Why Are We So Surprised?

I attended an ordination today of Rev. Steve Mueller at St. James Lutheran Church in Quincy, IL. Steve and I got to know each other when he vicared in Quincy at Lutheran Church of St. John. During the evening meal following the service, I had the pleasure of sitting next to some folks from Ascension Lutheran Church in St. Louis, where Steve had done his field work. The gentleman sitting next to me asked me at one point during supper, what I thought was the most surprising thing I encountered getting into the parish. Great question!

My answer was two-fold, which I will give briefly, and then get on to my real point. The first thing that struck me was the colossal mess that existed in so many families in the church. By mess, I mean people on their third marriages, grandparents adopting and raising grandchildren, and so on. Certainly I knew coming out of the seminary that there would be challenges, but I guess I was not completely prepared for the complexity of problems that people had. I remember thinking that there is no way to go back to square one with them. There was no way to clean up the mess. You had to deal with it as it came. I think it was then that I realized that the ministry is no place for a perfectionist! (Okay, so this is not so brief)

The second thing I noted was that I was not prepared for the spiritual apathy that I encountered in the parish almost immediately. I was eager to teach and preach, but few were eager to receive it. It was a shock, but one that I should have seen coming had I listened to the Bible more. And the apathy isn’t just spiritual, it is characteristic of the area in which we live, it seems. This was and still is a source of frustration, but should I be surprised? Has there ever been a time when everyone was hungry and thirsty for the wholesome loaves of God’s Word? Why are we so surprised, we pastors, when we encounter disinterest and apathy, or even hatred towards the ministry? Isn’t this what we ought to have expected? Isn’t this what Christ himself experienced when he became incarnate? “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”

We talk about the “Theology of the Cross” but then when we actually encounter the cross we act as though it were the oddest thing in the world. We get frustrated and even angry at God that the people don’t respond with shouts of joy at our heavenly wisdom. Perhaps what we should be surprised at, as my friend David Petersen has often said, is the fact that anyone shows up at all on Sunday to hear a sermon or attend Bible class or receive the Sacrament. I remember a guy at sem in Pastoral Practice Forum getting all bent out of shape over the fact that the seminary doesn’t make sure that the parishes we are going to are ready-made havens of liturgical and confessional doctrine and practice. I think I even chastised him in class because of this, pointing to the fact that Christ never promised such things of the Church. What he did say was, “anyone who does not take up his cross cannot be my disciple.” (Or something like that)

So I guess I’m saying to myself, and to anyone else who is reading: Buck up, preach the Word, and don’t expect it to be well received by everyone. Instead, expect to be mistreated, maligned, and ignored, but don’t be bitter about it. Just do your work, trust in Christ, pray your Psalter, and remember that they hated Christ first. They ignored him first. They made light of His Word first. What we preach is foolishness in the eyes of men; no wonder the whole world doesn’t flock to it.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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5 Responses to Why Are We So Surprised?

  1. Rev. Eric J Brown says:

    I was talking to my history class and the discussion came to the Public Ministry. We has a student who was preparing to enter the Seminary (and now has completed a year) – so I used him as an example.

    See Jay, how excited he is? How he wants to teach and preach. Now, look around. How many people are here? What percentage of our members don’t even show up on Sunday, much less to a bible study. That can be incredibly depressing.

  2. Anonymous says:

    If it’s depressing for the pastors, it’s depressing as well for those of us parishioners who do the showing up and the hearing. We wonder where our neighbors are, how they’re doing, what’s keeping them away, if it’s a hurt or just disinterest.
    We parishioners should be calling our absent brothers and sisters, and calling *on* them, and inviting them as if they were strangers. I mean to say, don’t gush over the new members when they arrive without seeing to those from among our membership. Remind them what they’re missing, and that they’re missed.
    It may have no effect, but it’s worth trying, and it should be done. *By parishioners.*
    Susan R

  3. Rev. Paul Beisel says:

    Thank you both for your comments, especially for your view from the pew, Susan. I have often tried to put myself in the shoes of a parishioner who shows up to Good Friday service and is one of two people there. How uncomfortable it must be to sit there and have the pastor preaching to two people. And you’re also right about the fact that it would be helpful if everyone in the church would hold their fellow Christians accountable. I recently was told by a faithful church member that a couple who hasn’t been coming for a while told her that they would not come back until I leave. I asked the church member if she told them that they were sinning and should repent. She did tell the guy that there may not be a church left to come back to. Good observations.

  4. Rev'd-Up One says:

    Paul, many of the things you write I experience myself in the ministry. It must not be very different wherever your called as a pastor. Perhaps I should rephrase that and say, “It must not be any different for the faithful pastor who preaches and teaches the Word of God in its purity and truth.”

    For the past 6 six years I have been preaching to the same two people during weekday Matins. We have had more here and there, but these two ladies faithfully attend everyday. I really haven’t thought about what they might be thinking. I have only been concerned about what “I am doing” and “Why haven’t others come.”

    Thanks Susan for your comments. In my report to the voter’s at our meeting, I make attempts to show that visiting, calling, and writing to the wayward sheep of the flock isn’t ONLY for the pastor to do. The body of Christ, the church, is also encouraged to visit, call, and write. IMO, on the one hand, when the pastor does these things (and he should be doing them regardless of the personal situation) the lost sheep expect the pastor to be doing them. They might say, “It’s his job.” On the other hand, when the fellow members of the church do them perhaps they would say, “If so and so are calling me and encouraging me to return to church, perhaps I should. They must really be concerned about me to show up at my doorstep.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    We recently had a young family with young children leave our small congregation for a church with more ‘opportunities’ for the kids; i.e., a congregation with more kids and more programs.
    In discussing the sad situation with another member, I said I hoped members were calling the family, or even sending them notes, saying they were missed, and even spelling out their error in letting tail wag dog. But this member said she had not, as, in their leaving, they’d pretty much ‘said they don’t want us anymore.’
    That just sounded petty.
    While it’s hard not to take it personally–it feels almost like a divorce–that’s making it about us, and saying that they rejected us, and not the gospel.
    But, there’s not so much danger for that family in rejecting us or leaving us. The danger is the thinking that took them away in the first place: that the church is to provide opportunities and activities for kids, and that providing for their children’s welfare consists of keeping them busy and connected to other kids, as opposed to bringing them up in the faith.
    We’re very good at blaming the pastor for poor attendance, or for those who fall away, and we do it subtly. We don’t accuse him of doing anything wrong, just of not doing the right thing well enough. What a convenient target the pastor is, for all our disappointments, and what a convenient action is the shrugging of the shoulders and the words, ‘oh well…I guess they don’t like us anymore.’
    That’s every bit as sad as people missing Sunday service, or even quitting the congregation.
    Susan

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