Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mark's thoughts: The foolish failure of a pastoral ministry success story

In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul describes how God has acted in an unexpected way in order to save us.  He writes: 

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God    made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek           wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of   God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ESV)

This description of God’s “folly” and “foolishness” tells us about more than just the fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  It reveals the manner in which God works.  God works in ways that don’t appear to be what they really are.  He works under opposites.

Martin Luther captured this profound truth in his theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation.  There he wrote:

 19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the   invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible I those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

 20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. [1]
This truth is something that often gets overlooked when people consider individual congregations and pastors.  Here we often look at the visible things and conclude that we learn from them what is really happening.  So it is assumed that if a congregation is growing, then it is doing things well and God is at work.  Likewise it is assumed that the pastor of this congregation is an effective and capable leader who is doing a good job.  In the same way, it is assumed that a congregation that is seeing no growth or is declining in numbers is doing things poorly.  It is assumed that the pastor of such a congregation is not doing a good job.

Recently Good Shepherd has been experiencing a time when we have seen new members come into the congregation.  The circumstances of two families caused me to reflect upon this topic of God’s cruciform ways, and the manner in which we often perceive them.  The first couple is transferring into the congregation with their two children, and the second couple will be entering the Catechumenate in the fall and will be received as members along with their three children at the Vigil of Easter.  We are blessed to have them with us.

Any time a congregation receives nine members in two families it is a good thing.  It becomes even better when they bring with them that highly prized “ecclesiastical commodity”: young children.   In viewing these developments, the usual way of perceiving them is that Good Shepherd and her pastor are doing a good job. Where the smaller congregation Our Redeemer, Golconda, IL gets yet smaller and loses members, the assumption is that this congregation and her pastor are not doing a good job.

Yet this conclusion based on outward appearances is all wrong.  Good Shepherd has not received these members because of anything the congregation or pastor has done.  Their decision to attend Good Shepherd is largely a matter of location.  The fact that one family left Our Redeemer is not a result of failure by the congregation or pastor.  Instead, the ministry of Pastor Tyler Holt at Our Redeemer is the means that God has used to bring both families to a full understanding of the Gospel and the manner in which Christ gives us his forgiveness through the sacraments.

Pastor Holt’s prison ministry introduced him to the husband of the first couple at the boot camp where he works.  Circumstances provided other opportunities for informal interaction outside of work.  In the course of that dialogue and the study of the Scriptures, the first couple became convinced that what the Lutheran church teaches is true.  They went through catechesis and joined Our Redeemer.  The husband began talking with his good friend about what he had learned.  The second couple also studied the Scriptures and eventually arrived at the same conclusion.

It’s a great story … until you learn how it turns out.  The second couple lives north of Marion and the husband commutes to work, so attending Our Redeemer, Golconda was not a possibility.  Instead, on Pastor Holt’s suggestion they began to attend at Good Shepherd.  The desire to get out of a rental property and into a home they own also prompted the first couple to move north of Marion and so they now attend Good Shepherd for the same reason.

Pastor Holt does the work of sharing the truth and this will result in nine Lutherans and four baptisms but none of them attend his church.  Good Shepherd does nothing, but because we are located located in Marion, we receive the blessing of nine new members and five small children.

The wisdom of the world looks at the outcome – the numbers of the congregational report - and says that one congregation and pastor are doing a “good job” while the other congregation is “stagnant” and so clearly her pastor is not doing a good job.  Yet when we are willing to look at things in the way of the cross – the way of God’s “foolishness” – we see that God has been at work in the faithful ministry of Pastor Holt and the people of God gathered around the Means of Grace at Our Redeemer, Golconda.   Faithfulness has borne fruit, even though we don’t see it there. The numbers don’t tell the whole story.  In fact, they don’t tell the real story because the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

[1] Luther’s Works 31:40

1 comment:

  1. An excellent illustration. I'm also glad to hear something about what Tyler is doing. He's a good guy.