Thursday, February 28, 2019

Trying to be who we are not. . .

The truth is that as a Lutheran I find myself with the gravest misgivings over the kind of evangelical wannabe efforts Lutherans sometimes attempt.  Whether it comes in the form of evangelism programs that struggle to marry Lutheran confidence in the means of grace with the typical emphasis on decision theology or in the form of workshops designed to transform your marriage, family, children, finances, etc., I am suspicious and wary of them all.  Many of them come with great claims and with the promise that you or the world around you will be deeply impacted by this six hour workshop or three night program or sixteen week series.  Perhaps I am alone in this but I think not.  I think most Lutherans find this kind of thing about as uncomfortable and ill fitting as those outlandish Christmas print suits sold at the holidays.  Who would wear them, really?

The program of the Lutheran Church is really the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  It is not that we do not talk about the Christian and his or her vocation.  We do.  But all of this flows cleanly and clearly from the work of the Spirit acting through baptismal water and not on the basis of the Christian's desire or choice.  In fact, by nature vocation is not at all about desire or choice but about duty and responsibility that accompanies this identity.  Read through Luther's Table of Duties and how he treats this idea of vocation.  You do not get to love your children or provide for them when you feel like it or when you think about it.  Nope, this is who you are and what you do as a parent.  In the same way, you do not get to choose to be a good citizen or when citizenship is easy because the politics of the nation is going your way.  Nope, this is who you are and what you do as a citizen.  The same goes with spouse, neighbor, etc... 

As far as evangelism goes, it is hard to reconcile a program which describes the Gospel as a pitch made to sell a choice when you also confess that you cannot by your own reason believe in Jesus Christ as Lord or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called you, gathered you into Christ, enlightened you with His gifts...  So how did that fit with Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion or any other decision based outreach program?  Not so well.  Few Lutherans could distinguish how we ended up any different from any other group working to pressure sell Jesus to an unsuspecting or suspicious unbeliever.  Few Lutherans wanted to learn the steps and practice the art.

Lutherans are at their best when they focus upon the work of God, the Word of God, the gifts of God, and the means of grace that do what they say, deliver what they sign, and accomplish God's purpose in speaking them.  Lutherans are at their best when we act as the churchly people we are by confession and history -- complete with the Divine Service, the Church Year, vestments, organ and choral music, the best of hymns (the Lutheran chorale), etc...  Lutherans are at their best when we focus less on our feelings or journey and talk about what God has done and is still doing where that Word is spoken and His sacraments administered.  But that means trusting the Lord to be in His Word and Sacraments and to work in them and through them to accomplish His purpose.  And that seems to be the struggle we have today.  We seem to want to be more like the next most successful evangelical ministry than to speak that Word of God and trust the Lord to work therein.

Now to be sure, I am not at all saying that we cannot learn something about noticing the stranger in our midst and welcoming him or her.  I am not at all saying that we shouldn't take stock of our property, facility, and working to make entrances and directions easier to find or parking more accessible.  I am not at all suggesting that we should be nonchalant about the works of God or about the urgency of God's Word in a world careening out of control away from its Creator.  We ought to be excited about the fact that God does what He said He would.  But at the same time it is a contrived and artificial Lutheranism which trades in the work of God for the realm of human labor and choice.

If you build it, they will come.  Okay, go ahead.  Laugh at me.  But there is some truth to this.  Even a Lifeway study (hardly Lutheran) suggested that those outside the Church expected churches to look like, well, churches and to act like them.  For everyone who is pleasantly surprised by the fact that this church does not look or act or smell like a church, there are ten who fear that the Church is trying to deceive them.  I think they are right.  Trying to say that church is fun, that the music of the church has a beat you can dance to, that the building looks like the mall and is just as comfortable, that Starbucks coffee is free here, and that worship will improve you or your life or the lives of your loved ones is just foolish.  We are not in the self-help business.  We are here to manifest the kingdom of God -- a kingdom that comes through the means of grace God has appointed and not our efforts.  People not yet of the kingdom do not find the faith easier or church more appealing when it is faith lite or church lite.  Be the church.  From those on the inside to those watching from the outside, acting like we are not the church of God will not help us relate or communicate the Gospel or entice the unwilling.  Be the people of the Word and Sacraments you are, live as this people from the Word and back to that Word, and strive to be the holy, righteous, and good people God has declared you to be.

Over the last few generations we have tried not being the Church and where has it gotten us?  Our kids do not take the faith seriously, neither do the people outside the church, and we have made casual and ordinary the most profound and exceptional things of God's grace.  In short, we have forsaken a sense of the sacred thinking it would help us welcome more folks into the door and the pews are emptier than they ever were and people no longer take us seriously.  So, why not try being who we are and doing what God has called us to do and being the people God claims we are.  How much worse could this do than what we have already done?

1 comment:

John J. Flanagan said...

Good comments, Pastor. Valid points.