06 June 2007

Church Growth Italian Style

I had it thrown in my face again the other day. People are going to hell. Congregations are declining. We ought to be doing something about it, even if it means compromising the divine call and the office of the ministry, or whatever else may be necessary. Bottom line: I'm not doing enough. It probably means that I don't care, and that I want the Gospel only for myself.

Okay, I'll be honest, I didn't react or respond very graciously to this. The truth of the matter is that I get impatient and short-tempered, and I am too often cranky and irritable. I'm in one of those funks right now, which makes it all the harder for me to be charitable and easy-going. No, I'm not justifying myself; I'm confessing my sin. Likewise, I know it is true that I am selfish and lazy, and I don't do everything I ought to be doing. There are people who ought to be hearing and receiving the Gospel from me, who don't always. So, I stand convicted by the Law, and my egotistical old Adam coils and rears and prepares to strike back. Thanks be to God the Holy Spirit, that He does not leave me in my sin but brings me to repentance and faith in the free and full forgiveness of Christ Jesus, my Savior. I haven't done enough, I know, but He always does.

Notwithstanding my sin, for which I must daily be called to repentance (there are no excuses), the Gospel is not served by compromise. The Office of the Ministry has been instituted by God, not to get in the way of the Gospel, but for the sake of the Gospel. The Divine Call to that Office is not a matter of legalism, nor of personal prerogative and power, but the authority of Christ to forgive sins, and the way in which He has given that special authority to His Church on earth. The means of grace are not impediments to evangelism, nor simply tokens that we have to "throw in there" in order to maintain our credentials. They are the Word and works of Jesus, whereby He established, builds, sustains and preserves His Church against sin, death, the devil and hell. No amount of creativity and ingenuity on our part will improve upon or supplement these divine ways and means by which Christ Jesus does His thing. Of course, He also bestows First Article gifts of intelligence, knowledge and wisdom, understanding and rhetoric, which all ought to serve and support the preaching and teaching and administration of the Gospel. But let all of these be handmaidens of the Gospel, and not streetcorner sirens seducing the men of God.

People were going to hell in the days of the Prophets and Apostles. Congregations were declining. The Word of God was preached, and as often as not it was rejected, the preacher sometimes stoned to death, sawn asunder, thrown into a pit, or otherwise disposed of. The very Word-made-Flesh was crucified, dead and buried, and those who are called and sent to preach His Word are persecuted for it; they bear in their own bodies and lives the Cross and Passion of the Christ. His power is made perfect in weakness.

I don't want to make excuses for not doing all that I am given to do. I need to be called to repentance, and not simply to feel badly about where I've fallen short, but to do better. No, not "better," but simply to do it. But what I am given to do is laid upon me by the Lord's Call, in my ordination to His Office of the Ministry. It's not something that I pick and choose and decide for myself. I'm called to preach the Law and the Gospel, to teach the Word of God, to catechize and baptize, to hear confessions of sin and to speak the absolution of sin in the name and stead of Christ, and to administer His Body and His Blood for His Christians to eat and to drink. These are the works that I am given to do, within my finite capacities, in all sorts of circumstances, in this place where the Lord has put me, among the people He has entrusted to my care. I know that I will never serve as faithfully and well as I ought to serve. But I trust the Good Shepherd, who loves His sheep, to serve and provide for them with His means of grace, even through me.

I have my own theory as to why the churches have been declining for the past several decades. Well, one of the reasons, anyway, but I believe it is a big one. It's been within the last couple of generations that "birth control" and "family planning" have become commonplace, and not only accepted but expected. Christian husbands and wives are having fewer children by design. This is not rocket science. Some of the earliest sects and heretical groups despised marriage and procreation, and, not surprisingly, those groups tended to die out over time. Go figure.

Of course, the Lord in His wisdom does not call every Christian to the vocation of marriage; nor does He grant children to every Christian marriage. Those disciples of Jesus without spouse or child are less encumbered by the demands of family, and are thus able to serve the Church and the world in other vocations and stations in life. What is more, with or without family, Christians ought to be speaking the Gospel to their friends and neighbors and co-workers, and to anyone else they encounter in the course of their days, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

But in the case of Christian spouses, the frontier of the mission field is in the home with their own children. Bringing their children to Holy Baptism, catechizing them in the home, that is to say, by teaching them the Word of God, training them in the Catechism and praying with them, and faithfully taking them to church, parents serve the so-called "Great Commission" far more pointedly and effectively (if one may ever use such a term) than by just about anything else a lay person might do. Not to be crass or irreverent, but maybe Christian husbands and wives should be encouraged to spend less time knocking on doors, and more time behind closed doors. Where the Lord does not bestow the blessing of children, there other opportunities present themselves, as also when the childrearing years have passed. But if Christian couples would typically have four children (on average), and would simply rear them in the Christian faith and life, I suggest that the Church on earth would be growing steadily instead of declining.


Karin said...

Charley and I met a sweet old Italian lady in Italy and when she found out in our broken communication that we had four children (at the time) she was ecstatic. Cute old Italian lady prattling on in Italian about how special it was that we loved our children and bragged about numbers. I am not sure that has anything to do with your post but it did remind me of the incident. We are doing the best we can in the post topic Pastor......

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Cute story ;-) Thanks, Karin.

Another pastor you know has noted that "Church Growth Italian Style" is more fun than convassing. I remember canvassing a few times as a youth, and I would have to agree.

It occurs to me that the same God who said, "Go and make disciples," also said, "Be fruitful and multiply." I suspect that there is a closer connection between these two passages than we might normally suppose.

I am sensitive to the fact that not everyone is given to have children. I'm also sympathetic to the weaknesses of our fallen nature. So, the last thing that I want to do is place a different sort of legalistic burden upon anyone. God forbid that I should discourage those who are unable to have the family they would gladly receive from Him.

But as a general rule, which also applies in this case, we should all simply stick to doing what we are given to do within our vocations. That is where and how God works, not only to provide for each of us and our families, but also for our neighbors in the world, and for His Church on earth.

God bless you and Charley in the very productive Church Growth program He has equipped you for.

Anita said...

Thanks for a little adult humor today Pastor and Karin :)
I can see the logic in your theory, yet I wonder how do we know if it's God's will for one to have a large family. I'll admit part of me LOVES the idea of having a full home while another part of me questions if that is my calling. Maybe that's just a lack of faith...((shrug))

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Anita. I understand your mixed feelings and the questions you ponder. I don't presume to have any easy answers, as I find this to be an ongoing struggle, for myself and for lots of other folks, too.

The Lord has mercy upon us in our weakness. Our faith is not what it should be, and neither is our life in this world. I know that the Lord will feed and clothe and shelter and protect His children, but I have to confess that I'm not always able to take this to heart. The crosses that we bear, of one sort and another, for all sorts of reasons, are hard to bear.

I'm always concerned to avoid any kind of legalism, whether it's one to mandate a certain number of children, or another to limit the number of children one should have. Every child is created by God for life with Himself forever.

My biggest concern with our modern society is the assumption that determining the number of children to have is a human decision to make. The connection of "choice" with childbearing has become increasingly perverse. There is a difference, of course, between abortion and avoiding conception. But the motivations are often the same, and sin proceeds from out of the heart before it bears fruit in our actions.

Because God is faithful and consistent in His providence, and He has created an orderly world, it is generally possible to avoid or increase the likelihood of pregnancy. I'm not inclined to say that it is always wrong to do so. But I push the point, because it has become so taken for granted in our world that men and women not only can, but should, make such choices for themselves.

Christians proceed in repentance and faith, and live by grace alone. In the many freedoms with which the Lord has blessed us, we make the best decisions we can, but our confidence and sufficiency are in Christ and His Gospel, not in our wisdom or best efforts.

As a rule of thumb, I would mainly suggest that a Christian husband and wife will always be open to the possibility of another child, even if they take steps to avoid that likelihood. If a child is conceived, then, whatever fears and trepidations and hardships may be involved, they will continue to confess their sins, to live by faith in the Gospel, and trust that God will provide what is needed, for Jesus' sake.

I know that there are many sorts of painful difficulties involved in these aspects of our lives. Many dear friends along the way have been sorely tried and tested, and my heart goes out to them. Yet, for all of us, our faith is firmly rooted in the Word of God, whose wisdom is wiser than ours.

Anita said...

very true. I suppose that's why for the most part I try to take things as they come and not think too far ahead of myself;)