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Sustainability. This is a word we hear much about these days. Many people are concerned about the sustainability of the planet, as the earth appears to warm and there is an increase in natural disasters stemming from this warming. They fret over the sustainability of earth’s natural resources, such as fresh water, oil reserves, trees, animals and a host of other concerns involving sustainability. Can we sustain the way we have always done things and still have a planet left upon which to live?

I’m not writing to debate the sustainability of resources or the so-called causes of global warming. There is another sustainable matter that I lose sleep over, however. This concern about sustainability of which I fret is the sustainability of our denomination, congregations, and the way we have always conducted ministry. Can we sustain our buildings, organists, secretaries, staff, and yes, even a professional ministry in the future? Can we continue to do business as usual and still be vital as disciples of Jesus Christ?

These are the questions I contend with on a daily basis. I see our shrinking congregations, the many congregations that can’t even afford to pay a pastor (more than 50% of our Southern District), and a worry that there may not be an LCMS left at the rate things are going. It’s not only the LCMS, it is ALL of Christianity in the West- all denominations are shrinking as denominationalism dies. In fact, Christianity is growing in every other corner of the world, except in the West. Here, we seem to be a footnote of a bygone era. Can we sustain “business as usual”? I think a lot about this as I struggle to reach out to our community.

Allow me to share with you the most recent statistics released from the LCMS’s latest statistical survey. Perceptions bear a lot of weight. What are the perceptions of our people in the LCMS? Well, according to the results of the 2023 Lutheran Religious Life Survey, 50% of our members believe that the LCMS is staying about the same size as it has been for years. About 32% believe that we are growing as a Synod. Only about 18% of members have the belief that we are shrinking in numbers. The reality is far from the perception! In congregations around our size (51-100) 21% believe we are growing, while roughly the same percent believe that we are shrinking. The reality is that congregations our size are experiencing a 75% decline, at only an actual growth rate of 7%. These numbers are for congregations in our demographic of 51-100 members. The Synod on a whole is experiencing a 75% decline in membership at only a 35% growth rate to counter. These numbers tell a much different story than the ones perceived by the majority of LCMS members.

The question of sustainability comes when we look at our physical plants (church buildings and grounds). For more than 500 years (one can debate more than 1500+ years!) the Church has been centered around the church building. The sanctuary where we worship, sing hymns, pray, partake of the sacraments, has become the primary focus of mission and ministry for our congregations. We exist to maintain a building.

For many, including myself, this has been the case for much of our lives. As a pastor, I was trained to be what we call a “maintenance” pastor. That is we were trained to maintain a congregation. We “hatch, match and dispatch!” That’s our cute way of saying that we baptize, marry and bury our members, as their pastors. We curate the souls of those entrusted into our care. As long as we do what we are suppose to do, the aforementioned hatch, match and dispatch, preach sermons, administer the sacraments, teach bible studies, and serve the people, we will have life long job security. The belief has been that the Church is a self-sustaining entity. People have babies and raise their children up in the faith. We don’t have to worry about growth. The Lord will take care of the growth. While this last statement is true, (the Spirit does provide the growth) we came to believe that we will always have our church building, staff and structure as we have always known it. That simply is no longer the case. Many of our children have not stayed in our church. Many have become unequally yoked with unbelievers (married nonbelievers). Many have not raised their children (if they have any) in any kind of religious background. Many are waiting longer to have children, if they have any at all. They are also having much fewer children than previous generations. We can no longer rest on the laurels of childbirth to increase or maintain our synod.

Things have been changing and heading in this direction for the last thirty plus years. The Church I was trained for thirty years ago no longer exists as it did, at that time. Things have declined at a rapid and alarming rate! Our buildings are practically empty. Budgets are running in negative numbers. The cost of insurance along with general upkeep is taking a huge toll upon all our congregations. The ability and certainty to even be able to afford a pastor is no longer tenable for many of our congregations. My previous two congregations can attest to this fact. Even we at LoG are struggling to meet our insurance costs, upkeep costs, and still pay our staff and pastor. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain “business as usual” without more people in the pews. I have been informed by many of our congregation that if we lose any of our top givers, the future of LoG may be in doubt. How can we sustain this property if we lose any more members? How can we grow and fill our pews once again? Is our ministry sustainable into the unforeseen future?

If things do not change, the answers to the above questions are, no. No we won’t be able to sustain our congregation’s building and staff as we’ve known it. I feel, as a pastor, that my role has been changed on me. I am no longer a maintenance pastor. If I simply maintain what we have, there won’t be anything left to maintain in the future. I feel like I have to be a “salesman for God.”

I was approached by a participant at the last car show I attended. This man also attended our show. He told me, “Pastor, you’re the salesman of God. You sell people on the Gospel.” I was disturbed by this statement. I have never seen myself as a salesman. In fact, I absolutely stink at sales! I can’t sell a thirsty man a drink of cold water. The role of pastor should not be about selling the church. I, or any pastor cannot sell people on the church. We can’t change hearts or minds. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. However, this salesman approach is apparently what ministry is morphing into. This only leads to further error and confusion.

I can (and have) spoken at length about the various causes that have brought us to this point. That’s not the direct purpose here. My purpose is to ask the question “Can we be sustainable”? Now that we are at this point, can we sustain business as usual?

The simple answer to this question is more than I or any of us may be able to bear. Unless something happens (not sure what) we won’t be able to sustain the denominational overhead, our buildings, or structure as we have always known it. That is the cold hard reality of the situation. It is untenable!

So, what are we do? Where do we go? Do we simply throw our hands up in the air and surrender to fear? Never! We have been given a “Spirit of power, love and a self-controlled mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7). So, what can we do? This is another question that keeps me up at night.

Will our congregations ever be able to do what may be necessary to change to meet the needs of mission and ministry in this post-Christian era? Heck, we hate change! The sanctuary is supposed to be just that, a safe place. Our churches have been a safe place from the ever changing culture around us for years. It is the one place where we can come and have it as we remember it from the days gone by. Where we sing the old hymns, hear the old prayers, use the old liturgies that date back over a thousand years. What happens if we lose that safety? What happens if it changes? Those can be scary questions to ponder. When folks don’t like to even sacrifice their preferred time of worship, how will we ever be able to cope with all of these questions of sustainability? I’d think we’d lose our minds!

So what can we do? We offer all of this up to God in urgent prayer, first of all. We pray for revival of heart and mind. We pray the Potter will mold and shape us and use us as His disciples of clay to reach the lost. We immerse ourselves in the means of grace. We pray for a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit, so the eyes of our hearts and minds may be opened.

We also give up old wine skins. Jesus said that the new wine of the Gospel cannot be put in old wine skins. If new wine is added to old wine skins, they will burst (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-39). That is what the LCMS is; an old wine skin. I feel like we are ready to burst from all the new everything that is bombarding us!

Not everything is doom and gloom, however. Christ is still the Lord of His Church. He is still in charge. Even if the LCMS and other denominations diminish into next to nothing, there will always be the Church of Jesus Christ. We may become a faithful remnant of what we once were. The visible church as a whole may return to something that it has not been in nearly two thousand years, a small mobile church of believers going around, worshipping in each others homes, sharing the Gospel with all whom we come in contact with, and sharing all we have with those in need (Acts 2:42-47). Christ never meant for His people to be static, but rather mobile. “Go!” Is the imperative command He gives His people. He never said “stay put and build a church building, and expect others to come flocking to you.” He commands us to go into all the world, baptizing and teaching people everything He has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus was mobile. He and His disciples never rested in one place very long. Paul was mobile as he took the Gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, on his three missionary journeys. All the apostles traveled and shared the Gospel. Even that seemingly ideal church mentioned in Acts 2 was scattered just a couple chapters later. The Church began in Jerusalem, but didn’t stay there. It spread from there to Judea, to Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

I confess that I too get swept away with worry as I contemplate all these concerns regarding sustainability and the future of the Church in America. I see the gross lack of youth and the empty pews. I see the numbers that tell a glum story. Yet, it is not for I or any of us to overly concern ourselves with these matters. I try to keep telling myself that, but I too have a difficult time believing it. It is difficult to allow God to be God. It is a struggle to contend with the culture that surrounds us and still stay true to the Gospel of Christ. We must never make accommodations with the culture and water down the Word of God simply to be more acceptable to the culture around us. However, we don’t cling to old wine skins that have run their course, either. They no longer hold the new wine of the Gospel.

LoG has been experiencing more growth than many of our fellow congregations in the southern district, and Synod as a whole. The Lord has blessed us with thirty new members over the last three years. This is a huge blessing. But then I see that the majority of those who have joined are retired folks over 70. Then I begin to worry about sustainability, again. Where will we be in ten year if we don’t at least get some middle aged folks? Yes, I worry much too much!

So, what do we do? We fight the good fight of faith by remaining in His Word. We remain in prayer. We continue to do what we are doing, going out and meeting our neighbors as we do LoG Listening Lounge, car shows, feeding our neighbors, and anything else that meets and serves people where they’re at. We continue to sow those Gospel seeds in our community. We go, and we go, and we go and give away all the good gifts that God has given to us. What the Church as a whole will look like down the road? That’s not for me, or you to freak out about. All we can do is continue to be faithful with what Christ has entrusted into our care; His Word and sacraments, His love and peace and forgiveness and all His goods gifts He blesses us with. We really do have all we need via His Spirit to continue to do the mission and ministry He has called us to do. Lord help us to always be faithful and keep our eyes focused on You, as we Go as Your witnesses and give away your free gifts to all people. Amen!

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