Allow me to draw out two corporate models: the first is Walmart, the largest retailer in
the United States, their goal is to have a store within driving distance of every town in America. That is cornering the market taken to the highest levels. Imagine how many towns there are of varying sizes, and how many Walmart’s would still need to be built in order for there to be one within driving distance of those towns.
The Walmart ideal would presumably be that there would be a Walmart store within 60 miles of every town in America; thus Walmart would be the main provider of food, toys, clothes, and entertainment products for nearly every American.
The second corporate model is that of the popular Olive Garden restaurant chain, which
will only open a new restaurant in towns that meet certain population requirements and never within 100 miles of a newly opened restaurant for five years. As opposed to building within driving distance of every town in America; Olive Garden instead relies on people to drive great distances to come to their restaurant, in addition to the people living in the town where the restaurant is located.
Both of these models are effective. Walmart is the largest retailer in the country and makes billions in their various stores. Olive Garden is a very popular chain restaurant and nearly always has a line of people standing outside of it waiting to get in to eat.
So how does this relate to the model of the Church? Are we on the Walmart model, opening a church within driving distance of every town in America? Or are we the Olive Garden model, only opening where there is a demand, and relying on others to come to us?
At least historically, the Church followed the Walmart model. There are a lot of towns and a lot of places where there are congregations that one would never think of establishing a
church in today. But churches were established in those places because people were there, and travel to the next closest congregation was difficult, if not dangerous.
In the early days of the Lutheran church the establishment of a congregation was not based on demographics or census data, rather it was based on the need of the people to hear the Gospel. If there was no other local Lutheran congregation where one could go to hear the Gospel, receive the forgiveness of sins, be reminded of their baptism, hear the Word of God, and partake of the Lord’s Supper; then a congregation would be established.
Today, the Church seemingly follows the Olive Garden model. There are a lot of resources at the disposal of congregations and districts and Synod in order to determine when and where to plant and establish new congregations. The Lutheran Church-Extension Fund
has at its disposal a massive demographic survey data bank based on the United States Census material that can be used to determine where and when and what type of congregation should be established in a particular community.
In this model, congregations are established in communities that either are experiencing rapid growth, or have the potential for growth. Communities that are stagnant or declining in population, are thereby not seen as viable options for new congregations.
It would be wrong to say that those areas that are experiencing rapid growth should not be sites of future congregations. One of the things that a community must have along with a school, post office and hospital, is a church. But just as it is wrong to deny a congregation to that growing community, so too is it wrong to deny a congregation to the stagnant or declining community.
Where do congregations need to be established? Wherever there is a need. Wherever the Word of God needs to be proclaimed. Not only in towns that meet certain requirements; not only in towns that can financially support a congregation; but wherever people can gather together and hear the Word of God and receive the gifts that God has promised to His people.
In like manner, not only do congregations need to be established in places far and wide; but congregations also need to be kept in places where people are. Many would like
to close congregations in places where the economics say that it is no longer feasible, or where the numbers have gotten too small.
The local congregation is the pillar of the local community. To lose the congregation
would be to lose a significant influence in places that need to hear the Gospel. Would some go to the next closest Lutheran church to worship? Sure; but how many more would not go? How many people would move into a community and never find that congregation? How many others would never be found because they were caught in the large gray area between congregations?
What model does the Lord advocate? The words of St. Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8 are clear on this matter: all nations, to the ends of the earth. St. Matthew 22:9-10 says that all people, even those out of the highways and byways are invited to the wedding feast. Jesus does not attach population requirements to the Gospel; rather He says to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, even to those who are off the beaten path.
The old politician line seems to apply here: a chicken in every pot. While one is certainly not advocating a church in every town, how about one every 20 miles? If we are to truly confess that church is not just a once a week trip, but that it is a part of one’s daily life, should we not have churches in the closest proximity to the people who need them the most; which would be those who need to hear that their sins are forgiven and who desire to receive the true body and blood of Jesus.
Walmart’s goal in having a store within driving distance of every town in America is
clear: to be the number 1 provider of services to Americans, and in turn make the most money possible. Walmart is working off of a corporate mission statement and is succeeding. On the other hand, notice how while Olive Garden remains a popular restaurant, people in other towns are begging for one to be built in their town. Some are
still willing to make the journey, but others have given up and found other places to eat.
Regardless of finances and demographics, would you not rather follow the Walmart model
when it comes to the Church? To inundate the world with the Gospel at every turn, in the hope that many more might come to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord; as opposed to the Olive Garden model, and just hope that somebody finds you one day in the middle of a crowded city?