They don't care what you know until they see that you care... We need to encourage people to make church their own...
With statements like these the Lutheran Society for Missiology addresses what they believe is the missed connection between those studying missiology and those actually planting churches. More than this, the group challenges the old ways of being and doing church (whatever those are) and insists that if the church is to grow, we must pay more attention to who is out there, what they need, and how to build conversations and relationships before talking about what we believe, confess, and teach and how we are to live. It all sounds real good. But what does all of this mean?
They don't care what you know until they see that you care... What does this mean? Does this mean we must cultivate friendship with those who do not know Jesus Christ and meet them on the plane of their wants, needs, and beliefs BEFORE we address them with the Word of the Lord? Does this mean that we must first meet the needs and make sure people feel the full effect of our welcome BEFORE we get around to speaking the Word of God to them?
I understand the sentiment but in reality it means the Gospel conversation has to wait until first things first and this is neither credible to the New Testament nor faithful to our calling as the Church. Maybe these things happen simultaneously but certainly the caring does not come before the witness. It is as if we have come to believe that the most urgent need of the people is for them to feel at home, to be welcomed, to come as they are, to raise all their questions, and to express all their preferences and desires. After we have become acquainted, after they know we love and respect them for who they are, and after they know that we want to serve them, then we will finally get around to addressing them with the Word of Truth. The only problem is that this discounts that very Word of Truth and devalues and dismisses the urgency of the forgiveness of sin, the redemption of our lost lives, and the gift of eternal salvation.
When Jesus asked, Which is easier to say "rise up and walk" or "your sins are forgiven," our Lord was suggesting that meeting the needs of the broken IS easier than forgiving sins. Yet this is exactly what is ignored if not outright denied in the work of evangelism today. Don't start with sin and death, forgiveness and salvation, but start somewhere else. Only later does the Word of the Cross enter into the conversation.
We need to encourage people to make church their own... What does this mean? We do not make anything our own but Christ claims us, cleanses us, and makes us new in His own image and by His Spirit. The last thing the Church needs is to foster the idea that each person or each generation must make the church their own. The Church owns us, complete with our sins, and all our identity and life is swallowed up in the waters of baptism so that we receive a new identity and an eternal life by grace alone. Even the faith to grasp this promise and gift is itself the prompting of the Spirit and not the work of desiring hearts.
It seems more and more that when we talk about outreach we speak as if we were issuing a call to walk with Jesus a little while and see if it does not make a difference in your life. This is not the same thing as Jesus invitation to Follow Me and to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me... Jesus' call is radical and the Gospel proclaimed must be just as radical in order to be faithful. Jesus may meet us where we are but He does not condone or commend us or where we are but brings us through baptism into the fullness of His divine life where sins are forgiven, new life is imparted, and the moment is now seen through the lens of eternity (rather than the other way around).
Don't get me wrong. I am in favor of evangelization, of outreach, of engaging the people not yet of the Kingdom with the Word and Spirit of God. I believe that the means of grace will accomplish God's purpose and will not return to Him empty. In my parish we receive adults by baptism and confirmation regularly -- people who had no faith prior to their encounter with the Gospel. This is the way it ought to be. But the conversation begins with the faithful proclamation of the Word and the relationship is built not upon our friendliness but upon the unity Christ imparts through our common baptismal life, our common reception of His flesh and blood in the Eucharist, and our common mission to live out our new baptismal vocation as royal priests who worship, pray, witness, and do the works of mercy in Christ's name.
In this respect, there is nothing more radical than faithful, Law/Gospel preaching, than vigorous Lutheran catechesis, and than faithful liturgy transcendent of the moment and culture to deliver the Immortal, Invisible, God only wise, where He has promised to be (Word and Sacrament). There are many things we do need to work on as Lutheran Christians but the fruit of the Gospel at work is tied to the faithful proclamation of the Word and the faithful administration of the Sacraments. There is no promise of God tied to any other activity we might think essential or effective in reaching those not yet of God's kingdom.
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