This past Sunday, I preached at my internship congregation. What an experience that was. It's been eleven years since I've worshiped at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, and a lot has transpired in that amount of time.
Eleven years ago, St. Matthew was a thriving congregation. We were gaining members right and left. Few left, and those that did, left because of job transfers or other such things. Sure, we had one or two folks get a little disgruntled, but that happens everywhere. I have learned there is no such thing as appeasing everyone. Despite such things, St. Matthew's future looked relatively bright.
Well, it looked that way, but it wasn't necessarily so. You see, St. Matthew was gaining in membership because the other two ELCA congregations in Waco were having quite a bit of difficulty. They had conflict, and members left those two churches and joined St. Matthew. In effect, St. Matthew wasn't really getting "new" members--unchurched folks who were becoming new Christians; instead, they were getting transplants.
I pointed this out toward the end of my internship to some good friends I had made in the congregation as I asked, "What's going to happen to St. Matthew when the other two churches stabilize or die?" The answer was, "That's a good question."
The answer has not been pretty. St. Matthew has dwindled in size. It's not quite as cheery as it used to be. Not quite as warm and hospitable. Folks know it's declining. Offerings are down. There is a general uneasiness that is palpable when one comes in. It was not at all pleasant to experience this kind of change.
Of course, I was greeted very warmly by those who remembered me, but sadly, the change that had come over the place didn't set well with me.
It is disheartening to know that many congregations in my denomination (and in several others) are experiencing the same things. It's tough to see so many churches in decline. It's tough to watch my current denomination split apart before my very eyes. I know that God must mourn when He watches part of the Body of Christ break once again.
Perhaps it is the way of all things. Perhaps, as human beings, we just can't help but become embroiled in conflict. Perhaps we can't but help but become caught up in self-righteousness. Perhaps we can't help but want to be a part of the church yet want no true responsibility for it's success or its failure. We say proudly that we are a member of a congregation when things are good, but we can run away just as fast when things turn south. *sigh*
Yet, I take great comfort in two things: 1. The church will continue to exist no matter what. As parts of it die off, other new shoots begin forming and branching out. Exciting things occur because, after all, God is still in charge of the church, and He will not let it completely die.
2. It doesn't have to be the way it is. No, it doesn't. I just don't buy it that the nature of the church is to grow, bloom, wither, and die. I don't believe congregations go through this cycle. You cannot tell me that there is a single place in this country where every person is involved in a religious organization. You cannot tell me that there is such a thing as an entirely Christian town. There is every reason for the church to grasp and hold and follow Jesus' last command to His disciples in Matthew 28, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." For some reason, churches and congregations fail to stay focused on this purpose and mission given to the disciples.
Instead, we get caught up in battles over who should and shouldn't be pastors. We get caught up in battles in who is and who isn't a sinner. We get caught up in battles about who should be doing what in the church. We get caught up in battles over how to spend the church's money. We get caught up in battles over what color to paint the women's restroom and whether or not to buy a refrigerator or a freezer. When is the last time a church had a battle over how best to invite the new neighbors down the street to church? When's the last time the church had a battle not over whether or not to help someone out, but how much that person needed? When's the last time a church had a battle over how best to be a witness to Jesus Christ in the community?
There are no good reasons for a church to decline and die. There just aren't. There are plenty of excuses, and instead of pointing the finger at anything and everything, perhaps we in the church should remember that when we point one finger at someone else, there are always three fingers pointing right back at us.
Where is the excitement to be the church of the Great Commission? Where is the passion that flows down to us from a God who desires all to come to be His children and then flows outward from us into the world? I believe that if a congregation truly desires to be a channel of this love, it can't help but thrive. I mean it. You might not see tremendous growth numerically--especially if you are out in the middle of nowhere, but I doubt that you will see too many folks rushing for the doors. And if you are planted in a place surrounded by people, watch out. When you seek to follow the Great Commission, you will explode.
But how can folks who spend so little time thinking about the church or whose lives push church to the edges develop such a passion? How can they be inspired to make such a difference? I know that without the power of the Holy Spirit, they cannot and will not.
"Come Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with the power of your love. Kick us in the seat of our pants and set our tails afire so that we can't help but want to proclaim the great things that you have done!"