I have been a pastor now for 18 years and I must confess that I have no better understanding of what the church is to look like today than I did when I first began. Oh, I’ve learned a lot about how the church ought to act, about what a specific congregation owes to its own members and the community in which it resides, but what that actually looks like seems to be an endlessly shifting reality. Most churches go about their work with no real sense of themselves. They have no clear mission statement, no centralized reason for being that can be articulated by the members. They just flow through the years handing on what they’ve been given to the next generation. Like some sort of disorganized bucket brigade, things get jostled and mixed up and over time. It looks like a patchwork of half solutions that somehow manage to keep the ship from sinking.
Because of this, the church is often presented to us as a solution that needs to be solved. The thought is that there must be another way, a better system for conducting the affairs of the people of God at a given place. After all we want to be good stewards of the resources that we have, we want to be efficient and competent in the task we are given. And of course, there is usually property involved and salaries and payroll compliance and insurance requirements and so forth. The New Testament doesn’t offer a lot of guidance in these areas. Martin Luther famously said, “A 12-year-old child knows what the church is, it is the sum total of sheep who hear the Shepherd’s voice.” But that doesn’t help us make a strategic plan for growth and in a congregation. The Augsburg Confession teaches us that “the Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Okay, but how do we structure the governance and what do we do with elders, and does a given congregation have a responsibility to the one down the road, or are we all just fighting for what we can get?
Such constant problems have given rise to a special class of consultants that come prepared to evaluate a given church and give insights and direction, to put in place a plan that will offer the best course for success. Church consultants offer the hope that we might solve the problem of the church. They may throw around a few Bible verses to back up their ideas but in reality, they are relying on expertise from either business models that lead toward growth or from personal past experiences where growth was clearly established in a congregation.
Consultants are popular because pastors, like myself, have often spent sleepless nights wondering where things went wrong, wondering if there couldn’t be a better way and perhaps if we invited someone outside of the fellowship to give their professional opinion, why then we would feel a bit more contentment. We could at least have a list of objectives that would give some focus and purpose to our effort outside of simply preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. We want to be successful, and we want to be seen as successful. We desperately want something concrete to show for all the time, all the anxiety, all the tears shed, all the doubts and late nights we’ve stayed up worrying that we are failing.
However, I have come to see that the church is not a problem that we are going to solve. It isn’t a business or a corporation no matter how much we structure ourselves like one, and just because there is success in one place doesn’t mean that it can be replicated somewhere else. Think of the image that our Lord presents in many of his Kingdom of God parables. It is like a man who scatters seed and goes to bed, and it grows while he is asleep. Or it is seed scattered randomly on different soil that produces quite different results, without any guidance on how to cultivate the soil. Or it is good seed sown in a good field and then an enemy creeps in and sows weeds in their midst. These are allowed to grow right alongside the good wheat until he harvest day. The church will be messy and full of false growth and false sheep.
So, I don’t know how it ought to look. I don’t know what the best structure or strategic plan might be. But what we know without a doubt is what the church is supposed to do. It is supposed to sow the seeds, it is supposed to preach the Gospel and deliver the goods that our Lord has given his church to administer. It is supposed to kill the proud and arrogant and bring life to the sinner dead in their trespasses. The church will continue to make the promises of Christ ring in the ears of all who gather, but that may look quite different today than it did yesterday, or it will tomorrow.
And perhaps that is the lesson of the patchwork image of things old and new that we find in our churches today. The church looks like the remnants of those who have gone before us whose success and failure in solving the problem didn’t deter them from sowing the seed.