Friday, May 6, 2016

Pastor, Where Is Everybody?

A Short Note About the Church, Change, Dwindling Attendance,
Bringing Back the Youth, & Capturing the Elusive Millennials.

"Enter by the NARROW GATE. For the gate is WIDE and the way is EASY that leads to DESTRUCTION, >>> and those who enter by it are many. <<< For the gate is Narrow and the way is HARD that leads to Life and THOSE who find it are few." (Matthew 7:13-14)

STOP. Go back and read those 2 verses from Matthew again.
Now read them a 3rd time, this time outloud.
Think about them for a few minutes before reading on.
Whenever the number of people in our pews or Confirmation seats or Sunday School folding chairs or whatever-else-have-you starts to decline or even remains stagnant, we are always so quick to assume that we (the pastor and the church workers) are doing something wrong. Our congregations can be quick to point fingers at us, too. Mostly, we tend to believe that we're not making church or Bible Study "fun" enough to attract people, especially "the youth," or "interesting" enough to attract those hard-to-reach "millennials."

It happens again and again and again, and my heart breaks. We throw out the premise that not everything in life should be fun, especially when it comes to the seriousness of our eternal damnation & salvation, and we scramble to change. Sometimes, this is necessary. We're not perfect, and we can be just as wrong as anybody. Some of us have some spiritual gifts, and some of us have others (1 Corinthians 12). “Is there something we should be doing differently?” is always a good question to ask ourselves, but we need to answer it carefully, thoughtfully, and conservatively because more often than not,

We are not the problem.

And we can't fix the problem. We jump to the conclusion that people aren't coming to church because the liturgy is boring or because we're boring or the Catechism is boring or because we're asking too much of our congregation by having them memorize the Ten Commandments and their meanings and take tests and sermon notes or endure twelve hour-long sessions of premarital counseling because the world has a grip on us, too, and we find it just as difficult as anyone else to trust that God is working in this negative event like He is working in Bill's cancer or Lucy's husband's & Cara's father's early death or John & Julie's home foreclosure. BUT we must never forget the fact that we are preaching and teaching “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles,” ever since it happened (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

Remember, Christ Himself lost followers in droves after He preached on the Lord's Supper (John 6:60-71). And who could have been a better preacher and teacher than Him? The Word of God Incarnate?? The Truth drove those people away, not Jesus' lack of style or old, boring theology. They left because the thought of eating human flesh and drinking human blood for the forgiveness of sins is offensive. Well, no one likes to be called a sinner. No one likes to have their sins pointed out in sermons or anywhere else; no one likes to be reminded of their weaknesses, failures and imperfections and no one likes to need a Savior. It's not fun to be a sinner in need of a Savior. It's weak. But it also happens to be reality.

If everything about church needs to be fun, we'll have to leave Jesus out back with the organ & crucifixes those big screens & drum set replaced in the Sanctuary.

There is no way to make being tortured, ridiculed, and murdered on a cross both by and for people who hate you "fun." So my point of encouragement to all you weary, heavy-laden pastors and church workers out there who have the blame of waning attendance weighing so heavily on your shoulderseither coming from yourself or from members of your congregation or from Satan or from all of the aboveDO NOT sacrifice sound Lutheran Doctrine and Biblical Teaching & Preaching for numbers. That is exactly what Satan wants. Jesus might have gotten a lot of those followers back in John 6 if He'd back-stepped and called out after them:
“Wait! You don't really have to eat My flesh and drink My blood for the forgiveness of sins! Ha! I'm actually not the Bread of Life! I was only joking! There's no real flesh and blood here!”
And most Christian denominations have done just that to the Lord's Supper, haven't they. And they will pay dearly for it on the Last Day. But Jesus would have been lying if He'd said that, and that would have been impossible because it would have been a sin (something that comes as easily to you and me as breathing). And so Christ did not throw out the Lord's Supper to bring the droves of wayward people back. He made no apologies for the Truth, He didn't dress it up or try to make it something it's not, like "fun." He simply let them go. (John 6)

Don't omit the Law from your preaching and teaching. Don't allow sin to go unanswered in your congregation because someone might get upset and leave. The consequences are severe indeed, for you and for your sheep, much more severe than if they do leave your fold. Instead, pass the blame off to those who deserve it: Satan and the people who would rather go to a hockey tournament or sleep in than worship their Savior and learn the Word of God and our sound Lutheran doctrine. Everyone has a CHOICE, and some are bound to make the wrong one no matter how we plead or what music we play or how many screens we have hanging in our Sanctuary.

If our church services, Bible studies, and Confirmation classes become simple social gatherings where the ugliness of sin is never mentioned, and the need for Jesus is forgotten as we bask in our collective "perfection," a whole bunch more people will be going to hell, starting with those of us who led them there (Matthew 18:6Mark 9:42Luke 17:2). We don't have to be more “fun” or more “interesting” or more “worldly” and “exciting” if we preach and teach the Truth of Christ crucified and risen for a world full of sinners and administer His Sacraments rightly. You'll find all of the necessary instructions for doing so in that inerrant Bible and in our tried-and-true-stand-on-the-shoulders-of-giants-quia-subscription-to-it-which-is-what-makes-us-LCMS Book of Concord.

The world will always hate us for proclaiming the Truth, and our membership will always be small. We can't get around it: it's written in Scripture (John 15:18-27Matthew 7:13-14). That's probably why Jesus says, "Where TWO or THREE are gathered my My name, there am I among them," not two or three THOUSAND or even two or three HUNDRED (Matthew 18:20). Satan will always try to steal our sheep and oftentimes, he will succeed (Acts 20:18-35). Trust that God will not stop seeking lost and neither will we (John 10:1-21).

But eventually, we have to shake the dust from our feet
just like Jesus had to do in His very own hometown
and give it up to the Trinity in prayer.
(Mark 6:11)

Let the entirety of our loving God do His part in bringing His prodigal sons and daughters home because there is only so much we as flawed people and forgiven sinners can do. (Pastors, that includes YOU!) So please, give yourselves a break when it comes to the empty pews in your church and the full pews in the heterodox and even blasphemous church down the street. Re-read and re-study Matthew 13:1-9; John 6:60-71; 10:1-21; 15:18-27; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31Acts 20:18-35 with your elders and the other leaders in your congregation before making changes in your church to try and “bring back the youth” and attract those shifty millennials, keeping in mind that their choice to worship God or to walk away from Him is just that: THEIRS.

TRUST GOD, not the works of your hand.

It all boils down to trust. Trust that not a single person goes to hell if they don't belong there. That's a hard fact to swallow, but it's the truth. We can choose to walk away from Christ and we can choose to come back; we can choose to lead people away from the Truth and we can choose lead them to it, but only God knows where every one of our choices ends. >>> The bottom line is that we have to trust God, not ourselves and our own cleverness: His Word, His Sacraments, His promise, His TRUTH, and not our own works when it comes to the salvation of our sheep. <<< Trust that God won't let anyone remain fallen away from the faith if He means to keep them faithful. 

But do not go so far as to think that you're helpless, or that your calling and your work here is meaningless! God's plan for each person is known only by Him. We don't always know what part we play in it, which is as frustrating as it is liberating. And so in our ignorance, we must err on the side of grace and assume that each soul we meet is meant to be saved and do our best in leading them on that narrow path to life. Then we must rest assured should we happen to make a mistake or drop the ball, someone else is already chosen by God to pick it up, but we cannot force, manipulate, trick, guilt, reason, charm or party anyone into heaven. All we can do is preach and teach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (John 6:44John 15:16Romans 9Romans 11:28-361 Corinthians 2:1-5Revelation 13:8)
So please, prayerfully consider the fact that maybe
people are leaving your congregation for the same
reason so many left Jesus' 2000 years ago:
because you've got it RIGHT.
"That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And GREAT CROWDS GATHERED about Him, so that He got into a BOAT and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And He TOLD THEM MANY THINGS in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the PATH, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on ROCKY GROUND, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, >>> since they had no depth of soil, <<< but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among THORNS, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on GOOD SOIL and produced GRAIN, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:1-9)

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