The LCMS might be shrinking and North American culture might be becoming more hostile toward Christianity, but hand-wringing is not a Christian ceremony. The Lord calls us to hopefulness and joy. We have a Savior. He has baptized us into Himself. He speaks to us in His Word. He absolves us and feeds us and cares for us. He is our defense and shelter by grace and our future is assured.

Nonetheless, in our darker moments we sometimes fear for the future. We forget not only God’s promises to be with us but also that the Church has always thrived under persecution. Theologically, that makes perfect sense. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV) At first it might seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense psychologically as well. When institutions are under pressure their members either crumble and quit or they rise to the occasion and become fiercely loyal.

When the Church is persecuted, individual Christians are forced to examine their own beliefs and commitments. There is no room for the faith of the coal miner in Auschwitz.[1] The result of persecution has always been that some have fallen away but, at the same time, those who remained have become stronger, more aware of what is at stake, and more committed.

While I would not dare to compare our current hardships in North America too closely to the real loss of property, liberty, and life which our forefathers suffered and which our brothers and sisters in Christ have and are enduring elsewhere in the world, I do think that our current hardships, light as they might be in comparison to others, have been good for us and I am learning to give thanks for them.

Again: I know that I can say that theologically even when I can’t see any evidence of how it is good. All things work together for good for those who love God even when it is unseen. But I can see evidence of it. While many of our congregations are experiencing a shrinking population, or fighting to stay even, I see evidence that those who are coming, or are converting and joining, are more committed, more passionate, and more aware of the cost than we have been in recent memory. I find that our people and pastors want more. They are not just hungering but are actually demanding more theology and doctrine in teaching and preaching. They have a deepened appreciation for and desire for Holy Communion and even private confession and absolution. They are also more aware and interested in, more appreciative of, in a sense, our history and life together. So also, while there might be fewer of us in places, those who are there are giving more of their time, talents, and treasures.

All that to say that there is much to be thankful for and there always will be. We belong to Christ and therefore we retain, and always will, every reason to rejoice.

[1] The faith of the coal miner refers to a story told in the middle ages about Satan meeting a coal miner on a bridge and asking him what he believed. The miner replied, “What the church believes.” The devil then asked “What does the Church believe?” and the miner answered: “What I believe.” Some Roman catholic apologists thought this was a brilliant answer against the devil’s temptation, but the Lutheran dogmaticians renounced these answers as less than true faith. See, for example, Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: XXV On the Church. Translated by Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 503.