Revitalizing Lutheran congregations that are no longer Lutheran
I was reading a Missouri Synod district’s blog site and ran across this comment by the district president. I appreciated his candor and pastoral wisdom. I believe that it is precisely in such honest assessment of reality as we find it in the church today that we have the best opportunity for the kind of open, honest communication that is so necessary.
This month I’d like to talk about
revitalization. If you remember the goals of ABLAZE, you recall that
one of them is to revitalize 2000 congregations by 2017. While a number
of our congregations have asked to hear a presentation on this process,
and while some have already begun the process, I want to draw your
attention to a different kind of revitalization that four of our
District pastors have been involved in at one time or another in their
ministry (and not all of these happened while they were in the Ohio
District). When they reached their congregations, these four pastors
made a surprising and sad discovery: their congregations were no longer
Lutheran. Oh, they were Lutheran in name, but certainly not Lutheran in
teaching and practice. In several instances, some lay leaders and
members proved to be quite hostile to any suggestion that Lutheran
teaching should be reintroduced. Yet, to their credit, these pastors
very patiently and lovingly set about to bring those congregations back
into something resembling Lutheran congregations. For the most part,
they taught and preached from Luther’s Small Catechism. In some cases
the teaching was received happily; in other cases, life became very
difficult and challenging for them, especially when strong objections
came or when people packed up and left. But these pastors persevered
and with God’s help, most saw progress. To their credit, when some
laity saw that they were now being taught Lutheran doctrine, they left.
They admitted they really did not believe our Lutheran teaching after
all. I commend them for that integrity.
I once thought that reviewing the
catechism with the congregation on a regular basis was pretty boring. I
don’t think so any more. What pastors know by heart is not always
embedded so firmly in the hearts and minds of those we shepherd. A
daily barrage of “Christian” radio and TV can muddy our distinctives
over time. How pastors re-establish Lutheran teaching varies with each
congregation and with each pastor’s ability to apply the catechism to
today’s American version of Christianity.
These pastors could have taken an easier
route. They could have rolled with the situation and continued down the
path they found. But instead, they took the road less traveled. The
saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, minus legalism, minus decision-theology,
minus pietism, was restored in all of its comforting beauty and power.
Wherever people hear that their sins are forgiven and that through
faith in this Christ, a glorious eternity awaits them, a fruitful
response comes and the congregation is strengthened.
I am fully aware that other pastors
share the same desire to see their congregations revitalized in just
that way, too. Restoring a Lutheran identity is a commendable task. But
do you have the patience? Do you possess a winsome spirit? Can you be
happy with progress sometimes measured in millimeters? If not, instead
of revitalization, you may bring even worse discord and division that
now has been agitated by a strident personality. It was said of our
Lord that “a bruised reed He would not break, a smoldering wick he
would not extinguish.” Besides a love for the Truth, an evangelical
spirit coupled with a love for your people must be in any pastor who
undertakes such an ambitious and praiseworthy revitalization project.
Without them, however, the last state of such a congregation may become
worse than the first.
Ohio District ABLAZERev Terry CripeMay, 2008