Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Looking for growth in all the wrong places. . .

There are not a few who look back to the glory days of Missouri's growth and who look for ways to replicate that growth now, in our own time. Many of them complain that Missouri has become monolithic, moribund, and mono-ethnic. Some of them have found the very confessional cause for which the Synod was begun an anchor on its outreach. A few have come up with ideas on how to fix what is wrong with Missouri's outreach and reverse the decline that has become the normative pattern since the 1970s.

•Action One: 20% of LCMS Congregations Team Up to Plant Churches.

One author has suggested that the first plan of action be for 20% of Missouri congregations to team up to plant new churches. It is not a radical idea but an old one resurrected from our past when mission was not the business of district or synod but individual congregation. Although this may seem radical given the landscape of Christianity in America, it is still being done. In fact, it is still being done in many places. Districts long ago found the money train was no longer running as regularly as it once was and Synod is almost on life support when it comes to congregational and district funding. So what is keeping this from being done? Perhaps the complaint is that the cost of seminary trained clergy is too great (and it is a burden) and therefore they do not have the personnel to plant these missions. With so many avenues toward ordination in the LCMS, I find this complaint less than legitimate. That said, however, it is a struggle to find pastors to plant mission congregations. Perhaps it is even more difficult to find mission congregations that want to be Lutheran. For how will it help reverse our decline if we plant missions that do not share our Confession and whose people cannot find a home in another LCMS congregation if needed? I suggest that Action One should be a no-brainer for most of us. But I also suggest that we are doing no one any favors by starting mission congregations offended by what Lutherans teach and confess and how Lutherans historically have worshiped.

•Action Two: The LCMS Starts a New Church Body in the Third Largest Mission Field in the World.

Another suggestion from the same author is to look around at our partner churches and remember what it was like when we began those partner churches and helped them survive and thrive. It is a good memory but in this case the partner church would be operating in the same zip codes and neighborhoods as our current congregations. Unencumbered by all that things of church and fired up for mission, the author suggests that it would be easier to plant a new church body in our back yard than it would be to transform the mindset and structures of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod as a whole. While this is most certainly true, it is not beneficial overall. For us to daughter a church body that would end up challenging what it is what we believe, teach, and confess would not help the parent. Now it may not be necessary to help the parent and no one has suggested that the survival of the Missouri Synod is essential to God's purpose and plan. However, we cannot say the same about the faith that we confess. That must endure even if, for whatever reason, the structure of our Synod does not. So I am not at all sure that there is great benefit in starting a Lutheran lite denomination in our own back yard that will ultimately compete against our own congregations.

Both of these comes from a self-identified missional mindset in our Synod. What I find most interesting is that there are some on the opposite side who suggest the same thing. Start another church body for the missionals so that we confessionals can continue unhindered by the conflict and strife the two parties have caused each other over the years. And it does not help that all of this is happening right in the midst of a public divorce within the not-so-United Methodist Church. Some of those conservatives have lamented that we have a Synod within a Synod now -- those with confessional and liturgical identity that is in conflict with an evangelical and free worship identity. But I fail to be convinced by either side that division or subtraction can lead to multiplication or addition. I remain suspicious of those on either side who would suggest that all our problems would be solved if the other side were gone. I do not understand this to be a legitimate path to renewal. You may disagree but I think that statistics are on my side.

The ELCA shows no sign of growth even though it has hemorrhaged two denominations. In fact the numbers of those who have dropped out of the ELCA is several times larger than the combined membership of the split offs. Now I know that the two circumstances are not the same but I think they are enough the same to suggest that division and subtraction only diminish, they do not enhance. And this is what I predict for the UMC (by the way, one of the ELCA communion partners!).

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