Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What is the truth we don’t want to admit?

Every now and then you find Lutheran folk who despair of the flat growth and attendance rates among all Lutherans in general and liturgical Lutherans in particular.  And it is true.  There is no disputing that Lutherans are not packing them in (and this includes those Lutherans who are very sacramental in focus and life).  Some, therefore, have turned this truth into a justification for turning their attention away from the world, away from witness, and away from engaging those outside the boundaries of their congregations.  Whether they have given up or given in or have found justification for their inward focus, they have turned their attention to the people who are there.  Sometimes they sound pretty negative.  Sometimes they sound as if they care little about the unchurched.  They are often called maintenance (code word for bad Lutherans).

Once, I was told by just such an individual that he saw little point to witness or outreach.  If people want to be Lutheran, fine.  Have them come to a Lutheran Church where  they will be welcomed and the congregation is happy to have them.  If they don’t, well, then, they don’t.  But why bother trying to make Lutherans out of folks who won’t want to be Lutheran.

In response I would suggest one thing that is rather obvious but also rather easily forgotten.  The Lord already knows how unfriendly the world is to His kingdom.  We are not telling Him something He does not already know when we complain about how difficult it is to make headway against a world set against His Word and His kingdom.  In fact, our Lord predicted the mixed response of the world, prepared His people with what to do when those of a household do not receive His Word, and warned His Church that they would face even worse than rejection – persecution.  Yet at the very same time, Jesus neither discouraged His people from witness nor did He in any way diminish their responsibility and the urgency of this witness.  We sometimes forget that we do not witness because it works but because this is the natural outflowing of what has flowed into us – the fruit of the Spirit working in us through the Gospel.  Our concern is not how or whether people respond but are we being faithful in what He has given us to do and are we speaking with joy and thanksgiving of Him who has brought us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

We speak not because it is demanded of us but rather because the Gospel compels us, moves us, and works in us to speak and share the wonders of what the Lord has done.  The Gospel has and will always face rejection and yet the Church and each Christian continues to speak, to tell, and to live in the Gospel.  This is what we know.  This is how we live.  This is what we speak to any who are around us.

The other tendency is to borrow methods from business and mass marketing in order to, well, help God out.  We lay our frustration at the rejection and seeming ineffectiveness of our witness not at the Lord and His promise but at the feet of those who know how to sell things to people.  The end result of this is that these business consultants review the Church the same way that they review the process, products, and procedures of an ineffective business.  While this involves a review of such things as brand identity, advertising, and follow through, worship is the inevitable place where the church growth principles apply.  What we are doing is not working and therefore we need to change it.  Worship needs to be more accessible, more inviting, more relevant, more appealing, and more focused on the needs and wants of those outside the Church.  In the extreme, the Church is told to ditch being the Church and to become almost the anti-church church to win over the public.

Some of these folks have made the people in the pews and even the pews themselves the enemy of church growth.  Change the people in the pews, change the ambiance of the building, change the liturgy (what goes on in worship), change the music (at least the style), and focus on customer satisfaction – then you will grow (just like a business).  These consultants tell us that people want to hear the Gospel but not the way we have been speaking it – so talk less about sin, death, and faith and talk more about personal happiness, fulfillment, and achieving goals and dreams of a better life.  People want religion and spirituality but not the religion and spirituality of the Church.  Therefore, the focus needs to shift from the message to the method in order to be successful.

The problem with this is that the Church did not foster the liturgy or hymnody because they worked – but because these were faithful to the Word of the Lord.  The Church did not shape its message to be effective but to be faithful to the Gospel (the Word of the Cross and Empty Tomb).  It is not that marketing strategies of the past once worked and were appealing to the public but now need to change to reflect the changes in the world but that the Church never had a marketing strategy or business plan until the most recent of times.  To one degree or another, the debate and the criteria for success has always been about faithfulness.

In the midst of this constant debate within the Church, we often forget that the only criterion by which we will be judged is faithfulness.  The path of faith is that the Lord of the Church will give growth to His Church and prosper His kingdom as He wills.  He will not lose any of those whom He has elected unto salvation.  Trust means that what works is His Word – His Word that accomplishes His purpose and fulfills His purpose EVERYTIME.  Trust means that the tools needed for the Church to faithfully accomplish her divine purpose are already given to us in the means of grace and these are the only tools and resources we need to fulfill His bidding.

Trust means that we use these tools not with regret or with the lament of their ineffectiveness but with the joy and confidence that just as this Word has worked to call, gather, and enlighten us, so will it call, gather, and enlighten all whom the Lord elects.  Trust means doing what God has given us to do not as a people who must keep the rules but as those whose delight and joy is to speak to others the saving voice of the Word that has spoken us into His kingdom.

The complaints are both half right.  Some of those who use the liturgy and sing those good Lutherans hymns have lost their joy and confidence in the mans of grace.  Some of those who are most passionate about reaching those outside the Church have lost their joy and confidence in the means of grace.  Those who insist that it won’t make any difference to engage the world with the life-giving Word of the Lord and those who insist that the Word is not enough to reach the lost have the same problem – they no longer joy or have confidence in the Word to do what it promises, in the God who keeps His promises, and in the sufficiency of the means of grace for what the Lord has called us to do and to be.

We do not need to choose between two equally unfaithful and unpleasant choices.  What we need is to rediscover our confidence and joy in the means of grace.  We must resist the point of view that says what we do in faithfulness to God’s Word does not matter and those who insist that faithfulness to God’s Word must be supplanted with the latest and best of business models.  We need to repent of our regret and lack of confidence in the tools that God has given to His Church to do His bidding.  The Word and Sacraments are the best tools we have to do His bidding and the only means by which He will accomplish His purpose.  Once this is clear, everything else will come back into focus....


Anonymous said...

The words of Christ to his disciples
at his Ascension still apply to us:
"You will receive power when the
Holy Spirit has come upon you and you
will be my witnesses....to the end
of the earth."

The Holy Spirit still uses Christians
to give witness to the crucified and
resurrected Christ and his salvation
for all people. The local LCMS
parish needs members who will witness
to their co-workers, neighbors,
friends, family who do not Christ
as their personal Lord and Savior.

We need parish members to invite
people to our worship services
to hear the Good News of Jesus
Christ. The rest is up to the
Holy Spirit as he works on their

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters, it's not just Lutherans. American Christianity is in decline across the board.

As I was walking to my office building this morning I noticed a sign on the downtown Presbyterian church that offered Yoga classes at noon. Scripture study might have been a nice alternative, but the PCUSA is part of the Protestant mainline that doesn't seem to put a lot of emphasis on those things anymore.

The fact is, almost every denomination is now divided between those who adhere to historic, orthodox Christianity and those who don't. Same is true in American Judaism with its Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions.

When I was Catholic I was surprised to find out that there are at least 15 million non-practicing Catholics in the U.S. but since the RC keeps statistic using baptismal records they are "officially" still on the rolls which always keeps the membership inflated. My husband is one of those former practicing Catholics.

No, that doesn't excuse what Lutherans should or should not be doing, we do have our work cut out for us but I think we need to see the whole picture.


Laura said...

Wow. That was spot-on Pastor Peters. I think I will read it again . . .

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: you wrote, “The words of Christ to his disciples
at his Ascension still apply to us: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses....to the end of the earth."

The disciples received the Holy Spirit on Easter morning (John 20:22) but they received the power of which our Lord spoke on Pentecost. May I suggest that Scripture tells us of these events precisely so that we would not think that having received the Holy Spirit, we are expected to work all kinds of miracles and speak in tongues as the Apostles did. This was a special gift to the Church for its founding. For 50 days the Apostles were just like any of us who have received the Holy Spirit at Baptism. They made mistakes: “is this the time you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”, and they elected Matthias.

So the power they received is not the power everyone receives when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. 1 Cor. 12: 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

If we assume that there is no difference between the Apostles and ourselves, we can do serious damage to the faith of those who wonder whether they are in fact members of God’s Kingdom if they cannot do the things the Apostles did.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

If we assume that there is no difference between the Apostles and ourselves, we can do serious damage to the faith of those who wonder whether they are in fact members of God’s Kingdom if they cannot do the things the Apostles did.

One of the biggest mistakes that certain church bodies that lean toward pietism make is the business of the "tongues" at Pentecost. They were not incomprehensible babble but the ability to speak in the languages of the various nationalities that were present in Jerusalem at that time so that the hearers could take the Gospel message with them to their home countries. This is indeed how the message began to spread.

Nothing irritates me more than to hear a Pentecostal brag that he/she has received "a word from the Lord" and the go on to expound on it. The "word" they received is often totally in contrast to the Word of Holy Scripture through which the Holy Spirit works. That's how we get the "prosperity" Gospel and other such nonsense.

Indeed these were special gifts to the infant Church at Pentecost but we now have the fullness of revelation in the Word of God through which He speaks to us.


Anonymous said...

Attention George Marquart

Obviously 21st century Christians
do not have the same powers given
to the Apostles by the Holy Spirit.

No one mentioned doing miracles or
speaking in tongues or foreign
languages. The Holy Spirit empowers
us to be witnesses today.

With your logic the Great Commission
was only given to the Apostles
and does not apply to us today.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: my point is that when our Lord said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” He did not promise to give them the Holy Spirit, because He had already done that, but He promised them “power” that would enable them to do things others would not be able to do – even those in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled.

I do not know why you decided that “my logic” has to lead to a certain conclusion, when it has nothing to do with the question at hand. I will say this: I believe that the Great Commission continues to apply to the Church, but not to every individual. Does it apply to women? (Sorry Christine – to some this question alone would settle the argument, so I went for the easy way out. But when the Prophet Joel said, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”, he implied something different, didn’t he?) Are we all charged with baptizing (I know we may, in extraordinary circumstances, but for the sake of order the Church has been given a particular office for this purpose)? Are we all to teach? 1 Cor. 12: 29 “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

will say this: I believe that the The Great Commission continues to apply to the Church, but not to every individual. Does it apply to women? (Sorry Christine – to some this question alone would settle the argument, so I went for the easy way out. But when the Prophet Joel said, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”, he implied something different, didn’t he?)

Chuckle chuckle, no apologies needed George I get what you are saying and I agree with what you have stated.

All the baptized have been incorproated into the Royal Priesthood of Jesus Christ and through that gift have the power of the Holy Spirit available to them.

But not all are called to the same tasks, as you rightly point out.


Anonymous said...

From what I have seen, the Lutheran church is reaching people and retaining them better than ever. Where we have lost momentum is within families. A few generations ago, people averaged about four children per family. That included folks with zero children as well as folks with ten. Nowadays the average is about two. So, of course we notice that overall there isn't growth, but if our members reject the growth of the church by rejecting children God would send, it does not follow that we failed to share the Gospel with the community, rather that we have purposely chosen to have a smaller community by having smaller families.