By Rev. Harrison Goodman
I hear the same whispers over and over. Different voices, same concern. “Pastor, when I was growing up the Sunday School had so many more children.” “Pastor, I remember when the church was full on Christmas.” “Pastor, there’s way more gray hair than not in here. What’s going to happen in 20 years when we’re all gone?”
I hate those whispers.
I’m the pastor of two churches in a small agricultural town of about 400, and another small agricultural town of about 200. I’m pretty sure the whispers I hear aren’t just in the small towns, though. I see giant churches casting aside everything they were called to hold dear in an attempt to chase down “youth” to stave off the same whispers I hear out in the sticks.
I used to give the usual rundown. I’d say, “Yeah, I know, but farming has changed in the last 40 years. Now one guy in his 50s with two grown kids farms what 10 families of 6-8 used to work. I know it looks different, but as long as there’s farming, there’ll be people out here, and as long as there are people, there will be church.” Still, the whispers sink in sometimes, and I get afraid, too.
For a while I treated our youth group like a bunch of baby birds in the nest. These are our most important resource, and our only hope. One day, they’ll be like us, but not yet. This summer, I took them to a Higher Things conference. We fundraised under the mantra “this is the next generation of our church.” It was a huge success. It struck at everyone’s fear. Without these kids, we’ll be nothing. One day, they will be the church. One day, they will take over for us.
I was so wrong.
I learned something at Higher Things, too. These kids aren’t the next generation of the church. They’re the church right now. I watched 400 Christians who happened to be teenagers hear the word of God, receive His Body and Blood, cling to His promises, and sing them back. This is what the church is.
This isn’t a bunch of kids who are begrudgingly attending a church service so they can go play laser tag later. Those kids don’t sing. They sit quietly and roll their eyes. Those kids need someone to let them bat around a beach ball during something we’d never call “worship” except that we want them to like it enough to stick around in a few years. I didn’t see any of those kids. I only heard the church. Our kids sang.
Our kids sang because they’re not the next generation of the church waiting in the wings. They’re the church right now. For all our fear, sometimes we lose sight of this. These kids are the church, and if they are the church, then they need what the whole church needs. They don’t need beach balls. They need Jesus. They need the forgiveness He won upon the cross, and they need the Sacraments through which He delivers that forgiveness. Market research doesn’t make kids sing hymns. Faith does. This is what the church sounds like.
I won’t pretend that the church doesn’t face problems. It’s always been the last gate against the gates of hell. It has always stared down sin, death, and the devil. I understand where the whispers come from. I’m not advising you to put your head in the sand. I’m saying fix your eyes on the cross—we’re going to be okay.
It’s time to silence the whispers. It’s not our job to keep the church going one more generation. It’s God’s job. This is the point Luther hammers home in his Small Catechism. It states,“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. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
We can’t save ourselves from sin, death, and the devil. Only Jesus does that. We can’t build or maintain a church by ourselves either. Only the promised Holy Spirit does it. The Holy Spirit is at work in the church wherever the Word of God is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. What gives me hope is that I see God’s children of every age gathered around those gifts, which really do something. Through them, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. I think He’s doing a pretty good job.
Rev. Harrison Goodman serves St. Paul Lutheran Church in Winside, Nebraska and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Carroll, Nebraska. Rev. Goodman and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their second child. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.