“He can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s a phrase that indicates that someone’s spending all their attention on the things around them and can’t see what’s happening in the big picture. Once in a while it’s important for us all to step back from looking for Emerald Ash Borer holes in the tree bark to see what’s happening to the forest. Is the forest expanding? Is the forest being cut down? Are the older trees strong and healthy? Are there new young saplings growing in the midst of the taller trees? We don’t know unless we leave the comfort of our tree bark for a moment, raise our heads and observe our surroundings.
Aging and Shrinking
Statistics tell us that the Christian church in America is aging and shrinking at a rate that most find to be alarming. Certainly, life in the church is not the way it used to be! Many churches find that their average age is well over 65 and the costs of maintaining a facility and a paid staff more and more a burden. This summer, our denomination, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, voted in convention to dramatically downsize the national structure. Our Minnesota South District constantly has to cut back due to reduced contributions from congregations. Central Lutheran School is now seeking new models that do not assume a Lutheran student majority. Churches that were once pillars in the community are caught spending more on the pillars than the community.
Shrewd and Copperless
While everything I said is quite true, it’s not the whole story. It’s easy to get discouraged from such an assessment because we feel a sense of loss of things that are important to us. I was recently surprised by how poignant Matthew 10:1-22 is to our current situation. Jesus sends out his disciples, a rag-tag group from every walk of life, to the local people. These disciples weren’t seminary trained. They spent time with Jesus! They were told not to bring anything for the journey. No gold, silver or even copper, no extra shirt, shoes or even a bag. They were being sent out like “sheep among wolves” where they were to be as “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” And when apprehended and jailed, the Holy Spirit would be ready with words for them to say. Wow. Imagine the dedication of those disciples being sent with nothing but the message of salvation. But God took care of them and the message spread. What is God telling us here?
Treetop Vision, Feet on the Ground
I think once we view the forest from the treetops, we see the need to get our feet busy on the ground. Yes, times have changed and they’re not going back. But I am convinced that in this shrinking, aging forest there exists the potential for new growth unlike anything we have ever seen in our lifetime. It won’t be done by spending a lot of money and building a stronger infrastructure. It won’t be done by going back to school or relying on the seminary educated to speak the words for you. If God wishes to see this growth happen in our time, it will be His work and it will start with you. You, sent by God to a world that dies forever without Him. You, with faith in your heart, courage in your steps and the Holy Spirit on your tongue. You, a miserable sinner loving another miserable sinner enough to take the time to explain how the Kingdom of Heaven has come to you and how they can join that Kingdom too.
As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Freely you have received, freely give. – Matthew 10:7, 8b