“The Christian Church is Crumbling!” Really?
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who
is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock [Peter’s confession of the Gospel] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16 – ESV)
I have heard it said, and often thought to myself, “What is happening to the Christian Church in America?” Most congregations are reporting numerical decreases (this could also be that people are having fewer children than they did). Some are having inner turmoil. Some are closing their building doors due to the drop in giving and attendance due to COVID. By God’s grace, our doors are still open, but we also face the same challenges as other congregations.
Yet, should the Church be marked by numerical, financial, or any other kind of worldly success, e.g. are we only successful as Christ’s Church if we build a nice building in X amount of years with X number of members? No! Christ says that He will build His Church by the Gospel and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, even when it doesn’t look that way to our fallen reason and senses. Is Christ’s Church crumbling to the ground? No, the world is, but not Christ’s Church.
First, what is the Church? We use the word ‘church’ in many ways, don’t we? We point to an empty building on the corner and call it ______ Church. Yet, we all know that all buildings, even ones used by Christians for a time, are passing away and are not Christ’s Bride, the Church. Strictly speaking, Christ’s Church is only the congregation of saints and true believers ( Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession), as we confess in the Creeds. As to say, an unbeliever is not part of Christ’s Church. Therefore, since we can’t see whether a person has faith, this has often been termed the, invisible church.
However, just because we can’t see the Church, meaning believers, that doesn’t mean we don’t know where to find the Church on earth. As our Lutheran Confessions put it, “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” (Article VII of the Augsburg Confession VII) So, we can say that faithful groupings of Christians in beautiful buildings, in a hotel room, in a home, in a hospital room, in a nursing home, or in a field, are the Church, when the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered as Jesus instituted. This is termed the, visible church. Christ’s Church, strictly speaking, doesn’t even need a physical building—though they are really nice to have.
Consequently, as our Confessions put it, “That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.” (Ibid AC V)
The Gospel and Sacraments given and received are our food, clothing, and shelter. When it comes to defining the Church, strictly speaking, and to congregational priorities and budgets, especially during these challenging times—it is the giving and receiving of Word and Sacraments. The Holy Spirit, through these means, creates and sustains the Church, when and where He pleases. As Luther put it, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life.” (Third Article of The Creed)
I pray that we, and all congregations of saints, remember that Christ builds His Church, and that built on Him nothing can topple us over. When Christ’s New Testament Church began, she didn’t have big numbers or nice buildings, but had all she needed—Christ, Her Foundation, in Word and Sacraments. The same was/is true when Christians, to the glory of God, built/build nice buildings and had/have large numbers, while having their beautiful feet firmly on The Rock.
I am not prophesying that the economy and culture are going to get worse and that they days of glorious numbers and buildings are over and that we are returning to house churches and small numbers; I am simply encouraging us to remember that the Church doesn’t stand or fall on our numbers, physical building, or economy. No matter what the economy does, no matter what Satan does; The Church will never taste destruction, since we are built on and by Christ.
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
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