Friday, January 27, 2012

Biggest on the Block - Not

Editorial Comment
[Caution: The following is an editorial, that is, in literary terms, an opinion piece. As such it has no points to prove or sources to cite, but seeks only to provoke thought and from thought, perhaps action. Some readers may find it somewhat acerbic and perhaps even a bit caustic in places. Rest assured it is written in love and hope. Pastor Spencer]

Long, long ago, at a WELS Pastoral Conference far away, a rather well-renowned speaker made the following declaration at the end of a presentation, "There is absolutely no reason why the Wisconsin Synod cannot be the biggest church on the block. We have what no other church has – the pure truth of the Gospel." Now, while it is true that I sometimes have a hard time remembering the exact birthdays of each of my five children, and have been known to arrive home without the requested gallon of milk or carton of eggs, I remember this incident with incredible clarity.

The comment received a great deal of approval at that time and place, although in those days WELS Pastors seldom, if ever, gave anyone a standing ovation, or even so much as clapped for anyone or anything – at least not in church or meetings anyway. Neither did anyone even say with jocularity, "Give the governor a harrumph!" Such things were simply not done in our circles back in the Neolithic age, i.e. before yippee-skippee worship infected us. Still, there was much nodding of heads and the murmur of "That's right!" and "He makes a great point!"

Of course, being then the rather naive and foolish person I was at the time – only a year out of the seminary – and unfamiliar as I was, not having been born and raised WELS, with the rule that a Pastor must have twenty years experience before he can so much as second a motion, much less comment on a older Pastor's statement – I arose to challenge what I felt was a rather brash and uncalled for declaration by my elder brother in the ministry.

I offered the exact opposite opinion; that there was and is indeed a very good reason why the WELS was and is never going to be the biggest church on the block. The reason, I said, was that very self-same pure Gospel, which I had the audacity to remind this Pastor, was foolishness to natural man, and completely hated by the world. I also reminded the group of Jesus' own prediction that unless the Last Day would come sooner rather than later, there wouldn't even be any believers left on earth at all! This, I declared, certainly didn't bode well for any church, but especially for one which claimed to stand solidly on the foolishness of the Cross!

Well, I discovered quite quickly somewhat to my dismay that although WELS Pastors back then weren't yet in the habit of giving expressions of acclamation, they were quite adept at booing! This would be the first but by no means the last time brother Pastors would accuse me of being "negative."

Be that as it may, and I will admit to being perhaps just a bit more cynical than some, or even most, still, there is, I believe, an important truth in my challenge of that now-famous speaker all those decades ago, that bears repeating still today.

The only reason that the darkness of this old sinful world has not completely overcome the light of the Gospel, is not for lack of effort, but because of the mercy and power of God through His Means of Grace, period! In spite of all the attacks, both from without, but more especially and more damaging, from within the church, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, preached by His faithful servants, and practiced in the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper, continues to exist throughout the world, and even flourishes now and then, here or there.

[We'll leave aside for the moment the whole question of just how purely and truthfully the Gospel is being proclaimed throughout our synod today. That will be addressed in a future editorial.]

But nowhere in Scripture are we who endeavor to maintain and share the pure Gospel as delivered to us by the prophets, Apostles, and Reformers, and so beautifully professed in the Lutheran Confessions, promised that we will ever be "the biggest church on the block" (whatever that means anyway). That is simply never going to happen.

In fact, the Bible prepares us instead for the exact opposite – what I often refer to as "The Lutheran Church of the Living Room." The day may well come, and soon, when faithful confessional Lutherans will have nowhere else to meet, and have such small numbers that local groupings will easily fit into the average living room or den.

Naturally, this does not mean we will not work our hardest and put forth our absolute best efforts to proclaim the Gospel and be faithful tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit to win souls for Jesus' kingdom. But we must always remember that despite our most ardent work, the love of many will indeed continue to grow cold towards God's offer of free and faithful grace. Regardless of what we might wish and hope and pray for, the world will turn against us more and more and seek to destroy us, and in those efforts our numbers will inevitably shrink as we are hard-pressed on every side!

Yet, even then, with the darkness all around us and closing in, we can be sure that Jesus, like the U.S. Cavalry of old, is just over the hill, riding to our eternal rescue. God speed, dear Jesus, God speed!

Deo Vindice!

Pastor Spencer


Anonymous said...

Pastor Spencer,

First, I always enjoy reading your editorials. It is like you are reading my mind, but much better able to express it that I am.

Your story does not surprise me. It is almost as if we have not considered the ministries of the prophets or Christ himself, or read the first chapter of First Corinthians. By nature the gospel of Christ crucified repels the unconverted. Therefore, having the pure gospel means a church will be less likely to grow than churches that mute or dillute the gospel. Saying that the pure gospel will make us worldly-big is biblically ignorant -- and it reflects the theology of glory, not the cross.

If God chooses to bless faithful proclamation with bigness, we can certainly be happy. He does that sometimes, like at Pentecost. He certainly has done that for some very faithful congregations in our synod. But the Scriptures sure seem to indicate that, for the most part, worldly-big won't be the result of faithful gospel preaching.

So what happens when a church sets its eyes on size? In order to achieve it, faithfulness to the gospel often suffers.

Our synod should stop worrying about the size of things and worry more about the faithfulness or our called workers and laypeople, being the clearest and most faithful preachers, teachers, and everyday witnesses we can be.

Our pastors should stop saying and implying to their people that having the gospel will make us grow numerically. There is no such Scriptural promise for bigness -- only a forecast to the contrary, as you point out.

Thanks again for your work,
Paul Jenkins

Ichabod the Glory Has Departed said...

Luther - "The Gospel is thinly sown." Jesus, "Many are called but few are chosen."

The speaker might have been Kelm. I heard him end an evangelism (CGM) conference that way.

Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago my wife and I had the privilege of helping to start a new WELS congregation. Everyone in our group was excited to spread the Gospel, and to move out of our rented space at the local community college. There is nothing wrong with that. However, I reminded them that if we never attracted one member, and the Mission Board took away our Pastor, we would have been successful. Why? We preached the Gospel. We must always remember, that's all we are called to do. The increase, if it comes, is from the Lord only. If we always call to mind that fact, it will never matter whether the WELS church is the largest or smallest on the block.

Scott E. Jungen

Joe Krohn said...

It took a big slap up the side of my noggin about three years ago for what you have said here, Pastor Spencer, to sink in. When our 'lead pastor' at Christ the Rock said to our praise band that there were people inclined not to come back because of the 'quality' of the band; that this was getting in the way of growing the church, I took notice. But not the way he was intending. Sadly, this attitude is becoming more prevalent in even what was considered the most conservative in orthodoxy.

Your statement concerning the coming church meeting in the living room is prophetic in my opinion. Pastor Jackson has taken a lot of heat about Bethany Lutheran. He may be well ahead of his time...and high tech multi-site to boot.


Pastor Spencer said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Again, let me be clear - I totally understand wanting to "grow" the church, in the sense of wanting to see more people in Christ's kingdom and thus on their way to heaven. I also am completely opposed to lazy, shoddy, and poor ministry.

It's not that our opponents are wrong - they are just wrong-headed. Their motives may be fine, but their methods are more often than not unBiblical, and worse, their thinking does not seem to take into account the oft-repeated warnings of our Lord Jesus Christ that not only does the world hate us, but will kill us and think they're doing God a favor!

And finally, in giving a false goal - large size - and false hopes - that if we just do this or that, or not do this or that, we will grow - they are actually just doing more to depress and frustrate God's faithful people.

What I keep telling our leaders, from the synod president on down, is true for all who want to work in Christ's vineyard - Just do the right thing, and let God take care of the results. We are, after all, in the FAITH business. We simple need to trust God's ways more and trust in ourselves less.

Again, thank you all for your thoughts and support.

Pastor Spencer

Anonymous said...

Having experienced Lutheran Church in Living Rooms in different contexts spanning more decades than official statistics seem to realize, I can say that Pastor Spencer's saying it may happen in the future, is not prophetic, but has been happening for longer than the virtual services available on the web. Sometimes there is contact and awareness between and among already existing living room Lutherans around the country, but more often not. But exist, they already do, sometimes consisting of individual families, sometimes including more than one family or individuals.
I call such assembling together, Lutheran Refugees who have been so disillusioned by synods and congregations affiliated with synods, that they carry on as best they can in their specific circumstances. They have either been officially excluded from synod affilitated congregations or have simply given up trying to
maintain some semblance of the church their fathers and grandfathers knew.
Living Room Lutherans are not a phenomenon to be expected in the future, but they already exist, scattered around the nation quietly worshipping unknown to synods and existing affiliated congregations.

Mary Thompson

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