Rev. Peter K. Lange, First Vice-President for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). As originally published in “Life of the Word” Magazine: https://issuu.com
During my first years in ministry, in the early ‘90s, few if any realized the sea change that was underway in American Christianity. At least, no one was talking about it. Instead, the steady numerical growth of congregations and denominations was the expectation. And if it wasn’t happening, the suggestion (spoken or not) was that something was wrong with the ministry, or methods, or leadership of that congregation or institution.
So the thinking went. It put great pres-sure on pastors and church leaders who simply didn’t have the historical perspective that we have 30 years lat-er. Today, most everyone is aware that Christianity is experiencing a significant numerical decline in the U.S. This is true across congregations and denominations, and it’s also true of the general population in the United States who profess the Chris-tian faith. Even within Christian congregations and denominations, the commitment of church members—as measured, for example, by frequency in worship attendance is declining.
One key result is that today, the nature of the pressure has changed. Whereas decline is no longer automatically correlated with the quality of the ministry, the new pressure and concern is for institutional viability and even survival.
And yet, along with these new and great challenges come new and great opportunities, including the opportunity for renewed trust in all that God’s Word promises us. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5). The apostle James exhorts us, saying, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
This growth in faith and trust, which is a blessed fruit of trials and testing, is an important way in which the Church grows. But the Church is growing numerically too. I’m not talking about any particular congregation or denomination, or even visible manifestations of the Church in various global regions. I’m talking about the true Church — the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church — i.e. the total number of believers in Christ throughout all places and times, that ever-increasing number who rejoice and live in the presence of the Lord forever in heaven.
Of this Church, Jesus gave His absolute promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). About this Church, Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed which “is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree,” as well as the similar parable of the leaven in the following verse, “hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:32-33). And the reason for this sure and certain growth of the Church is that God has promised that His Word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus has promised us that, in spite of what-ever forces might seem to be overwhelming to us, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). These divine words and promises are cause for great confidence, endless optimism, and supreme joy in the midst of today’s challenges.
Sure, there will be seasons of growth and decline for particular congregations, denominations, and even entire global regions of Christianity. But God’s promises remain. We shouldn’t think lightly of them. The Church must and will grow because God has said it will. It may not be according to our human standards, definitions, or measurements. It may not even be visible to our human eyes. But the Church will grow, nevertheless, in the only way that matters—God’s way.
As we pray and do the work God has given us to do while it is the day, before the night comes when no one can work, let’s do so with supreme confidence and joy that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. He is Lord of the Church, as well as of heaven and earth. We are simply His instruments.
His hands, feet, and mouths in this world. And this Lord of all has given us His sure and certain promise: “I will build my church!”