February 25, 2013
The Shrinking Church
So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The January copy of The Lutheran magazine has a picture of a rural church and an article entitled, “The Shrinking Church.” The article states, “When Joyce began attending Zion Lutheran Church in 1954, the congregation had to set up extra chairs in the aisle during the worship service. In 1964, a new building was constructed to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation. ‘We were a thriving congregation,’ said Joyce.
“Today, Zion’s attendance has dwindled to about fifty. . . . Zion’s story is one that echoes across the country as congregations look for ways to deal with declines in membership and participation. Nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches reported a worship attendance of fewer than 50 people. It is no news flash that the ELCA is shrinking. But where is everyone going? And more importantly, where do we go from here?”
We have many flourishing congregations in the Midwest today. However, this story is correct in saying that churches in many areas of the country are now empty or closed. For example, one only has to walk into certain churches in New York City on a Sunday morning to find plenty of empty pews. This article brought to mind a powerful message that I already knew but do not like to think about – our mainline churches are visibly shrinking. Why is that?
In some cases, people are moving out of the area. When community populations decline, schools and churches must sometimes combine. Rural churches in Iowa have had a tough time keeping their doors open. This is a reality because a church needs to have people. However, there are other reasons for shrinking churches, some found within the largest metropolitan areas of our nation.
We find indifference in the church. People say, “I was raised in the church. I know it is still here, but I don’t need it right now.”
We find false doctrine being taught in the church – heresies – like, there is more than one way to heaven; and, if there is an eternity, everyone will be there. This group is called the Universalists. Their teaching has crept into parts of evangelical churches who believe that somehow, someway, God will find a place for everyone in heaven.
We also find the social gospel, which focuses on feeding the poor, providing clothing for those who are without, and visiting the sick. When a church focuses on the social gospel, it talks only on occasion about the redemptive gospel. The message is much the same as what you hear at the Rotary or the Lions Club. While these are good clubs, in the Church we preach Christ crucified, who first of all redeemed us and then sent us out to tell the message of the gospel.
Today’s text deals with this whole matter. Jesus is speaking to his disciples. As he looks out over the landscape, he sees fields that had been sown and are ready for harvest. All it needs is for people to go and harvest its crop. Its potential is for growth and producing blessings, not shrinking. However, the number of those who are willing to experience the joy of the harvest is shrinking.
Christ is also concerned about the visible building of the church, for that is where people come on a Sunday morning to hear the Word of God being preached. It is where the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of people. Why does it have empty spots?
Some feel no need for the church today. Many of these people have come from good homes where they had devotions and their parents took them to church, Sunday school, and confirmation classes. But when confirmation day came, they no longer felt the need for church. So they left and are out there in the pastures, spiritually speaking, waiting to be harvested.
However, as the years go onsomething happens and they find life has become more complex than they ever thought it would. And even though they were not ready for church in their late teens and early twenties, they find themselves wanting to go back to that church home.
Picture a man who notices his neighbor’s car backing out of the driveway each Sunday. He wonders if he should also go, but then talks himself out of it, “No, the church would fall down if they saw me coming inside.”
From time to time, he sees his neighbor across the fence, and they talk about things like the ball game and the financial world. But the subject of church never comes up until one day he asks, “I watch you go to church every Sunday morning, and I know you are very faithful. How are things going there?”
What an opportunity this is to reap the harvest, to invite him to church and have dinner afterward to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!
I grew up in a good, Christian home that was not without its faults. Right across the street from our home lived a man who had been a leader in the Boy Scouts and helped others through a distant connection with the Salvation Army.
One day he came to our worship service. Our pastor met with him and helped him in his life. Soon he became a committed Christian.
Not long ago, this man closed his eyes in death and met Jesus in heaven. This happened because someone extended him an invitation to our church. Even though he was our neighbor, never once did we invite him. Instead, the Holy Spirit found another vehicle to get him there, and then worked through the Word until he came to Christ and was a part of the true Church. The Holy Spirit works miracles through the Word when he has a chance. I don’t know why God chooses us as the ones to be in contact with others, but he does.
I came to Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1953. It was a grand and glorious church, very lovable. They did everything they could for us. I loved Nazareth so much, I stayed for thirty-four years! Even now, after retirement, I worship there every Sunday. What a marvelous church it really is!
Shortly after arriving at Nazareth, I figured out that the church wasn’t growing. So we assigned each member to a zone. Someone, then, would be responsible for contacting everyone in that zone, whether they belonged to the church or had no church affiliation.
We had an average of 395 people in church on Sunday mornings in 1953. When we began to zone the area, we sent people out from house to house inviting them to come to church. The result was that, by the year 1964, we had 1,000 people in church with multiple services. So we decided to build a new church so the people could all be together. This we did, and soon it also overflowed, until in 1982 we built another church that seated more than 1,250 people, had multiple services, and had 1,817 people attending worship services.
Sooner or later, we found ourselves moving a step further. We went into Evangelism Explosion where we learned to share the faith and invite individuals to a living, personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Thus, in 1996, worship attendance grew to 1,950.
We are no different from any other town. Our growth was not due to anything we had done; it was the work of the Holy Spirit who asks us to go out and to seek and to save that which is available. The people in our communities are looking for answers. They may not say they are, you may not think they are, but just try it and see. I dare you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to really come in contact with them!
The harvest is full, but it is waning, and workers are really needed. We can stop this shrinking Church if we will take Jesus Christ seriously. We must go out and visit our neighbors.
The Lutheran magazine has confronted us with a sad story: the visible Church of Christ is shrinking. But Jesus has told us how it can grow. Dare we let the Church shrink further and ignore the message of Jesus Christ?
Rev. Homer Larsen