Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Former Lutherans Outnumber the Active Ones
The landscape of Republican candidates is populated with former Lutherans. Ron Paul was raised Lutheran (has a couple of brothers who are Lutheran Pastors, I hear) and is currently Baptist. We all know of Michele Bachmann's hastened exit from the Wisconsin Synod for non-denominational land. Newt Gingrich was raised in the LCMS and departed for the Southern Baptists before rediscovering his liturgical roots and ending up in Rome. Although no one ever heard of him, Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, was briefly a GOP presidential candidate and is a non-practicing Lutheran (code for no longer Lutheran). Vern Wuensche, a name I had never heard before, was, apparently, a declared GOP presidential candidate and is Lutheran (wow, practicing, too, but who ever heard of him?). This is typical of what we find in the world around us. A non-Lutheran with Lutheran connections is Jon Huntsman, who, though a Mormon, went to a Lutheran school in Los Angeles.
I was shopping the other day and in the midst of a conversation the gentleman explaining something to me asked me what I did for a living. Short end of the conversation -- he was a former Lutheran, former LCMS, and from a parish I knew, not far from the one I served in NY. You cannot throw a stone without hitting a dozen or so former, ex, or non-practicing Lutherans. If we had kept them all, we just might be the second largest block of Christians in America. But we have not...
Why have we lost so many? There are the standard answers. The change from ethnic church to American, the upward mobility of immigrant Lutherans, the move from ethnic neighborhoods or rural areas to suburbs, the squabbles along the way, the mergers which compromised history and integrity for the sake of unity, the divergent social stands amid social change, the tears and rips in the fabric of the American family, culture, and political life, etc... We have gotten quite adept at explaining why so many are no longer Lutheran. But I still do not get it?
How is it possible to exchange the theological vibrancy of an efficacious Word for one that is theoretically without error but powerless to do what it claims? How is it possible to give up the sacramental presence of a God located among us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist for one largely absent until called upon and then only vaguely present when we bid Him come? How is it possible to forget the unforgettable Lutheran hymns that sing the faith into our hearts, minds, and memories for the sentimental songs of Gospel harmony or the repeated but shallow choruses of contemporary Christian music? How is it possible to choose the veiled presence of the Pastor (himself a means for the means of grace) for a church in which the preacher is the star and the worship service warm up for the prince of the pulpit? How is it possible to grow frustrated with a church that takes what we believe, confess, and teach so seriously that we debate and argue about it as if it were the most important thing in life (which it is, isn't it?)? How is it that people can make a geographical move in which they exchange a church home in which they were Sunday school teachers, choir singing, ushers, counters, greeters, council members, and fully invested to go shopping for a church as if they were buying a new TV?
I can only think of a couple of reasons.... a lack of catechesis and the failure to believe what it is that we confess and teach. Too many have left in ignorance -- not knowing what it is that Lutherans believe and confess. It is partly to blame on both sides of the rail -- Pastors who failed to teach passionately the faith confessed in creed and lived in liturgy on Sunday morning and people whose itching hears were not listening. Too many have assumed that Lutheranism was an ethnicity instead of a Church, a choice instead of a confession, an intellectual point of view instead of a way of worshiping and living. There is plenty of blame to go around here but my point is not to blame (too late for that). The other is that we have forgotten to hear what we say and sing, to believe what we confess and teach, and to give to this life as a child of God within the Church the priority that is due. Perhaps we as Pastors have too frequently confessed our own doubts and fears instead of concentrating on the kerygma in our preaching and teaching. Perhaps we have listened too closely to the doubts and fears of our culture and let the growing confusion about who we are as Americans confuse and confound our faith. Whatever the reason, the Church ceased to be about the Truth that transforms everything and become the domain of feelings and opinions as individual as the taste of diet or dress.
We cannot afford to keep on making these same mistakes. The numbers of former Lutherans or non-practicing Lutherans already outnumbers the tally of active Lutherans. But this is not the reason or rationale for why or who we are. We are people of the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace that deliver that of which they speak and do what they promise. This is the essence of Lutheran identity. The Word and the Sacraments are not a stairway to God (as Rome often speaks) but the means by which the hidden and distant God comes to us to deliver what we dare not ask and know we do not deserve. These delightful and priceless gifts of grace bestow the Spirit as well as the blessings of the cross and empty tomb and enable us to receive and respond to God's bidding. They compel us with love to the community in which the Word and Table of the Lord are central and the font is entrance gate. It is here that we understand communion is not only nor primarily vertical but horizontal -- not in a vague spiritual sense but in the concrete mercy and service meant for others as Christ has shown mercy and served us.
Faith is not intellectual assent to propositional truth or an experience resulting in certain feelings but an identity thrust upon us as God has literally ripped us up from one kingdom to plant us in His kingdom, by baptism and faith. Faith is not a quest for answers that rationalize or organize the loose ends of all the whys or whats of our curiosity but God's impetus in confronting us with the mystery of who He is and what He has done for us. Grace is not just a word for us but the taste of bread and wine which is Christ's body and blood. It is the personal word of absolution that confronts and compels us as sinners to honesty and then surprises us with the embrace of the waiting Father loving, forgiving, and welcoming back His prodigal children. Mercy is not one sided or one dimensional for us. What we receive, we must give -- not out of duty or obligation but as the joyful privilege of those who have known grace first hand. It is quiet work in which the attention is not upon us but upon those to whom this mercy is shown and the God from whence this mercy comes.
I admit to having no secret method to keeping Lutherans and preventing the peeling off of Lutherans to other churches or, more importantly, to no church at all. But our confession and faith is primarily positive. We are not here because we fear hell (though we do). We are here because of the joy that calls us and creates us a people of joy, who cannot get over the fact that God loves us and has accomplished for us what we could not do -- saving us from our sin, death, and selves to be His own, to live under Him in His kingdom both now and forever, the recipients of His gracious favor whose privilege it is to respond with praise, thanksgiving, and love. We who are Pastors have a marvelous opportunity every Sunday to remind Lutherans of this blessed truth -- and not for us only, but for the life of the world! We who are in the pew are those who make known this blessed truth in the words and deeds of faith that fulfill our baptismal vocation in the world. What marvelous opportunity, indeed!