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Connect. Grow. Serve.

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Okay.  I confess, I did it.  I read one of those books.  It wasn’t  about church growth, because that’s not cool any more.  No, this book was on “making mature disciples.”  The book was Simple Church.  I’ve read church growth books before and I admit, I get excited about them.  I want to make mature disciples.  I’m a gardener.  I like watching my garden grow and celebrating the fruits of it.  I also like doing the same thing with my sheep.  But because I’m human and  I get frustrated sometimes as a pastor, I want so much more for my sheep than to watch them sit there, stuck in a rut, sometimes for years.

Now hear me out, this is not just me ranting, (at least I’m intending it to be more than a rant) this is more of a righteous rant.  I fear that sometimes what passes for Christian faith, at least in conservative Missouri quarters is a personal acceptance of some vague notion of some doctrinal tenants about God and then sporatic attendance at church events.  It manifests itself by attending “the pastor’s class” when joining a church but never attending a Bible class after that.  Oh, you’ll make your kid go to class to get confirmed but that’s as far as it gets.  I’m certainly not talking about anyone in my parish.  I’m generalizing.  I’m even including kids I went to confirmation class with in 1984.

I fear that in the 20th century when “everyone” was in church, we payed very little attention to why we were there.  It was part of the social construct and so folks went to church.  We took it for granted that they would be there.  Americans go to church.  Commies don’t.  But wow, there are just simply more entertaining alternatives.  It has already started and it will continue, I’m afraid.  People will stop attending churches when they don’t know why they’re there.  Thus, Simple Church.  The premise is to make mature disciples, that is, give folks an opportunity to connect with God, grow in God, and serve God.  I get it, and here’s the rub, (I know, sorry for the long set up) it just doesn’t work with how I see what Sunday morning is for the life of a believer.

Oh, in non-demoninational churches which have the Lord’s Supper four times a year whether they need it or not, this model works perfectly.  It’s slick.  It gets people connected and growing and serving others.  It works for them.  People get connected by coming to a “weekend service.”  There is no concept of the church year in these churches even to the point of playing down Christmas when it doesn’t fall on a weekend.  More on that below.  They grow by attending a small group during the week.  They serve others by serving on a ministry team.  I don’t exactly know what that means but it sounds really good.  I think it could mean anything from ushering to serving on the “worship team” to working at the soup kitchen.  All in all, great stuff, for them.  I see how it works for them.

But Lutherans are not them.  We are not plain vanilla evangelical protestant Christians.  We are a church that is deeply sacramental and liturgical and historical.  The center of a believer’s life is the Sunday Morning Divine Service and I mean with the Lord’s Supper.  Everything we do and say and are throughout the week stems from participation in the reality of the Eucharistic feast having gone out into the world.  We are the body of Christ because he put his body and blood into us.  Cut yourself off from the body and blood of Christ for too long  and you risk cutting yourself off from the body of Christ.  So for us Lutherans, where is the connect point?  And I ask that question in all seriousness.  To what weekly event do we invite our unchurched neighbor?  Because for us, the connect point CANNOT be the Divine Service.  It could be for fellow Lutherans and perhaps even fellow Christians, at least those people who have some notion of what goes on inside a pointy building on Sunday morning.  But what about the unbelievers?  Remember them?  They’re the ones we’re supposed to be concerned about to the point of even not serving our own.  Parable of the Lost Sheep.  What is the connect point for them?  I would even strongly encourage the non-denom churches, even the ones with Lutheran in their name, who use this kind of discipleship pattern to get serious about worship (Jn 4: 24) and see that it is not the place for unbelievers to connect with God.  I argue, it cannot be the Lutheran Divine Service for at least three reasons.

1.  Unbelievers  don’t belong at the Divine Service, or if they do, they certainly don’t belong there for the celebration of the sacrament of the altar.  The worship of God is the activity of his saints.  Ordinary Israelites were not allowed into the holy place or the most holy place of the tabernacle and the temple–only the priests.  Now, through Christ, the baptized are a holy nation and a royal priesthood and offer appropriate sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise because it is theirs to do.  It is not the place for unbelievers.  If it is, then why are we there?  If the regular service must be the connect point, I offer a time-tested solution.  We should reinstate a dismissal after the prayers of the church to allow for the unbelievers (and catechumens and all the rest who are not in fellowship with us) to leave, comfortably with as little awkwardness as possible.  There is a nice break in the liturgy there.  The pastor could make announcements and give a blessing, not the Aaronic benediction (cf. Lev 9-21-23) and then, “The doors, the doors!”  And then the holy things for the holy ones may commence.

2.  unbelievers don’t belong there because they don’t know what’s going on.  We are liturgical Christians not as an end to itself but because the liturgy is the highest expression of the saints.  And let’s face it, the liturgy as we have it, is for the initiated. The closest comparison I can make, having worked at the St. Louis Symphony while at seminary, is that the liturgy is a lot like classical music.  It is at its best when it is understood but explaining it while it’s happening ruins it.  The liturgy should be like breathing for God’s people.  We shouldn’t have to stop and listen to the lecture about which elements we just inhaled will be of benefit to our health and which were simply inert gasses.  Now, what some churches do, is they just dump the liturgy and go with the liturgy pops.  It’s very popular these days but I fear that for the uninitiated it’s a little like listening to Wagner and watching Buggs Bunny.

3.  I would argue they don’t belong there because they know they don’t belong there.  They have questions about how we can even be sure God exists and we’re asking them to “join with as we confess together the Nicene Creed” or some other meta-narrative that the “worship leader” is employing to move things along.  In many congregations, of course, they just don’t bother to confess the Trinity, preferring something Pastor Philintheblank wrote this week while working from his laptop sitting in the coffee shop.  Will the gates of hell hold against that onslaught?

For the non-denoms, the connect point should be the small group.  I know, I know.  That’t the closest thing they have to koinonia, but that is the proper place to invite the unbeliever, not worship (Cf. John 4:24).  What I really wish I could do is invite unbelievers to just the coffee and donuts after the service.  I’m serious.  That makes more sense and it’s friendly but impractical.  So what is the “connect” point for Lutherans?  Where should we connect with those who do not understand us and do not understand why they would be better off for all eternity believing in Jesus Christ?  I would argue, and I’m not alone in this, that it’s supposed to be your house and your workplace and your school and all those places where you, dear Christian, intersect with unbelievers.  There, they should know you by your love, by your love, they should know you are Christian by your love.

So why is that not working?  More to the point, why is the Christian home a place where even the people who live there have little or no encounter with Jesus?  What have our homes become?  Luther wanted to shut down the monasteries because each Christian home should be a place of prayer.  Are our homes too big now?  Dad has his man cave.  Mom has her spa.  The kids each have their own nooks to text and IM to their hearts delight and their GPA’s demise.  Until the Christian home is restored and we actually invite people to come over again, should the congregation provide surrogate dens and living rooms or kitchen tables where the ones with questions can come and feel free to ask, “What’s up with ya’ll drinking blood?”  Etc, etc.

If we provide a surrogate living room, how would we go about it?  How would we do it on a regular, even weekly basis?  If we got someone interested about what goes on in the pointy building on Sunday, then, they could come and we would sit with them and explain a little as the service goes along and help them find their place in the hymnal and Bible.  Then if they wanted to ask any even mildly serious questions, they could come to the informal inquiry group that meets right after the friendly dismissal.  “We’ll be out in 20 minutes.  Save some coffee and donuts for us.”  Then, if they were serious about wanting to be a formal inquirer, they could meet with the pastor and announce as such.  If they decided that they actually wanted to get serious about going to the next step, they could become a resounder, an echoer of God’s word, aka a catechumen.  If they wanted to go further and join the Christian church, they could prepare for baptism.  There’s a whole process for this called the catechumenate.  Maybe we need groovier, hipper names for all this but in this way we could meet folks where they are at and actually foster growth in understanding without dumbing down the worship of the saints because that is, quite frankly, quiet self-destruction.

What would it look like?  “Curious?  Questioning?  Echoing?  Baptized?”  I don’t know.  Should we emphasize the passive nature of the believer in all this?  “Caught.  Fed. Spoken.  Baptized.”  I’m pretty sure the ambiguity of the doer of the verbs in the title of this piece, is intentional.  (BTW, if you want to see what I’m talking about just put that in Google.)   I’ll save that for a marketing class in the future.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get some comments on this post and we can foster some discussion on this.  Because I desperately want to reach unchurched people.  I also want to make sure that the lifeboat we pull them into doesn’t have holes in it.

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A more bloggish post on the Great Catch of Fish and Evangelism

February 7, 2010 1 comment

To try to provide some context for this comment, please keep in mind that I am a voting delegate to the 2010 LCMS convention in Houston and I just returned from a pre-convention meeting where we were presented with 21 recommendations for restructuring as well as some other ideas that have apparently been in the hopper for some time.  More thoughts on that perhaps in the future.  But the over-arching rationale for all of these changes, they say, is that they make the church more “missional.”  It is as if the only reason why people in my community are not flocking into my church on any given day is my national church body’s constitution is not quite as “missional” as it could be.  Sorry, but I don’t buy it and for a number of reasons.

In my sermon for today, which I will post here later this week, I reflected on the Gospel lesson for today, Luke 5:1-11, Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish.  There seems to be this idea endemic to all mission executives and church leaders today that somehow the congregation, or in the case of the LCMS, not enough of the congregations, is/are not letting down their nets effectively enough.  If we were, we would be swamped with people coming into our churches.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it, not in North America and not in Western Europe, not in the most individualistic culture history has ever known.  The iPod is not just a catchy name; it’s all about me and what I want.

But over and again, that’s what we are told.  And it’s not fair and it’s not accurate.  Christians in North America spend hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of personnel hours praying for the letting down of the nets.  There are several Christian television networks and dozens of programs, as well as hundreds of Christian radio stations.  The Gideons spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year putting Bibles in hotel rooms.  Now, while I don’t agree with the doctrinal emphases of the vast majority of these efforts, I can’t deny these fellow Christian witnesses are telling the world about the love of God in Jesus and the need to repent of sin.  Again, maybe not in the way that I would do it, but they are doing it.  By this measure alone, the fish should be swamping us.  So why aren’t they?

Again, I think it has to do with the culture around us.  People don’t move in swarms, or tribes or clans or even families anymore in North America and most of Europe.  Couple that with the noise in our culture that drowns out any voice much less the voice of truth, it is no wonder we get folks only by patient line fishing, one at a time.

Now I say all this not to excuse the congregations that don’t tell people about Jesus, and, by the way, I think those are far fewer than they think.  Rather, I say all this to those of us who are trying hard to make a bold confession of the hope that is within us, don’t be discouraged.  Let down your net, even if you’ve been working all night.  After all, it’s not the fish, it’s the fishing.  For our Lord, it’s the fish and it is his job to call, gather, and enlighten.  It is our job to let down the net.  It is our great joy to rejoice in that we have already been caught.

So, dear mission executive, rest assured that I pray daily for the salvation of those souls Jesus is drawing near.  I work hard to do the work I have been given to do.  Believe me when I say that I am grieved to the point of personal distress and frustration in ministry not just because people around me are happily going to hell but because you so often beat me up and accuse me of not caring about them.  In the 80’s, you told me I had to go door to door with the Kennedy evangelism questions.  In the 90’s, you told me I had to set up a screen in my church and sing pop music.  Now you tell me that all that was wrong and I have to be relational and set up a coffee house.  What will it be next decade?

I think what I will do is continue to live out the life I have been given in as positive a Christian witness that a fallen man and pastor as myself can muster.  I think I’m going to be myself and tell people what Jesus has done for me over the years–try to share with them the hope I have in a God who condescends to speak to me in my language, who took on flesh to die for my sin and who rose again from the grave that I might live forever on account of his great love for me to suffer all things for me and for all those who by faith confess these things.  Like my namesake, Andrew, I’m going to continue to say to people, “Come, I have found the Christ.”  I think I’m going to keeping listening to the gentle words of Jesus who honors me with his call to work in his kingdom.  And quite frankly, I’m going to stop listening to you.

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