Pastor Baldridge is back in town without a lot to do and he’s been having lots of time to think…which isn’t necessarily a good thing. He had his conversation with his old friend, the retired bishop, and it didn’t help much…and how he’s in a real quandary.

Based on John 8:31-36

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. It’s been a huge relief for Pastor Baldridge not to have to deal with a stewardship program this fall. A year ago when the council virtually abandoned the old pledging system by burning commitments once they were received a number of people had questioned why the congregation even bothered to run the traditional fall campaign. And so the council just ditched the whole thing…and no one has said a word in complaint. Periodically there are sermons on giving and the council is regularly updated on the financial situation, and things seem to be going well. People still make commitments to the mission of the congregation but it’s all done electronically via the various social media platforms. There’s no October-November public appeal for funds. So Pastor Baldridge preached about other stuff last Sunday, namely his new “Third Wave” brain storm, and received the usual apathetic response from hearers. A couple asked how San Diego had been but no one commented on what he thought had been a wonderful insight.

Normally it would have been discouraging to him, but this week, not so much. He doesn’t even have to do anything this weekend. Father Brian, a friend of Pastor Phil’s from Sun Lakes, is doing something on Lutheran-Catholic dialogues from a Roman Catholic perspective on Saturday and also preaching on Sunday. Pastor Phil has been handling logistics and Jennie Craster is doing the Saturday event so everything is under control. Worship on Sunday will be celebratory and reflective with a central theme of “Continuing Reformation”…and the music will be great. Janice Porter is so proud of the way the choir has stepped up in practice…they’re actually doing about 4 pieces, three of them in Latin. Father Brian may be the only person there who knows what’s being sung, but Janice is okay with that. She hopes he’s impressed with the Lutheran chorale tradition.

So with no needed preparations Pastor Baldridge was able to get together with his friend, the old bishop, last Wednesday with nothing on his mind but his own concerns. They met out in east Mesa and his friend bought him lunch at the Superstition Springs Golf Club restaurant. The place they sat had a great view of the number nine green and they talked for a long time. The newly sown rye grass was shining in the sun…even though Pastor Baldridge doesn’t golf he has always appreciated the beauty of the over-seeding, though Helga thinks it’s unnatural and an incredible waste of money in the desert.

Pastor Baldridge told the newly retired bishop about his time away and his basic discontent. He even shared his ideas about a third way and wondered if there might be some truth in his observations. The bishop was a good listener…through the years he’d had hundreds of conversations with different pastors and he really didn’t hear anything new from Pastor Baldridge. The only difference was that all of their problems were real…he was amazed that since Pastor Baldridge served a mythical congregation he would be talking about the same things. When he said that, Pastor Baldridge of course felt discounted. He said, “I’m surprised to hear that from you. I thought I told you that only the people were mythical…the problems are real…and I think that the issues I’ve been dealing with are real too.”

The bishop of course apologized…at heart he’s a sensitive kind of guy…and got the conversation heading in a more productive direction. He asked if Pastor Baldridge could give him some examples of what was frustrating him, perhaps a case study could help him understand. Pastor Baldridge sat for a bit then, and finished his tuna melt sandwich before replying….after first using a toothpick to get the little pieces of tuna from between his teeth.

He said, “The gospel is a wonderful gift from God and I have loved proclaiming it in all its richness through these many years. The message of forgiveness, life, freedom, salvation, and hope has a universal appeal…at least I’ve always thought that it did. And people have responded to the good news…at least they used to. But now not so much…and I think the reason they don’t is because they don’t recognize that they have any needs. Last week in San Diego I met a young man while walking at the beach…at least he seemed young, he could have been forty…anyhow, he was a talkative sort and we had a long conversation. He was intrigued that I was a pastor, and curious about what I did. I talked to him about the gospel. He’d heard the stories of Jesus…I think he’d gone to Sunday School as a kid, but when I spoke of forgiveness he just looked at me with a blank look. He admitted to doing wrong things but he had no concept of what it was to be a sinner. In fact, as we continued to talk he told me that it seemed to him that I must mostly deal with needy people in my congregation….and since he wasn’t a needy person he really didn’t resonate with my message.”

Pastor Baldridge stopped to sip his Arnold Palmer and then continued, “What he said was really interesting. He does believe that there are needy people. In fact he said that he sees their posts on Facebook…and that his heart breaks to read their sorry statements of self pity and angst. As for himself, he said that his needs are normal…a job, friends, money, companions…but that he was responsible for satisfying his needs. He didn’t need divine help. He believed that he was perfectly free to do whatever he wanted and if he ever had a problem he could find someone to help him. He couldn’t remember having ever failed at anything he had set his mind too. So, is he right? Is the church only for the needy?”

The bishop said, “Well, what do you think? What’s been your experience?” He was that kind of listener!

Pastor Baldridge said, “No! The gospel isn’t just for those he was describing as needy. I know what he meant…I’ve seen those Facebook posts too. At Crown and Cactus there are a ton of people who are well balanced and successful. Externally they have every thing together and if you looked at their Facebook posts you could conclude they don’t have a care in the world….but that’s what most people do on social media. They only put up stuff that makes them look good…it’s a place for bragging about yourself and your family. But I don’t conclude from that they’re not needy. In fact the most successful and altogether people in my congregation regularly admit that they are needy. They know they are sinners and need forgiveness. They know they are captive to sin and need to be set free. To put it in theological terms, they know they are sinners and saints at the same time.”

The bishop thought for a minute…if he’d had a pipe he would have taken a deep inhale with a slow exhale…then he replied, “Well, Kevin, I do know what you’re talking about. And I don’t know that you will ever be successful in convincing folks like that man on the beach that they are needy. It’s not going to happen. It’s not the American way. In our culture the needy are those to be pitied…and no one wants to be in that position. As a result, deep needs go unmet…and people just go on fooling themselves. They have no interest in church and like being free to do whatever they want. And if indicators are correct, their numbers are increasing. Fewer and fewer people believe that the church has anything of value for them. They’re staying away in droves. I got tired of closing congregations…that’s one of the reasons I retired.”

“So what can be done?” Pastor Baldridge was getting frustrated.

Another long pause…then the bishop said, “Well, some pastors and congregations have found success in adapting the gospel. They do market studies of community needs and then offer classes and programs that meet those needs. It’s actually pretty simple. They focus on what people want…classes on marriage and human sexuality, youth activities and daycare centers, golf lessons, car repair classes, adult day care, financial planning….the list goes on and on. For worship they get professional singers and do a lot of upbeat singing. And they do get pretty good numbers. But there’s not much call for repentance or discipleship…no one sees much of a need for that. So you could do that at Crown and Cactus. Have you done any neighborhood surveys?”

Pastor Baldridge rolled his eyes, “No,” he said, “I don’t know that I’m even equipped to be a marketer…I was trained to be a pastor…and I’m old-fashioned enough to think there is a difference.”

The bishop shrugged, “Well maybe that’s your answer….maybe there’s no need for someone like you in the church anymore…unless you’re willing to change.”

And that’s about where it stands. Pastor Baldridge still hasn’t gotten any clarity…so he’s still in a stew. The bishop had mentioned closing congregations…maybe that was the answer! Or he could change…and find new ways of meeting people’s needs.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.