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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Resiliency of the Church
November 15, 2018

Jesus tells his disciples that even the full force of hell’s fury cannot stop the church from fulfilling its divine purpose. The image he uses is significant: “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Sometimes this is interpreted to mean that no matter how great the attacks it faces, the church will survive. Whatever its losses or failures, it will not curl up and die. That may be true, but that isn’t what Jesus is saying.

Gates are part of a defensive stand, not of an offensive attack. Gates don’t go out to conquer, they serve to protect that which is threatened. Jesus’ image has the church on the offensive, with hell guarding its gates defensively. And, he declares, its defense cannot prevail. Hell will inevitably crumble in the face the church’s witness.

This weekend, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a provocative article interpreting the results of yet another public survey revealing that the fastest growing religious affiliation in America is “none.” The church, as we have known it, seems to be withering before our very eyes. This is true of all denominations. We could be forgiven for construing the church’s battle-posture as being defensive, in retreat. But that is not how Jesus sees it.

Let’s be clear. Jesus did not ride a growing popular wave in his own ministry. His little church was in decline almost from its inception, until only John and a few women were left with him as he breathed his last. The fourth Gospel reports that, earlier in his ministry, the ranks of Jesus’ followers were already dwindling due to the difficulty of his teaching, and the only reason the Twelve stuck with him was that they had nowhere else to go to hear the words of life. (John 6:66-68)

Apparently the fact that his cadre of followers kept declining did not discourage Jesus. He pressed on regardless of how many abandoned him. And we know the rest of the story. Even death itself was not the end, only a prelude to something far greater than any of his followers could have possibly imagined.

I was a bit put off a few years ago when one of our pastors, while telling me how sorry he felt for me in this impossible job I have (a well-meaning comment people often make to me), asked me, “So what’s it like having your whole ministry defined by ‘managing decline?’” His question stopped me cold. I had never thought of my work in those terms.

I began running the numbers, and the light bulb went off. Of course, he’s right! My ministry here has been marked by a steady decline in numbers of congregations and members. Our presbytery budget has shrunk, our staff is significantly smaller than when I arrived.

And yet…. We are not in the business of defending our gates against the encroachments of that which would destroy us. Truthfully, we have nothing to defend, because we own nothing. Everything we have and all that we do is mere stewardship of what belongs to God, not to us.

As a church with nothing to lose, we are free to proclaim the good news regardless of our gain or loss. Like Luther, we are bold to say, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still – his kingdom is forever!” (“A Mighty Fortress”) With Paul, we remain of good cheer regardless of how little or much we have, whether our lot is enlarging or shrinking. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:11-12)

I am privileged to visit many congregations, some of which are growing in numbers, and some which are diminishing. Yet in each place I hear the Word preached with honest conviction, I join in the heartfelt prayers of God’s people, and I learn of mission work being done in Jesus’ name. The Gospel displays its peculiar world-changing power in every location and situation.

The resiliency of the church is marked not by the story its statistical reports tell, but by its readiness to continue proclaiming and living the Gospel in every circumstance. None of the churches to which the apostles wrote letters remains standing today. Yet their ministries have borne fruit far beyond their walls, crashing through every gate that has sought to block their advance. And so it is for the church everywhere and always. And that includes your congregation!

Yours in life abundant,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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