Bishop's Letter on Evangelism during COVD-19 of Thursday of the Easter Octave 2020
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Posted by WV-WMD Synod, ELCA on Thursday, April 16, 2020

It's four in the morning, and I have been up since 2:30 AM, unable to get back to sleep because the dream I had won't let me go. I'm not going into the details of the dream, but here is the upshot:

I am asking that we double our church attendance.

Well, right now, our church attendance is, as we currently would fill out our parochial reports, zero. Let's not double that. I'm talking about our attendance prior to the COVID-19 restrictions. Let us double that number.

I know that one of the fears running through the hearts of church leadership (and not a few of the rank and file) is a post-COVID crash in church attendance. The thought is: once people get out of the habit of church attendance, they are likely not to come back. More than a few are simply worried that people will find that they didn't miss church all that much, that people will realize just how irrelevant it is to their life. For my own part, I've thought about the possibility of a great winnowing, that those, whose faith is so nominal that they really only ever possessed superficial and worldly reasons for church attendance, would blow away, leaving behind those, who, in contrast, possess deep spiritual reasons for active church life, reasons rooted in the desire for the Word, the Sacrament, the fellowship of believers and inseparable from obedience to the Divine command to avail ourselves of these things and gather in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. I'll admit that I haven't been overly concerned about this but not because I have thought that it wouldn't happen. I have fully expected a down turn in worship attendance connected with this, but, thinking that a winnowing wouldn't be such a bad thing, my thoughts have turned more to questions of how to navigate that institutionally. This fear of  a post-COVID crash in church attendance has, however, been no small factor in the attempts of some to provide digitally delivered worship, the thinking being: keep the flock engaged lest they figure out that there are other things that they can be doing on Sunday morning. I can, at least, say that in my phone calls with the pastors of this synod, that has not been the prime motivator. Rather, I have heard consistently, concern to deliver to their respective flocks the things of God for the sake of the flock and not for the sake of future parochial reports.

In these wee hours of this morning, I realize that we are missing an opportunity. Stick with me a moment. In my first call, a parishioner came up to me during coffee hour and said, "Pastor, you preach really good sermons. More people should hear them." I replied, "So, who are you inviting to come and listen?" Yeah, I didn't get a response, but that's always been a big part of our problems around evangelism. Back in the '90s, I was told that the typical Lutheran invites someone to attend church with them once every 13 to 17 years. One the other hand, another study said that 90% of all new Lutheran church members reported that the thing that got them in the door of their new Lutheran congregation was an invite from a parishioner. These are not new bits of info; you've probably heard them before. Yet, we have not been able to transition into laity-point invitational evangelism. We have become more welcoming, I believe, but, as I heard Pr. Egtvedt say to his folks, "We need to stop being a 'welcoming church' and become an 'inviting church.'" See, you can only welcome those who walk onto your property. If you are not inviting them, the only way they are going to get onto your property is by accidentally stumbling upon it---and, given the locations of some of our congregations, that would most definitely have to be by accident. The reasons given for not inviting are legion, ranging from "Everybody I know already has a church" to "I am a naturally shy person" to "I wouldn't know what to say" to "I don't want to be annoying" to "I follow St. Francis' maxim about sharing the Gospel with action and not words" (something St. Francis never said) to etc., etc., etc.. Can we see that the current situation and the ways in which our pastors have attempted to adapt to it might provide an opportunity for lay-point evangelism?

At this time, the proclamation of the faith, the teaching of the faith, and the resourcing of devotional material beyond the walls of our church buildings is taking place in nearly every congregation in the synod. The joke among clergy has been, "I never thought that I would become a televangelist," (and the complaint has been, "Seminary didn't teach me about all this tech stuff"). That means, for the first time, nearly every lay person in this synod has the ability to share concrete examples of what his/her pastor and congregation does with respect to the Word and the Faith. What am I talking about?

Now, if you are getting into the swing of it,

Now, to whom do we send these messages?

In all this, do not miss the open door. Make the hard invite when the opportunity presents itself. What do I mean?

You might be thinking, "Riegel has lost it. What he is asking is insane." Just yesterday, I called the General Presbyter of the WV Presbytery. When he picked up, he asked how I was doing. I told him, "Since I'm calling my Presbyterian counterpart, I've poured myself a Lagavulin. So, I am doing just fine. Will you join me in a wee dram?" After some laughter and some serious business, we promised each other that we would share in a bottle when these restrictions get lifted. Over the last few weeks, how many times have I had a conversation which ended in a promise of a shared meal or a shared drink (or, in one case, a game of Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation, 1517-1555)? I'll tell you what insanity is: Insanity is prizing a dinner at the local restaurant over the Body of Christ. Insanity is prizing a drink at the local bar over the Blood of Christ. Insanity is prizing a game of cards or even Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation over the clasped hands of Christian fellowship, the raising of our voices together in Christian hymnody, and the common bowing of our heads in Christian prayer. Insanity is prizing of all the talk of the world over the proclamation of the Word and the teaching of the Faith. Now, I have nothing against all these things, but, my friends, there is something akilter when we would gladly offer what the world can give and yet be so shy in offering what only God can give.

If I have any insanity, it is in praying for only a double. Lord, give me the whole bottle.

Well, my friends, there you have it. There's the commission, a not so great part (in that I'm not asking all that much) of the great commission. I leave it in your hands which are no less capable than the twenty-four that Jesus chose, trusting that your hearts are just as warm as theirs toward not only your God but also your neighbor.

Now, I am going to shower and take on the day.


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