Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Those who are experts in this sort of thing have surveyed the marketplace of religious ideas and practical helps and determined that we Lutherans do not have many tools to help us in this area. We need to borrow from our Baptist friends and those in non-denominational churches -- the ones that are growing. Some of the stuff we have borrowed is well and good (a lot of it common sense wisdom which, sadly, is not all that common anymore). Some of it is, well, somewhat trivial but benign. It is somewhat embarrassing but it is not much more harmful than that. Other stuff is downright dangerous. It changes more than practice but the doctrine that informs those practices. Others have gone into detail and I am not repeating myself or them here.
I do think, however, that the great issue has less to do with how we do things than our understanding of who we are as the Church. Quite frankly, too many of us do not think of the congregation as the Church. It is much less in our minds -- a simple gathering of like minded folks for a common purposes. We do not consider that we are here not because we have chosen to come but because we have been bidden by God. I cannot for the life of me understand why Lutherans skip over those words "called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified..." in the Catechism. Or, why Lutherans seem to think that these words refer to individual Christians but not to the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is my unpleasant experience that too often when Lutheran Christians come together, we expect less than the Church, we act less than the Church, and we get less than the Church. We assume it does not matter too much if our needs are met (and in this even the most conservative Lutherans sometimes act and think just like the mega-churches that are here to meet people's needs). The Church is not here to meet our needs. The Church has been created by God to be the place where He bestows His gifts upon His people. The Church is the arena of Word and Sacrament that accomplish His purpose and do what he sends them to do. The Church is created by the means of grace and called into being where Word and Sacrament speak and act with the authority of Christ, indeed making known the very person of Christ. He is not simply the bearer of gifts -- He is THE gift of God to His people. We are here only because HE is here.
Far too often we forget that we are here because Christ is here. We settle for a few words of good advice, a little comfort for our individual burdens, a little relief or distraction from our individual troubles, a little guidance amid our individual uncertainties. So it is easy to be inward focused when we see the Church in this light. But how is it possible for us to miss the impact of God planting His Church here in this place not only for our sakes but for the sake of the world around us? How is it possible to meet Christ where He has promised to be (Word and Sacrament) and then go home as if the most important thing on our agenda were finding something good to eat? Is this a matter of bad people or bad attitudes or is it a symptom of the fact that we have forgotten that the Church is not ours, we do not create it, and we are not the objects of the Church's existence.
The Church is God's, established in Christ to be the place where He fulfills His Emmanuel promise to be with us always. The Church is created by God when His Word speaks and His Sacraments act to make Christ and all the blessings of Christ present and accessible to us. The Church is not simply God with us who are there, but the gift and means of God's presence to the world.
If there are congregations that need transformation, and Lord knows there are, we must begin by reminding them who they are, what they are, and why they are. This is not simply the replacement of a "maintenance" mindset for an "outreach" one. This is the rediscovery of what it means to be the Body of Christ, to be bidden by the God who makes His presence among His people through Word and Sacrament, and who sends them forth into the world proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I am not so sure that we can learn this from the Baptists or from anybody else. I know, however, it is there in the Catechism.