It is probably clear that the number of people in the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day is less than what it used to be. Perhaps you remember when it was a common occurrence to have a full sanctuary week after week. There are probably a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that people just don’t have the same number of children that they used to have. Gone, for the most part, are the days when there were 5, 6, 7, or 8 children in a family.
But there is also the matter of the culture in which we live. When there was cultural pressure for a person to be in church on a Sunday morning, even those who might otherwise not attend did. Now, there is little to no pressure for anyone to attend anything, so many don’t. The Church finds herself in a time when the individualistic culture of the United States is bearing its rotten fruit. “What’s in it for me” has made the local congregation all but irrelevant, because what is given out there is Jesus, who gives Himself by faith, and not by sight. Those without a living faith see no reason to hear and receive what seem to them nothing but relics of a former age; antiques that may once have been helpful, but are now obsolete.
What can the Church do in the face of this seemingly unstoppable tide of secularization? I suggest doing what the Church has been doing for the past 2000+ years. Now, that may sound like rearranging the same deck chairs while the Titanic goes down; and it would if I were talking about humans continuing to do human things. But I’m talking about Jesus doing His things. Here’s what Hermann Sasse has to say about the renewal of the Church on earth:
According to Sasse, what makes the Church the Church of Christ is His Word and His Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. “So far as we humans can judge, a church bereft of the Sacrament would be swallowed up by the world and cease to be church, just as has in fact transpired. Whenever the Lord’s Supper has been permitted to decay, the boundary lines between church and world have universally disappeared and the church has been absorbed into the world. The Supper is thus the Sacrament in which the church’s ‘foreignness from the world,’ and hence her essence as church of God, finds visible expression. … Because the church possesses this Sacrament, she can wait [for Jesus' return] for centuries and millenia on end. The Supper bridges the space of time between Jesus’ days on earth and his return. … It is eaten on the migration from the world to the kingdom of God, from time to eternity, from the here and now to the beyond. … All attempts to build Christian congregations without placing at their center the congregation-forming Sacrament of the Altar are just as much condemned to failure as are efforts to renew the Divine Service without renewing the Sacrament. … Where the custom of churchgoing has lapsed with the consequence that the Christian congregation is dead or dying, there is but one single means for getting people back to church. Hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper must be aroused in them. Whenever this hunger and thirst awake—and it obviously does not lie within our power to awaken them—people go to church again. … The renewal of the Christian congregation and her Divine Service therefore begins, in a way that most theologians today still find incomprehensible, when we once again seriously learn and teach what the NT and the catechism say on Baptism and the Supper. … A church that does not continually gather around the Supper must undergo secularization. It must irreversibly turn into a piece of the world, because the Supper establishes the boundary between church and world. … Thus, the Gospel itself dies with the Supper (“Church and Lord’s Supper,” The Lonely Way, 1:381, 393, 395, 420, 421).
“Holy Communion has been the heartbeat of the church since that hour when the Lord gave his disciples his body and his blood in the wonder of the first Lord’s Supper and left behind this meal as his testament for all subsequent time until the great banquet in the kingdom of God. That is why the NT church had no Sunday without the Eucharist. That is why there never is and never has been real ‘church’ without the Sacrament. … All questions of the life and teaching of the church ultimately lead to the question of the Lord’s Supper” (“Why Hold Fast to the Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?” The Lonely Way, 1:453).
“The renewal of the doctrine of the Sacrament, which we are experiencing today with astonishment, will be followed by the renewal of the correct celebration of the Holy Supper. And if this renewal is carried out first in a few places, and in smaller circles, if it is really the rightly understood and rightly celebrated Sacrament of the Altar, then the church will necessarily be renewed through it. For the Church, which is the body of Christ, is built on earth when Christ feeds his community which truly believes in him with his true body and blood” (“Theses on the Question of Church and Altar Fellowship,” The Lonely Way, 1:337). [See also, “The Holy Supper and the Future of Our Church,” The Lonely Way, 1:479-488, where Sasse puts all these thoughts together.]
May God grant in Jesus Christ the renewal of our churches through the renewal of His Supper for our forgiveness, life, salvation, and love for our neighbor!
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”