The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light



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.

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.

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