This is a longer post than normal, but I wanted to include the whole interview. Of course we must remember that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. But when a congregation realizes that God is in control, all things are blessings.
In the following interview conducted by the Rev. Andy Dimit, you will read about some of the exciting things happening at Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, IL. From 1989 to the present, average worship attendance has increased from 38 to 93, and baptized membership has gone from 105 to 197, which includes the baptism of 18 adults and 48 infants and children as well as the confirmation of 35 adults and 7 youths.
What Pastor Mech, a graduate of the St. Louis Seminary, relates is the story of how the faithful teaching of God’s Word and the use of the liturgy have come to be deeply appreciated in this once prosperous coal-mining region in Southern Illinois.
Did the congregation set specific goals to achieve such growth?
No, we didn’t. In fact we’ve never set any numerical goals. We believe that our Lord is responsible for growth in faith and in number, and that it is His will for all to be saved.
But do you find these changes to be things that make you happy?
Yes, certainly. I came in 1989 at a difficult time for Bethel. The financial situation was bad, the building was in disrepair, people were staying home on Sundays or going elsewhere. For many years, pastors had come and gone and people didn’t expect me to stay very long, either. So to say that the changes that came by way of the Lord’s Word and Sacrament have made me happy would be an understatement.
What did you do first?
First, I had to learn to trust that the Lord had put me here at this particular time to serve His people with His gifts. Then, I listened to the people to find out what was going on with them and to get to know them. There was no program, no talk of money. I just said, “I’ll be your pastor.
We’ll rely on the Lord’s Word, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to sustain us in this life and to bring us into the life to come.”
Ever since coming to Bethel, I’ve been teaching about God. That’s especially true with regard to new members. In fact, there’s never been a time at Bethel that I didn’t have at least one adult catechism class. As we’ve grown by word of mouth, I’ve found that people don’t come to Bethel simply to become members; they come asking specifically for thorough instruction in the Christian faith.
If you didn’t have specific numbers in mind, what were your expectations?
I hoped for tremendous growth in both faith and numbers. I was told by some people, however, that the stagnant economy of this area and the high unemployment would make it unlikely that we could see more than one new member a year. I didn’t believe that. Those who had not or were not receiving the Gospel were out there, and still are. But I don’t believe that growth in the church is just getting a great number of people together.
What, then, is growth?
Growth in our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, our Savior. Our Lord creates and sustains that faith. He brings us and holds us together with Him and each other by coming into our lives and staying with us by way of His Word and Sacrament. Real growth comes in receiving the Lord and His gifts and having Him as our confidence.
How has life changed at Bethel?
First of all, there are a lot more people, especially children, gathered together for the Divine Service. We now have a much larger Sunday school. In 1989 there were two children enrolled in the Sunday school; now there are 58 under the age of 11. Our church building has been repaired and enlarged to accommodate the growth. There was a period of adjustment as many previously unchurched families, most with children, were learning what it is to be gathered around the Lord’s Word and Sacraments. The noise level increased substantially as more children were brought to the service.
How do you incorporate the children into worship life?
Parents and children are taught how they can follow the liturgy together. With the children we focus on those parts of the liturgy that are the same each week so that they are able to participate. I spend time each week during the Sunday school opening connecting the children to the Divine Service. Those who have been members a long time have encouraged new members, assuring them that they and their children are welcome. We held a seminar called “Children in Church” and published the ideas from that in our newsletter. I also teach the children about the physical parts of the sanctuary-the font, altar, lectern, pulpit, paschal candle, etc.
What about the adults? How do you help them?
From time to time, we use “A Narrative Commentary on the Divine Service” so that adults are reminded that the service is the Lord’s and how everything in the service comes from the sacred Scriptures. They are enabled to understand the meaning and the structure of the service.
In regard to helping visitors participate in our services, members of Bethel have been great in showing visitors how to follow the service.
Why do you think these unchurched people came to Bethel, rather than some other place?
They say they came because we showed a genuine concern for them and their families and because we offered them something with substance. People have come from a variety of backgrounds-Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, as well as those who have never been connected to any church. It’s led other churches in town to ask the same question: “Why are so many previously unchurched people going to Bethel Lutheran?”
What is this “substance” that is attracting people?
Teaching the Word of God faithfully and lovingly in ways that people are able to understand. I hear again and again when I’m teaching, “I never knew this; I never heard that before.”
How do you teach that?
There are all kinds of ways. One is by using family illustrations. For example, to explain the importance of attending worship, I’ll ask a husband and wife if they would believe a spouse who said, “I love you, but I only want to be with you once or twice a year, or every once in a while.” The point is that, just as we enjoy being in the presence of those we love, we rejoice that our Lord wants to be with us. Or I’ll ask parents whether they give their children gifts at Christmas because of their love for them or because the children are good. Our Lord forgives our sins and gives us new life not because we’re good, but because He loves us. He doesn’t leave us alone but comes into our presence to put us and keep us under the care of our Father in heaven for all eternity.
What part have the long-term members of Bethel played in these events since 1989?
They continue to play an integral part. They share with others how much the Lord and His Church mean to them. And they keep bringing people for instruction in the Christian faith.
Were they ready to see the parish transformed?
Initially there was some resistance to growth because of the noise level in the sanctuary. However, most considered the sounds from children to be music to their ears. The history of the parish made it difficult for some people to believe it was a place where growth could occur, especially given our insistence on thorough instruction for new members.
When our sanctuary became full each Sunday, I suggested that we start a second service, but the members wanted to keep just one service with everyone worshiping together. So we renovated the existing building and added more pews.
You don’t imagine, do you, that this formula you’ve outlined would make “little Bethels” sprout up everywhere it was applied?
Not at all. The Gospel doesn’t work by necessity. And I make that clear. People who start catechism classes don’t always become members right away, and sometimes not at all.
Yet, having seen so much progress, what would you recommend to other parishes and pastors?
I’d say this to both: Remain faithful to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and stick with the Lutheran liturgy. People with and without a background in liturgical worship, both young and old, love and appreciate it once they learn and understand what it delivers, namely, Jesus Christ and His forgiveness.
That can only be done through teaching. Be patient with one another. Recognize that we all need the Lord’s forgiveness and peace and that He is present through His Word and Sacraments to deliver it. Pastors, speak the truth in love without sacrificing either; you’re not in the office to win an argument, but to deliver Christ. People, forgive, love, encourage and build up your pastor; it means so much!
Do you think that seven years of steady growth has given the people of Bethel a vision for lost souls, or has it caused them to think that enough has now been done?
There’s a genuine concern for people who don’t know Christ. Members are still bringing friends to church. We already have a preschool and are discussing a Lutheran day school. Many would love to see a new school building in the near future. It is truly exciting what our Lord is doing here!
The focus of our church building is a huge cross that appears to be carried by the church. It expresses well what is going on here in terms of evangelism. Every Lord’s day we leave the sanctuary filled not with ourselves, but with Jesus Christ and His love, forgiveness, life, and peace. That is what we have been given to share with others.
Quoted from: God Builds Bethel
HT: Brown and Juhl