Ed Stetzer, well known to most in the evangelical world, wrote of the changing path to faith and life in the church (at least among evangelicals). According to his article in Christianity Today:
For decades, the most effective process used by American Evangelicals followed this pattern:
- Using a tool like the Four Spiritual Laws, a gospel tract, or the EE presentation, a Christian presented an unbeliever with the opportunity to believe in Christ by sharing truth with him or her.
- The Christian would then invite the new convert to become a part of a church.
- The Christian would then help the new convert to enjoy a sense of belonging with the church.
Today’s process looks more like this:
- The Christian invites people to belong to your community (love them even if they don’t believe), and through that...
- The Christian helps them see why they should believe in what the Bible claims about Jesus.
- Once they believe in Jesus, the Christian encourages them to become a part of the church and join in the mission of evangelizing others.
- Old Process = Believe, Become, Belong
- New Process = Belong, Believe, Become
Many Lutherans, however, are thinking outside this box -- especially those who look to things evangelical when they are not sure that the Lutheran thing is working. These Lutherans have looked to the big box evangelicals and shifted paradigms. Belonging comes first. Not just the welcoming of the new person but belonging in the sense of their ties to the community and their "fit" within the groups of the congregation. Once they belong, then belief is addressed -- not in the sense of membership instruction or catechetical instruction but in the sense of a journey informed and shaped by teaching (sort of a life coach approach to instruction). Finally after all of this has taken place, they may (or may not) formally identify with the denomination and the congregation. The main thing here is that they meet Jesus -- church is secondary to all the rest.
As attractive as this sounds and as appealing as it may be to people weary of denominations and their structures (or congregations and their rules), I don't think this is a fit for Lutherans. On the one hand we face the problem of welcoming to the altar people who have not yet been formed in the faith and are ready to discern Christ and communion in repentance and faith. On the other hand, worship is by nature for and by Christians -- unless it is stripped of its liturgical center in the Word and Sacrament and treated as an extended Bible study with music. Of course folks who find a home in the community are likely to stay but are they raised up in that faith and will they seek out the next church according to the doctrine believed and confessed or will they seek out a good fit for them (the feeling of belonging that trumps what is preached and taught)? Certainly the Mormons have had great success fellowshiping people into a church whose doctrine is not only not Christian but rather bizarre and odd, to say the least. But is this where we want to be?
Of course, no one is suggesting that Sunday morning should be policed and those not yet of the congregation prevented but at the same time full participation in the liturgy is for the baptized, for those of the faith. Quite honestly, apart from faith what happens on Sunday morning is not only strange but unintelligible (unless church has come simply to mean a better life, an easier life, or a happier life). It may not seem to be in sync with the times but the believing comes first -- through a rigorous and welcoming process of catechesis and instruction in the Word and doctrines of Christianity -- not as a one time event but as the foundational introduction to a lifelong pattern of catechetical instruction and preaching and teaching of the Word.
Perhaps we are not able to borrow as freely from others as we think -- or we just may trade off some of what we believe, confess, and teach in the process. Stetzer's article may be compelling for American evangelicals (his audience after all) but it is at best a curiosity for Lutherans who do not fit his mold -- no matter how hard we try.