From The Pastor’s Desk – September 2012

By Pastor Mark Combs

One of the things that I find interesting as I drive around is to read church signs. During our recent vacation in West Virginia, we came across a church sign that I want to share with you. It said, “If your religion won’t take you to church, then it’s doubtful it will take you to heaven.”

I was particularly struck by this sign, because it speaks so clearly about a topic that pastors lament so often. I see countless newsletter articles from pastors that ask, “Where is every one?”. We all know the tension we feel when we look around at the empty seats on Sunday morning.

As we continued on our travels, we talked about that sign. My first reaction was that it would probably appear in an article (aren’t you surprised!). I was thinking about the things Luther said about communion and the Ten Commandments, and what we endanger ourselves with when we absence ourselves from the community of faith.

The point was raised about what is wrong with the sign — there is not a thing we can do to work our way to heaven — and part of the fight of the Reformation was about the requirement of church attendance. That is all true, and in theological circles we call that works/righteousness — working our way to salvation. We talked for quite a while about that sign, and I am still struck by the message that it proclaims.

I think it raises a very valid question for us in not just the Lutheran church, but in denominations across the board, because we continue to struggle with the questions of church attendance. Luther makes it very clear that church attendance is not a requirement. We do not have to attend church to earn our way to heaven.

However, Luther also makes it clear that we endanger ourselves when we do not regularly hear the Word of God proclaimed and read. When speaking about the Third Commandment in the Large Catechism, Luther says:

Even though you know the Word perfectly and have already mastered everything, you are daily under the dominion of the devil, and he does not rest day or night in seeking to take you unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these three and all the other commandments.

Therefore you must constantly keep God’s Word in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears. For where the heart stands idle and the Word is not heard, the devil breaks in and does his damage before we realize it. On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For this Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.

Even if no other benefit of need drove us to the Word, yet everyone should be motivated by the realization that through the Word the devil is cast out and put to flight, this commandment is fulfilled, and God is more pleased than by any hypocrisy, no matter how brilliant.

In any case, it is clear that the message of the sign is something we have to take seriously. The truth is that we are only hurting ourselves when we separate ourselves from the body of Christ. If you have fallen away from regular church attendance, the good news is that you can always come back. If you know someone who has fallen away, encourage them to come back. In the grand scheme, worship attendance is not required, but we are in definite danger without it. Until next time.