the third sunday in lent …

reflecting on the journey
Church is created by, sustained with, and born again in … the gospel!

It’s been a little more than three years. Since we sold our building. Truth be told, we expected to be farther by now. But pandemics have a way of slowing things down. Today, as I said, is the start of week “one-o-six” in the wilderness. Venture with no end in sight. Path untrodden. Perils unknown. Not knowing where we go. Only that we’re led and loved by god. Each step, every oasis, along the way. Our understanding of the word of god deepening. Our practice of that word expanding. Inspired to share the beauty of the gospel we find along the way. We’re a people on a journey. A people on the way. A people becoming. Becoming something different. Becoming something new.

However, at this point of the trip, we’re not sure what that something is … yet. There have been hints. Glimmers. But in a mirror, dimly. Nothing bright, clear … yet. That’s why the pizza and conversation, a couple weeks ago. To get together and talk about it. As a congregation. As a community. Something we haven’t been able to do, for a while. What next? Where to no? So, we talked. And we talked. And we talked. After a while, the conversation went to that place it, usually, goes, nowadays. Not just in our congregation, but in most throughout northAmerica. How do we get more people through the doors? And how do we keep them there? Well, critique turned to criticism. As we tried to understand why we’re here and they’re not. Why they sleep in on Sunday mornings. Why they take the road most taken. Wide. Easy. We talked about priorities. Commitment. About the lack thereof. And somewhere along the way, I realized something …

We weren’t talking about strangers. We weren’t talking about people we don’t know. We were talking about people we do. People we know. People we love. These chairs? That are empty? They aren’t filled by just neighbors and friends. They aren’t filled by family. OUR family. By our parents and grandparents. By our sisters and brothers. By our children. By their children. It struck me. As we were talking. THOSE people are OUR people! THOSE people are US! And I think – on some level – we all know that. And that makes it all the more painful. All the more poignant. We feel abandoned. Forsaken.

True, we all grow up. We all move away. Looking for greener pastures. Making our way in the world. Moreso today than ever before. But if it’s true that the ELCA will “be Gone in 30 Years,” it means that they never come back. Not here. No to another ELCA congregation. We’re shrinking not because THEY aren’t coming. We’re shrinking because we’re walking away from us! And we’ve been doing it for decades. For generations.

The figure Bishop Herbener shared with some of us while I was up in Lubbock has stayed with me. “If the people who came to America as Lutherans,” he told us, “had remained Lutheran – like back in the good old days … If their children and their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s children had stayed part of the Lutheran church … there would be, today, over seventy million Lutherans in the U.S.” Seventy. Million. Lutherans. But they didn’t. And they aren’t. For any number of reasons. Today, officially, there aren’t much more than five million total.

Look at it this way. We make such a fuss over the most recent polls. About the “kids” who answer, “None,” when they’re asked about their religious preference. They say, “None.” They don’t have any. Last year, nearly thirty percent of adults were in this group. But what if another question was asked? “Did your grandma or grandpa used to be Lutheran?” Sixty-five million Americans would say, “Yes!” That’s nearly twenty percent of America!

It isn’t that THOSE people don’t want to be a part of US! OUR own brothers and sisters! OUR own daughters and sons! OUR own grandchildren! Great grandchildren! Have wandered off! Have walked away! Some have joined other congregations. Some have joined other churches. Most, simply, became “NONE.” Nothing more than a memory. One more faded photograph hanging on a wall. They don’t want what we offered. They don’t need what we gave them. And so, here we are. In the wilderness. Trying to find our way back to a place we’ve never been.

And guilt? Our guilt at not having done it right? Their guilt at having done it wrong? Well, it’s a luxury we can’t afford. A luxury that doesn’t make any difference, at all. We need to realize we’re not here to preserve the church of our grandparents. We’re not here to maintain this church for us. We’re here to cultivate, to create – or rather, god’s here to cultivate, to create through us – a church for our grandchildren! A church for our great grandchildren!

We’re a people on a journey. A people on the way. A people becoming. Only thing … it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. Whatever it is, it begins with the story! It begins with the story! “Conceived by the Spirit. Born of the virgin. Suffered. Crucified. Died. Buried. Descended. Ascended. Seated.” That’s the story! “In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all!” That’s the story! The story of Christ and him crucified!

It’s the story that’s brought us safe thus far! And by thus far, I mean from the beginning! And it will be the story that leads us the rest of the way! And by us, I mean all of us! They! Them! Their! We! Us! Our! Unfortunately, change doesn’t come quickly, here in the church. It takes time. Decades. Generations. But it does come. Not with a building. With stained glass. With polished pews. Not with central heating and cooling. It starts with the story! It continues with the story! And it ends – if it ever does – ends the same way! With the story!

Someday. There may be other reasons why they come. Other things to tempt them, lure them. There may, still, be youthGroups. MissionTrips. PraiseBands. Choirs. Special parkingSpaces for firstTime visitors. But if the story is missing … If the story isn’t there … it won’t be church. At least, not church in the Lutheran sense.

We’re saved – salvaged – by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith! That’s how church is salvaged, saved! By grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith! And that’s how all those coming after will be saved and salvaged. Because that, my friends, is the story told by all god’s people.

Midland Lutheran Church