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The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

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Life and Death of Churches

Church and Ministry 1

I’m back after a hiatus doing some summer family things.  In the meantime I got a note that another District was looking for my vital information and wanted an update on something we call “The Self-Evaluation Tool.”  This is basically an FAQ form that pastors in my denomination are asked to complete so that District officials and calling congregations have an idea about some of our attitudes and opinions.  After some thought I asked my District office to send back the one they already had, because in that one I answered the questions the way I’m pretty sure congregations want to hear.

In the meantime I’ve been thinking about answering these questions in different ways.  I suspect that the answers that congregations want to hear are not the answers that I really believe in many cases, but I’m also pretty sure that congregations are not used to thinking in terms of the answers I really believe.  So while the District has the form, here are some of the questions and what I’m really believing these days:

 

1.   Describe your understanding of the church and its mission, especially regarding outreach to the lost.

 

Before we talk about the church and its mission, let’s talk about the nature and identity of the church.  The church is the bride of Christ, dearly and deeply beloved by Him to such an extent that He gave His life for her, to make her His own bride, holy and blameless in His sight.  So the church is the Spouse of Christ, Redeemed and made Holy in His precious blood.  Her joy and delight is to praise and proclaim the Bridegroom to all, whether they will listen or not.  She rejoices when those who hear join Her at the wedding feast; she is saddened when those who hear decline the invitation.  She praises and proclaims the Bridegroom to all so that they may join her in her joy.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because “they will be lost if we don’t evangelize them” is not communicating a sense of urgency, but manipulating believers by shaming them.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because it’s numbers are declining is lying to “the lost” because it really doesn’t care whether they are “lost” or “saved” as long as they can bring more money / people / members to the church.

Finally, the church that urges outreach to “the lost” denigrates and marginalizes them the same way the Elder Brother denigrated and marginalized the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, calling him “This YOUR son” rather than “This MY brother.”  We need instead to love them as brothers and sisters who may not have received the invitation of the Bride to the Wedding Feast or responded to her delight.

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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’ | AlanRudnick.org.

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.

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