For the middle part of the Twentieth Century, people in our country streamed into our churches. New churches were planted as people from rural communities left the farm for sprawling cities and new suburbs and subdivisions that began to spring up everywhere.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grew to 2.8 million members during this period that could be classified as the glory days of American Protestantism. Lutheran Christians were led to believe, “If you build, they will come.” Community engagement in our congregations was little more than opening the doors because they were coming. Church attendance was much higher among members and instruction classes were full of young engaged couples or newlyweds. We were building and they were coming.
But it stopped. A mixture of the culture’s hostile influence and the church’s apathy has led to the startling and painful realization, they’re not coming anymore. Young couples are seen in our congregations far less than the previous century. New membership classes seem much smaller these days. Church attendance for many congregations declines even among members. Older pastors and parishioners alike grieve for the way things used to be when they were coming in droves.
But the Church should not expect them to come to us. That was not the pattern of our Lord’s earthly ministry. While He had great zeal for His Father’s house, He did not remain there to the neglect of people in need. Jesus was the ultimate model of community engagement as He encountered the blind, the deaf, the lame, the sick, the forgotten, the forsaken, the least and the lowest. He never expected them to come to Him, rather He goes to where they are in their sin and brokenness. He is the One who seeks out the tax collectors and prostitutes to show them mercy and love. While news of Jesus spread and people were seeking after Him, He never stopped going to them.
Even in the early years of our own church body, mission work was done among Native Americans and African-Americans. Mission work among Chinese immigrants was begun in St. Louis in 1875. There was never an expectation that non-German speaking were going to suddenly seek out a Lutheran congregation. Instead, Lutheran congregations were actively engaging their communities through acts of mercy and love, all for the sake of bearing witness to Christ. In the first century of our own church body, we were not waiting for them to come to us, but knew that we were sent to them.
So where do we go from here? In these dark and latter days that are full of challenges, we can sit around grieving for the past and hoping they will come back or we can be the Body of Christ that goes to where hurting people are with the healing balm of the Gospel. The reality is that God the Father did not wait for us to find our way back to Him. Instead, He sent His Son with the mission to seek and to save the lost chiefly by suffering and dying on the cross. And because we could not by our own reason or strength come to Him, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to call us to faith in Christ. God does not wait for people to come to Him, but He goes to them still today as the Church carries out His mission to seek and to save the lost by bringing the Gospel to those who are lost in sin and unbelief.
Now is not a time for grief as we mourn the past! It is a time of opportunity for our congregations to engage our communities with the Gospel. We cannot wait for them to come to us. Rather God is sending the Church to them. If you’re congregation needs help engaging your community, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). We stand ready to help. My hope and prayers is that all of our congregations would be active in our communities reaching out to people with God’s love in Jesus.
Fraternally in Christ,
President Lee Hagan