Lutheran congregations are probably not alone in our struggle recently to continue operating with the same degree of material success that we enjoyed in the last fifty years or so. More and more, Christians’ attention is diverted from the mission that Christ has given His Church, including our own growth in the faith. It seems that this happens by necessity, as more time is required for each family to earn enough income to remain solvent. Then, since we spend so much time at the grindstone, we require more down time in recreation apart from the normal demands of life. In other words, when we’re not working hard, we’re usually playing hard. It leaves less and less for the life of the Church.
The effects of this appear in the church attendance pattern of our members, and in their willingness or zeal to give personal time toward the activity of the Church. Bible classes and Sunday schools are emptier than they have been. Fewer and fewer members are more and more involved in sustaining the congregations, placing greater demands upon those individuals. In a way, it’s not the fault of our members, and I don’t mean this as a rant against members with poor attendance or involvement at church. But I do observe this as a trend over time. We could justifiably blame it on the economy, or on social trends. Most likely it’s an attack by the enemy, Satan. My concern here is not so much the cause, but what we Christians might do about it.
The first things we must always do are repent and turn to God in prayer. Never underestimate the importance and power is these things. Much of the suffering in the Bible endured by God’s people was a call to repentance, so that God might forgive, restore, and bless them. Why should we suppose that He works differently today? In fact, we’ve been studying Revelation 2 and 3 in our weekly Bible classes at Bethany in The Dalles, where Jesus clearly calls upon New Testament congregations to repent of various kinds of faithlessness and sin. We would do well to examine our habits, priorities, and assumptions to see whether they are aligned with the will that God has revealed in holy scripture. For that matter, we should also examine our doctrine, practice, and tradition.
Prayer is the privilege of priests, given to all who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not vain babbling meant only to externalize our inner demons. It’s communication to our Creator and Savior, Who invites and commands us to approach Him through the blood of Jesus Christ. Prayer is a participation in God’s work in the world. We could make a crude comparison to a program of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans called Thrivent Choice, in which members who hold a certain minimum amount of insurance products with Thrivent can direct the company to give some of its vast financial resources to various congregations or other works of ministry. In a comparable, but far more powerful way, God allows His redeemed children to participate in His gracious workings in the world by praying to Him. He has promised to hear, and He even responds to our prayers in the way He deals with us. That doesn’t mean we can force Him to do something that He knows is not best, but there may be times when He withholds a certain blessing until we ask for it.
An old tradition among Lutherans is to pray and worship at home with a family altar. It takes planning and sacrifice to dedicate and set up space in our homes for such a place for prayer and meditation. We may find ourselves unwilling to make the compromises necessary. It takes more planning and sacrifice to form a daily habit of personal prayer. Even so, we can devote at least some daily time for personal or even family worship. Both the Hymnary and the Hymnal contain many resources to help with this, as does the Catechism and many other resources. How might the plight of our congregations improve if each family devoted itself to daily self-examination, prayer, and meditation? This kind of practical and personal application of faith to our lives is where the most important spiritual warfare happens. May God help us to fight this good fight.
The most apparent pressing need at many congregations is to meet their budget. The flip side of this apparent need is to bring more members into the church. It’s a mistake to focus on these things as the measure of success in our congregations, yet the earthly side of any outward organization requires them. So how can we address this apparent need? In the past, churches have turned to business practices for help. Evangelism programs and mission statements are an outgrowth of this approach. Such things are not necessarily wrong, but they can wrongly diminish our reliance upon God’s grace, and our faith in His Word.
In every age, the Church has existed contrary to reasonable human expectations, because it has existed as a miraculous work of God. Jesus demonstrated this to His disciples when He told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. How should that make any difference? The only difference is that this is what Jesus told them to do. So instead of spinning our wheels in activities that we think ought to be helping our struggling congregations, maybe we should try what Jesus says, even when it seems utterly fruitless and counterintuitive. I challenge you to read your Bible, and see if I’m wrong about this.
Our help and salvation are still found in our gracious God, through Jesus Christ.