By Paul Koch –
To serve the people of God as a pastor is a calling that certainly has its ups and downs. I have experienced moments of great joy as well as times of great sorrow. It’s not unlike any other vocations, I suppose. If you’re a salesman or a teacher or a mother or an accountant or a grandparent, your vocations are marked by both success and failure. Lately, however, it seems that there has been an abundance of news, not about the joys of the ministry, but the hardships. I have had a lot of conversations recently about the current struggles that face congregations. The stats are simply overwhelming about the lack of participation in the church today, the diminishing size of the mainline denominations, and the disenchantment of the millennial generation. We don’t have to look very far; my own congregation is a fraction of the size it was 25 years ago. And when these things come to light we begin to examine again what it is we are doing: what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong.
Martin Luther famously wrote that, “The cross alone is our theology.” When you boil it all down, when you get to the heart of what we are all about, when you strip away everything else, all you have left is the cross. The cross alone is what we preach and teach. The cross stands at the core of the Christian Church. It is like a light set on a hill that guides us to the safe harbor and give us confidence on our journey. After all, it was the cross of Christ proclaimed without hesitation that launched the Reformation. It was the cross that led us out from the tyranny and perversion of works righteousness to the free gift of salvation in Christ alone.
Of course, Luther didn’t come up with this confession regarding the life and focus of the Church. No, he was simply doing what St. Paul had done long before. In the midst of all the demands and claims of man’s wisdom, Paul calls the faithful back to the cross of Christ. So this is our heritage and our default positon. But what do we do when the cross alone doesn’t seem to work? What do we do when preaching and teaching the cross alone has led us to be a shell of what we once were?
I recently had a conversation with a woman who was deeply concerned with the lack of growth in the church these days. She said that while we must not compromise our core and center, we do need to find new ways to engage the culture. She focused, like many do, on the youth. Perhaps if we crafted the worship experience to be more engaging for them, then they would be more involved. Of course this runs a whole gamut of options. Perhaps you invest in a Director of Music that creates original pieces and forms a Worship Team that plays more energetic music; that will get a hold of the youth. Or you could completely redesign the chancel area to look more like a stage than a house of worship. Then again, maybe you go completely the other way. There are copious studies that show that a constant lack of tradition among young people makes the ancient forms of worship more valuable to them. So, we could burn incense and genuflect during the service. We could observe the ancient canonical hours. We could create a worship space that is completely different from their life outside these walls: more sacred and more holy.
Still others will say that the decline in the church problem can be solved if we simply catch up with the times. No matter what form of worship you choose to employ, it is of no use if you don’t employ the best in technological advancements to engage our world. We need to be active on social media and jump into the Christian marketplace with a strong internet presence. We need to build a community beyond these walls and rethink how we form our bonds in the church. Still others will say that the best way to correct the status quo is to employ the best in business strategies. After all, when any company in our community is facing hard times, they will launch new strategies and bold endeavors if they are to survive and move forward.
But there is a danger that comes with all of this. This danger becomes a terror if we do not recognize how problematic it can be. For what happens is we slowly, but surely, begin to take our eyes of that light on the hill. Our center shifts from the cross alone to our wisdom or our cleverness or our business strategy. The sin that lurks within us is always close at hand. The desire for glory and credit continually lures us to place our ultimate trust not in the cross, not in the center of our theology, but in our working it out. After all if we can find the right formula and correct game plan, we can turn this whole church around.
You see, the cross stripped of our clever schemes looks weak. The cross without our programs and strategies and worship forms looks foolish. The world will only laugh at such a bare cross. The experts will only remind us that it is not enough. The temptation to believe them is strong. I mean, wouldn’t it feel good to know that we have figured out how to better the church? What if we could save it from the decline it is currently facing? Wouldn’t it be good news to say that we have the solution? We could even package up the answer and share it with other churches. We could be part of a movement that helps the faithful be more relevant.
To such desires St. Paul says, “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 though 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 peach 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.”
What the world deems foolish we confess to be the wisdom of God. What the world condemns as weak we know to be the power of God. Paul reminds us this day that the cross of Christ is always and will forever be our center. The cross pulls down the proud and lifts up the humble. The cross declares sinners to be saints and finds the self-righteous to be without glory. The cross of our Lord turns everything upside down.
When God came to His people, when he came as one who suffered and died, when he came to be sin itself, it was like a huge explosion that forever changed the landscape. In our stubborn pride, we try to pick through the aftermath and build little cathedrals to our own wisdom in the crater left behind. We claim to know what happened and why it happened and what benefit it is for other people. We strategize and scheme to make our vision the most profound for those who come to see.
But what Paul gives us is the cross itself. He bypasses our cathedrals and invites the hearers of the good news to experience the explosion in their own life. Cross and empty tomb, death and resurrection: these are not just historical events. They are your present reality. You are dead in your sins, dead in your desire to clean up the shame of Calvary. You fall without any merit or strength of you own. You confess that you have been ungrateful and lukewarm in your willingness to trust in the cross alone. But Christ our Lord, knowing the full depth of your sin, declares that you are forgiven. You are free.
And in your heart and soul the powerful gift of God’s grace explodes again. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”