Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revitalization: Numbers vs. Faithfulness

Permit me a rant.

In our recent letter from the LCMS president's office, the process of congregational "revitalization" was highly touted. I heard a similar case for revitalization at our district office not too long ago.

I have a problem with "Revitalization". It's largely a problem of assumptions.

Both our district presentation and the president's letter begin by uncorking statistics which illustrate the declining numbers - of membership, in worship, and in giving - among us. The not-so-subtle message is, "declining numbers=devitalization".

But the word "vital" means having to do with life. And I challenge the notion that life in the church should be measured by such numbers. In fact, it is possible that even when "numbers are increasing", that life is fading away.

I would much rather see a qualitiative analysis about the health and life of our congregations. How well are we teaching the word of God? How are we receiving it? Are we thankful for the gifts God gives us? Are we anxious and worried about tomorrow? Are we faithful in our administration of word and sacrament?

Granted, these sorts of things are harder to measure. And to the extent that we apply the law (a very Lutheran thing to do) we will always find failure. And to the extent that we apply the Gospel, we will always see God's grace even in the midst of worldy "failures".

That's what's missing from all the talk of revitalization. The true source of vitality and life is the grace of God found in his word and sacraments as promised. Where's all the talk of this? Why all the focus on numbers? Is it just because they are easier to see? Or is it a lack of faith that even when numbers dwindle, God will preserve his remnant, that his word will have its desired effect, and so forth?

To be sure, worship attendance, adult confirmations, Christians sharing their faith, and all the other goals of this "revitalization" are good things. No one, even the most stodgy confessional/conservative pastor revels in seeing declines or stagnation in these numbers.

But some are good works that are the necessary fruits of faith - flowing from a right teaching of the Gospel. And these cannot (or at least SHOULD not) be made to happen by law-based programs and gimmicks.

And some numbers (like number of adult converts) are simply out of our control. How does one "revitalize" a community in population decline, or in economic recession? When the main industry in town shuts down a plant, it can affect your numbers in a way that now well-meaning church consultant can palliate.

Oh the temptation to speak of "success" in terms of numbers. How many people, even pastors who should know better, speak and think this way. I heard it myself at the district office the other day. "Oh, when I was there, that congregation was successful - but now the numbers are declining".

I suppose Jesus wasn't successful when many of his followers deserted him? Maybe he needed to revitalize himself. Palm Sunday, oh that was successful. But Good Friday, the numbers dwindled. Not so successful?

Oh that's right - he did "revitalize"- he rose from the dead.

And that, perhaps, is what I find insulting about all the talk of congregational revitalization. Those who insist it is so necessary are subtly stating that some congregations are not vitalized, are dying, or are dead. But they measure this not by faithfulness to scripture and our confessions and to God, but they measure it by who's in the pews.

As another wise pastor told me, "the times I have seen the most spiritual growth have often been times of declinging numbers".

Numbers vs. Faithfulness. These, I see are the competing values in the LCMS today. If we aim for faithfulness the numbers will follow - IF IT IS GOD'S WILL. But if we aim for numbers, we are in sorry shape, measuring success by a worldly and not godly standard. Let us, instead, be faithful. That's what our Lord desires.


Frank said...

Amen. One of our daughter congregations has taken to praying for us during their Sunday service because we are not so concerned with numbers. Our congregation has birthed five daughter congregations in the past twenty years but we are still tagged with being against missions if we don’t worry about that 5% yearly growth mentioned in the letter.
I do not envy you of the priestly caste who have to deal with this day after day.

Pastor Kelly J. Leary said...

Tom you are a better man than I -- I glanced at the title of the President's letter and deleted immediately -- we face here in NC wiscionsin declining communities falling manufacturing and many move away to seek work -- the college kids dont come back no jobs

I get frustrated when I get a member return from suburbia milwaukee, eau claire or madision and then say -- "they" are growing becasue of what they DO in worship - lets do that

thanks for the summary of the letter