Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Which Direction Are We Headed

One of the great questions before Lutheranism is not about who we were in the past or even who we are in the present moment but which way are we headed?  When we elect leaders, when we undertake great mission initiatives, or when we decide to review and change our structure, we make what are at best incremental changes.  Often the significance of those changes are not known or felt until years later.  But we can look at the direction these changes or leaders are heading and decide if that is the direction we ought to be heading.

I have often heard it said that the current Synodical President and his administration are all about mission, moving the sleeping giant to awaken and take some strides toward growth.  On the surface this may appear to be accurate.  We have seen the birth of the Ablaze movement with its focus on evangelism and outreach.  We have seen the adoption of grand goals of planting new missions and ministries (2,000 by 2017).  We have seen a large fund raising program begin to raise funds to support these mission goals (Fan Into Flame).  This administration can certainly be commended for putting this emphasis front and center.  Some have lauded these goals as the reason they support Pres. Kieschnick even though they might not feel personally or theologically in tune with him.

On the surface it appears that Missouri is on the move but the great question for us is “which direction are we headed?”  If becoming more mission minded means planting congregations that do not look or sound or act much different than the average non-denominational church in town, then maybe we need to be thinking about the cost of this mission focus on our Confessional identity.  If becoming more tuned to growth means being willing to become something different on Sunday morning than who we are in our confession of faith, then maybe we need to reexamine the principles underlying this move to growth and whether the methods and their presuppositions may be in conflict with our Confessional identity.

What concerns me as a Pastor is when it is presumed that the Church we are in our hymnal or catechism or symbols is no longer viable for mission and growth.  What concerns me is when we feel that in order to reach our goals we must change who we are – putting liturgical confessional identity in competition with or in conflict with the mission goal of witness and tangible growth.  The direction of our church body is the issue here – not the personal integrity of the leaders or the over all goals of a more effective, efficient, and energized LCMS.  Surely we would all be in favor of a church body more effective in the use of the resources and gifts God has given us to faithfully fulfill His purpose.  Surely we would all appreciate a church body more efficient in our ability to make decisions, implement programs, and carry out the mission of the Church.  Surely we would all like to see a Missouri Synod energized and excited about who we are, what is our history, and what God has called us to be and to do.  But it is a valid point to make to question how we get there, what we have to give up in order to get there, and what we have to adopt in order to get there.

I have little compassion or understanding of congregations that do not desire to grow – and we have a lot of them!  There are congregations that have put up all kinds of attitudinal and functional barriers that keep new people away and keep the focus of the congregation turned inward instead of outward.  I am not speaking primarily about those congregations on the prairie whose people have left the land and moved somewhere else.  I am speaking of congregations who have every opportunity to grow, to bring the Gospel to those around them, and yet choose to focus on themselves.  A number of years ago I had a call to congregation in a bustling suburb.  As the people drove me to the building, I noticed not one sign to direct people to the existence of this Lutheran congregation.  Before we drive onto the parking lot, someone had to get out, unpadlock the log chain that prevented access to the church property, and the secure it again once we had driven through.  A huge brush of trees and shrubs effectively hid the facility from the two busy streets on either side of the large property.  This was a congregation poised to decline.  A few conversations with the leaders and it was clear which direction they were headed and it was in deep conflict with my own perspective.  Did I want to fight with this insulated congregation or did I believe that God was probably calling me to a different congregation?

I do not believe it is a question of growth or no growth --  but whether or not the kind of growth or the means to this growth comes at the expense of our Lutheran identity.  This is and has been my concern for our Synod for several years.  The direction of the LCMS is away from our confessional and liturgical identity and toward a generic Protestant (mostly fundamentalist or evangelical) identity which could be shared with congregations with very different theological stances.  This is not about musical style.  It is not about vestments.  It is not about formal or casual.  It is about our evangelical and catholic identity, flowing from the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, and a practice consistent with those Confessions.

We all know which direction the ELCA has chosen to take.  The direction for the ELCA is to cast its lot in with what is left of mainline Protestantism - albeit with a high church appearance.  In Missouri we are headed in different directions (not only from the ELCA but within Missouri itself).  I do not believe any elected leader can save us but the direction he sets is a very important question.  Although I do not know Matt Harrison very well, the direction he seems to be moving in is a direction more consistent with our confession of faith and liturgical identity.  I hope that this is true.  I hope that if he is elected, this will be the tone and direction of the LCMS as a whole.  A movement of the rudder seems like a small change but it can create a radical change in direction for the ship as a whole.  God help us, we need to change direction without going backwards or insulating and isolating ourselves as a Church.

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