Earlier this summer while in Indiana someone asked Denise if St. Matthew was a "dying" congregation. First, that question offended me. Second, it made me to wonder if that person understood the nature of the church in any way. Every congregation that focuses on Christ, His crucifixion and His resurrection is a living congregation. It does not matter if it has only two people in it, or a hundred people in it. Jesus said, "Were two or three are gathered in My name, there I will be." That phrase "in My name" refers to people who gather around Jesus, in other words, a congregation. How can a congregation of two or three people be alive? Isn't that a dying congregation? Of course not!
Remember, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). And Christ is alive. He lives; therefore, every church which focuses on Him is an ever-living church. That church does not die, because Jesus does not die. Remember, "in Him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1). So where does this idea come from that some churches are "dying"? It come from the religion of glory.
Luther spoke of two religions: the religion of the cross and the religion of glory. The religion of the cross focuses on Jesus and His crucifixion. It is the religion of life because it clings to Christ. The religion of glory is the religion o death because it replaces Christ with our works, our feelings, our pride, our glory. The religion of glory is full of people saying, "Look at us. Look at our big numbers. Look at our programs. Look at our works." The religion of the cross, the true religion, says, "Look at Jesus."
Sadly, any true and living congregations have become frustrated with the lack of "growth." Those congregations once focused on Christ. When Jesus failed to give them the growth their pride demanded, those congregations placed Jesus in a corner. Sure, the occasionally mention Him but their focus is on their programs, their activities. those congregations say "Sure, jesus is important but quite frankly, He is just not enough." Those sad congregations may have "numbers" in the short term, but over time they all eventually dwindle and fade away.
I invite you to read 1 Kings 19. It begins with Elijah's depression that the true faith is not a faith of triumph and glory. He wanted to experience constant triumphs. He wanted numbers. He wanted growth. God gave him persecution, so Elijah wanted to die. Notice how God taught Elijah beginning at verse 11. Elijah wanted the spectacular, but God was not there. Instead, God was in a quiet, easily ignored, whisper. Too many modern Christians reject the God of the whisper and demand a God of spectacular triump and glory. Therefore, they end up rejecting God and creating a faith centered on me, me, me. Finally, notice how big the church was in Elijah's time....seven thousand out of a nation of millions. I suspect some modern "church growth" experts might say that Elijah should have blended in with his culture. Perhaps Elijah should have changed the worship service to become more Baal friendly. Perhaps Elijah should have softened the doctrine to be more "welcoming." God does not agree. He said, "Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu."
That is why the question "Is St. Matthew a dying congregation?" offends me so much. The unbelievers die. All those who trust in the Lord will live...no matter how few. If only seven thousand Christians remained in the United States, if St. Matthew had only two people in it, still the church would be living. It is only those who reject Christ as the center of their faith who are the dead and dying church.
Pastor David Mohr
St. Matthew Lutheran Church-LCMS