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The Last Lutheran — Reformation Day Wake Up Call

October 30th, 2012
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My colleague, Rev. Edward Engelbrecht, penned this powerful little post and how appropriate for Lutherans to read it on Reformation Day. And no, he did not literally “pen” it, ok? I know what some of you in Intertube land are thinking. When you read this, please do yourself a favor and do not think immediately of excuses or justifications, just let it sink in a bit. I’ve read far too  many types of comments that go something like this, “We are being faithful so people will find us.” Or “We are being faithful, numbers don’t matter, we are not about numbers, but about being faithful.” Or, the worst of the latest thinking yet on this: “God has elected some to salvation and they will get there because God has elected them, therefore, we should not be caught up in any sense of urgency about the Lord’s mission.” Yes, I’m serious. That’s the latest foolishness floating around on subjects like this.

Faithfulness AND outreach, always a both/and, never, ever, every an either/or.

Here then is the article.

The Last Lutheran

“Grandpa, what’s a ‘Luth-ran’?”

The computer reflected in the boy’s dark eyes as he squinted, pondering his own question.

“Have you tried searching the internet?” grandpa said, looking back from the Skype portal on the computer screen.

“No. I thought you would just know.” The boy reached out, touched the screen to draw up the search engine. Then said, “Luth-ran.” The results screen listed various links to online encyclopedias but no sites for congregations. The boy’s eyes searched the links, wondering which to open.

“Mom said you were a Lutheran, grandpa. I thought you would just know. I have to do a report on how things used to be and the teacher said we could ask questions of our grandparents.”

“I was a Lutheran. That was a long time ago. There was a Lutheran church in town and I went there. But now it’s a recycling center. You know, the one where we turn in our plastics for credit?”

“That place was a church? It’s a mess. . . . Why did people go to church?”

“Everyone went to church then. Well, not everyone. But many did. Church was important. The churches were the biggest buildings in town. You saw your friends there and they taught you about the Bible,” grandpa said.

“There’s a church in our city, grandpa. We drive by it. But it’s not really big and the people speak Spanish there. Do you think it’s a Lutheran church?”

“No. I don’t suppose so,” grandpa said. “You don’t pass Lutheran churches anymore. Was a time when every town had one, or at least an old one boarded up for sale or turned into a museum. You don’t even see that much anymore.”

“So, what happened? Why are you the last Lutheran? The internet articles have a lot about ‘Jesus.’ Is that a Lutheran thing?”

Grandpa hesitated. “I don’t think I can say. That’s kind of a personal question, honey—not one you ask. People have their own beliefs and ideas. Everyone can think what he wants. So, it’s best not to ask about it.”

 

The Reformation Is Cancelled

In 2017 the Lutheran church in North America will observe the Reformation by closing hundreds of its congregations and preaching stations. We love the purity of our pulpits and quiet of our sanctuaries, which grow every quieter.

I am writing this because of something I saw the other day. Recently, CPH introduced an easy to use Outreach Kit, which some Lutheran congregations have picked up. Most congregations are taking one copy of the kit, which equips them to reach out to 50 households.

What struck me yesterday was when I saw members of another conservative protestant church snap up twelve copies of the kit, intending to reach out to 600 households—shocking contrast in behavior and an indictment of our passive, Lutheran culture.

Some reasons other conservative Protestants are growing while Lutherans are not can be explained as simply as follows:

  •  Outreach is an on-going priority for them. They build it into their members’ thinking while Lutherans do not.
  • They plan for it and budget for it while we plan for the best sausage supper.
  • They will work with all the messy, confused, needy people who respond to the outreach. We find such people annoying.

Our congregations tend to be slower or even totally negligent on these points. This is perhaps because we are a 500 year old church and they are more spry by comparison. Be we have got to address this cultural issue.

 

A New Reformation

Our congregations need to learn to sow the Word liberally while teaching the Word conservatively. Anything else implies a lack of confidence—a lack of faith—in the Word of God we profess. As we believe, teach and confess the life-giving Word, outreach will become our highest priority. That is what I would like us to celebrate in 2017. Lord, have mercy.

I’ve invited the leadership at Concordia Publishing House to consider what we can do to change the passive culture of our churches and turn us outward toward the community with the Gospel.

I invite my readers to consider the same and raise the same questions in their local churches.

 

”We beg of You, bless, oh bless, the work of spreading Your written Word. . . . You know how listless our hearts are and how easily our zeal grows cold. Grant us therefore genuine glowing love, a love that will never grow cold or weary.” Amen.

—C. F. W. Walther, For the Life of the Church, p. 30.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. statcat
    October 30th, 2012 at 17:03 | #1

    I’ve only been a Lutheran for 10 years. During this time, I’ve noticed is that Lutheranism has basically become watered down generic Protestantism. In general, we seem to be moving away from the liturgy and towards the contemporary worship craziness The liturgy is really what distinguishes the Lutheran Church from the other random Protestant denominations. Yet some LCMS clergy think they can somehow improve on 2000 years of history via practicing unBiblical contemporary worship.
    In addition, Lutherans are the most “closed” bigoted group of people I’ve ever met. To this day, I feel like an outsider because I don’t subscribe to the potluck loving culture.

  2. Monte Meyer
    October 30th, 2012 at 17:23 | #2

    Amen Paul. I am very thankful that you have given voice to this issue. I have been flummoxed by this Doctrine of Election excuse too. Thank you, thank you. We have the Gospel, so let’s get the Word Straight and get the Word OUT!

  3. Aaron
    October 30th, 2012 at 19:26 | #4

    Pastor McCain,

    First, let me just say that I agree fully and completely with your main thesis: faithfulness and outreach must and do go together.

    But, that being said, I have two issues with this post.

    First, this story about “the last Lutheran” is the sort of legalism that causes Confessional Lutherans to de-emphasize outreach. It’s the sort of guilt-trip contained in almost every mission festival sermon I’ve ever heard. “If you don’t get out there and do outreach, people are gonna burn in hell. If you don’t do outreach, the Lutheran church is gonna die. Et cetera, ad nauseum.” But we don’t do outreach because we’re afraid or guilty. We do it because we trust in and are empowered by the gospel. The gospel is missing in this little story.

    Second, you seem to indicate that outreach is something that congregations do by organizing committees and budgeting money and buying kits (from CPH, of course). This only leads people to assume that outreach is an institutional thing, not a personal thing. The Christian Church has grown and thrived for centuries without committees and kits. Why? Because individual Christians were ready to provide a faithful witness in and through their daily vocations. That’s what’s missing these days.

    • October 30th, 2012 at 20:04 | #5

      The Law must have its way with us.

      We are great at making all kinds of excuses, your comment is just more excuse making.

      Wake up and smell the java.

  4. CRB
    October 30th, 2012 at 19:41 | #6

    “a lack of confidence—a lack of faith—in the Word of God we profess. ” Yes, and that is reflected Big Time in congregations attitudes toward inactives. Many elders are more fearful of man (which is idolatry) than they are loving their fellow members who are/have drifted away. Now, there’s a place to start evangelizing!

  5. Aaron
    October 30th, 2012 at 20:40 | #7

    @ptmccain

    I think my sense of smell is just fine.

    Again, I am 100% in favor of outreach. I am not trying to find excuses for not doing outreach.

    I’m simply asking two questions about outreach: why do we do it and how do we do it?

    Why? Not because the law has had its way with us and convinced us that people will burn unless we buy a kit, but because the gospel has had its way with us and convinced us that it is a joy and privilege to be God’s instrument to gather the elect.

    How? Not by pulling people away from their God-given vocations in order to serve the institution by knocking on doors like guilt-driven Mormons, but by empowering people to fulfill their God-given vocations, making the most of every opportunity to share the message with co-workers and colleagues and children.

    • October 31st, 2012 at 07:47 | #8

      And how is distributing good solid material and Gospel/Christ centered information throughout your community a bad thing?

      Sorry, don’t get it.

  6. Helen
    October 30th, 2012 at 22:33 | #9

    I grew up in non-denominational churches and personal witnessing of Christ was emphasized. There were no “kits” or promo materials to hand out. It was all by word of mouth. I have only been an LCMS member for close to a year and yes, the people seem to be different. I knew that when I joined. I love the liturgy and form of worship and the view of the Lord’s Supper. Basically what I’ve found is a more restrained congregation and less of “personal testimonies” and a less outgoing feeling amongth the people than say in Baptist churches I’ve attended. That doesn’t bother me as I’m more of an introverted personality myself. That may put some folks off. Very few people greeted or acknowledged us when we first began to attend the church of which we are now members. That bothered my husband who was a former SBC but I explained to him the people are simply more restrained. I have gone out of my way to speak to them and things are improving. It’s a great church with two wonderful pastors. Our christianity should be contagious.

  7. John Osborn
    October 31st, 2012 at 02:07 | #10

    I’m possibly…not technically a Lutheran. I’m in the process of being catechized, and of integrating into the church. I was baptized catholic, raised Lutheran until the age of eight, and then did the ‘evangelical’ non-denominational church-hopping thing that transient American families sometimes do.
    I felt the call of God to return to the Lutheran church, and my experience in it has only made it stronger. The liturgy is awe-inspiring. The hymns are as beautiful, as fiercely, lyrically beautiful, as the sunset over the snow-capped Rockies of my home-state. It tints everything in brilliant color, just as the liturgy tints everything it touches with holiness. But people just mumble through the hymns. We recite treasures from rote and sit impassively through spirit-filling displays of beauty. We have become spectators. We should be ashamed. Celebrate liturgy, celebrate the Gospel that gives it its power, celebrate Lutheranism, and proclaim the Christ who saved us!

  8. October 31st, 2012 at 06:56 | #11

    the law never produces fruit. the hope of those who devise programs and gimmicks is that the program will turn things around. only the gospel can do that. and it generally does not happen overnight, no matter what publishing execs or synodical bureaucrats think or hope. it takes years. the lack of a coherent missiological in the LCMS is more from the lack of solid gospel preaching than gimmicks or kits or least of all law. when love is lacking, the gospel is missing in the heart and life of the hearer/congregation. listen to the preaching in the LCMS and that is what you will find.

  9. October 31st, 2012 at 07:55 | #12

    “Or, the worst of the latest thinking yet on this: “God has elected some to salvation and they will get there because God has elected them, therefore, we should not be caught up in any sense of urgency about the Lord’s mission.” Yes, I’m serious. That’s the latest foolishness floating around on subjects like this.”

    Thank you Pastor McCain, for addressing this – I’ve seen this used as a club vs ccm-using folks who I think genuine are trying to attract more persons so they will hear the word in the service and believe (I think they are misled, but persons can be a bit harsh with them). I agree with Aaron that the Gospel should be that makes us eager to share and not the Law. But maybe the Gospel isn’t having its way with me like it should because I am determined to hold the Law at bay… (as those ccm pastors who actually think they may “save some” [where do they get this idea that they can actually use this language about them having a part in saving anybody?] using certain music that they think people will like, for example, make me feel even more justified in this) not eager to hear that the bold and all-encompassing proclamation of the Word is something that is certainly implied in the first table of the Law.

    I have a lot of repenting to do.

    +Nathan Rinne

  10. Aaron
    October 31st, 2012 at 11:22 | #13

    Two things:

    First, distributing Christ-centered material in the community isn’t a bad thing. I don’t believe I ever said it was. What is bad is assuming that buying such material is the only way or the best way to do outreach. In my opinion, it’s not the best way (and it’s certainly not the only way). In my experience, sending out mass mailings and putting up door hangers is a huge waste of money and effort. Such things only end up in the trash with the junk mail and the Watchtower tracts. It makes a much bigger impact when a trusted friend or coworker joyfully shares a personal message or invitation. That’s the way it was done for centuries.

    Second, I’ve never heard anyone use the doctrine of election to excuse a lack of urgency. I have heard people use the doctrine of election to free outreach from the shackles of guilt and to provide gospel joy and motivation for outreach. The doctrine of election means that I don’t have to feel the fear of thinking that people might be condemned or the Church might disappear because of my failures to reach out. It means that I can have the confidence of knowing that God will indeed save and gather his elect, and the joy of knowing that he may very well work through me to do it!

    • October 31st, 2012 at 13:40 | #14

      “assuming that buying such material is the only way or the best way to do outreach”

      Neither I, nor Rev. Engelbrecht suggested it was. The point was/is that it is very telling that Lutheran congregations only ask for enough to visit 50 houses and a non Lutheran church buys enough to visit 600 houses. You can choose to miss the point of the article, all you want. Rev. Engelbrecht’s remarks are spot-on correct.

      The doctrine of election has been FALSELY used, period, if it is used in any conversation about mission outreach. It has been used to excuse our indolence.

  11. David Charlton
    October 31st, 2012 at 11:59 | #15

    Aw Shucks! I just got done printing up some door hangers for our congregation. Nevertheless, I’d like to use the Outreach Kit. Care if an ELCA congregation buys it?

  12. David Charlton
    October 31st, 2012 at 14:00 | #17

    Another thought. You wrote:

    “Or, the worst of the latest thinking yet on this: “God has elected some to salvation and they will get there because God has elected them, therefore, we should not be caught up in any sense of urgency about the Lord’s mission.” Yes, I’m serious. That’s the latest foolishness floating around on subjects like this.”

    I was taught that God does his electing through the Word and Sacraments, so that election would not be an excuse to remain silent or inert. It would be depending on other means to do “evangelism” that would demonstrate lack of trust in election.

  13. Rich Kauzlarich
    November 1st, 2012 at 06:58 | #19

    How do you do this if the the congregation is not re-catechized? (I’m not sure that is a word but I hope you get my point.) Strikes me that as a congregation — adults as well as children — we must understand what we believe and why we believe it. God will guide us, I know, but how can you sow the Word if you do not study the Word? I sense a need to be more intentional with adult education as one element in the approach you are suggesting regarding outreach — and what better time to make this a broad-based effort than the upcoming 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

  14. November 1st, 2012 at 20:25 | #20

    @Aaron

    “The Christian Church has grown and thrived for centuries without committees and kits. Why?”

    Well, for about the first 300 years it was because thousands of folks (including the Apostles, except St. John, and several Apostolic fathers) were martyred at the hands of zealous Jews and pagan Romans, and thousands of neighbors thought that was a pretty strong witness for faith in Christ.

    And then for some more centuries missionaries were sent into hostile lands to preach the Gospel, likely with the expectation they would not return (some did not; see Boniface). And by God’s grace this proved fruitful.

    Then we had roughly a millennium of popes and their papal councils thinking it “good outreach” to manipulate, excommunicate, and empire-build–playing off people’s fears and their Old Adams.

    Luther and the reformers rescued the Church from this to the tune of more martyrdom and severe persecution until a contingent of them braved the ocean and transplanted themselves here… where we should be thankful to God that He has blessed us with the opportunity to build outreach programs around valuable kits like CPH’s, and not martyrdom or falling to the temptation of the same egregious papal errors.

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