A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 17, 2005
Text: Acts 2:42-47
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the basic truths of life in the church is that sooner or later every congregation worries about its membership. It doesn’t matter how big or little a gathering your church manages on Sunday morning – whether your church sits on a 400-acre campus like Bellevue Baptist Church of Cordova, Tennessee, or on a little plot of land you can mow in an hour, at some point in your congregation’s life the question of membership is going to come up. It’s in our Christian DNA, I think.
Here in Hastings and Litchville we’re no exception. We certainly worry about our numbers, and what sort of future they portend for us. Our churches are smaller than Bellevue, to be sure…and also smaller than their former selves. We belong to a denomination whose membership has been, like all mainline Protestant churches, slowly on the decline, even as the people still filling its pews continue to gray.
It should come as no great surprise, then, when we see that same trend within our own walls – our average age increasing even as our average attendance decreases. For many different reasons, it’s that way across the country in churches like the ELCA, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), to name a few.
Our membership worries are compounded by the very ground in which our congregations were first planted. We are rural congregations, ministering to rural communities, in the heart of a rural state. And like rural areas everywhere in this nation, we watch our young people grow up and go away, dusting the country dirt off their shoes and settling in one booming city or another. We struggle to attract new jobs and new residents, and grapple with the mixed blessing of machinery that both makes our farms incredibly productive but has also allowed a single farmer to do the labor that would have once kept a dozen of his forebears employed.
And again, it should come as no real surprise to us that our congregations face the same difficulties as rural communities as a whole – the thinning and aging of our membership rosters.
We’re not blind to these facts, and they worry us. It doesn’t make us feel any better to know that Bellevue Baptist certainly also frets over how to attract and keep members – for a small congregation, the question of membership can feel like a fight for life itself.
I know how concerned you are about membership. I know you want to see our churches maintain their numbers, and perhaps even grow. I know these graying and thinning trends in our churches scare you and cause you to fear for the future of the churches you love so deeply. I feel many of these same emotions.
But I do not believe that Jesus would have us spend our days worrying over membership statistics. I do not think that he would have us fear what the future has in store for us as a church. I am convinced that Jesus wishes for us simply to live in faith, following him and serving our neighbors, regardless of the length of our mailing lists. As hard is it is to do, Jesus does not want us to dwell on our numbers – remember, he himself promised to be present when even just two or three came together in his name! Instead of dwelling on these statistics, Jesus would have us dwell in his love for us and the world.
The interesting thing is, whenever the church lets go of its natural instinct to analyze its stats, and gives itself over to truly living as Christ’s body, the numbers problems have a strange tendency to disappear. When a congregation learns to focus on and really experience the joys of ministry and fellowship together, it begins to really live, losing itself in the life of faith. This is the sort of church that naturally attracts the lost, the curious, the lonely, the hurting. This is the sort of church that can weather the trends and even thrive. As odd as it seems, letting go of the fears and doubts about membership sets congregations free to live in the way that draws people in and keeps them.
We should take for our example the life of the very earliest church, before they even called themselves “church,” the ones who kept coming together every day in the wondrous weeks and months after Jesus’ resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us that they spent their time “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
The church, at its very beginning, wasn’t an institution, a building, or an organization. It didn’t fret over membership, because it was too full of the joy and wonder of the Resurrection. Instead, the church in Jerusalem spent its time in fellowship and ministry, in public and in private, working and worshiping so that those who had never heard the marvelous news of Jesus might know and join the celebration, and those who already rejoiced at the news might be continually encouraged by it.
The church in its infant days spent its time loving Jesus Christ and loving all the neighbors he had placed in their lives. And look at what came of it – “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
It reminds me of a walk I once took with a friend. The day was beautiful, perfect for being outside. Since I’m a photographer, I naturally grabbed my camera before heading out the door. My friend and I spent a good deal of time outside that day, but we didn’t walk far or talk much. You see, I was pretty fixated on taking pictures. As we’d walk past some trees or a pond I’d stop mid-step and mid-sentence, and break off to point my camera. I left my friend waiting on the path until I’d composed the picture and captured it within my camera.
It wasn’t until I was home reviewing my pictures that I realized I’d missed the whole experience. The breeze, the sun, the conversation of my friend…all of the things that make walking on a gorgeous day a joy, I had missed. In my desire to capture the moment, I discovered that I’d spent my whole day looking at the moment through a lens instead of actually living in it and enjoying it. Instead of enjoying happy memories of a fine day out, I had to look at my pictures to experience a small taste of it at home at my desk, hours after the sun had set on our walk. The pictures were fine, but they weren’t the real thing.
I think it’s like that for churches. Our life in Jesus Christ is in many ways like a fine summer’s walk. There’s so much for us to do and see and experience as we worship, pray, minister, study, praise God, and break bread together – as we live the life of ministry and fellowship that Jesus has called us to – and it’s a great joy if we truly leap into it!
Our concern about numbers is much the same as my obsession with taking pictures – membership and photos are nice, even important things, but as long as they’re the focus, becoming the main event, they steal from us the whole purpose of our summer walk.
The church is Jesus’, and it always has been. He is the one who tends it, grows it, and trims it. He wants it to live, and grow, and be beautiful, because he uses that beauty to draw others to his beloved church.
Friends, numbers are important. It is as natural for us to have them in our minds as it was for me to click away with my camera. Both numbers and photos can be good things, but they can keep us from our real reason for being here.
Trust Jesus to deal with our numbers however he will. Let us cast ourselves headlong into the all the joys of the Christian life, ministering to each other and our neighbors, fellowshipping around the Lord’s table, and worshiping our Lord for all we’re worth. I’m confident that, if it is his will, our Lord Jesus will do for us what he did in the very earliest church that bore his name – make us so beautiful in our life of faith that day by day he will add to our number those who are being saved.
Peace to you. Amen.