On another on-line forum is the question "Why Lutherans Can't Evangelize." It is a striking question born of a time when Lutherans have borrowed the evangelism methods of others and found themselves without a voice of their own to speak the Gospel to their neighbor. I cannot always have been true because there was a point in the 1950s when Lutherans were growing at astounding rates. TIME magazine noted this in April of 1958 with the prediction that if things continue everyone in America will be Lutheran by 2000. We know how that turned out. Perhaps TIME jinxed our forward momentum since the last year we saw substantial growth in the LCMS was 1963.
I think we lost our voice. The boats stopped coming from Europe, America changed and suburbia brought with it additional cultural changes, our own shift from a largely rural to mostly urban and suburban church body made us turn inward to figure out what this meant for us, and we found ourselves without a voice to speak to those around us.
So we did what Lutherans are wont to do. We went shopping in the religious marketplace. We looked at the denominations that were growing (Southern Baptist) and began shaping our approach in their terminology and from their perspective. But it was a little like those who speak another language from a phrase book. It was not our native tongue.
Then came Evangelism Explosion and D. James Kennedy. We Lutheranized it into Dialog Evangelism (ala BZ) and suddenly there were people showing up on the front porches of America asking "What would happen to you if you died tonight?" Again, with all our tweaking, it was a foreign language to us and the decision theology part of it all left a taste in our mouth that diluted our enthusiasm.
In the end what this did is transfer the responsibility to an Evangelism Committee. Remember that before this Lutheran congregational structures did not even have an evangelism group or committee or deacon. Don Abdon came along to help us with this restructuring need and with a list of those who were "evangelists" and we decided that evangelism was best done by those with its gift. All of this distanced the average Lutheran Christian from the task and purpose of sharing the faith.
Advance a few years and we were shopping at Willow Creek or Saddle Creek or CCM radio stations in the hopes that if we looked different and sounded different people would be attracted to us. Never mind the fact that our sanctuaries were architecturally unsuited for this style and our heart was not fully convinced (hence the traditional services that kept us Lutheran in identity at least at 7 am on Sunday morning).
Our mission execs began shopping for those churches that were growing and they shifted our paradigms and made us more missional and insisted that everything we were or did had to be negotiable if we were really to grow. Their hearts were in the right place -- they daily faced statistics that most people in the pew choose to ignore... but the result has been a great division between those congregations that are LINO (Lutheran in name only), those who have abandoned even the name but exist within the denomination, AND those who turn to page 151 on LSB on Sunday morning and the worship wars past and pressent.
Now our Lutheran evangelistic zeal is part of the angst of who we are and what we are. If we did bring people to worship, would they feel at home? Would they like it? Would they find us friendly? Would they come back? Can we do this? Will it (giving up who we are) be worth it all in the end? Instead we should have been thinking Isaiah 55 -- My Word will not return to me empty handed... Instead we should have been confident that where the Word and Sacraments are and the baptized people gathered around them and their Pastor, there is the Church with the fullness of the Spirit who IS the one who grows the Church.
Our parish grows because the people invite people to come with them. Our outreach is through the people in the pew who daily witness and share their faith and not through an evangelism committee. People hear about our work in the community or find out about us through our highly regarded preschool or come to one of our Music at Grace concerts or are brought by those who have confidence in the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace. We do try to be deliberately welcoming, we have a welcome desk at the door and people stationed to identify and welcome visitors. We have signs and lots of parking. We have a well maintained building. But we sing the liturgy on Sunday morning and use the full resources of the hymnal for the Divine Service. We have good teaching for all ages and good Biblical preaching that keeps the Law and Gospel distinct but together. We do everything wrong in this regard and next week we will receive nearly 40 new members (through baptism, instruction, adult confirmation, affirmation of faith, and transfer). What happens on Sunday morning and who we are during the week is the same. The result is that people know who they are in the pews and feel confident about bringing people with them, sharing the faith with their neighbors and co-workers, and they know what people will experience on Sunday morning. Even kids do this.
We must know who we are before we know our voice in evangelism and outreach. It must be authentic and real, positive and genuine... Identity is what helps us welcome... confidence in that identity gives us confidence to invite and welcome... it really does work.