Recently I saw a statistic that is both surprising and disturbing. In a presentation on how to reach out to the community with the saving gospel message, the presenter noted that in one recent year 51 percent of the 1,270 WELS congregations had one adult confirmation or less. More than 500 had zero. Those are some sobering and significant numbers.
We know that the mission or health or success of the church is not measured in statistics. Only the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel, converts sinners and brings them into God’s family. We know from Jesus’ parable of the sower that faithful proclamation of the Word does not always bring people to faith. Three of the four places where the seed fell did not produce what we might think of as the “right” results. In fact, sometimes faithful proclamation of the Word repels and hardens people rather than attracting and winning them. A church that is faithful to the Scriptures needs to recognize that such faithfulness sometimes leads people to leave rather than to join.
But statistics, while never an accurate measure of the impact or “success” of the gospel (the gospel always succeeds in doing what God wants it to do), can be a measure or an indication of our own stewardship of the means of grace. In other words, statistics, while never calling into question the power of the Word, can and should lead us to ask, “Am I faithfully using those means that God uses to build his church?”
When we see a church or a synod in apparent decline, we are tempted to conclude that we need to come up with some way to turn that around. With all good intentions, people sometimes look to innovative methods and programs to attract people to the church. Maybe if we offered a less-threatening worship experience, maybe if we find ways to make the church seem more relevant to the everyday lives of people, maybe if we did more research to find what people are really looking for in a church, maybe if we laid it on the consciences of people to become involved in organized evangelism and outreach programs—maybe then the church will grow and the numbers will increase. An entire industry focuses on providing ideas and methods to “make the church grow.” Sad to say, many are attracted to well-packaged programs that appeal to the eye but have little impact on the heart. All too often the programs offer people what they want rather than what they really need.
Faithful stewardship of the means of grace does not focus on statistics and will not look for easy “fixes.” But it should lead us to ask whether or not we are doing all we can to bring the gospel to as many as possible. That can certainly happen through organized programs such as an early childhood education center or a Lutheran elementary school. It can happen as congregations do all they can to interact with visitors and to help guests feel welcome in their worship practices. It can happen when congregations find ways to connect with their communities. Most important, though, it happens when congregations and members find ways to develop relationships with people. Such relationships enable us to communicate, to show genuine personal concern, and to gain the trust of those whom we will invite to learn more about the Savior.
If we are faithful in planting and watering, we know that God will make it grow—as he graciously determines and as he wills.
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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016
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