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This article is not just for Lutherans. It applies to most North American faith families.
The above chart spells unmitigated disaster. And it’s a few years old. It’s gotten much worse since it was first printed.
And better theology is not going to rescue us. We Lutherans have always had the odd idea that if we could “nail” the philosophical content of the Gospel, then everything would line up and we would thrive. Truth is, we have right-leaning Lutherans (LCMS) and left-leaning Lutherans (ELCA) and ALL of us are headed down the same demographic waterslide hand-in-hand.
I’m a theological conservative with no illusions that more conservatism would stem this tide. Our big problems are demographic.
The gay issue in the ELCA churchwide assembly of 2009 will be seen as a blip, historically, compared to the real crises:
1) Lutherans don’t have enough babies. We seem to see them as a liability. Ironic that we did backflips, inducing great trauma to the ELCA, to include the LGBT group (on their terms) which has the lowest fertility rate on earth. It’s like we’re trying to form a no-baby union.
Here are confirmation pictures from 1969 and 2004 from the same Lutheran congregation. These trends are the rule, not the exception, for most congregations. Do the math.
2) Lutherans don’t retain enough of the babies they have.
3) Lutherans have no clue how to do evangelism which leads to large-scale adult conversion and baptism. Some even have an “in principle” allergy against doing it; for them, praying with someone to become a Christian is some kind of theological felony. We did 14 adult baptisms at our last church picnic (and we are only a church of 200). Have a look at the video>> LINK We are shooting for 30 this year.
4) Many of our congregations are led by informal juntas of empty nesters and retired people which sabotage every step taken to try to create a young-adult-friendly environment, young adults who tend to have babies, by the way. The trauma many of our missional pastors carry is not unlike that of soldiers returning from Iraq. PTSD is rampant among the younger half of our roster (which is tiny–the average ELCA pastor is 59 and aging). It’s not the pagans who beat on them, it’s their own church members.
5) Lutherans do not do well in urban areas where they have had many churches (big cities like LA, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.) when those zip codes diversify ethnically. In general, we’d literally rather die than reach the new immigrant residents. And we seem to think that urban Latinos and African Americans are looking for high-church worship with a PC message; intelligent Catholicism in black and white without the magic. Small wonder they are staying away in droves.
6) Our denominational corporate structures are clueless about the “opt in” revolution created by social media. They still think they can control their rosters and not have to attract, cultivate, and maintain “opt inners.” Both the lists of congregations and clergy are brittle and fragmenting. Denominations are like Tower Records trying to discipline iTunes. Good luck.
7) Lutherans are also clueless about the communications revolution. Most of them spend half of their office hours producing bulletins and newsletters which are among the poorest quality print media in America, and no one reads them. Most of our pastors don’t have blogs or a social media presence of any kind, let alone a podcast (click for example) that would hold anyone’s attention. Many Lutheran churches have no website or screens in the church. And the ones that do have websites usually have a big picture of a Jetsons-Gothic postwar church building (see pic below) with other useless information. Generalities abound on such websites (e.g. love the world and love God), and there are no branding distincitives (i.e. what makes us unique) that would attract someone. The mission statements are so vague that Taco Bell could probably use them. And you can never find a picture of the pastor or get a feel for her or his vibe. Anti-branding. Fine, don’t have screens–and while you’re at it, get rid of your parking lot and hope streetcars will come back. If you’re not at least toying with the idea of crafting a smartphone “app” for your church, you may simply never catch up.
8. We have over-merged. Some talk about the “emergent” church. Well, we are the “overmergent” church. A few generations ago, when Lutheranism was thriving, we had a bunch of solid medium-sized Lutheran denominations which were very relational (every pastor could go do every national gathering), and each one had clear branding and vibe. There was loyalty to their one seminary and tiny handful of major global mission fields. Now we have two mega corporations which have no branding and spend all of their time fighting, because we are forcing together constituencies that don’t belong together. Many of our seminaries are going broke. Our leaders can’t name our global mission fields. Former ELC pietists have no business slugging it out for turf within the ELCA with former ULCA East Coast types. No branding, no new customers.
9) Most Lutheran sermons are virtually impossible to understand. I was a Fulbright Scholar and I can’t follow most of them. We tend to preach in the formal register with tertiary reflection; writing a weekly term paper for a professor who isn’t even there. And we are humor-impaired. Our preaching culture is non-existent. We don’t celebrate our (few) preaching stars. Name them. See?
10) We treat our successful churches like pariahs. Reading the Lutheran for years, you’d have no idea which churches they are. The ones that are growing and thriving, reaching lots of new converts, and baptizing them. The ones that are transforming their communities. Heaven forbid we celebrate any success. Synod staffs, churchwide, and struggling congregations tend to be at least passively aggressive towards any success. And if new church plants innovate? Don’t let them on the roster! Unless they impersonate the other dying congregations.
I value the opinions of liberals. Some of them I share; some I don’t. Respectful liberals return the favor. Some just scream at you. Bless them :-).
But with a drift toward liberalism, comes, without question and statistically provable, a less church-going population (see the recent Gallup results–a conservative is twice as likely to be in church as a liberal), and less tendency to have big families (NPR families have way less kids than NASCAR families) that will carry on the important missional work we are doing for generations to come. I think that’s worth questioning, once in a while. Even if I’m wrong, which many of you believe and may indeed be the case, I will plant my flag on the right to ask the question. The survival of our movement is at stake.
There will always be Lutherans in America. We are too strong in the Upper Midwest to disappear entirely. But we have squandered our “pole position” which we had after WW2. Instead of contributing to the core of the project that is America, we seem to be choosing to be a quirky footnote to life here.
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Please pass this on to all your church leaders. Shortlink to copy: http://wp.me/pGQxY-bY
From Perry Noble in South Carolina:
#1 – “What do you do to disciple people?” (This question is usually asked by people who want to ‘microwave” spiritually, not understand that they themselves actually became mature in the “crock pot.”)
#2 – “Who is speaking this weekend?” (They usually don’t care about the WHO…it’s the WHAT that matters to them.)
#3 – “Are you reformed in your theology?” (Most of them have no idea what in the heck this means!)
#4 – “Is your church spirit filled?”
#5 – “What version of the Bible do you use?” (Many unchurched people don’t even really know there are different versions!)
#6 – “What denomination are you affiliated with?”
#7 – “How many different activities can I sign my family up for in order to add to the insane schedule that we already have?”
#8 – “Does your pastor teach exegetically through the Scriptures?”
#9 – “Are there lots of crosses and pictures of Jesus in your church?”
#10 – “Are you guys pre trib, mid trib, post trib or partial trib?”
Now, granted, many of you reading this are not Lutheran, but you were drawn to the title much as you were to the movie White Men Can’t Jump.
I am a lifelong Lutheran. Laying my cards on the table, I’m a theologically conservative Lutheran with incurable Pentecostal tendencies.
The Lutheran Church is beautiful, in a Volvo/Ikea sort of way. We tend to be understated and solid, with terminal dependability and not much foolishness.
But we have some real weak spots.
1) We more or less have no functioning eschatology (end times teaching). Martin Luther wrecked that for us. He thought the Antichrist was alive and that his name was Leo, and that he lived in Rome. Great Tribulation on its way? Heck, in Luther’s mind, it was already here. And Uncle Marty had a tendency to want to mow down “Heaven is coming on earth!” Millennialists (Thomas Muentzer, etc.) whenever he had the chance. We’ve had an eschatological hangover ever since. A dirty little family secret.
Please hear me, I am not suggesting that we adopt the folk American Darby-based dog and pony show, which I affectionately call “Chutes and Ladders.” We can do much better than that. But it’s hard to invite people on a journey when we don’t have a compelling destination.
2) We won’t even bring up Luther’s formative 16th century anti-Semitism which planted the seeds for all kinds of later nastiness. What he said about the Jews is not for polite publications like this one. And it was disgusting. I totally condemn it and there was no excuse for it.
3) We have no theology of mission. Within the framework of our theology, we have no idea how to get someone saved. This will be the topic of our little essay today.
Our theology, as Lutherans, is primarily confessional and not missional.
Now by confessional, I don’t mean the confusing dual use of the word including personal or corporate confession of sins; not talking about the “mea culpa” on page 56 in the LBW.
What I mean, rather, is that we “speak together” the truths of our faith. The Reformed tradition (Calvinists, Presbyterians, etc.), along with Lutherans, is one of the two great “confessional” traditions.
The Westminster (Reformed) Confession and the Augsburg (Lutheran) Confession are towering examples of confessional Christianity.
Both streams, however, are anemic in their ability to think about reaching the lost (i.e. missiology).
Now confessionalism is not a priori anti-missional. You can have a missional confession of faith. We just don’t.
Well, at the time the Lutheran Confessions were written, they were written within a (nominal) Christendom which had no immediate frontiers (at least none which most people had actually seen—Muslims were unthinkably far away and the New World was just being discovered) with non-Christian nations. There also were no large minorities of explicit non-Christians within Christendom. Only the Jews were present among them as a distinct minority, and they, as now, were a tiny sliver (albeit super-influential sliver) of the total European population.
The Lutheran Confessions were not written to define how to reach the lost. They were written to defend the new Evangelical faith against a Roman Christianity which was organizing to resist the Reformation.
It is also a misnomer to say that Lutherans were a “breakaway” from the Roman Catholic Church. Western Christianity before Luther was anything but monolithic. There were often up to three rival popes at a time. Lots of priests married and there were instances of female ordination. Rules and uniformity were unenforceable, especially at the farther ends of the muddy trails which were the ‘highways’ of Europe. In fact you can make a case for the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was only first incorporated at Trent (as in “the council of….”) in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. Without the printing press (which appeared about this time), it was more or less impossible to hold a bureaucracy together in those days.
The Confessions were full of Realpolitik (i.e. say whatever you have to in order to help the movement survive) and were defensive in nature. They were not nearly as systematic as the parallel Reformed-Calvinist documents.
Lutheranism has a high tolerance for tension and has less of a fetish for streamlining than Calvinism. For instance, our stock answer to the question “Can I lose my salvation?” is a typically Lutheran “yes and no.” We also have no answer for the problem of evil (theodicy). We live with the tensions of the Bible and those conflicts we find in life.
You see, Luther was a Bible teacher, not a systematic theologian. “Lutheran Systematic Theology” is a bit of an oxymoron.
Luther rediscovered the Apostle Paul’s “Jesus plus nothing” mentality in Galatians. He remade the new Evangelical church around this reality. And like Paul, he was ready to defend this new movement at whatever cost.
He didn’t seem all that interested, however, in the crafting of the Confessions; he left that to his indispensable-but-weenie-dweeb colleague Melanchthon. He’d rather drink beer and engage young leaders for hours on end (Tischreden or “table talk”); and he loved to preach and teach.
He and Paul are on everyone’s short list of one-handful of the most influential humans of all time (I would add Jesus, Newton, and Mohammed.)
So the Confessions were written in a time when the main job of the Church was not seen as evangelization or global missions. It was the education of nominal Christians (hence the writing of the iconic and ubiquitous Small Catechism).
Unfortunately, our faith family’s official theology locked in and froze up on this angle. We have huge education wings on all of our churches, but we don’t know how to lead a non-Christian to faith.
The Confessions are simply silent as to how to do mission. It wasn’t the issue they were dealing with.
In conclusion, the formative-era Lutherans were concerned with two things:
1) Catechizing already-baptized nominal Christians within their jurisdiction (the Small Catechism)
2) Defending the faith against non-Lutheran neighbors (the Confessions)
Mission was just not on their radar screen. It didn’t get into our family DNA.
It is a huge understatement to say that we live in a totally different world today. My block here in California has no ignorant but compliant Christians just waiting to be catechized, and defending the faith in an intellectually permissive pluralistic culture has way lower stakes (and no stakes to be burned on). But we Lutherans are operating with answer patterns (catechism and confession) which address situations that have long since vanished. We have a cure for a disease that is no longer with us.
I, a confessional Lutheran, came to the hard conclusion recently that criticisms against me not being Lutheran in much of my teaching (because I am very missional) were actually quite accurate. My missional side (my dominant driving spiritual thrust) doesn’t get its marching orders from the confessions.
And teaching unbelievers the Catechism is like building a second story on a vacant lot.
The truth is, it’s time to write a new Lutheran Confession of Mission. It is ironic that we have a new fellowship called the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ when we haven’t really thought through how to do mission as Lutherans.
In other words, since our theology is through-and-through confessional, and those Confessions are not missional, we have to go “outside the system” to do mission.
We’ve been borrowing the Arminian theology of the Second Great (American) Awakening whenever we feel the urge to reach a lost person or send out a missionary. It works, but it’s kind of like an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan using a Kalashnikov rifle—it gets the job done OK, but it looks and feels wrong.
Nothing wrong with Arminians. But they lack the Lutheran appreciation for ambiguity and struggle (the “Mighty Fortress” stuff). Their total embrace of free will collapses the inconclusive experiences of the human condition in this area. We are free and not free. We are sinners and saints. God is sovereign and rules all, but condemns no one to death. We Lutherans live with this stuff and have always been allergic to over-simplistic answers.
Now if you see no value whatsoever in the Lutheran way of looking at things, you may as well not read any further. I do see value in our tribal “vibe.” We are not the only voice in the Christian choir, but we need to know our voice and sound it clearly. The Christian movement without Lutheran contribution would be infinitely poorer.
Arminians (Finney, Moody, Billy Graham, etc.) are the world champions of missiology. Calvinists, on the other hand, blow it by insisting on wooden “total depravity” and an existentially confusing (but in theory simple and elegant) view of election and predestination.
Arminianism, when connected with classical substitutionary atonement teaching, leads to the famous “bridge” illustration which then urges a free-will decision on the part of the hearer.
A half-generation ago, these methods were working well. The Jesus Movement used this model which led to millions of conversions. But we have been seeing diminishing returns. It doesn’t work for most of today’s young adults; failing to describe the ambiguity of the human condition and the apparent multiplicity of “bridges” that could be used.
The Gospel never changes. But missiology does. A particular missiology is not the core truth of our faith. It is a hermeneutical tool for getting that core across.
For instance, reaching people in pre-modern cultures with ancestor worship looks different from reaching people in post-modern, secular France.
But as Lutherans, we have an empty missiological toolbox.
We’ve all heard the joke about crossing a Jehovah’s Witness with a Lutheran and getting someone who knocks at your door but doesn’t know what to say. There’s a lot of truth in that.
And it’s not just that we’re Northern European and passive/stoic. We simply haven’t crafted a vocabulary and grammar of mission and conversion. We don’t even know how to describe the conversion event.
And we have to get serious about conversion for all kinds of reasons. One of them (along with the obvious love of the lost) is that we are in demographic free-fall.
Lutherans in America have had three major eras:
1) The era of immigration.
2) The era of procreation.
3) The era of decline.
The era of immigration was a period which lasted up to 1920. Millions of nominal Lutherans were coming in sailing and steamships to North America. If we set up ethnic specific ministries which functioned as community centers, and catechized and confirmed the young, then primary relationships would be built around church activity and continuous exposure to Word and Sacrament would get the job done.
It worked. Until the steamships stopped coming.
Then we turned to plan B: Procreation. The average Lutheran woman had 4-5 kids. We built education wings onto our churches (a whole new thing). From VBS to Lutheran Colleges and Seminaries (via Luther and Walther League) we did a full court press on the kids, knowing that keeping over half of them would lead to a growing church. I am a product of that full court press.
It worked. Until the pill came and the average Lutheran woman now has 1.7 kids. Keep half of 1.7 and you get exactly what we now have.
The pill was introduced in 1963. The Lutheran Church has been in freefall since 1964 (despite the rapid growth of the US population during that same time).
Contraction, aging, and entropy have been the norm for our congregations since then. The exception has been Upper Midwest suburban areas where a fresh critical-mass population of young Lutherans moves into new tract housing and has kids (a curious mixture of “retro” immigration and procreation).
This all sounds pretty pessimistic and dark.
But I am actually optimistic.
Because, if we can get our act together, the young adults I work with are much more open to a “Lutheran” way of looking at the human condition (with all of its tension and ambiguity) than an Arminian or Calvinist view. Both of the latter seem a little too easy for today’s nuanced and savvy young adults.
But these young adults are not going to stream into our churches by default. We have to craft our message and understand their sociology.
For instance, we baby boomers love “small groups.” Not so with the next generation. They tend to prefer larger groups (i.e. a houseful) with smaller informal “fragments.” I have looked all over and have yet to find even one single exception to this that would prove the rule.
We also have done precious little to get them involved in our leadership. How many 18-25 year olds are you grooming for leadership?
But back to missiology…
I believe that it will be Pentecostal-leaning (or at least experientially Holy-Spirit-friendly) Lutherans who will have the inside track to reaching the next generation (if we even show up for the game).
We Lutheran charismatics are experiential-oriented, as they are. We also, as Lutherans, have a gut sense, as they do, that life is not all that simple.
So the task at hand is to craft an experientially-friendly Lutheran missiology which respects the complexity of life, avoids simplistic answers, and involves the next generation in leadership. And it has to be clear enough to lead to lots of solid from-the-outside conversions into the Christian faith.
Stay tuned. I am actively working on just such a model. You do the same and we’ll compare notes. I’ll give you a teaser-hint. It has to do with re-framing the concept of sin (de-emphasizing Calvin’s total depravity) using mega-themes from the letter to the Galatians.
The church will stand, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. But I am not satisfied with a church that stands. I want to see the church get up and walk! And to see it go into all the world…
Please forward the link to this essay to every church leader you know.
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