Somewhere I heard the statement, “The hope of the Church is in God’s people.” While I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, for our hope is in Jesus, the Risen One, there is some truth to this statement. Luther reminds us in his explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true!” The hope of the Church rests in Jesus, and how grateful we can be for that! The Cross is a potent reminder of the depth of love Jesus has for us sinners. He willingly laid down His life for His Church, and now He sends us, even as He did the disciples on Easter evening, in the power of His Spirit to reach the world with His love.
Many churches are in the midst of making Easter plans and determining how to reach out to the community to invite them to come hear about Jesus. This is a noble thing, but not meant for one festival service once a year. I came across an article by Thom Rainer the other day called “Nine Changes We Must Make or Die.” He states, “Around 200 churches will close this week, maybe more. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes. The need is urgent.” This is where I see the hope of the Church being God’s people who have an opportunity to make an eternal difference if we can gain clarity of our primary mission—to connect people to Jesus. Take Easter services, for example. We can place the focus on special music, food and festive worship, but what will visitors encounter the Sunday after Easter? Will it be business as usual? Or will the excellence with which many approach Easter Worship, putting on our Sunday best to draw people to Jesus, become the norm we strive after? You may or may not agree with Rainer’s conclusions. They are far from doctrinal or Scriptural, and that is not his point. In fact, he makes it clear that doctrine should not be compromised and that God’s Word is sacred and unchangeable. What he’s really focusing on are the things we actually can do something about if we are motivated by the Gospel to truly engage in the Master’s business and connect people to Jesus. It is certainly worthy for some thought and discussion.
Rainer is primarily referring to churches that are struggling with their purpose and direction, that are seeing diminishing worship attendees, that are becoming less and less in touch with their own community. He calls these churches “the urgent church,” mostly because failure to do something will result in making them a memory. Of course, what he says applies to ALL churches. It is healthy to step back and evaluate our ministry, and Rainer gives some challenging points to ponder using the phrase “the urgent church.” I prefer the phrase “churches of urgency” describing an urgency to share what new life in Jesus is all about—the hope, the joy, the peace He brings us. That isn’t what Rainer was referring to at all. He also admits in his article that necessary changes don’t come easy, but as the great Hockey player Wayne Gretzky is quoted as saying, “I miss 100% of the shots I didn’t take.” What might your congregation consider to be more effective in proclaiming Jesus to the world? Let me encourage us all to consider Rainer’s thoughts. Here are his nine:
- We must stop bemoaning the death of cultural Christianity. Such whining does us no good. Easy growth is simply not a reality for many churches. People no longer come to a church because they believe they must do so to be culturally accepted. The next time a church member says, “They know where we are; they can come here if they want to,” rebuke him. Great Commission Christianity is about going; it’s not “y’all come.”
- We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God’s truth is unchanging. So we do find comfort and stability in that reality. But don’t look to your church not to change methods, approaches, and human-made traditions. Indeed, we must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference. “We’ve never done it that way before,” is a death declaration.
- We must abandon the entitlement mentality. Your church is not a country club where you pay dues to get your perks and privileges. It is a gospel outpost where you are to put yourself last. Don’t seek to get your way with the music, temperature, and length of sermons. Here is a simple guideline: Be willing to die for the sake of the gospel. That’s the opposite of the entitlement mentality.
- We must start doing. Most of us like the idea of evangelism more than we like doing evangelism. Try a simple prayer and ask God to give you gospel opportunities. You may be surprised how He will use you.
- We must stop using biblical words in unbiblical ways. “Discipleship” does not mean caretaking. “Fellowship” does not mean entertainment.
- We must stop focusing on minors. Satan must delight when a church spends six months wrangling over a bylaw change. That’s six months of gospel negligence.
- We must stop shooting our own. This tragedy is related to the entitlement mentality. If we don’t get our way, we will go after the pastor, the staff member, or the church member who has a different perspective than our own. We will even go after their families. Don’t let bullies and perpetual critics control the church. Don’t shoot our own. It’s not friendly fire.
- We must stop wasting time in unproductive meetings, committees, and business sessions. Wouldn’t it be nice if every church member could only ask one question or make one comment in a meeting for every time he or she has shared his or her faith the past week?
- We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. We are really busy, but we are not doing the business of God.
I was struck by how his comments made me a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time I found myself easily identifying that these are real in some churches. As I look at the history of our congregations across the Florida-Georgia District I’m overjoyed when I see how often missions were begun in response to a need to proclaim Jesus. A group of Christian Lutheran men and women saw a need, saw an opportunity, and worked together for the sake of God’s Kingdom. How many congregations started a preschool program as a way to serve their community, and often in our day these ministries are seen as either a “money-maker” or a “drain on finances.” We miss the fact that there are lives that are being impacted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I bet, if we’re honest, each of us could relate to one or more of these nine!
A few years ago Doug Kallesen and I attended the 50th Anniversary for Lutheran Church of Nassau in the Bahamas. It was a grand day, broadcast on the national radio station, and filled with dignitaries, including the Mayor and the Deputy Prime Minister of Nassau. He shared a story with us regarding the Prime Minister of Nassau, who was very familiar with the Lutheran Church there. The reason was because as a child he attended Vacation Bible School there and heard about Jesus! He isn’t a member there now, but this ministry touched his life.
When Jesus returns He isn’t likely to ask any particular congregation how big their worship attendance was, but what we did with the resources He provided. All around us we see the signs of spring with trees budding and flowers blooming. When a fruit tree is cared for properly it will naturally bear fruit. This is what a fruit tree was created to do—bear fruit. You and I were recreated in baptism to bear fruit for Jesus. This is our purpose. We should be the “urgent church” only in the sense that we want to reach more people with the power of Christ’s forgiveness and the good news of new life in Jesus. In fact, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”
Fruit bearing churches of urgency is the call of Jesus to each of us. Those kind of churches discover that you don’t need to abandon history or liturgy or tradition and certainly not God’s truth to meet the needs of today. Peter writes, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”(1 Pe 3:15). This is our calling! This is our privilege! We must become creative, adaptive, flexible and loving people of God. We must care about people and about building relationships. Why? Because this is what Jesus did! If we’re serious about the mission it requires that we learn patience with the uninitiated to Jesus and those that are slowly growing in their faith. It may mean stepping back to explain and educate those who are seeking by simply telling the story of how Jesus has impacted your personal life. We can do this by the power of the Spirit! Maybe the hope for the church really is in God’s people—a people touched by grace and empowered by the Spirit. Each one of us has the calling to be part of that church. The question is, as Easter people, will we listen to our Lord’s call to be pruned, be fruitful and live as His disciples? I pray that we will!
A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all!