by David H. Petersen
Pastors have taken vows to care for souls, yet all of us have let souls slip through the cracks. When people quit coming to church for long enough, we forget about them. Reaching out to delinquent members is mostly unrewarding work. So most of us don’t do much about it, and every pastor I know feels guilty about it.
Pastors should repent. Jesus doesn’t forget about the people who made vows at His altar. We shouldn’t either. We should make new efforts to make contact with them, to warn them and to invite them again back into the fold.
The pastor, however, is not the only Christian in the congregation who is called upon to be his brothers’ keeper. The guilt can be shared among the whole congregation. We can all repent and consider anew how we might reach out again to those who have neglected the gifts of Christ. We can pray for them by name. We can make an effort to get to know them. We can also work at making our congregations more welcoming and more supportive by becoming more attentive to the needs of one another and by speaking positively of our congregations and our ministers around each other and in the community.
We should know, however, that some of the guilt that we feel in this regard is false. The pastor can’t save anyone, and he can’t make people come to church. He might exacerbate the problem by being boring or being a sinner. The other members can also fail. We should be willing to take a honest look at ourselves and repent, but at the same time we should not give too much credence to the excuses made by those who despise Christ’s gifts.
Ultimately, each person will have to answer for his or her own sins. (And for the person who trusts in Jesus, who has answered for the sins of the world by His death on the cross, he or she can take comfort that that same Christ has risen to secure his or her own resurrection on the Last Day.) It is a sin to break confirmation vows. It is a sin to neglect the assembly of believers. The answer to those sins can be something like: “I repent. Lord, have mercy. Jesus has answered for me,” which leads to eternal life or it can be something like, “It is not my fault. The pastor is a bore and worship is boring,” which leads to the place prepared for Satan and his angels.
So what are pastors and congregations to do? What we have always done. We keep on trying to reach all of our members no matter how futile it feels. We keep on reaching out, starting over, repenting. There is no easy answer or program or solution, but we should not despair or wring our hands. We have the Word of God and the means of grace. We should seek reconciliation with those who have left us. But if they won’t forgive and rejoin and be reconciled to Christ, we take comfort that God has reconciled us to Himself by the death and resurrection of His Son. He will take care of His Church. He doesn’t break His vows – even if the pastor is a bore and worship is boring.
The Rev. David H. Petersen is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.