Dear Disciple of Christ,
Last week I welcomed you back to these “Faithful Fridays” readings with a brief reflection on visions. From Proverbs we were reminded that….
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.
” (Proverbs 29:18)
There is always more that can be said on any of these reflections and having set them aside for the readings provided for Lent, I’ll take just a little more time on visions. I was reflecting some on the reality of my first church struggling with its mission. Between building their church in 1923 and my arrival in December of 1975, were 50 years of mission and ministry. They ministered especially well to immigrant Germans coming into America (and coming through Ellis Island and Castle Clinton). Some of those immigrants moved out of the city to rural America and began their lives in a new world. But others stayed (at least for a while – hear that as a generation or two or three) in Brooklyn and the other 4 large boroughs of New York City. They formed communities of immigrants with their own languages and foods and fellowship and traditions.
For those who stayed in that area, their faith was an important part of their lives. Many of them offered up daily prayers that the Lord would bless them in this new land and that some of the dangers and challenges of their homelands would not be repeated in this new land. In some of the countries they came from, their religion was based on the faith of the person ruling over them. German was the second most prevalent language in America for many of those years. So wave after wave of Germans came to New York City (and Brooklyn) and many stayed and joined congregations worshiping in their own languages.
Brooklyn was actually called by another name; the “City of Churches.” When the Brooklyn Daily Eagle considered the future of Brooklyn (in 1844), they used that label. It was part of a vision that could be seen in its boroughs and neighborhoods and restaurants and grocery stores and heard as well as seen (by the innumerable languages spoken and heard on its streets) in its many churches. In case you were wondering how a little German speaking Lutheran church could have 900 members (as I mentioned last week), there you have it. German immigrants were happy to find a church in a new world speaking their language and pointing to their faith heritages. So, Trinity Lutheran was “well positioned” to welcome and receive new members (almost exclusively from Germany) with German the primary language of its members.
But that also explains the reason a small church like Trinity could reach membership of 900 people and decline at the rate it did. As I suggested last week (or said directly), that the reason the church declined to about 45 people when I got there just over 50 years after its start) was that it was missing its vision. It did not see itself as a living witness to God’s love for all people and a community that reached out to and welcomed all people. As I looked through the statistical books of membership almost every listed member came from a transfer from a German church (in Germany or in America). They welcomed all (Germans). That is not the vision for mission God has given the disciples of His Son.
We work to make the good news available to all, making disciples of all nations. That is fulfilling the vision God has given us. I said that the people of Trinity had “lost” their vision. So one of my pastoral responsibilities (calling from God), was to point out the truth. The ships had stopped coming. Our neighborhood was not receiving Lutheran Germans. And if we didn’t reach out to our neighbors, 45 members would likely be the ongoing high point of membership. There were many prospects, those disconnected from a community of faith since Brooklyn has about 2.6 million residents in an area of about 69 Square miles, but few were Germans.
The vision of our calling must be seen and cherished and lived out by each new generation of members or… Or? Or they will perish!…. Many a Lutheran church shows a history like Trinity’s. One of the studies I did in “The Welcoming Church,” (my dissertation for my Doctor in Ministry program) suggests that there are only two ways to respond to the Vision of Mission God gives us. We can respond faithfully, reaching out to ALL, or we can ignore the mission or revise the mission, selectively choose who we accept in “our” church and, ultimately, …. perish. Each pastor and each member of each church of Christ must reflect on that vision and that calling. We either invite and welcome and accept (ALL) those without churches around ours OR we will perish as a congregation.
Recently, I was speaking with a classmate of mine from seminary years. When I was serving in Brooklyn, he was serving in New Jersey. As much as Trinity was a symbol of struggling Lutheran congregations, his was a model of what a “successful” or “thriving” church looked like. They were “movers and shakers” with many members and extraordinary resources available (sound like the previous Trinity Lutheran?). The chasubles (communion garments) I have to this day came as a gift to me from that congregation (they had multiple sets and I had none). As I reminisced with that retired pastor, I asked if that congregation needed them back since I, and the other pastors, now have sufficient additional vestments. “No,” he said with some sadness in his voice, “they don’t need them. They closed as a church about 5 years ago.” “What?”, I said with incredulity, “What happened to them?” “The neighborhood changed,” he said with disappointment and finality. They too failed to see the vision of mission God had given them to invite all, not just their original founding ethnic groups.
It is sad, but true. At least partially true. The truth is that there was a vision of mission that church could not or would not or did not see and now that church is unable to make any witness anymore. Is your church a “visionary” church? Do you see the Vision of what God has in mind for your church (and every church of Christ)? May God give us a vision of His mission and joy and commitment in showing it to others.
In his service,
Daily Scripture Readings
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Isaiah 26:1-4; 1 Peter 1:13-16