By Ross Engel –
One of my favorite hymns in the hymnal is LSB 645 “Built on the Rock.” Musically, this hymn is a powerful one that almost begs to be played and sung at full volume. I recall my days in seminary when this hymn would make it into the singing rotation. The massive pipe organ made the pews and walls of the chapel shake and swell as the students and professors offered their voices to the triumphant sound of this Danish Lutheran hymn.
“Built on the Rock the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling. Crumbled have spires in every land; bells still are chiming and calling, calling the young and old to rest, but above all the souls distressed, longing for rest everlasting.”
I often find myself singing this hymn (It’s in the bedtime rotation when I sing to the kiddos at night). However, last month, it has held special significance to me. This past September, I was asked to be the Lector at my home pastor’s retirement service and share some words at the luncheon. It was an honor to serve not only the pastor who confirmed me but also the people who watched me grow up from third grade on. It was a joyous day to celebrate the ministry of my pastor.
In the midst of the joyous occasion and happy conversations, my time visiting my home church was also a time of sadness. You see, from my understanding, the day my pastor retired also happened to be the last day that they will be having Sunday morning worship at my home church. The perfect storm of dwindling attendance, diminished finances, and a changing demographic has rendered the congregation unable to sustain herself. After nearly 150 years of Word and Sacrament ministry (and a Lutheran school which predated the congregation), my home church is closing her doors and selling both church and property. You might say that the steeple has fallen; the spire has crumbled. It certainly was a sad and emotional day. It has weighed heavily on my heart and mind.
And yet, just as the hymn reminds us, the Holy Christian Church continues on! It always has and it always will. The Church will stand until Christ returns on the Last Day. The Gospel will be preached and forgiveness will be proclaimed into the ears and fed into the mouths of sinners! The Church is the total number of people of every time and every place who believe in Jesus Christ and have salvation in Him. In that sense, the Church never shrinks; it only grows! Sure, there are times when a member of the Church militant transfers their membership to the Church triumphant (this happens in death), but they are still a part of the one Holy Christian and Apostolic Church. On this side of the resurrection, we will always find the holy Christian Church where “the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII.1).
As one considers the life and ministry of the bride of Christ, found in our local congregations and parishes, we must do so knowing full well that, while the world around us may be changing fast and steeples around us might be falling hard, God continues to dwell in the midst of His people with His Holy Word and the precious Sacraments. He does not leave us. He does not forsake us. His Word always accomplishes the purposes for which He sends it. The Church, no matter how big or small, will continue to proclaim God’s saving Word and distribute His precious gifts of life and salvation. May she ever rejoice that God is at work among His people, saving us, forgiving us, and redeeming us. He is constantly at work in His Church, and for that we give thanks!
As we continue to be Church together, whether near or far, big or small, let us “ring the church bell” loud and long. Let us continue to gather and invite others to come and join us, to be part of the Holy Christian Church, that they, with us, might receive Christ’s precious gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation!
“Grant, then, O God, Your will be done, that when the church bells are ringing, many in saving faith may come, where Christ His message is bringing; “I know My own; My own know Me. You, not the world, My face shall see. My peace I leave with you. Amen.”