Friday, March 5, 2010

Lutherans and Evangelism

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.


Janis Williams said...

Having come from that growing denomination (Southern Baptist), and been through Presbyterianism (Evangelism Explosion), I can say evangelism is not the lanuguage of those denoms. either. I think the problem is twofold:

People aren't taught Theology (please excuse the dirty word). They aren't taught what they believe (teach and confess). They don't know how to speak their Faith without a canned presentation. They are afraid to 'step in it.'

The artwork at the head of this post depicts the other problem - no fault to you, Fr. Peters. (I didn't think this up, it comes from Chris Rosebrough @ Pirate Christian Radio.) Christianity is not lure or bait fishing. That's what the Willow Creek/Saddleback church models do (lure them in, bait-and-switch). The Gospel is NET fishing. It is the way to evangelize when we cast the net of the Gospel, and that net draws in the catch.

Anonymous said...

I think the original post that you refer to is on a site of a very "Jesus First" type church.

Lutheran in name only - very trendy, relevant, etc

Wes Thorp said...

Pastor Peters-you are to be commended for raising this question. I was born and raised in the LCMS and stayed there for more than 60 years. I would encourage you to solicit as discussion not only with pastors and professional church workers but with members, both present and former and in a wide-range of demographic groups. Why will they get excited and share their enthusiasm for a movie like Avatar, but not for the only true hope that came with Jesus and what he did on the cross?

I would love to follow and participate in such an open discussion.

God bless your work for the Lord.

Wes Thorp

Michael Paul said...

Thank you for taking the time to write and post these helpful thoughts.

Myrtle said...

A while ago, I was sitting at a dinner table with several people from my new church and one of them, a lifelong Lutheran, remarked that she had never met anyone who quoted the Book of Concord until she met me.

In the few months I've been a Lutheran, I have been a bit surprised at how many of the Lutherans I know/have met have never read the Book of Concord, do not regularly study it. My pastor hands the thing out like candy, having made a personal commitment to give a copy to anyone who asks for one. Yet out of four bible studies he teaches, none are on the Confessions. He instructs new members one-on-one, so there is not a regular class I could take. For a while after I gained the alter, he continued to teach me, but his schedule is too busy now.

However, I have 26 years of works-teaching to unlearn. Ever since my pastor set the Book of Concord on a table next to my couch last June, not a day has not passed without reading it, trying to learn the pure teaching within its pages going from it to the bible and back. I blog about what I have read, trying to work out what it means. I have read and re-read all the blog entries on Concordia | The Lutheran Confessions and Four and Twenty + Blackbirds, as well as the blogs of five confessional Lutheran pastors who freely post their sermons online to try and learn what I know I need. And I tell just about anyone who will listen, Christian and non-Christian alike, what the Holy Spirit has been gifting me. Ah, but that’s just about me.

The point is I happen to think part of the problem is that it is difficult to share your faith when you do not know or understand its foundation. Now I happen to believe the proper division of Law and Gospel I’ve received from the pulpit, what I “hear” going out from other confessional Lutheran pulpits is simply wonderful and certainly compelling in and of itself. I share that teaching as well. But I believe it is important to become familiar with the Confessions, perhaps not enough to quote them, but familiar enough to flip to the proper page and read it aloud. That way, when asked questions you’d have answers to give or given poor teaching you could point out why it was so, what it should have taught.

Besides, regularly studying the Confessions illumines just how sweet the Gospel really is and brings utter consolation when struggling with sin, for the relentless, ferocious, wily assaults of our enemy are never glossed over. Always, always Luther reminds us we are weak because of our flesh and because of our enemies. We fail because we are meant to fail. Thus, the wonder, the magnificence of a Savior who gives to freely to such wretched creatures!

My best friend looked upon my departure from the Protestant church with offense and a bit of derision. But months and months of reading about the Book of Concord on my blog, of showing how so much of the bible I knew as Law is actually not, how “be holy” is not a command, but a promise, has deepened her own dissatisfaction with how hungry she leaves church each week. She’s now studying the Large Catechism with much zeal and trying to find a confessional Lutheran Church in her area.

I am beginning to think that book alone is the only “evangelism” tool a body needs. After all, there is nothing on earth more compelling and more relevant that Jesus Christ, today, tomorrow, and forever.

Brian Johnson said...

Hello Pastor Peters,

the boat from Europe has just docked again and unloaded the British website: "What Is The Gospel?". It starts from the basics: i.e. what Peter and Paul preached in the NT and recognizes that we have drifted away (the boat wasn't tied up!)

See it at

Bill Hillyer said...

Pastor Peters,
I love your thought process! As a pastor of a mission congregation, I quickly grew tired of trying to act like something we were not.

In our Bible Class we have been going through the Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Some of our new members were so excited they read the whole thing in a couple of weeks! Teaching that matches scripture - and doesn't try to explain away or make things up is what they hunger for.

In fact, just yesterday, our newest member brought his neighbor to church so that he too could see what the "church is supposed to be like."

Keep asking these questions on your blog, you are on the right track!

xmountie said...

Pastor Peters wrote a very good piece about Lutherans trying to imitate generic Protestants in regard to evangelism. But he too reveals that generic Protestant theology as not left him untouched. For instance, he uses the word "sanctuary" when he has the entire church building in mind. This way of speaking seems to have infected almost every LCMS pastor. To call the entire church building "the sanctuary" is at variance with confessional Lutheran theological language. That is how generic (Reformed) Protestants talk. To Lutherans the "sanctuary" is the altar and pulpit area (a.k.a chancel), an area separate from the pews or nave. It is called "sanctuary" because that is where God's Word is read, preached, and the body and blood of Christ is distributed. God's Word does not come from the pews, as generic Protestant theology teaches. Thus,it's not only in evangelism that generic Protestantism has invaded Lutheran theology. I am always very disappointed when I hear Lutheran pastors say "the sanctuary" when they have the entire church building in mind. We need to be Lutherans not only in evangelism, but also in our theological language. Let's begin by no longer calling the church proper "the sanctuary."

Anonymous said...

It's sometimes the shepherds themselves who foist these unLutheran methods on the sheep.

Gene White said...

This discussion is a good one, as the area of evangelism has been poorly understood for a number of years. Personally, I have been involved in this since the early 70’s, when Evangelism Explosion was adopted by our Synod. I can also tell you it didn’t work, though many people tried to make it work. I can also tell you from personal experience, scripture based evangelism does work. People do react positively to us, when we act like Christians, talk like Christians and truly love our neighbors.

Two years ago a new organization was founded for the purpose of bringing confessional themed training to the laity in congregational based seminars. That organization is Confessional Lutherans for Christ’s Commission, CLCC. It’s very first seminar produced and conducted is titled Evangelism, Outreach and Assimilation. It is based on confessional teachings and the theme of John 1:44-49, “Come and See.” Evangelism is done though our vocations, in a natural and personal way; it does not use scripts, etc.

For more information on this, and other CLCC seminars, please visit their Website at

Brigitte said...

Myrtle, that was a really great comment. Thank you for sharing that about the book of Concord and your church. I also went to have a look at your blog. Would you mind if I link to it? You are being much bolder and constructive than you give yourself credit for. Yours, Brigitte.

FrZeile said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Fr. Peters. I shall add a few of my own. First is that many of our leaders and expecially those interested in evangelism made the mistake I made when growing up, taking the Bible-believing claims at face value. I went to the Baptist VBS and imagined they did things the "Bible-way", because they said they did. Then our Lutheran high school choir sang at an anniversary mass at Zion Lutheran, Detroit. "Why did they make such a thing about Holy Communion?" I was told (and I was impressed that an usher had answers) that they took Christ's words very seriously "This is My Body." They sang Psalms, I noticed, which the Baptists never did, and used incense which I recalled mentioned in the Bible. It dawned on me that this 2000-year old liturgical service was the Bible-way!

Our leaders made the same mistake when looking for growing churches. They missed the fact that for 200 years the growingest church in America has been the Roman Catholic church. Sociological studies also show that Lutheran people resemble Catholic people more so than they resemble Evangelical people. So from the perspective of history and sociology, if we should have copied anyone, it should have been the Catholics, tradition-bound, family centered, priest-dominated. The only time Catholics in America have lost ground has been in the wake of Vatican II.

But the reason we in the LCMS have lost ground is that we have been affected by the culture at large with its shift from family values to individualism (the "cultural left," in Tex Semple's analysis), or to work/career values (the "cultural middle"). Our congregations took the credit for what the family was doing in the 1950's, and now we are blaming the congregations for what families are doing now (disintegrating, having fewer kids, then spoiling/overbooking those few we do have).

Finally, in reading the Church Growth gurus, Winn Arne and others, our LCMS evangelism leaders overlooked parts of the theory they didn't like. Arne lays great stress on evangelism/growth as an outgrowth of the congregation's faith commitment. Integrity and commitment go hand in hand. Clearness of doctrine goes hand in hand with knowing what can be changed and what ought not be changed. Another Church Growth insight is the homogeniety principle, that people tend to embrace the faith with others like them, suggesting that the calls for inclusivity and cross-cultural ministry are doomed to attract only those for whom belonging to a diverse (and usually liberal) fellowship is important.

God bless your work, Brother!

Myrtle said...

I do not mind sharing my blog, but much of it is distressingly personal. It was given to me as a gift to write about having MS and asthma. Because I despaired so in the Protestant Church, up until a year ago, very little faith is splayed across the pages. So, once I discovered the joy that is the Book of Concord, much of the time I spend writing changed.

As an ex-Protestant, I struggle mightily beneath the weight of the Law even as I greedily gulp up all the Gospel I can manage to stuff inside.

So, read at your own risk.