Dear friends in Christ,
Each year I write some ‘Reflections on the Church’ for District Conventions. This Heartland eNews shares with you the most recent version, in the hope you might find it helpful.
I created the world and covered it with people; I stretched out the sky and filled it with stars. (Isaiah 45:12 CEV)
‘In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising. (Matthew 2:1-2 NRSV)
It will soon be time for me to write a full report the role of LCANZ bishop for the General Convention of Synod, which is planned for Melbourne in late September/early October in. The ‘reflections’ here offer preliminary thoughts about the Church on the way to that report, referring to trends and patterns rather than individual issues. When I face difficulties that seem to pile up without ending, I have always found it useful to step back and view the horizon – where we have come from and which direction we are headed. We so often face what seem to insoluble problems we cannot fix. Realising that we cannot fix the Church is a useful gospel starting point from which we learn to let go and let God, as the saying goes.
I hope these short reflections may be of service in your District and your congregation and ministry as you work locally and as a Synod on the faith and business items before you this year.
The church: a parable
Picture a large concert hall filled with light and sound. An event is in full swing. The audience rocks with the artists on stage, joining in the singing and applauding loudly.
A recess on one side of the hall is blocked off by a thick, dark curtain. Those inside the niche can’t see or hear the concert, but they do catch the occasional echo and flash of light.
Once, a man came into the niche to invite them to come out and join the concert. He pierced the curtain with tiny holes, letting in a hint of the light and sound that lay beyond. The holes were like stars in a night sky. Afraid, some tried to cover them over, but couldn’t succeed. The light and sound that leaked through them was too strong, coming as it did out of the main concert hall.
The church: a window on heaven
What if we thought of our congregations (or worshipping communities) as windows on eternity, stars that shine like beacons in the dark, telling of a hope and a truth that has been lost to the world? When we worship, hear the Word, receive the Sacraments and the Holy Spirit gives us faith, God opens a window to heaven, a glimpse of things beyond human knowledge, insight into things that we cannot yet fully know or imagine.
The church: what makes it what it is
Think about what we believe (sometimes called the ‘marks’ of the church):
- In baptism we are reborn as full members of God’s family. He restores our lost relationship with him. Through physical water and his timeless Word, God reaches into time and space and joins us with him eternally – forgiving sins and restoring the glory of his creation. In baptism the Holy Spirit comes to us with the gift of faith. Adopted by God as his children, we are true sisters and brothers of Jesus.
- In the Lord’s Supper we participate in the Lord’s death until he comes again in glory. The humanity, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the great Scriptural story told in the cycle of the Christian liturgy, is God’s action for the salvation of the world. That he humbled himself so much for our sakes is the overwhelming reality of the communion meal, as he is truly present to us now and also in eternity. When we commune, we join with all the saints in time and in eternity. It’s massive, a foretaste of heaven.
- When we hear the Scriptures, God himself speaks to us, across the aeons of creation and in the minute concerns of our daily lives. He does this in a way we can understand and accept, using human words, a written book, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s awesome that God should use human means to achieve his divine ends – that is, bring us who were dead back to life and into a loving relationship with him and each other. God’s word is truly a living word.
The church: truly divine service
Your congregation, the physical people among whom you worship in a physical place, is a local expression of a cosmic reality. When you consider the vastness of what is going on among you, as the almighty, indivisible, eternal God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – walks among you, touches you, speaks with you and shares his life with you. How often does that happen in our mundane, materially pre-occupied world? Not often, I guess, but that is what is promised when your congregation gathers for divine service – God is present and will serve you in that place.
There is a hymn that in my youth the pastor frequently chose for the beginning of the service:
God Himself is present:
Let us now adore him
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in his temple,
All within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest reverence.
God we own,
Him our God and Saviour:
Praise His name for ever.
(Lutheran Hymnal with Supplement 501)
This kind of ‘vertical’ expression of sacred faith is not as frequent in our worship today. Our piety has become more ‘horizontal’ – that is, earthbound, concerned with the things of today and tomorrow (even though Jesus clearly says we should let today’s own troubles be enough for today e.g., Matthew 6:34). We are concerned with asking God for things (sometimes very specifically) and occasionally thanking God (when we remember). Much less frequently do we praise God just for being God – i.e., not concerned for ourselves or the things of the world but only with the things of God. It’s a sign of the times, and our preoccupation with ourselves. While there’s nothing wrong with asking God to do things for us we should be careful of being more interested in what God can do for us than simply worshiping God for who God is, and the awe, wonder and joy of knowing him and his salvation.
The church: a divine interruption
You could argue that the church, and in particular your congregation, is an interruption, an anomaly, in the pragmatic, materialistic age in which we live. Humans today are interested in personal choice and advancement, solutions to problems that get in the way of that, and the general progress of society towards a confident, secured future. We are very imminent (of this world) and so it’s no wonder that, very often, the only way the Church finds to justify its place is by being practical and giving society things it wants or needs – education, care, philanthropy. By these things we make ourselves useful, and that’s fair enough. Indeed, we still attract quite a bit of advantage this way in terms of taxation (income tax and GST), and expenses such as council rates. I believe the Church is genuinely useful in serving society in God pleasing ways and so rightly attracts these concessions from government, although it is certainly losing that privileged place and the future might not look the same in that regard as the recent past.
But saying the Church serves people and society does not fully explain what it is. Plenty of clubs and not-for-profit organisations do similar work. Controversially and unfashionably, our first reason for existing is not individual fulfillment, the advancement of society or even the relief of human need. We exist to worship God, in season and out of season, when fashionable and when it’s not, when society agrees and when it doesn’t, whatever the government of the day, whatever its ethical and moral dilemmas (of which there are many) and especially whatever our physical or financial circumstances. God freely calls us into existence and the Spirit brings us together around Word and Sacrament for the ultimate purpose of worshiping and loving him in eternal joy. In other words, to be the human beings he originally created us to be.
The church: now and not yet
Ah yes, eternal life. That’s another thing we don’t pay so much attention to these days. Just as society now exists for its own sake and to nurture the individual in this life, there is a temptation for the Church to think the same way. Take, for instance, the question of whether the LCANZ will survive its current challenges. Numbers are heading the wrong way (in terms of how the world measures these things) and there seems to be little we can do to reverse that trend. Church going is not a popular activity across most of Western society today as it reminds people that there is a God to whom we are accountable. Our pleasure-seeking society doesn’t want to hear that, so why should people be interested? Society is putting aside old categories of morality, ethics, shame, guilt, forgiveness and restoration in favour of the pursuit of individual happiness. The next consumer purchase rates more highly, despite its failure to deliver genuine pleasure and fulfillment, than the question of being right with God (whom increasing numbers are deciding doesn’t exist anyway).
So, it’s not a surprise that it’s becoming more difficult to be ‘church’ today, and more difficult to promote a Christian understanding of life and our responsibilities before God. That does not mean, however, that it’s the end of the road. Far from it, as the Biblical record shows. Some of the baggage the Church has gathered along the way are certainly at risk, among them its cultural place and prestige in society, comparative wealth, the ease with which we gather freely, and the ability to do mission without significant resistance. To date, apathy has been our largest problem in mission. In the future that could easily change to open hostility, as it already has, for instance, in moral issues such as sex and gender, abortion and end of life choices.
The Church: realistic and practical
As we think about the future of our congregations, and of the LCANZ, we must be realistic about the challenges, but not despondent. Our call is not necessarily to be part of a large, successful organisation (everyone likes to be on the winning side), but it certainly is a call to worship God. And really, you need very little for that, because God has already given you everything. In recent decades we have gravitated to sound systems, PowerPoint and even in some cases special lighting. But none of these things, not even the actual building (although useful and desirable), are essential for worship. What worship needs is people, the word (Scripture – contained in the Bible and the liturgy), baptism (water and the word) and holy communion (bread, wine and the word). After all, Jesus says he will be there when even ‘two or three are gathered in my name.’
The Church: what we might need to remember
Frankly, in practical terms, and to prepare us for the future when things won’t be quite so easy, I think we need to recover something of the memorised liturgies (authorised worship orders) that we once knew by heart and did not need to read from a book or screen in order to participate. That’s not because I want us to be old fashioned, but because worshiping that way allows us to reflect deeply as we pray, rather than gazing at a screen or a page and wondering what words we will say next, whether suitable or not. Variable worship practices have led us to continually gaze upwards or to the side, wherever the screen is, and we are no longer free to show any signs of sorrow or humility through bowing our heads, let alone kneeling as we once did. Posture has become an individual choice. When the electricity or the equipment fail, we are stopped in our tracks. There is lots of room to use technological aids, but we should not allow them to become of the essence of what we do. Otherwise, we run the danger of becoming ephemeral, catering only to individual tastes and desires of the moment. There’s a proven discipline and resilience in liturgical worship, and the observance of the Christian calendar, honed over the centuries that has helped the church endure and preserve the faith in times of hardship or persecution. Through it we hear the central story of salvation each week and through the cycle of the year, preventing us from becoming overly focused on the personal choices and interests of the pastor or worship leaders. Worship directs us outside of ourselves and our choices. Jesus is our desire and the centre of our attention, just as he gave us his undivided attention when he came to earth for our salvation.
The Church: a question of priorities
So perhaps our challenge is to reassess our priorities in the light of our core faith, and to prayerfully consider what God is saying to us in the present age. While we still have our wealth (comparatively) and freedoms, how can we hold on lightly to them as things that help but that are not essential for us to be the church? What do you think the LCANZ looks like in the age we are about to enter, or are already entering?
In my report to the General Convention I want to reflect on our relationship with money and material wealth, institutions such as schools, structures such as constitutions and rule books, and probably a few more things besides.
The church: past, present and future
I thank God for the generations who have worked for the good of the Church, and the many gifts they have left behind. Among them are a united LCANZ, institutions such as the LLL and our schools, hundreds of congregational plants and mission projects. But most of all, they have preserved for us the deposit of faith, the true gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now it’s our turn to pass that deposit on to the generations to come. Each of our congregations is a beacon of light, a glimpse of eternity, in a darkened world. And so, we can be confident, because the church is not ours, but God’s. As the gospel of John says, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5 NIV).
Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you. I do so not to criticise anything or anyone in particular. We are all in this together, we are all facing the same or similar issues, we all have similar joys and hopes. I believe that we, of all people, can face our future confidently because of the hope that we have in us.
Yours in Christ
Pastor John Henderson
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
Adelaide, May 2021
Note – In these reflections I am using ‘Church’ (capital ‘C’) to mean ‘LCANZ’ and ‘church’ (small ‘c’) to mean the ‘holy catholic church’ of the ecumenical Creeds, although of course, sometimes the two meanings can overlay one another.
‘Now, here in Baptism there is brought free to every person’s door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all people’ (Large Catechism, Fourth Part: Of baptism).
‘… a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body’ (Large Catechism, Fifth Part: The Sacrament of the Altar).
Online worship is now raising further interesting questions about the necessity of physical presence in worship, questions that I am sure will be with us for some time, or as long as the internet lasts.