Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Transforming Congregations

One of the BIG programs of Synod is largely hidden and its name sounds innocuous enough -- Transforming Congregations Network.  It is a big program because we have so many congregations in need of transformation.  They are not growing, not baptizing and confirming adults, and not welcoming to new folks.  I have posted on this before so lest anyone suggest I am okay with a congregation directing its focus and ministry only to those currently in the pews, I am not.  I am adamantly against it.  However, the issue of HOW you transform congregations is up for debate.

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.


Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

Hi, Pr. Peters!

Well said! The very misgivings you state, I share.

Having attended a church planters conference a couple of years ago - I've since repented - I was appalled at the willingness of attendees to listen to those who do not share our teaching about what the Church is or what marks the Church, and to engage in thinly veiled revival-style devotions and worship.

It's obvious that you are a much better man than me, because I wonder if I'm even more cynical about this particular model. I think of the two witnesses from Revelation 11, who faithfully proclaiming, and then the enemies were allowed to put them to death. Could it be that some congregations have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel and, having finished their testimony, are put to death?

While I would hate to think the church I serve could die out in the next few years, I also wonder if the local congregation easily becomes an idol - preserve the congregation, even if it means losing identity as Church, because its MY church (It's Christ's?).

I think you've hit the nail on the head for transforming. Let's make it easy: Who are we supposed to be and what are we supposed to be giving?

Joe Strieter said...

I have been studying Transforming Churches (formerly "Transforming Congregations") for over two years, and have come to the same conclusion: We have forgotten who we are. We no longer know the meaning of "church." Here is what a friend and I wrote recently in our critique of "TC":
1. The Gospel is treated as a “given” and as information. All emphasis is directed toward making NEW disciples (Law), the Means of Grace are effectively ignored, and Justification by grace through faith is absent. The sweetness of the gospel seems to have been replaced by the terror of the law.

2. The Office of the Holy Ministry is turned upside down. The pastor becomes a CEO, and rewards and punishes staff members, depending on their performance against goals. His role becomes corporate rather than personal. His ordination vows seem to be forgotten.

3. The Church, rather than being the font of God’s gifts—the Means of Grace, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation—becomes in effect, a little corporation whose primary goal is numerical growth. All activities are measured against the Great Commission, not Justification.

4. The Two Kingdoms are dangerously co-mingled. The pastor, rather than a shepherd of souls, and a steward of the mysteries, becomes a manager, a CEO.

5. The Priesthood of All Believers seems to have been de-emphasized. Their deeds of love among their families and neighbors are ignored. Further, no attention seems to be given to their spiritual welfare."

Sorry about the length of this quote, but it's necessary.

Joe Strieter
Maumee, Ohio

Michael Paul 白霈德牧師 said...

Thank you for posting this, Pastor Peters. Well put!

Scott Diekmann said...

Thanks for the great post Pastor Peters. I agree wholeheartedly.

Birkholz said...

“Where the custom of churchgoing has lapsed with the consequence that the Christian congregation is dead or a-dying, there is but one single means of getting people back to church. Hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper must be aroused in them. Whenever this hunger and this thirst awake – and it obviously does not lie within our own power to awaken them – people go to church again. For hunger and thirst for God’s Word can in an emergency be satisfied in one’s chamber, at any rate according to that pietistic theory with which the Protestantism of the last two centuries has preached its own churches empty. Except in case of grave illness, however, the Sacrament of the Altar can only be received in the house of God. The renewal of the Christian congregation and her Divine Service therefore begins, in a way most theologians today still find incomprehensible, when we once again seriously learn and teach what the New Testament and the Catechism say on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

Hermann Sasse

stephen said...

A friend posted this on facebook so I gave it a read; I thought it was going to be a blast article....

But I was pleasantly surprised. And I believe you are completely correct. I remember telling a good friend about the TCN program, a guy who's been an LCMS pastor for a long time, and his reply was "it won't work - where's the Holy Spirit in this?" And your point was his point - fidget with the structure and governance all you want, in the end this is just another program unless the spirit of the church is brought in line with what God has called His Church to do. To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything Jesus commanded!
I wish this adaptation were "easy," but our churches have been brought up poorly, as you have indicated. Thanks for this.

Rev. Clint K. Poppe said...

Loved the Sasse quote; what's the source?