Looking Back and Forward
Both of our congregations grew up with the truth “If you build it, they will come.” We simply needed to let people know where the local Lutheran church was and people would come. I know that is a bit of an over statement ignoring the hard work that was done, but there is a lot of truth in it as well.
Our congregations grew, and grew! For St. Peter’s, the peak was in the early 1960’s. Without looking at the records, I can say the same was true for Grace. How can I be so sure? Because EVERY church in this area has the same pattern! I grew up as a member of Grace, San Mateo. Same pattern! Trinity, Burlingame? Same pattern! Our Redeemer, Oakland? Same pattern!
When our congregations suddenly began to shrink, some level of panic set in. As the decline continued, so did the growth of our concern. We all seemed to suddenly remember the Great Commission of Jesus, 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, Baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20
Our congregations started looking for new members in all directions. There were all kinds of activities to grow the Kingdom. There were some successes; there were many disappointments. And in spite of all the work, the congregations continued to shrink. Most of those once thriving congregations are on the edge of closing.
There is a new reality. People don’t even know what a Lutheran is. There are many people around us who consider Lutherans to be a cult. With the name St. Peter’s people think of the congregation as being Roman Catholic. Grace is a women’s name and people may not know why that would be on what looks like a church. The only Martin Luther most people know today was killed in the 60’s. Times have changed. Opening the doors only lets the flies come in.
In order for us to grow the Kingdom of God, in this area, in this culture, we need to step back and examine our motives as well as taking a realistic look at our community.
Our Motives? Why do we want more people in church? Is it so that the church won’t close? That would be purely selfish. Do we love the people around us so much that we want them in Heaven with us forever? That would be what Jesus has called us to do.
As for our community, it has changed a great deal since the 1960’s. How many of your neighbors in the 60’s spoke a language other than English as their first language? Today, less than 1 out of 3 people in this area speak English as their first language. What are we doing to care enough about the people around us to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us and draw them into Heaven?
We need to make sure that our motives are directed to the love of others before we can grow the Kingdom. We need to care about other people more than we do about ourselves, or our churches, before we can grow the Kingdom. We need to feed on the Word of God so that we are prepared for the work. We have the opportunity to serve. Jesus tells us that if we want to be first, we need to be the servant of all. We need to care about all people more than we do ourselves.
It might interest you to know that most of what you just read was the article I wrote for August 2009. What has changed? Both congregations have gone through Transforming for Mission where our District gave us prescriptions to help us grow. Our three congregations, with Hope San Leandro, are now meeting together in fellowship and worship regularly. St. Peter’s has adapted to our current size and is worshipping in a more suitable location. Debbie and I have been active in PLI since October of 2016. There is a Community Group and now a Missional Community that is learning how to minister in this new age. We can all benefit from what we are learning.
Where we go from here is up to you. Waiting for a miracle to keep the doors open is a waste of time. Not that God doesn’t love us or that He doesn’t want to see the Church grow; but God can reach people more effectively through us. Where we assemble as His people can be a celebration at someone’s home like the early Church did it. Keep looking for God at work and allow Him to lead us into a great future!
Yours in Christ, Pastor Oatman