Tuesday, August 2, 2011
What is the truth we don’t want to admit?
Once, I was told by just such an individual that he saw little point to witness or outreach. If people want to be Lutheran, fine. Have them come to a Lutheran Church where they will be welcomed and the congregation is happy to have them. If they don’t, well, then, they don’t. But why bother trying to make Lutherans out of folks who won’t want to be Lutheran.
In response I would suggest one thing that is rather obvious but also rather easily forgotten. The Lord already knows how unfriendly the world is to His kingdom. We are not telling Him something He does not already know when we complain about how difficult it is to make headway against a world set against His Word and His kingdom. In fact, our Lord predicted the mixed response of the world, prepared His people with what to do when those of a household do not receive His Word, and warned His Church that they would face even worse than rejection – persecution. Yet at the very same time, Jesus neither discouraged His people from witness nor did He in any way diminish their responsibility and the urgency of this witness. We sometimes forget that we do not witness because it works but because this is the natural outflowing of what has flowed into us – the fruit of the Spirit working in us through the Gospel. Our concern is not how or whether people respond but are we being faithful in what He has given us to do and are we speaking with joy and thanksgiving of Him who has brought us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
We speak not because it is demanded of us but rather because the Gospel compels us, moves us, and works in us to speak and share the wonders of what the Lord has done. The Gospel has and will always face rejection and yet the Church and each Christian continues to speak, to tell, and to live in the Gospel. This is what we know. This is how we live. This is what we speak to any who are around us.
The other tendency is to borrow methods from business and mass marketing in order to, well, help God out. We lay our frustration at the rejection and seeming ineffectiveness of our witness not at the Lord and His promise but at the feet of those who know how to sell things to people. The end result of this is that these business consultants review the Church the same way that they review the process, products, and procedures of an ineffective business. While this involves a review of such things as brand identity, advertising, and follow through, worship is the inevitable place where the church growth principles apply. What we are doing is not working and therefore we need to change it. Worship needs to be more accessible, more inviting, more relevant, more appealing, and more focused on the needs and wants of those outside the Church. In the extreme, the Church is told to ditch being the Church and to become almost the anti-church church to win over the public.
Some of these folks have made the people in the pews and even the pews themselves the enemy of church growth. Change the people in the pews, change the ambiance of the building, change the liturgy (what goes on in worship), change the music (at least the style), and focus on customer satisfaction – then you will grow (just like a business). These consultants tell us that people want to hear the Gospel but not the way we have been speaking it – so talk less about sin, death, and faith and talk more about personal happiness, fulfillment, and achieving goals and dreams of a better life. People want religion and spirituality but not the religion and spirituality of the Church. Therefore, the focus needs to shift from the message to the method in order to be successful.
The problem with this is that the Church did not foster the liturgy or hymnody because they worked – but because these were faithful to the Word of the Lord. The Church did not shape its message to be effective but to be faithful to the Gospel (the Word of the Cross and Empty Tomb). It is not that marketing strategies of the past once worked and were appealing to the public but now need to change to reflect the changes in the world but that the Church never had a marketing strategy or business plan until the most recent of times. To one degree or another, the debate and the criteria for success has always been about faithfulness.
In the midst of this constant debate within the Church, we often forget that the only criterion by which we will be judged is faithfulness. The path of faith is that the Lord of the Church will give growth to His Church and prosper His kingdom as He wills. He will not lose any of those whom He has elected unto salvation. Trust means that what works is His Word – His Word that accomplishes His purpose and fulfills His purpose EVERYTIME. Trust means that the tools needed for the Church to faithfully accomplish her divine purpose are already given to us in the means of grace and these are the only tools and resources we need to fulfill His bidding.
Trust means that we use these tools not with regret or with the lament of their ineffectiveness but with the joy and confidence that just as this Word has worked to call, gather, and enlighten us, so will it call, gather, and enlighten all whom the Lord elects. Trust means doing what God has given us to do not as a people who must keep the rules but as those whose delight and joy is to speak to others the saving voice of the Word that has spoken us into His kingdom.
The complaints are both half right. Some of those who use the liturgy and sing those good Lutherans hymns have lost their joy and confidence in the mans of grace. Some of those who are most passionate about reaching those outside the Church have lost their joy and confidence in the means of grace. Those who insist that it won’t make any difference to engage the world with the life-giving Word of the Lord and those who insist that the Word is not enough to reach the lost have the same problem – they no longer joy or have confidence in the Word to do what it promises, in the God who keeps His promises, and in the sufficiency of the means of grace for what the Lord has called us to do and to be.
We do not need to choose between two equally unfaithful and unpleasant choices. What we need is to rediscover our confidence and joy in the means of grace. We must resist the point of view that says what we do in faithfulness to God’s Word does not matter and those who insist that faithfulness to God’s Word must be supplanted with the latest and best of business models. We need to repent of our regret and lack of confidence in the tools that God has given to His Church to do His bidding. The Word and Sacraments are the best tools we have to do His bidding and the only means by which He will accomplish His purpose. Once this is clear, everything else will come back into focus....