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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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Church activity levels in North America have always fluctuated.
This is not an essay on the global church, where exciting things have happened.
This is not an essay about Europe, which has its own dynamics vis-a-vis Christian activity.
North America’s ecclesial (church) vitality was always contrasted, in the past, with the “dead” church in Europe. It was also viewed as the “source” of the Global church.
American evangelical Christianity has always been seen as somewhat muscular, with the chiseled face of Billy Graham leading the parade.
It’s too early to tell, but there seems to be a shift in the weather, a change in the climate.
Church attendance appears to be experiencing the biggest drop in recent memory, and the financial climate of the country is contributing to a “perfect storm” which is putting the squeeze on a lot of congregations.
The Christian movement has also been strengthened (both economically and in terms of creativity), in the past, with a robust retail branch: books and music. The changes in technology have crippled these once mighty sectors of publishing, and you’ve certainly seen church bookstores close in your city.
Church leaders are in denial, and as is usually the case in such environments, point to the exceptions. There are big and growing churches all over the place. However, almost all of them are in areas of large population growth and suburban tract house cosnstruction.
National mainline church denominations, brought into being in the late 19th century by easy rail travel, are still holding voting conventions as if air travel and the internet had not yet been invented. Small wonder that the “votes” at these meetings get so much pushback from the grass roots. You can trace the decline curve of these archaic “railroad” organizations as an inverse line to that of air travel and video/TV/computer screens.
Roman Catholics have had their own problems, with the scandals and all. They have also lost huge numbers of young people, especially in the Northeast. Latinos will save the day, you might suggest. But half of the Latino Catholics who immigrate here ditch the RC boat and go Pentecostal or secular.
Evangelicals are the last of the three major groups to feel the pinch. A generation ago, if you had “contemporary worship” and small groups, your church would grow. If your theology was conservative, that helped too. Now, this “recipe” has reached diminishing returns. The church growth movement is over.
Here are some reasons I see. Please add your own to the comments. Let’s figure this out together.
- American Christians of the last generation did not have enough children. They fell in love with the pill. Half as many kids means…
- Many Asian immigrants (there are exceptions) are not Christian–this has diluted Christian cultural monopolies where they once existed.
- African American churches have virtually lost a whole generation of young men–totally unable to capture their imagination.
- Christian Conservatives are the least likely group to be able to dialog with a new generation raised in post-modernity.
- The evangelistic models of the past (e.g. the “bridge” illustration) no longer work in the current cultural climate.
- Contemporary Christian Music has failed, to some extent, to embrace both country and urban music. Most of it sounds very suburban.
- Parent/Child relationships are more strained than in the recent past, because there are less children and there is more “parenting per child.” You are perhaps familiar with the “helicopter parent” syndrome. Christian parents often equal non-Christian kids, for this reason.
- The first decade of the 21st century was hard on churches (and the country), economically.
- Churches have failed to embrace new media. Within a few months, I was able to establish more social media presence than all but a handful of the 20-30 thousand Lutheran pastors out there; with virtually no effort. Culture is being created out there and we are not present. See my essay on Pastors and New Media.
- Many churches are over-theological and resist open spiritual and supernatural practice. This new generation is drawn to the supernatural and we try to discourage it rather than channel it.
I don’t have a lot of answers, but this should set up a good discussion.
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American national church denominations are not as old as people think.
We have no real memory before national denominational corporations, because they started before any of us saw the light of day; but not long before…
They came into being with the advent of the railroad.
For instance, with Lutherans, we used to gather, more or less, in state-sized groups:
-The Pennsylvania Ministerium
-The Ohio Synod
-The Iowa Synod
-The Missouri Synod
-The Wisconsin Synod
The railroad changed all that. It made a national bureaucracy and national gatherings (assemblies) possible and affordable. This new transportation method also created the big political party conventions.
Nothing lasts forever.
These statewide church groups merged into national groups which merged some more. Along with the “Peter Principle,” they advanced to their level of incompetency: they became politically and economically unmanageable.
There are many reasons for the demise of national church corporations:
1) Many, if not most young adults, prefer being part of cool indie projects to being “tools” of large corporations.
2) The mergers have created coalitions with incompatible viewpoints (sexuality, etc.)
3) Lutheran versions (more so than other brand names) of these corporations tend to operate as closed systems (tightly controlled roster, Lutheran seminary requirements, etc.).
4) These corporations, in efforts to hold things together and make structure and function coherent, have discouraged innovation by entrepreneurial types.
5) For whatever reason, these corporations have very strained relationships with their best practitioners.
6) Generational and ethnic diversity issues have become too heavy for the corporations to carry.
This does not mean that church brand names are a thing of the past. It just means that the national church corporation is unraveling before our eyes. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is nothing wrong with this and it should not be seen as a failure–every human organizational form has a life span.
This does not mean that faith families and connectional Christianity are dead.
Post-denominationalism is just a reality that is emerging. I want to clarify: this does not mean post-brand-name.
This means that the national corporations are failing and will continue to fail. There is no point in any effort to “renew” them.
I don’t know what the post-denominational world will look like. But I do know that:
-Railroad-era national conventions are a thing of the past.
-Coalitions will replace national corporations
-The effort to form smaller, new “theologically correct” corporations to replace national denominational corporations will fail if they follow the template of the national church corporation (parliamentary conventions, national office, official rosters, closed systems, etc.). That’s railroad thinking in a Twitter-world.
-The influential congregations within faith families will fill the leadership vacuum, along with the more innovative evangelical seminaries (Fuller, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Luther, etc). Classic “div schools” (Chicago, Yale, Union) will become irrelevant to church life, as will “company shop” seminaries of dying corporations.
-A lot of people won’t be able to separate the faith family names (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) from the national corporations. Some of those names might not survive because of this. Hard to say.
-National leaders with a clear life message and a New (Social) Media presence will rule the roost. If it doesn’t matter on Twitter, it doesn’t matter.
1) Think both/and, not either/or. We are in a postmodern era.
2) Stop trying to renew the denominational corporations.
3) Find new ways of being connectional.
4) Resist the temptation to build up new theologically “correct” corporations which are infected with the same terminal virus.
5) Find ways to embrace the good things about your faith family and preserve them for the future forms which will emerge.
6) Take social media seriously. Very seriously.
7) Be willing to let people of color and Global South Christians take the lead. It’s their churches that are doing the best. The New African Churches are very post-denominational and organizationally effective.
8) This will take time; perhaps a whole generation. Practice patience.
It’s a brave new world. Let’s watch it emerge, together.
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