Fewer and fewer people in the U.S. are participating in Churches. What can we do? More on that in a minute.
The 16th century Reformation was a dispute about what the Church is and does. Does the Church exist to provide worship and rituals to please God? Does the Church exist to provide services to please people?
This month during the Education Forum, on Sundays at 9:45am at the Manor, we’ll be learning about the 1580 Book of Concord, which contains the documents that we believe accurately summarizes and interprets the Bible, such as the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, Smalkald Articles, and the Formula of Concord. These are often called “the Lutheran Confessions”
God is pleased with humanity because of Jesus. The Lutheran Confessions emphasize that Jesus is the gift God gives to humanity through the Church. Every other way humans try to make community, change the human condition, and please God will ultimately (and often spectacularly) fail. As the hymn goes, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” Or, as Martin Luther wrote in the 95 Theses published on Oct 31, 1517, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”
The Church, therefore, exists to share this treasure, Christ, with the world through telling the story of Jesus in ways that people will know him, receive him, and follow him. The Church offers an eternal relationship with God that begins in the sacrament baptism into Christ and continues in receiving Holy Communion.
What this also means is that the Church does not exist to placate a righteous god by its prayers or worship and does not exist to provide food or basic needs. In Christ, there is no fear of God or of people! Don’t get me wrong: the Law and Gospel that the church proclaims will naturally lead people to serve their neighbors, but it is not the task of the Church as church but instead the members of the church as the people of God. True community, which is characterized by love of neighbor, flows not from people’s desire to be together but from lives transformed by the relationship with God through Christ.
All this is especially relevant as we consider the decline of participation in churches. Some may conclude decline means people are becoming more immoral or selfish, but this is simply not true. There is an enormous spiritual and social hunger in our time that congregations like St. John’s need to find ways to address, to tell the story of Jesus in a way they will hear. That’s the reason for the Church.
Take, for example, a recent article by Perry Bacon Jr. who grew up in a congregation but over the years drifted away. (You can read the article here.) You can probably think of similar people in your life. Yet, he has a deep hunger that nothing has been able to satisfy and he knew church satisfied somehow, no matter how imperfectly. Bacon wrote that he’s been to “consistent gatherings of people with some shared values and interests. I’ve made new friends through both. And there are plenty of other groups and clubs I could join. But none of those gatherings provide singing, sermons and solidarity all at once.” He says he’d like a “Church of nones” that has all these things, positive messages and universal values. Yet, I suspect even if he had such a “church,” he’d still feel like something major is missing.
That essential element is Christ. Rather than dismiss or criticize “nones” like Bacon, however, we need to find ways to help him and those who are spiritually hungry to know Jesus, the true “bread of life.” This is what the Church is for.
Over the last 50 years, St. John’s and other congregations haven’t been very creative or energetic in how we tell the story of Jesus. We’ve sometimes confused the Church’s purpose with a social club or service provider, which fall apart when people and their needs inevitably change. Congregations have tried to do the same things that worked in the 1960s and 1970s thinking they’ll work with today’s generations—showing we trust our techniques and traditions more than our treasure, Jesus.
The Reformation is not just something in the past—it is today: the Spirit-led reformation changing the Church to be centered on Jesus. I’m grateful to the people behind the bibleproject.com for creatively and helpfully getting people into the Bible. I’m grateful for people behind the TV show The Chosen (thechosen.tv) for the ways they’ve tried to do this. I’m grateful for Casey Goslin and the ways he’s bringing young adults together outside traditional ways of being church. I’m grateful for you and your willingness to experiment, to discover a beloved practice is non-essential, to meet new people, and to step into leadership. May Jesus be the gift and reason for it all!
Your servant in Christ,