Monday, June 18, 2018

Thoughts on Church Growth. . . there may be some nefarious reason for their interest in church growth, the truth is that most of the folks on one end of that movement or another are honest people with a deep passion and concern for the lost.  I commend them.  Sadly, there are some on the side of things where I feel most comfortable who seem oblivious to the need or desire for the church to grow and unmoved by the prospect of their neighbors suffering for all eternity in hell (unless you believe like Pope Francis is said to believe).  The fact that these two aims (those already in the Church and those outside) have lived in such tension, antagonism, and conflict is not good for either.  It is not, I might add, about balance between them but about how the source and summit of our spiritual lives lived out from the Divine Service is what directs us to our vocation and calling to love, serve, and witness to our neighbors.  Yet we live in a time when mission and maintenance (as some have put it) are words at war with each other.  Within Missouri they are already well at work gearing up to the Synod President election in 2019 and the real and digital ink being spent influencing that election.  But there is just as much being played out on the outside of this election process and it consumes much of our time and energy -- each proving they are right and the rest are wrong.

The problems lie when we conclude that the Church exists exclusively or even primarily for those not yet of the Kingdom OR when we conclude that the Church exists exclusively or even primarily for the baptized.  It is not an either/or but clearly a both/and.  What is too often lost in the battle between the two perspectives is that it is the Lord's Church and the Lord will grow His Church in His way and in His time.  We are not franchise managers of a concern whose purpose is to grow profits (people) for an absent owner.  Neither are we custodians of the few who already belong and who need and desire to be cared for with the means of grace.  Those who call themselves pastors are stewards of the mysteries of God and part of that mystery (and therefore part of that stewardship) is the fact that God works through the means of grace to bring people to faith and impart to them the kingdom won on their behalf by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Church is the Lord's and the means of grace belong to Him and He grows His Church through those means - both maturing those already in the Kingdom by baptism and faith and by bring those not yet of the Kingdom into it by baptism and faith.  The means of grace are evangelistic.  No one with their head on right can admit anything other than this.  The means of grace are missional.  Yet while we are at it, it is prudent also to remember that programs, structures, and sociology, as helpful as they might be, do not grow the Church.  We have not been given the task of figuring out what people want and what works to make for great statistics.  We certainly have much to learn in the common sense of what barriers we inadvertently or deliberately put up to bar the doors and what things help us in the task of connecting people to the Church.  Yet, the Church cannot surrender our trust and confidence in the work of the Lord through His means of grace even to proven strategies and programs that fill the pews.  The Church is the Lord's and He grows the Church as He wills and when He wills.  Our job is both to preach this saving Gospel and live it (in part so that we do not become obstacles of His evangelistic purpose).  In other words, friendliness will not make the Church grow but unfriendliness will work against the means of grace.

In the end, what is too often forgotten is that our vocation and life as God's own baptized children presents the world with either the most compelling reason to listen or the most compelling reason to dismiss what is heard.  For too long we have thought that doing a good job was presenting the truth of Scripture and our confession as if the mind were the only object of our work.  Present the Kingdom reasonably, winsomely, and effectively and the Church will grow.  The problem is that we have so neglected sanctification that our people often neither expect nor try to live the new and different lives of a people in but not of the world.  The early Church was named the people of the Way because that way was lived in, imperfectly to be sure, but with passion and desire in the daily lives of the baptized as their vocation or calling in and before the world.  I recently reread the Didache, purportedly an instructional document from the early church talking about discipling those not yet of the Kingdom.  I was struck by the fact that they paid as much if not more attention to the Christian life as they did the content of the Christian faith.  In other words, life in Christ was not an intellectual assent to propositional truths but a real way of life in which the truth transformed the life.  That does not at all minimize doctrinal preaching and teaching but is a helpful reminder that we have been called out of darkness and into the light of Christ to do the works of Him who called us.

I sometimes wonder if a focus on justification without spending much time or sanctification and a definition of faith that is primarily knowledge, understanding, and intellectual consent have not combined to work against both our interest and our ability to reach out with the faith.  Poll after poll and survey after survey seems to suggest that being Christian counts for little in terms of the way our people live.  We believe doctrine but it ends up being theoretical doctrine and not the practical truth that shapes who we are and how we live.  No Lutheran believes that good works contribute anything to salvation but does that mean that good works are not worth anything at all?  I would suggest that because we believe, confess, and teach that good works cannot buy us salvation -- only a gracious God in Christ can give us this gift -- good works are made more valuable because they testify to our life within this faith, they manifest the eucharistic shape of that life, and they direct those good works done with thanksgiving to God toward the neighbor who can benefit from them.  And I also wonder if this is not the more profound means of manifesting to those not yet of the Kingdom what it means to be a baptized child of God, to believe in Him who has redeemed us by His blood, and to live under Him in His Kingdom now and forever.

But I do a lot of wondering and even some wandering -- you might even say meandering -- and so I ask you to give some thought to this all as well. . .


Anonymous said...

Is it possible for confessional Lutherans to have Church Growth without the Evangelical Willow Creek or Saddleback pop theology?

Anonymous said...

I would agree that those already in the Kingdom should disengage more from the world and practice piety and live a devotional life clearly impacted by the efficacious Word, growing in grace and sanctification in order to glorify God. Some in our synod have to stop blaming “institutional” (read liturgical) church for putting people off and admit that the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament. We also must not think the population of heaven will be determined by our efforts be they great or small. Not one of God’s elect determined before the foundation of the world will be condemned because of something we said or didn’t say, as much as some of us would like to believe we have that kind of power, ever mindful that we are saved by a faith which is never alone. God’s will be done and He graciously allows us to be a part of it to preach the gospel to the world and baptize as many as were appointed to eternal life in the Divine Service and in our vocations. Faith ebbs and flows and must be attended with the means of grace wherein God promises to meet us, preserve and sustain us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for missing the point of the entire article.