How does one determine the spiritual health of a congregation? For some, the health of a congregation can be determined (i.e. measured) by how active the laity are, how strong the youth group is, and how pious its individual members are. That congregation must be healthy that has lots of programs. What purpose do the programs serve, ultimately? To show measurable results. This is also, by the way, page 1 out of the Pietist’s handbook.
The Orthodox Lutheran measures/judges success not by looking at the fruits of the members, or by counting sheep, or by taking inventory of how much people know, or by how many Bible verses one can recite from memory (more on that later), but rather by the orthodoxy and purity of teaching and administration of the Sacraments. That’s not to say that Christians should not be involved and active in service projects, or youth groups, but these things should not be the determining factors in measuring the spiritual health of the congregation. These are subjective, and they vary from congregation to congregation, just as the fruits of faith vary from Christian to Christian. These things are all well and good, but they are not the main thing. They are not central.
What is central? What is absolutely indispensable? The preaching of the Gospel. The Administration of Christ’s Sacraments. Church discipline, at least for orthodox Lutheranism, has never been considered a mark of the Church. It is good, it is helpful, it is one of the duties of a caretaker of souls, but it is not our primary duty. We are not called to be policemen. At some point, like parents and teenagers, we must commend the souls of our members into the hands of our heavenly Father and pray that He could guard and keep them, and then go on with our lives. Our job is not to measure the success of our preaching by examining the fruits of our members, but rather to preach, as in the Parable of the Sower. Neither, I’m afraid, is it our duty to measure the boundaries of the Christian Church.
It is the Pietist who demands measureable progress, who needs observable, identifiable proof that the Gospel is working. Orthodox Lutheranism is content to preach, to administer the Sacraments, and to leave the rest to the Holy Spirit, who “works faith when in where He pleases in those who hear the Gospel.”
Related to this is the need for measurable progress when it comes to preparation for admission to the Lord’s Supper. It is my understanding, based on lectures that I have heard on the subject, that Pietism was partly responsible for removing the burden of Catechesis from the parents and putting it on the pastors. Not content to rely on the preaching of the Church to convert and supply faith “in these words,” the Pietists were much more concerned about demonstrable proof of faith in those who received the Sacrament.
The pastors, as the Catechists, served as policemen in a sense, who said “yay” or “nay” to applicants for Communion based on how much they could articulate in their own words about the Christian Faith. I could be overstating this a bit, but it seems like the drive for an almost academic like requirement for first communion stems more from our Pietistic roots than our Orthodox Lutheran roots.
Certainly I am not saying that it is a bad thing at all to require children to receive extensive instruction, but to make it an absolute requirement for admission to the Supper? Sounds awfully Pietistic to me. Hence the need for measurable results, observable progress. Fufill these requirements, and BOOM, you’re ready for the Sacrament. Maybe this is a Western thing in general, this need for identifying a specific point at which a person is “ready.” I don’t think it was always like this though. Luther was content to require children to attend catechetical preaching with their parents, and then to be examined when the parents brought them to the priest, and then to be admitted to the Sacramental fellowship of the Church. I doubt that he would approve of our practice today of holding children back from the Sacrament until they were able to demonstrate to a large extent their “readiness” for it.
There is a certain comfort for a preacher in being able to give someone a test and have that person put down all the correct answers. But one has to wonder: is our fitness for the Sacrament based on our ability to regurgitate doctrinal formulas, or on the fact that we are Baptized Christians? I’ll leave it there.