Among the sweetest words any pastor can hear, beyond the encouraging, "You're a great pastor," and, "I loved your sermon," are, "I want to be baptized" or, "I want to increase my faith." Recently a young mother, who had attended services sporadically, filled out a communion card that read "I would like to become a member here."
I sought her out and before Christmas she, along with her daughter, joined Saint James. Adding to my joy was the fact that this woman had filled out a ministry questionnaire indicating her willingness to share her gifts with us. The form was duplicated and distributed to ministry leaders. Hopefully, those parties will contact her and she will be affirmed.
None of us can rush an epiphany moment for ourselves or another, but we can be open to it -- whenever it comes. In a recent issue of "The Lutheran," considerable space was devoted to years of membership decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That trend is frustrating and lamentable for those of us who believe our heritage has so much to offer to people of faith. Bishop Mark Hanson, in that same issue, addressed this malaise by suggesting that many congregations and their pastors are complacent and not intentional about their outreach, satisfied with a ministry to each other. His analysis is, I believe, accurate and an indictment not only of our denomination but also much of Christianity. We should not, any of us, need the simple but profound reminder of Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church. "It is not about us," he writes, "It's about Jesus," and His call to live beyond ourselves and for Him.
Too often, to the detriment of the whole Church, countless other Christians are not signing communion cards at all, unlike our new member. They could join others in a common witness. Instead they are living their own kinds of Christianity outside the ELCA and every other church. Theirs are altogether solo and private faiths without communion with Christ or His people. My experience with the unchurched in Philadelphia is that the Holy Spirit is at work in them, struggle as they may, as Jacob did. Epiphanies happen but they cannot be rushed. That is why people of faith need to be visible, welcoming prodigals home for a purpose beyond themselves.
I close with the hopes expressed by the woman who found our church. She wrote, "I would like to find the strength and passion I had in my younger years. I would like to accomplish this by finding the Lord's connection to my soul once again."
I pray my congregation and the ELCA will rise to such an aspiration by lifting up Jesus first for her and the world to see. Growth always follows. And that is the sweetest word.