Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thoughts on the 99. . .

Whenever the story of the shepherd leaving the 99 to after the lone wanderer was read, my whole attention was given not to the vagabond who got lost but the flock that the shepherd left behind in order to seek the lost.  Nearly every sermon I have ever heard on this text focuses on the single lost sheep and I suppose there is not much in the text to direct a whole sermon on the 99 but that is not enough reason to forget them.

Michael Hannon, a Roman Catholic layman preparing to enter religious life, has a piece in First Things (online) on the new evangelization focus of his church.  It is an interesting read.  He admits to some hesitance about the focus and, I would guess, views the story of the one lost sheep much as I have.  He wonders about those left behind.

One paragraph stuck out to me:  In the same vein, it seems to me that we are doing far better at apologetics right now than at catechesis. Strikingly, our catechists these days often just use apologetics tracts as their textbooks for catechism class, giving the faithful mere leftovers of what was actually prepared for others who do not yet share our faith. His point being that there might not be so many lost sheep if the catechesis is better and that the romance of apologetics sometimes captures the mind and heart of the church better than the cause of those still there.  I resonate to that.  I myself can count on several hands the numbers of books assigned or published by my own church body on how to reclaim the lost but lament that there are fewer works written on keeping those who remain within the fold.

Sometimes our Bible studies and catechetical classes end up being the same things recycled from new member classes or apologetics books instead of the solid stuff that equips the faithful with the tools they need to live out their baptismal vocation as God's own children.  Lutherans in their Confessions speak glowingly of private confession, for example, but there is little in print to tell a prospective Pastor how to reacquaint the people of God with this faithful practice and about as much telling the faithful what benefit to their faith and piety such faithful practice might offer them.  Lutherans in their Confessions speak eloquently of the means of grace and the riches of God's blessing given to the baptized in their regular communion but there is a dearth of material that speaks to them on how the Eucharist might be the center of their devotional lives as Christians.   These are but two areas to show that we are too focused upon the one and not paying attention to the ninety-nine who may be bled away from the flock along with the one unless we pay attention.

Again, the words of Hannon:  From my admittedly limited vantage point, the gravest dangers for us seem to be not legalism but antinomianism, not intellectualism but sentimentalism, not scrupulosity but laxity, not despair but presumption, not all-out retreat but all-out assimilation, not pharisaic ritualism but anti-liturgical iconoclasm, not missionary timidity but evangelical over-hastiness, not self-referentialism but self-forgetfulness (and not the good kind), not stifling uniformity but disjointed miscellany, not clericalism but, for lack of a better word, laicism.  While he directs his comments to Roman Catholics, Lutherans ought to listen up.  He speaks to us and to the circumstances within our own communion.

Lutherans are often the first to be surprised about what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.  Sometimes they are scandalized by their own confessional witness.  For too many generations we have presumed that a cursory look at the Small Catechism (with emphasis more on memorization than true catechesis - though I am not one to disdain memorization) is sufficient for life within the Church.  For this reason, too many Lutherans think of themselves as Methodist/Baptist/Evangelical/Fundamentalists with a liturgy than as the evangelical catholics of our Concordia.  Times are a'changin.  CPH has stepped up the production of good materials to counter this.  But we are still very much in danger of losing our people because they do not even know their faith.

Yes, Lutherans are bleeding members -- far too many and for too easily.  We should rightfully be concerned about this.  But unless we want to spend our time perennially seeking the lost who have dropped out and wandered away, we must also be concerned for the rest of the flock who have not yet taken off.  They will unless we are faithful in catechesis and preparing them to live out their baptismal vocation of worship, witness, prayer, and service.  They will soon their lost brother or sister unless we give them solid food and teach them the faith and how to live that faith out, having the means of grace as the source and summit of their Christian lives.

Surprisingly, we will end up bleeding off some of those who, when they find out what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach, will depart because they never were nor intended to be Lutheran.  While I lament this and grieve for the lost treasure of grace that may depart them upon leaving, this cannot stand in the way of raising up a people who rejoice in their Lutheranism, whose lives are fully nurtured and fed upon the rich pasture and still quiet waters of the meal He has set among our enemies, and who have this piety at home as well as in worship on Sunday morning.  That said, we will be stronger as a church body because our people are stronger in their faith and conviction as Lutheran Christians.

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