ridge above the little village.  It’s been on that ridge for over 100 years, looking over the comings and goings of the village and its people.  And there have been plenty of comings and goings here in this pleasant village in southeastern Ohio.  At one time this was a busy place, the home of miners and farmers that would come to this church every Sunday by the hundreds.  Weddings and funerals, baptisms and celebrations and farewells were held here time and again as the people came and went from the area.

These days the strip mines are closed and farming is harder than ever.  The population in the area is way less than it used to be.  Even for the 100th anniversary of this congregation, hundreds of people did not show up, though the celebration was wonderful and fun.  They haven’t been able to afford a full-time pastor for a lot of years, so other congregations in their district have shared their pastors with them.  On Sunday mornings twice a month the congregation meets in the morning to worship, using sermons provided by one of those pastors.  On Sunday afternoons the other Sundays of the month one of those “shared” pastors makes the two-hour trip to worship with them, bring the Good News of Jesus to them, and celebrate Holy Communion in their worship service.   Sometimes he stays to have dinner at somebody’s home. Less than two dozen people come to these services, some of them struggling with the infirmities of age.  Hospitalized members are usually cared for by the pastor of a Lutheran church in the next county.

But babies are born and baptized here.  Young people are confirmed, then married.  Twice a month the saints of God in this place celebrate Holy Communion.  In the summertimes the congregation has opened its building to servant-event groups coming into southeastern Ohio to do mission / service projects in the Appalachian foothills.  Sister congregations have sent Vacation Bible School teams there as well as other service project teams.  (For all the financial people:  this congregation has a higher annual per capital giving amount than the majority of its sister congregations in the district, though it is one of the smallest.)

This congregation is small, and getting smaller.  We don’t know how long it will last, or what it’s future will be.  The kids that grow up there, get married and move away, so it keeps getting smaller.  Is it dying?  Is it on the verge?  Shall we do something to encourage the few who are still “hanging on” there to follow others westward or southward 30-40 miles to the next nearest congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?  Or shall we think again about whether this is one of those Indispensable Churches

It’s Indispensable because of its location – one of only two LCMS churches in an entire quadrant of the State of Ohio (almost 20 0f the 88).  It’s Indispensable because of the opportunities it offers others to be of service.  It’s Indispensable because it offers sister congregations opportunities to expand their ideas of ministry and fellowship beyond their own walls and embrace the saints of God in this little village.  It’s Indispensable because it offers those congregations opportunities to share their pastors with these saints, and it offers the pastors opportunities to see their own ministries as wider than the communities to which God has called them.  It’s Indispensable because the Word and the Sacrament are there, and so is Christ.  It’s Indispensable because the people of God gathered in this place are the temple of the Holy Spirit in this little village in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  If someone ever asks, “where might I go to find the Holy Spirit’s temple here in Pleasant City, Ohio?”  people could point to the white frame church up on the north ridge.  It’s Indispensable because it is named Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and together with St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church on the south ridge the saints of God in Pleasant City have these visible reminders that the Triune God who loves them, who redeemed them, who sanctifies them, and the angels that He assigns to protect them, are watching over them always.

Do churches “need” to die sometimes?

An Indispensable Churches post.

Here’s a blog I ran across the other day.  Please read it before you go on.

Sometimes, churches need to ‘die’ |

So let’s think about some of the things Rudnick says in this post:

(1)  Rudnick seems to say that two defining characteristics of a “dead” church seem to be that the building’s doors are closed and that the membership has been disbanded.  But just a few years ago the Cleveland (Ohio) Catholic Diocese closed several churches and told the congregation members that they would have to relocate to other churches.  Many of these members protested all the way to the Vatican, and this summer some of those churches are reopening with great joy and celebration by the returning members.  Of course, this may simply illustrate the possibility that a congregation isn’t really dead until its own members say it’s dead – despite the analysis and even decree of something like “the wider church.”

(2)  If a congregation completely disbands so that its members are assimilated into other congregations, and if the building is reopened by a new ministry, how can this be called a “restart” or a “resurrection”?  In a more extreme example, if the building is sold so that a completely different denomination can begin a ministry there, that may clearly not be a “restart.”  But if the original denomination continues to own the building and implants a new ministry there, do we do that ministry a disservice by calling it a “restart” or “resurrection” rather than something entirely new and different?  In calling it a “restart” do we (unintentionally) burden it with ghosts of the past that may end up hampering its efforts to be truly new?

(3)  Rudnick asserts “that living churches have a life-cycle, too.”  I’ve heard this before, frequently accompanied by the “observation” that the life-cycle of a congregation resembles the life-cycle of a person in terms of time as well as in terms of stages.  But I think this may be a particularly American attitude that fails to take at least two matters into account.  The first is that the church in Scripture is compared to the human body only metaphorically, but identified with the body of Christ.  Might we not then infer that since the resurrected body of Christ is characterized as immortal, perfected, glorified, and eternal, so also is the church – even when there aren’t enough “members” to pay the bills to keep the building open?  The second is the observation that some churches have existed and even thrived in Europe, portions of Asia, and even Africa for centuries, well beyond the life-cycle of the normal human life span.  Village churches that have been around for hundreds of years.  Cathedrals in which the faithful have gathered to worship for a thousand years.  Sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and other places where Christian congregations have been in continuous existence since perhaps the time of the disciples.

(4)  Rudnick suggests that some churches may need to “die a death of institutionalism in order that it be resurrected into a Christ-centered faith community with a new calling.”  To this I heartily agree!  Over time it seems that many congregations “lose their first love” and devolve into a bounded-set mentality, drawing boundary lines and defining who’s in and who’s not.  How much better would it be if they could forget about the boundaries, focus on Christ and center all their activity on Him – their worship, their spiritual growth, their ministries to others?

(5)  Rudnick asks “Why must we insist that churches cannot change or be reborn into new life?”  I ask “MUST they change or be reborn into new life?”  Are there sufficient and necessary reasons why churches in Europe have lasted for centuries?  Are there important reasons why a world in swirling confusion needs the consistency the church can provide?  Granted, stubbornness and reluctance are not sufficient reasons to avoid change; but the traditions of liturgy, Sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, art and architecture, community and many other aspects of the church have been anchors to its people and its community through wars, plagues, destructions, turmoils, prosperity, health, and everything life brings.

Let me summarize:  There is more to the life of a church than a building and a membership roster.  There are also memories, traditions, and history.  Most importantly, each church is the body of Christ not only for the local communio sanctorum, but also in  the local community of believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, redeemed and unsaved.  Do churches sometimes need to die?  Not without taking all these into consideration.

Cause and Effect

An Indispensable Churches Post

One of the public policy discussions in the education arena these days centers on the issue of teacher pay.  It seems as though some people are of the opinion that for too long teachers have been paid like other union members, with a pay scale based on seniority.  These people would have a teacher’s pay adjustments based rather on the test scores of their students.  The reasoning seems to be that this is the most accurate metric of the teacher’s effectiveness.  So the argument goes like this:  good test scores are the result of good teaching, poor test scores are the result of poor teaching.  Simple enough.  So if you have a whole class of students who score low on a standardized test relative to some other class, it’s obviously the fault of the teacher.  Never mind the possibility that a myriad of other factors (parental support, capabilities of the students, amount of funding, “test-anxiety,” etc.) can influence the test scores of students.  The rationale here is that if the students perform poorly the direct cause must be poor teaching.  So let’s blame it on the teacher and tell them they have to change or leave.

One of the gaping chasms in the way we deal with one another in love in the church is that pastors are often treated the same way as these teachers.  Whatever metric you may want to use, if the church doesn’t measure up to that metric it’s the pastor’s fault.  Low attendance?  The pastor’s fault.  Low giving?  The pastor’s fault.  Inactive youth group?  You guessed it.  And on and on.  And this isn’t always coming from disappointed members of the congregation (although occasionally it does).  Sometimes this comes from judicatories as they look at congregations that “need to be revitalized / transformed” and the consultants that they send in to help.  Why isn’t the congregation living up to the metric the judicatory likes to use?  Because the pastor is not conducting the ministry the right way.  Because he needs to improve his leadership skills.  Because he isn’t . . .  / because she doesn’t . . .  / because they won’t . . . .

But this reasoning assumes a direct link between the pastor’s ministry and the ability of the congregation to meet a metric imposed upon it from the outside.  This reasoning fails to take into account a myriad of other influences.  This reasoning grossly fails to take into account the degree of opposition to both the pastor and the congregation by the dread enemy of all God’s faithful people.  And this reasoning isn’t reasoning at all – it’s blaming, a sin started by Adam in the Garden of Eden and one that we have never been able to shake.

What blaming does not do is this:  effectively call a “sinful” person to repentance.  What blaming does instead is this:  effectively drive a wedge of suspicion, mistrust, and resentment where there should be love and peace and fellowship.  Jesus is the one who made the church perfect with His blood; we cannot make it perfect by blaming one another for ineffectiveness.  What we can do is love one another as Christ has commanded us to do, as He has done for us, and leave it at that.

Everything else is just spreadsheets.


Border Protection

An Indispensable Churches Post

Hermann Sasse, one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th Century, once wrote

A church that does not continually gather around the [Lord’s] Supper must undergo secularization.  It must irreversibly turn into a piece of the world, because the Supper establishes the boundary between church and world.  This conclusion is confirmed by the experience of church history and especially of the history of worship in the last few centuries.  The destruction of the Supper is followed by the disappearance of the living remembrance of Jesus from the hearts of Christians, especially of his suffering and death.

Thus, in the century of the Enlightenment, the fading away of the person of Jesus as the biblical Redeemer into an indeterminate universal teacher, who might just as well be called Moses or Socrates, was bound up with the decline of the Supper as the celebration of his inextinguishable remembrance.  . . .  Where Jesus Christ no longer himself speaks to us in the Holy Supper the Gospel “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” the message of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world necessarily fades away.

–  Hermann Sasse, “Church and Lord’s Supper” in The Lonely Way (St. Louis:  CPH, 2001), pages 420-421.

 “The Supper establishes the boundary between church and world.”  What do you think about that?  First of all, that there should be such a boundary, a place church and world may meet but not intersect.  A place where church and world may greet one another, may perhaps glare at one another, but not join with one another.  A place where church and world say to each other, “you stay on your side, and I’ll stay on mine.”   

But how fluid is this boundary?  Can we come and go with ease across it, moving from church to world and back again without impediment?  Should we come and go with ease across it?  Or should it be a firmer boundary, a border we cross with difficulty, a boundary we cross at our peril except at the approved Gate (John 10:7-10)?

And what if this boundary is removed?  If there is no boundary between church and world anymore, does the world become like the church or does the church become like the world?  Observation of recent history would suggest the latter.  And if the Lord’s Supper fades into unimportance in the life of the church, to be superseded by technology, prosperity, “growth,” or attendance as indicators of the health and well-being of the church, does the Gospel also necessarily fade into the background?  And when the Gospel fades into the background, shall not the church fade away into the background and then into oblivion as well?


Sacramental Realism and the Church

An Indispensable Churches Post

One of the problems we seem to have in discussing “the church” in contemporary America is that we come at it from an institutional direction.  We discuss “The Church,” whether congregation or denomination (or almost any other understanding – see a previous Indispensable Churches post), in terms of its statistics, its demographics, its numerical growth or non-growth; it’s budget or outreach; it’s programs or architecture.  This is especially true when we’re getting ready to plant a mission church.  We want to know whether all the work will pay off; whether the money we pour into it will be worthwhile; whether it will grow and multiply and even be a “contributing member” of the sponsoring judicatory.  And we say that we’re just being “realistic” when we come at it from this direction.  We should rather say we’re being “merely realistic” in these discussions, because The Church is much more than statistics, numbers and growth.

Biblically / Theologically / Confessionally, The Church is the mystical Body of Christ.  Lutherans say that the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with and under” the bread and wine of the Eucharist in a “Sacramental Union” – we can bring any kind of scientific investigation to bear on the bread and wine of the Eucharist and still only discover the elements of bread and wine.  But because of the Word and promise of our Lord Jesus Christ we believe that the Body and the Blood are also present when we eat and drink this Sacrament.  Thus, there is a reality to the Sacrament that exists “in, with, and under” as well as above and beyond the physical reality that we can detect with our senses – a divine reality which, when added to the physical reality, gives the Eucharist a Sacramental Reality: our physical eating and drinking of the Sacrament means that, according to the promises of our Lord Jesus, our sins are completely forgiven and we have the promise of eternal life.

Saint Paul would write that all of us who participate in the one loaf all participate in the one body of Christ.  In his first letter to the Corinthians he seems to have a pretty fuzzy application of the term “body of Christ,” so that we’re never 100 percent certain whether he’s talking about a house church, the organization of house churches in Corinth, all the churches in all the world taken together at any given time.  We’re forced to conclude that he simply wants to say that because the believers all eat of the one bread and drink of the one cup, we all participate in the one body which is Christ.  So wherever the Church is eating this Eucharist, Christ is there.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote “ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia” (“where Christ is, there is the church”), following Jesus’ declaration that “where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them.”  When the pastor meets the shut-in to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.  When 20 believers agree to gather regularly to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.  When 20,000 believers agree to gather on a single occasion to share the Eucharist, Jesus is there and so is the Church.

Martin Luther wrote that it is in the Christian Church that the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers.”  What else is a Sacrament than the place where the soul in need of forgiveness can find it mercifully, richly and daily given?  So the Church itself participates in this same Sacramental Realism that characterizes the Eucharist.  This Sacramental Realism means that wherever there is the Church the statistics, the numbers, the growth and non-growth are like the bread and the wine – merely the outward forms which contain the true treasures of the Church:  the work of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sins according to the promise of Jesus Christ our Lord.

churches / churches / church – Clarification and Confusion?

A post from Indispensable Churches


I’m thinking that it might be best to get this out of the way to begin with, to avoid or maybe compound potential confusion in the future.

In our English language we tend to use the word “church” in a number of different senses.  One is to refer to a building or facility in which a particular community of believers gathers for worship services.  I won’t be using the word “church” in this sense at all in these posts, unless I indicate otherwise.

Another use of the word “church” is to refer to a local congregation of believers (as in “Christ the King Lutheran Church of Lodi, Ohio”).  Still another refers to a number of these congregations gathered together into a denomination (as in “The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod”).  Yet another way we use the word “church” is in a fairly broad catch-all way (as in “The Eastern Church” or “The Church of the Middle Ages”).  We also use “church” to speak broadly of all believers in Christ on earth at any present time (“the Invisible Church on earth” or “the Church Militant”), of all adherents of every congregation or denomination on earth at any present time (whether believers or not – “the Visible Church on earth”); of people who had been believers in Christ when they were alive and are now living with Him eternally, according to His promise (“the Church Triumphant”); and to speak of all people who, living or dead, ever believed in Christ (“the Universal Church”).

In these posts it’s quite possible that neither you nor I will be able to tell which definition of “church” I’ll be using at any given time.  There are times when I may use “congregation” or “denomination” to be specific, but most of the time I’ll just be using “church” and “churches” in several of these above senses at the same time.  I know that seems vague and potentially confusing, but that’s what we have to live with in “the church.”  Just remember – in any given post from Indispensable Churches, I might be asking you to think about several different levels of “church” at the same time.  Sounds like fun, yes?

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