The Shrinking Church

The January copy of The Lutheran magazine has a picture of a rural church and an article entitled, “The Shrinking Church.” The article states, “When Joyce began attending Zion Lutheran Church in 1954, the congregation had to set up extra chairs in the aisle during the worship service. In 1964, a new building was constructed to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation. ÔWe were a thriving congregation,’ said Joyce.

“Today, Zion’s attendance has dwindled to about fifty. . . . Zion’s story is one that echoes across the country as congregations look for ways to deal with declines in membership and participation. Nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches reported a worship attendance of fewer than 50 people. It is no news flash that the ELCA is shrinking. But where is everyone going? And more importantly, where do we go from here?”

We have many flourishing congregations in the Midwest today. However, this story is correct in saying that churches in many areas of the country are now empty or closed. For example, one only has to walk into certain churches in New York City on a Sunday morning to find plenty of empty pews. This article brought to mind a powerful message that I already knew but do not like to think about Ð our mainline churches are visibly shrinking. Why is that?

In some cases, people are moving out of the area. When community populations decline, schools and churches must sometimes combine. Rural churches in Iowa have had a tough time keeping their doors open. This is a reality because a church needs to have people. However, there are other reasons for shrinking churches, some found within the largest metropolitan areas of our nation.

We find indifference in the church. People say, “I was raised in the church. I know it is still here, but I don’t need it right now.”

We find false doctrine being taught in the church Ð heresies Ð like, there is more than one way to heaven; and, if there is an eternity, everyone will be there. This group is called the Universalists. Their teaching has crept into parts of evangelical churches who believe that somehow, someway, God will find a place for everyone in heaven.

We also find the social gospel, which focuses on feeding the poor, providing clothing for those who are without, and visiting the sick. When a church focuses on the social gospel, it talks only on occasion about the redemptive gospel. The message is much the same as what you hear at the Rotary or the Lions Club. While these are good clubs, in the Church we preach Christ crucified, who first of all redeemed us and then sent us out to tell the message of the gospel.

Today’s text deals with this whole matter. Jesus is speaking to his disciples. As he looks out over the landscape, he sees fields that had been sown and are ready for harvest. All it needs is for people to go and harvest its crop. Its potential is for growth and producing blessings, not shrinking. However, the number of those who are willing to experience the joy of the harvest is shrinking.

Christ is also concerned about the visible building of the church, for that is where people come on a Sunday morning to hear the Word of God being preached. It is where the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people. Why does it have empty spots?

Some feel no need for the church today. Many of these people have come from good homes where they had devotions and their parents took them to church, Sunday school, and confirmation classes. But when confirmation day came, they no longer felt the need for church. So they left and are out there in the pastures, spiritually speaking, waiting to be harvested.

However, as the years go onsomething happens and they find life has become more complex than they ever thought it would. And even though they were not ready for church in their late teens and early twenties, they find themselves wanting to go back to that church home.

Picture a man who notices his neighbor’s car backing out of the driveway each Sunday. He wonders if he should also go, but then talks himself out of it, “No, the church would fall down if they saw me coming inside.”

From time to time, he sees his neighbor across the fence, and they talk about things like the ball game and the financial world. But the subject of church never comes up until one day he asks, “I watch you go to church every Sunday morning, and I know you are very faithful. How are things going there?”

What an opportunity this is to reap the harvest, to invite him to church and have dinner afterward to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!

I grew up in a good, Christian home that was not without its faults. Right across the street from our home lived a man who had been a leader in the Boy Scouts and helped others through a distant connection with the Salvation Army.

One day he came to our worship service. Our pastor met with him and helped him in his life. Soon he became a committed Christian.

Not long ago, this man closed his eyes in death and met Jesus in heaven. This happened because someone extended him an invitation to our church. Even though he was our neighbor, never once did we invite him. Instead, the Holy Spirit found another vehicle to get him there, and then worked through the Word until he came to Christ and was a part of the true Church. The Holy Spirit works miracles through the Word when he has a chance. I don’t know why God chooses us as the ones to be in contact with others, but he does.

I came to Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1953. It was a grand and glorious church, very lovable. They did everything they could for us. I loved Nazareth so much, I stayed for thirty-four years! Even now, after retirement, I worship there every Sunday. What a marvelous church it really is!

Shortly after arriving at Nazareth, I figured out that the church wasn’t growing. So we assigned each member to a zone. Someone, then, would be responsible for contacting everyone in that zone, whether they belonged to the church or had no church affiliation.

We had an average of 395 people in church on Sunday mornings in 1953. When we began to zone the area, we sent people out from house to house inviting them to come to church. The result was that, by the year 1964, we had 1,000 people in church with multiple services. So we decided to build a new church so the people could all be together. This we did, and soon it also overflowed, until in 1982 we built another church that seated more than 1,250 people, had multiple services, and had 1,817 people attending worship services.

Sooner or later, we found ourselves moving a step further. We went into Evangelism Explosion where we learned to share the faith and invite individuals to a living, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Thus, in 1996, worship attendance grew to 1,950.

We are no different from any other town. Our growth was not due to anything we had done; it was the work of the Holy Spirit who asks us to go out and to seek and to save that which is available. The people in our communities are looking for answers. They may not say they are, you may not think they are, but just try it and see. I dare you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to really come in contact with them!

The harvest is full, but it is waning, and workers are really needed. We can stop this shrinking Church if we will take Jesus Christ seriously. We must go out and visit our neighbors.

The Lutheran magazine has confronted us with a sad story: the visible Church of Christ is shrinking. But Jesus has told us how it can grow. Dare we let the Church shrink further and ignore the message of Jesus Christ?

No One Ever Cared For Me Like Jesus

Sermons are born in different parts of the world and finished in pastors’ studies filled with books and quietness. Today’s sermon was born in my bedroom between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m. I had just learned that my 88-year-old legs aren’t what they used to be, and I was really hurting! Doctors can give us good medicines when we have pain, but their effectiveness is temporary, and then the pain returns. We may be able to have a surgery to fix what is wrong, but the fact remains that our bodies wear out.

One day I visited a good friend, a member of our congregation, who was facing a terminal illness. He was quiet and solemn, even a little bit glum. When he looked at me, he said, “It isn’t fair. You are healthy and have a long life ahead of you. I am just a couple of years older and about to die. Why do you get to live, and I have to die?”

In retrospect, I was very happy he presented his problem to me, for it was a problem to him. In fact, it was a problem to me, too, for I did not have an answer. I was not holier than he. We are all sinners saved by God’s grace alone.

However, Holy Scripture does have an answer for us and it is spelled out in today’s text. So I began to read it to him, and therein my friend found his answer. Although I couldn’t tell him why he was facing death at that time and I was being spared, I could tell him I was thankful he would be in the arms of Jesus and live with him forever. I knew that for certain because it is written in holy Scripture.

Today’s scripture passages tell us Jesus came to this world and put on a body. That body was tempted just as we are. It was hurt when they nailed his hands to the cross, and he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” That body was killed and was laid to rest in a grave.

That same body, however, also rose from the grave on the third day. Now he is the resurrected Christ, and he gives us the promise that he knows what we are going through, for he has gone through it himself. He has done everything necessary for us to walk victoriously through death’s door and come out the other end where he will gather us into our heavenly home.

Remember Jesus’ hurting words as he looked out over the city: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How I would loved to have gathered you under my arms like a hen gathered her chicks, but you would not” (Matthew 23:37). He would have loved to give them the gospel, but they would not listen. They would not receive him as the Savior. They had to sweat out those tough days alone because they rejected Christ and would face a Christless death.

Because Christ himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are also being tempted. We look at St. Paul, a man who was dramatically converted. He experienced Jesus Christ walking with him. And like Paul, even though we know Jesus is with us and walks with us, we still have times when we wonder what it’s all about.

Paul once complained to God about his thorn in the flesh that, in some ways, made him less able, physically speaking, to serve the Lord. Some speculate a bright light shone down on Paul during his conversion causing a loss of good vision. Others think he may have had epilepsy. Paul does not identify his ailment specifically; he simply called it a thorn in the flesh.

Whatever infirmity Paul had, he also had God’s promise to be with him no matter what happened. And so in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, ” . . . there was given me a thorn in my flesh . . . to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ÔMy grace is sufficient for you . . .'” It is necessary that we understand that answer: You live with your thorn in the flesh; my grace is sufficient for you. No one ever cared for him like Jesus, and Paul knew that.

As Paul lay in his dungeon cell in Jerusalem, I am sure he must have thought of how he would like to get out, rush to the other congregations he had started, and perhaps start some more. Didn’t God want him to do that? But Jesus continued to speak to Paul’s heart, “Paul, my grace is sufficient for you.” And so, under Nero, Paul continued to be a servant of the Lord Jesus for a long time.

When we look at life carefully, we see it is really too difficult to go it alone. If we try to navigate life by ourselves, we fall and become angry and bitter. This is a great time for those who know Jesus and have experienced what he has done to share their faith with the hurting and angry.

A father once told me, “Why didn’t my children turn out well? We took them to Sunday school. Perhaps we didn’t make it to church every week, but we made it most of the time. We read the bible and prayed in our home. Even though it was difficult to find time in our busy schedules, we made time. And now at look them. They are out of the church. They seldom come to worship. Why?

“One day our son said to us, ÔI had enough of that religious stuff when I was a child. Every Sunday morning we had to get up and go to church. When some other activity in the community was happening, we went to church instead. I’m not going to do that to my kids.’

“Was I wrong to make him go to church?”

I told this father that he had indeed done the right thing by taking his son to church. However, sometimes wisdom is found in doing the right thing in such a way that bitterness is not incurred. But God still lives in their hearts, and they have a chance to turn from their rebellion as long as they are living. Perhaps someday they will remember the stability they experienced in their childhood home, then open their hearts and come to the Lord Jesus for help.

No one in all this world cares for us like the Lord Jesus. His disciples understood that. Dietrick Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, knew that. How must he have felt as he sat in a godless concentration camp, having been faithful to the Church, and yet realizing the day would never come when he would again enjoy his fatherland. Why did God not take Hitler earlier? Why did these poor, innocent people have to suffer as they did?

Men like Hanns Lilje and Martin Niemšller could tell how much Jesus cared for them. Lilje endured some very rough days in the Confessing Church’s struggle against Nazi Germany. Martin Niemšller had to face down his dictator leader, Adolf Hitler. Imagine the courage it too for him to tell Hitler, “The future of the German people is not in your hands; it is in the hands of Almighty God,” knowing he could have easily been sent to a concentration camp. But Niemšller knew that, if and when he was sent to the camp, Jesus would go with him. Jesus is always with us.

When Jesus came into this world, he took on a human body. He has gone through every suffering we have, and he understands our pain. Take this message seriously and remember the words of the gospel song: “No one ever cared for me like Jesus.”

Confirmation Day

Have you ever noticed all the great things that seem to happen on mountain tops in the Bible? For instance, after Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, God put a rainbow in the sky. Then he made a covenant with Noah to exercise grace and never destroy the world. At Mount Sinai, Moses went up on the mountain where he not only received the Ten Commandments from God, but also received a covenant with God who promised, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Elijah climbed a mountain when he was on the run from Ahab and Jezebel in the book of Kings. On that mountain, God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice after some rather glorious fireworks assuring him that God would be with him in his ministry. Elijah was given the strength to carry on.

At the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told the crowd about God’s approaching kingdom and what life in the kingdom was all about. Some great teaching happened there.

Today we have the Mount of Transfiguration. Transfiguration basically means a changing. Jesus changed in appearance before his disciples. It is believed that Jesus’ transfiguration happened on Mount Hermon. We could also refer to the Mount of Transfiguration as the Mount of Confirmation and Strengthening because everyone present on that day was in need of strengthening.

Things were coming to a head in today’s story. Just a few days earlier, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priest and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22). This must have shaken them all a bit and made them wonder what was going to become of them. Perhaps they even wondered if Jesus was crazy, for this wasn’t what they had anticipated. I imagine Jesus himself, knowing what lay ahead for him, was in need of some confirmation and some strengthening as well.

In the midst of all this confusion, God gives some enlightenment and confirmation to all those on that mountain. First, he gives them a visual display that really caught their attention. As Jesus was praying, his appearance suddenly became dazzling white. His face and his clothing changed. I think of the hymn, Beautiful Savior, whenever I read this story. It must have been a thing of God-like beauty.

Then the disciples noticed two figures they had never before seen talking with Jesus. They realized the figures were Moses and Elijah, Old Testament figures they had learned about as kids. This really excited the disciples, and Peter said, “Lord, it’s good to be here! Let’s build some tents and stay up here for awhile!” Then a cloud of glory enveloped them, and they were terrified, for they realized they were in the presence of God. They heard God’s voice: “THIS IS MY SON, MY CHOSEN. LISTEN TO HIM.” Before they could say anything, the cloud vanished, there was silence, and they were looking at Jesus. Those disciples must have been absolutely mystified, for they could not fully comprehend what was happening other than they had somehow experienced the presence of God.

This experience was a sign for them; it was something to hold on to as they faced the days ahead. It must have provided some strengthening and some encouragement, for they were very confused about what was happening. It was confirmation from Moses and Elijah that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the chosen One of God, and the One prophesied from Old Testament Scripture. This is your beautiful Savior.

The disciples kept this incident to themselves until after the cross and resurrection. Peter would later write to some early Christians, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of Jesus. But we have been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God when that voice conveyed to him from that majestic glory saying, ÔThis is my Son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on that holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah on that mountain about his departure to Jerusalem. The word “departure” is the same as “Exodus” from the Old Testament when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. God was about to do a new exodus. He would rescue his people from their slavery to sin, save them from the consequences of sin Ð which is death Ð and lead them to their heavenly home through Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ transfiguration, he set his face to go up to Jerusalem. He made an intentional turn to suffer and to die for the sins of the world, following God’s orders. And because Jesus followed those orders, we are the recipients of God’s grace. Jesus died as a payment for our sins on that cross. By rising from the grave, he purchased a place in heaven for each of us as a gift when we place our trust in him. We can die peacefully in Christ knowing that we are going to be in heaven with Jesus.

I have an elderly member in my congregation, Daphne, who I recently visited to give communion. I was somewhat humored to find a note taped to her doorway that said, “Do not resuscitate.” Daphne knows Jesus. She knows Christ’s promise of a place prepared for her, and she knows her destination. When I said to her, “Daphne, I like your sign,” she replied, “Well, I don’t want anybody coming in here and pounding on my chest to keep me alive.” She knows where she is going because Jesus followed orders and gave his life for her.

The disciples of Jesus were told, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” These orders were telling them to pay attention and give weight to the words he is giving you, to his teachings, to his directions for your life. Give him the authority he deserves. Trust and obey him. It is like a coach telling his team, “Okay, listen up! This is what we need to do in order to win this game!” Or a teacher explaining an assignment to the class, “Now children, listen carefully to my directions. I don’t want you to fail at this.” I think that is what God was doing with those disciples that day.

Jesus had already told his disciples what it meant to follow him. It meant a willingness to pick up your cross and follow him. Stand up for him even when all the odds are against you. Be willing to lay down your life for his sake. In that, you will find eternal life. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed or cowardly when it is time to speak up for Jesus in this world. What is most important in life is to live for Jesus, not try to gain the whole world. For what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and then just lose his life? Now God was telling them to listen to Jesus about these things! They are words of eternal life! Trust him and obey him. It was a mountaintop of encouragement, strengthening, and confirmation that took place that day.

We need a story like this, for it is easy to get discouraged some days in our walk with Jesus. Things look gloomy, dark, and dismal, and we wonder what this is all about anyway. It looks like Satan is winning the battle and evil is overcoming good, and we feel like we should just throw in the towel.

We all have those moments as disciples. But God has provided some enlightenment for us in the midst of the darkness in these stories of the mountaintop. He’s speaking to you as he spoke to those disciples: “This IS my Son!” To look at him is to look at God. He is the fulfillment of God’s promises. God wants us to keep listening, to open up the Gospels and read them over and over again. Study them, pray over them. Put them to work in your life and you will discover that Jesus truly does know what makes life work.

Recently I preached a sermon on being a light in the world. We talked about Jesus wanting us to be a lighthouse, meaning we should do kind things for the people around us to arouse curiosity. Not long ago a woman came running into my office and said, “You won’t believe what happened!” Then she told me this beautiful story. She had seen a friend at the grocery store who was in real financial need, so she secretly bought groceries for her. She said that it was so exciting to not only see the woman’s joy but also the wonder of the grocery clerk and other people who were witnessing it. She told me, “I was so happy that I went home and made soup for our next door neighbor. I discovered that Jesus really knows what he is talking about!”

That is what you can discover for yourself, too, if you will listen to him. Take him at his word, and put it to work in your life. He is the Son of God, the Chosen One, and he has the words of eternal life.

No Longer Welcome

We know very little of Jesus’ childhood. We do know that at the age of twelve he went to Jerusalem with his mother and Joseph. On the trip home, Jesus’ parents returned to Jerusalem to find him in the temple talking to the theologians. His wisdom, coming from one so young, surprised everyone.

Jesus continued to work in Joseph’s carpenter shop at Nazareth and went to the synagogue each Sabbath. Not having any faith clergy; the man in charge simply selected a leader from among those in attendance that day. The people liked Jesus to lead them, because he could interpret the scriptures in a very real way, and the people would be very blessed on that day.

On this particular day, Jesus spoke these prophetic words from Isaiah 61 telling them that he is the Messiah. He was preparing them to receive his message of salvation. “The Spirit of the Lord . . . has anointed me to preach good news.” But they could not accept his words and were so angry that they threw him not only out of the synagogue, but also out of town and wanted to kill him.

Many of the people believed in life after death, for it was part of their Jewish confession. But they could not understand the good news that the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life is only through Jesus. Those who trust in him as their Savior and Lord will live forever in the kingdom of God.

When Jesus said he was sent to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” he was speaking about all of us who are spiritual captives. We have sins that control us and from which we are not able to free ourselves. Jesus came to live in our hearts, so we could then, for example, love those whom we have hated.

I have told this story from my youth before, but I wish to tell it again today. I was acquainted with two grown men Ð church men Ð who hated one another. For years they never spoke to one another. Then one day one of them became sick and was dying. The other one went to his hospital room, knelt down by his bedside and said, “I have been a fool! I hated you. But I have come to tell you today that I love you, and I hope you will love me too.” Those two grown men Ð in their 60s Ð embraced one another and were freed from the element of hatred that held them captive for so long.

That is what can happen when Jesus gets hold of a man’s heart. He came to give us freedom from our sin. We can give him any of our cares, and he will take care of them.

Jesus also said he came to bring recovery of sight for the blind. Our world is filled with marvelous people, and yet we find so much wrong with it. However, when we look at it through the eyes of Jesus Christ, we see things in an entirely different light.

Shortly after Christmas, we were visited by our grandson and his wife, who brought along their new baby, our great-grandson. This little child was busily crawling around, giggling, and doing his own thing. As I sat there watching him, I thought about the life that is ahead of him. I pray to God that he will have a good life, become employed in a meaningful occupation, and do much good for people. But most importantly, I pray he will live and die as one of Jesus’ own and do great things for the kingdom of God.

If Jesus were not part of my life, my desires for him might only be that he become a good student, athlete, musician, or friend who helps others by making this world a better place in which to live. I do desire these things for him, but I also know that he can only accomplish them in Christ. That is seeing him through the eyes of Jesus Christ, and it is what Jesus meant when he said he had come to bring sight to the blind.

Jesus came to bring release to the oppressed. Many people in our world today are oppressed, for life is not a bowl of cherries and we have many heavy hours. But Jesus comes to lift us us. He is our promised Messiah. When he walks by our side, we under-stand his words, “I have come to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor.” He promises, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

The people in Jesus’ day in Nazareth spoke well of him because he was a great teacher, but they didn’t want to hear that, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, at the end of the day when we are tired and heavy laden, we give those cares to him and receive rest for our weary souls. Every eye was on Jesus in his hometown. We don’t know why the people renounced him and even tried to kill him, but they did.

This was the beginning of Jesus’ three-year ministry finally ending in Pontius Pilate’s court and on the cross of Calvary. But he rose from his tomb on the third day with the promise that he is coming once more.

Through the years I was a pastor, working in service clubs and various committees, playing on the golf course, people talked with me about Jesus’ ethics. But when I told them that Jesus is more than a great moral influence, he is the Son of God and the Savior of the world and he can empower us, they sometimes said, “I can accept him as a great teacher, but nothing more.”

That, however, is not enough, for if we stop there, we have rejected him and are lost. He holds out his arms to us, but if we die without him, he will turn from us.

The first question I would ask a person in counseling was about their relationship with Jesus Christ, for it was the basis upon which I had to counsel. I knew that counseling alone is not enough to help one get over his short comings. Even Alcohol Anonymous teaches that in order to overcome alcohol addiction, one must have a higher power Ð Jesus. When we lean on that power, great things can happen. Marriages could be changed, young people could be raised in a different way.

In many cases, we can sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and say we adore him, but he is not really our friend. The basis of the Christian faith is accepting him as the God Incarnate.

What about you? Who is Jesus in your life? Is he simply a great teacher or is he the One you really count on. His teachings are very important, but he has come to give you life everlasting. It is the joy of his heart, and he wants that joy to be in your heart.

As our government leaders seek to solve the serious problems of today, unless they look to Jesus for the answers, they simply won’t have power enough to find the solutions. And so the problems will continue.

The Savior still stands by our side, as our Redeemer/Counselor. While many claim him as their Savior and Lord, many others accept him as a great teacher only and not welcome in any greater sense.

Grant in this new year, that we may take a little different look at Jesus and see all he has to offer, not only to the people Nazareth of old, but also to ourselves.