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We US Lutherans are weathering a scathing season of debate on sexuality.

Don’t want to pick that scab and re-kindle the same tired scripts on both sides of the debate.

But I am fascinated by how little mention (during the debate) has been made of Martin Luther’s landmark essay on this very topic.

In German: Vom ehelichen Leben

English (Click on for Text) Translation: The Estate of Marriage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never the legalist, Luther sees (in crushingly potent typically Luther-esque prose) the establishment of marriage in the Genesis order of creation.

Far from being an idle academic treatise, Luther fully intends to re-make Europe around his new non-monastic ideas. His essay is an ideological invasion.

And he succeeded.

You don’t have to read the whole thing; but a few pages will give you the idea.

We have somehow lost the idea of to-be-promoted biologically generative procreation within covenant Adam/Eve marriage families with earthly non-disposability.

We have bought into the myth of overpopulation (i.e. more people is bad), and have embraced the overuse of birth control and abortion (1/3 of conceptions in the US) as corollaries.

Luther is earthy, alive, and strident in his essay. Vintage Marty. Seriously, I dare you to read it, no matter where you stand on things.

Meanwhile, we (and most Mainline Christian groups) are dying out, only to be replaced by more biologically assertive faith families, who actually believe enough in their way of life to see it thrive.

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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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This is the number two question I get, after:

Are there pets in heaven?

Both questions are tough to answer in a simplistic way!

First of all, there is often a “question behind the question.” So,  before answering, I counter with “What do you mean by Lutheran?”

Let’s start with Martin Luther (1500’s in Germany). I once was blessed to meet the greatest Luther scholar of the 20th century, in person, Roland Bainton, in the early 80’s after a lecture. I asked him why he never joined a Lutheran Church. His witty response was: “I’ve never seen one. Luther himself, ironically, would not be welcomed in most Lutheran churches today.”

Martin Luther

So, are you Lutheran? If you can answer difficult theological questions simplistically, you probably aren’t following Luther’s pattern.

Asked whether there is pre-destination, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we can lose our salvation, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we are basically sinners or totally justified, he answered “yes.” Luther was a Bible teacher, and not a systematic theologian. He loved the (obvious) dramatic tensions in scripture and was OK with just leaving them be. His counterpart, Calvin, seemed to have a high need to cram the Bible into a neat system.

There are parts of Luther’s teaching and personality that I, without reservation, condemn and reject. His bizarrely anti-Semitic view of European Jews was an outrage. His mowing down of the peasant revolt was inexcusable. His eschatology was primitive at best and incomprehensible at worst (He thought Pope Leo was literally THE Antichrist). He had no sense of Christian mission to the majority of the non-Christian world.

But he was spot-on right about the whole Bible revolving around Grace, Faith, and Christ. And he was crazy-courageous in standing up to the whole authority structure of his world (Popes and Emperors) to make it stick. He rediscovered Paul’s “Jesus plus nothing” and remade much of the Western Church around it.

Along with Isaac Newton, he is one of the most mercurial and influential humans ever to walk this planet (Newton, like Luther, had his mega-quirks). By deconstructing the monastic world-view (which had been dominant for centuries), philosophically and practically, Luther helped lay the foundation for the Modern World in which you and I live.

Ironically (I thought of this while walking the ancient stones of the Via Sacra), Luther and Paul were the two greatest historical figures ever to walk the streets of Rome. No one at the time, in that city, even noticed them. Luther and Paul could care less–they just went out and re-made the world. All of the emperors and heroes of Rome amounted to: not much. We name our sons Paul–and our dogs, Nero.

Am I a follower of Paul or Luther? No. So perhaps I’m not a Lutheran, in that sense. Luther didn’t want us to use the term “Lutheran” (see his exact quote at the bottom of this page) and Paul, in 1 Corinthians, was horrified that people would label themselves with his name. I, like Luther and Paul, am a follower of Jesus Christ alone.

But what about faith families? What about denominations? I am totally a product of Lutheran theological-cultural upbringing, and can’t do much about it. It’s like being Jewish, it’s a cultural tattoo which you can’t remove without lasers. Even if I (God forbid) were to become an atheist, I’d be a Lutheran atheist.

If I were to join a Baptist or Catholic congregation, I’d still be a Lutheran member of that church. If you are Jewish or Lutheran, you understand the tribal implications of these labels :-). I’d actually, if I had my ‘druthers, like to be a charismatic Anglican (the Alpha London folks), but I’m too blue-collar Lutheran to pull it off long term.

So, is the church I pastor, Robinwood Church, Lutheran, because I am the primary teacher? Perhaps. We affirm (in our bylaws) the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Small Catechism, and the ecumenical creeds.  We would qualify, thus, for joining the Lutheran World Federation.

But we are non-liturgical. Totally. More than you think. And we are very Pentecostal in our expression. It doesn’t look “Lutheran.” We have no Euro-centric trappings of any kind. We are a California beach church that meets in a warehouse. No Lent. No Advent. No lectionary. No altar table. No permanent cross. I don’t own a clerical collar. There isn’t a single hymnbook in the building. It would be hard to find the word “Lutheran” on our website. I only wear shoes if it’s a cold day. The music is loud.

But if any trained theologian were to visit us for three Sundays, he or she would say:

They sure aren’t Calvinists or Arminians. Not Roman Catholics. Not Southern Baptists. Not Eastern Orthodox. Not liberal North American PC activists. Not Anglicans. By default, they must be Lutherans. Expressive, non-legalistic, missional–but pretty dang Lutheran at the core.

If Luther were to show up at Robinwood Church, I’d probably tell him off (privately) for that goofy Jew-bashing (and a few other things) of his, but we’d pour him a beer (and cut him off at two) and share his love of God’s Word, and the tensions that are simply there in it.

Is Robinwood Church Lutheran? Yes and no 🙂

And like Luther and Paul, we don’t care if “important” people don’t notice what we’re up to, we’re busy remaking the world.

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For more information:

Robinwood Church Website

Robinwood Church Worldwide Podcast

My book explaining Pentecostalism to Lutherans.

Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

Join the Facebook Group: Robinwood Church

LUTHER’S QUOTE on LUTHERAN LABEL:

“People should not call themselves ‘Lutherans’. ‘What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone . . .How then should I — poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am — come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?’ Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teachings we hold.”

Who said that?

Martin Luther.

–from, “A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion 1522”

Much as the music industry and the information/printing industry is changing, the church is going open-source.

How prepared is your church for this revolution? Please pass the link to this essay on to all the leaders, elders, pastors, etc. in your church. Discuss it together.

Christine Peterson coined the phrase “open source” in Palo Alto, California in 1998 during the Netscape Navigator discussions, but the principles go all the way back to Henry Ford, who succeeded in getting all the early US car makers to share patents which made parallel production of (very similar) automobiles possible.

In the broadest sense of the concept, Microsoft’s MS-DOS, not being wholly controlled by its host, IBM, launched a creativity revolution in software back in the 80’s. iTunes has changed the way music is bought and sold. Wikipedia has more or less replaced Britannica. The proliferation of free smart phone “apps” (a word no one used a president or two ago) is virtually infinite.

The world is going open source.

This has implications for the church:

1) All of your members have access to free Bible teaching and sermons from all over the world. It used to be that you, as a local pastor, had a monopoly on reaching and teaching them. Our church, Robinwood, reaches 100 times more people on its podcast than in person on Sunday mornings. Sample it at: http://tinyurl.com/ycgxvva

2) Open source is a challenge to monetize. Making money in an open source world is an uphill battle. Churches will need to look at creative income streams (we’ve done it before!) and church staff numbers will decrease vis-a-vis the size of the congregation. More and more pastors will be bi-vocational.

3) Christian denominations will not be able to maintain closed systems with solid lists of member churches and will not be able to control their clergy rosters. People in the open source world are getting used to an “opt in” mentality and can “friend” or “follow” you with a click. Peer relationships will matter more. Having your name on an official roster will matter less. The “name brand” denominations are currently raging against this revolution (even with record-company-like lawsuits!), but the ones who embrace it will survive. Their control over client congregations and pastors is evaporating. It will have to be replaced with attractive “opt in” branding and mentality. Denominations will have to earn and keep followings. And they won’t get to vote on this being the truth.

4) Seminaries will not be able to maintain monopolies on training new leaders. The ones that succeed are those that will go open source. Open source is cheaper, but it also attracts less money. Seminaries will have to become more trans-local and interactive. Those with an attractive branding and “opt in” vibe will thrive.

5) The monopolies on resources (remember that standard-issue icon: the official denominational hymnbook?) will disappear. Books will always be with us, but they will be produced POD (print on demand) and new media will proliferate.

6) Pastors who cannot attract large followings in social media will need to look for something else to do vocationally. They won’t have the chops to make it in the brave new world. If you can’t attract sheep, you’re probably not a shepherd.

7) Volunteers will become more important. Volunteers built Wikipedia. They are motivated, not by money, but by mastery and freedom. Click on the link for an amazing overview of this.

8  Your church’s media and branding will have to be integrated. One ping should activate and energize all of your media expressions. The good news: All of your social media and open source presence put together is cheaper than putting out a weekly church bulletin.

9) You will have to earn a following in a whole new way. But the human relational side will not go away. In fact, it will become more important.

Bless you. Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

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