An honest question deserves an honest answer

by John Preus

A question was recently posed on a prominent Twitter account that essentially asked why, if the Sacraments give life, churches who believe in them are dying. 

 It’s true that the Sacraments bring life. They work the forgiveness of sins. Where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. Congregations that publicly confess this and have faithful pastors who preach it should believe this. 

So why are congregations that believe this life-giving confession declining in membership? I ask this question all the time. It afflicts the hearts of Christ’s dear sheep who hear His voice, know His Gospel promise and yet see few results. It is a good question, because it provides the opportunity to teach about God’s promises.

We depend on God’s life-giving Word. Yet, we see death surround us. We see the world’s unbelief remain seemingly impervious to the Gospel we are so eager to share.

Doesn’t God promise that the Gospel will be embraced wherever it’s shared? No. He doesn’t.

He promises that it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. He promises that the forgiveness you hear and believe is always successful to remove your sin and establish your faith.

But He does not promise that the world around us will embrace it. In fact, He assures us that we will be hated for His sake. Thank God for times of tremendous growth.

But be not discouraged when hearts are hardened. For the Gospel retains its power, as your own heart bears witness. When the world tramples our pearls as unsure and irrelevant, it is an opportunity for repentance, to reflect on the surety of God’s Word, and to pray.

An honest question deserves an honest answer. Christian sorrow calls for the comfort of the Gospel. But many, instead of confirming the power of God’s Word, try to identify what they believe to be a missing, and necessary, addition to the surety of God’s Word.

But the Church doesn’t need to consult humanity to gain understanding of all its excuses for despising God’s Word. What the Church needs is to understand God’s Word herself.

Here alone is life. In God’s Word, we learn our own sinful objections. God understands better than we do the objections and excuses of every heart. God knows how to break down barriers. He has broken down ours by leading us to repentance.

And so, to the Word that brought us to repentance and raised our hearts to Christ — to this Word we commend ourselves, our congregations and the mission of the whole Church.

Are hearts grown cold? Lord, have mercy and revive us! Keep us steadfast in that Word that alone is able to warm our hearts to the world’s need to hear it too! And may we never dare to supplement what the world regards as lacking in God’s Word with the longings and devises of our own sinful hearts.

I therefore commend to you the following hymn in Jesus’ name.

The Rev. John Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Clinton, Iowa.


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12 Responses to An honest question deserves an honest answer

  1. Lance Klamer June 29, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    Thank you for this well-written and timely article, Pastor Preus. Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word!

  2. June 29, 2017 at 10:11 pm #

    Hear, Hear!

  3. Deaconess Norma Polk June 30, 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Wow! This encourages me today.

  4. Gregory C. Rogahn June 30, 2017 at 4:32 pm #

    So why are congregations that believe this life-giving confession declining in membership? One would think that such parishes would draw throngs. During recent worship visits to LCMS congregations, my wife and I find ourselves seated in the front 1/4 of the congregation with a gulf of emptiness between us and the back four pews and the less than 25 parishioners seated in them. I ask, “What is the outreach program of the congregation? What is the impact this congregation has on the community? What kind of discipleship, elder, lay training takes place for additional effective hospital visitations, home visitations, shut–in visitations, inactive member visitations? What is the specific membership conservation here?” Often stone silence or a referral of such questions to the pastor. Faithful proclamation of the Word of God and the Sacraments according to the Gospel….absolutely… but how shall they hear, grow, practice, remain, and invite unless some of the above questions are addressed.

    • July 28, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

      (John 6:60-68) “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’

      When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’

      For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

      From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.

      Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

      If Jesus was such a good Teacher, why did MANY of His disciples go back and follow Him no more? Why didn’t Jesus practice any specific membership conservation — but instead, He just let them go? Didn’t Jesus have an effective outreach ministry? Didn’t He have a powerful mission visiting shut-ins, healing the sick, and raising the dead? And in Mark 6:5-6 we read that Jesus could do no mighty work in His own home town — and that He marveled because of their unbelief.

      Similarly, the prophet Elijah at one point despaired because, even though he had been zealous for the Lord, he thought he was the only one left. (1 Kings 19:14). Was Elijah’s outreach program at fault? Did he fail to have an impact on the community? Were there so few people because he failed to have a specific membership conservation plan?

      If disciples can abandon Jesus because they find His words to be difficult, should we imagine that we can do better than our Lord at gaining and retaining believers? If our Lord couldn’t do miracles in His own home town and was amazed at their unbelief, should we imagine that we will not experience the same things because we have such intentional outreach ministries and fantastic membership conservation? I, for one, dare not imagine that I have any gift, plan, knowledge, or skill to make the Means of Grace effective. I have nothing to add the the proper preaching of Law and Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. I can only plant or water, but only God can give the increase — and I, together with “my” methods, am nothing (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. (Ps. 127:1)

      It is a gut-wrenching thought to imagine _anyone_ having to suffer eternal damnation. And it may be quite sad to see the sharp declines in church membership and school enrollment. Our lament could not possibly be any greater than that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, going up to Jerusalem to be crucified, exclaimed, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:37-38)

      Ultimately, sinners are neither saved nor retained by “outreach programs” or “specific membership conservation” efforts. The Means of Grace are not made more effective by man-made intentional evangelism plans, techniques and methods. And success or failure is not measured by numbers. There are those who can be fishing all night and catching nothing. It isn’t just that they have their nets on the “wrong” side of the boat, but it is the Lord who gives the increase. Shouldn’t we take care not to heap guilt and judgment upon congregations or pastors on the basis of how many or how few are sitting in the front 1/4 or the back 1/4 of the congregation? God’s Word is never ineffective. It always accomplishes what HE plans for it, even if does not appear to us that it’s working.

  5. Rev. Robert Catherwood Jr. July 1, 2017 at 7:11 am #

    This is most certainly true. Thank you.

  6. Susan Smith July 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

    There could be so much more love expressed to believers and non believers in this article. Writing the following sentence:”But the Church doesn’t need to consult humanity to gain understanding of all it’s excuses for despising God’s Word.”, sounds so antagonistic and “higher than Thou” that I think when people read this statement under the Title and photo of this article on the Home page, they will be turned off! This concerns me greatly. How do we want to portray ourselves as Lutheran Christians to others? Are we not called to love one another? I agree that people need to know and believe God’s saving Word in Christ. However, maybe we as the Church need to listen to what disheartened Christians and non believers are saying. This is where the love comes in. By listening to others,what kind of service or programs can we provide to make others comfortable with those in the Church and our congregations that could cause real, constructive dialog about God’s Word. Action as well as teaching could be very productive and helpful.

  7. Marie July 19, 2017 at 6:13 pm #

    The truth is LOUD and clear. But sadly, few are listening…

    “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters…”
    -‭‭2 Thessalonians‬ ‭2:1‬‬

    Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way…
    -2 Thessalonians 2:3a NIV

    We believe we are justified through baptism of the HOLY SPIRIT, who now lives within us and will NEVER leave us.

    And we enjoy fellowship with Christ’s body/bread and blood/cup in the Lord’s Supper. For the forgiveness of our sins. Proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes.

    Are we sharing GOD’S free gift of FAITH ALONE- through GRACE in CHRIST ALONE- with SCRIPTURE ALONE?

    Or are we CLOSING God’s people out in Luther’s (LCMS’S) name?

    “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.””
    -‭‭Acts‬ ‭4:12‬‬ NIV

  8. Carl H July 25, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    The Jesus who warned the disciples that the world would hate them was the same Jesus who, when he saw the crowds, had compassion for them and said, “The harvest is plentiful….” (Matt. 9:36-38) So shall we see the world as a hostile force and the Church as besieged, or shall we see the world as a ripening field and the Church as the instrument of harvest?

    Saint Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22b-23 ESV) Is that a worthy example for individual Christians? For congregations as a whole?

  9. Tim Klinkenberg July 26, 2017 at 10:43 pm #

    It’s our ecclesiology. Once our pastors have done their Word and Sacrament Ministry they are done doing church. The church is gathered in our ecclesiology, not sent. Gathered is our verb.

    • Mark Preus August 7, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

      The Church isn’t sent. The Bible never says the Church is sent. God says preachers are sent, e.g. Romans 10.

      I don’t use the term “Word and Sacrament Ministry,” because it annoys me for some reason, but I bring the Word wherever I go. I meet people everywhere and teach Christians to confess the faith, visit widows and orphans in their distress, and especially to teach their children. God gives us all these opportunities and we think the only hope is to create some church program that takes people away from their families even more, so that the only hope for our children to remain Christians is that they are “involved.”

      But I see the hardness of people’s hearts in all the churches, the love grown cold, thoughtless, etc. They are too burdened by their own leisure to think of doing what God wants them to do in their own homes. My vicarage supervisor taught me to look into the family lives of those who always volunteer for outreach. It was good advise.

      What I see in all of my speaking and taking up time to listen to people, as I know my brother John, the author, does, is that people think they need more Marthas than Marys. It’s a John 6 and Luke 10 thing.

      As my brother commended a beautiful hymn, I commend to you another beautiful hymn, albeit Pietist:

  10. Andrew J Preus August 7, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    This article is very comforting for those of us confess Christ in our communities and see no fruit. To build on your point: The world wants to be our friends. They are interested in us. But they want this on their own terms. This is why God gives us so many opportunities to speak the truth to people, but it is also why so few end up believing, or they quickly fall away. God gives us many opportunities to show our compassion for sinners when we confront the world. But he also clearly warns us that most will either not believe or quickly fall away.

    There is nothing wrong with our ecclesiology, because our ecclesiology is not about us. It is about the Word around which we gather. If I speak the truth to the neighborhood kids then there is the church’s fruit. Of course I invite them to church and Bible study. I invite them over to my house to talk. But how many of them end up sitting in the pews pursuing membership? Almost none of them. Our ecclesiology is that God’s Word gathers. It gathers in its own time. But if we don’t see them show up to our churches then we don’t need to despair over the prospect that they are damned. We spoke God’s Word. Let the same Word, which gathers us in, gather them. The ecclesiology of the church growth movement centers on the members of the church. Lutheran ecclesiology centers on the Word which gathers them and which they confess. True mission is a fruit of faith, just like worship. It is done freely and joyfully in the enjoyment of faith in God’s promise, love for the truth, and hope for what waits for us. It is not done frantically as we judge the poor congregations whose numbers are declining.

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