“How do we translate a hope that we know in our heads to a hope that we live out in our lives, so that, as Peter says, one might ask about the hope that we possess?” “Can you talk a little bit about what the church living as a community of hope looks like in the day-to-day lives of the Christian? Is that something that you’ve seen, or you envision?” These two questions were posed to Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer at the end of his presentation at the Theological Conference “Beyond the Walls with Jesus” on February 5, 2022. If you were in Rev. Lehenbauer’s place, how would you respond? While these questions are simple and direct, the answers don’t seem to be.
Last November, I took on the task of preparing a demographic study for two circuits in the Michigan District, LCMS. Two observations stood out—observations that appear to be contradictory, yet both exist.
- I first observed that there are too many LCMS congregations in these circuits. So many, and so close together, that their missions and ministries overlap, begging the question: Are we good stewards of the resources that God has provided?
- Upon further study, I observed that there are not enough churches, LCMS or otherwise, to reach the thousands of people in the area, of whom Rev. Mitch Vogeli (pastor of Nativity, St. Charles) says, “They are … longing for a place to feel cared for, and a place where they can care for others,” a place where they can meet Jesus.
The contradiction is obvious. How can you have too many churches and, at the same time, too few? The fact that both observations exist causes one to wonder.
Having completed the demographic study, I wandered outside the scope of the study to make sense of what I had observed. You see, as I traveled through the neighborhoods that comprised this study, I noticed multiple locations of certain business establishments, such as chain pharmacies, gas stations, urgent care clinics, car repair shops, Coney-Island-style restaurants, and convenience stores. If their locations were plotted on a map, we might come to the first observation: too many, too close.
This business strategy led me to wonder if we shouldn’t have more churches/mission stations scattered throughout the area in close proximity to each other. Then, on second thought, churches/mission stations are fundamentally different than most business establishments. A church is not an outlet where one drives through the drive-up lane or runs into the establishment to quickly pick up something from the shelves, or, when needing urgent care, can get in without an appointment. Well, are businesses and churches different or the same? When someone is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison, they need a so-called spiritual pharmacy, gas station, fast food outlet, convenience store, urgent care, or car repair.
Again, is it practical to establish more churches/mission stations throughout our communities? This seems to be an impossible question to answer until one realizes that we have hundreds, potentially thousands, of mission stations already established throughout the study area. These stations look like this: There is a church family living in a neighborhood, an apartment complex, or maybe a trailer park, wherever they call home. And across the street or the hall, next to and kitty corner to their residence, are several residences that may now or in the future need the hand of Jesus.
Sad to say, many of these mission stations are not open for business. People don’t know their neighbor’s names, let alone their neighbor’s needs. To be open for business means to get to know your neighbors, greet them, listen to them, and be ready to give an answer for the hope you have in Christ.
Not a New Idea
I can’t claim originality for the neighborhood mission station concept. Much of this insight came from reading Don Everts’ books, The Hopeful Neighborhood, The Hopeful Neighborhood Field Guide, and The Reluctant Witness. Neither can Everts claim ownership. For insight, we are drawn to the theme for the Michigan District Theological Conference, 1 Peter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (ESV).
I’m struck by Dale Meyer’s description of life when 1 Peter was written: No civil rights like we are blessed with in today’s United States; submission to those in authority was an absolutism that we don’t understand in today’s culture; no cathedrals, let alone church buildings, yet the early church did worship, gathering in their homes in the name of the Lord. As I understand it, life in the early church, rooted in Christ, was found in the fellowship of believers.
In this day and age in North America, in our Western culture, as the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith, and likewise calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith (paraphrase of Luther’s explanation to the Third Article), are we not daily reminded in Baptism of the love God freely gives to us through Christ? How was God’s love made manifest? Certainly, on the cross of Christ. How is God’s love made manifest? Certainly, in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As we go “Beyond the Walls with Jesus,” how is this love shown?
“‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and your visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:34b–40, ESV).
Thinking back on the opening questions asked in this article, it appears that the answer is as simple as living your faith. AND it also appears that the answer is as hard as living your faith. When confirmands and new members stand before the altar, they are asked: “‘Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?’ If so, respond by saying, ‘I do, by the grace of God’” (LSB, p. 273).
Yes, be open for business. Live your faith by the grace of God, for without God’s grace the answer is hard. With His grace, we glorify His name.
To see the videos of the Theological Conference mentioned in this article, click here.
Mary Craaybeek - February 22, 2022
Deacon Renard, we feel thankful that at and around our mission station Jesus has furnished an abundance of opportunities to honor him.