Should church bodies be measuring the effectiveness of our evangelism based on our racial makeup? One pastor made this charge in reaction to my recent post on the subject:
I consider this a confession of sin: “And that’s really where most new Christians come from in established American church bodies like the LCMS–through their relationships with believers in one way or another. Sure, a few people dropped by after attending your bake sale or hearing your radio ad, but not many. God bless those who plant local missionary churches and simply invite the neighborhood, but they are the blessed exception rather than the blessed norm. As a result, there is a demographic gravity to our congregations that is powerful but also benign.”
Our lack of being missional, specifically an “all the nations” missional, truly needs to be addressed and solved if we’re to carry out the Great Commission.
Yes, our church is too white, because we are not effectively missional.
Saying we are so negligent at evangelism that it qualifies as sinful is a hefty charge, and I think it’s worth addressing. I focused more on the charge of racism than I did on evangelism the first time around. And while I responded in the comments, I think a fuller explanation is worth it’s own post.
But before we dive in I want to clarify how I’m using a couple terms here, since the commenter did not.
First, we could argue about exactly what “missional” means and what constitutes being effective at it. After all, it’s a buzz-word in LCMS circles that’s usually attached to a focus on nebulous evangelism programs. But let’s just take it in very broad terms as “deliberate evangelism.”
Second, I’m restricting in the scope of “sin” here to coram mundo. In this context, judging evangelism coram deo is senseless because until the Great Commission is truly over at Christ’s return, there is always more work to be done, and absolutely none of us have made perfectly efficient use of our time. It’s like fathers and mothers wondering whether they could have done more for their children. The answer is always “yes,” and so coram deo we must all lean on the righteousness of Christ. But that doesn’t mean that we should all be calling each other bad parents, for imperfect parents have no business condemning mere imperfection in others. Gross negligence is still a meaningful accusation, but mere imperfection is not. The same is true of imperfect evangelists. As Christ taught, we need to be careful in how we judge one-another.
Third, I’m leaving all consideration of racism out of it. I’m content with how I addressed that aspect of it last time.
So with that cleared up, let’s tackle the main question here: Can we measure a church body’s skill at participating in the Great Commission by looking at the slightly off-white color of its collective skins? Is it reasonable to conclude that any non-negligent evangelism would result in racial diversity?
Let’s start with some examples of effective mission–apart from the meaningless question of whether we have “enough” examples like these. The LCMS has planted churches in various places around the globe–and sent missionaries to countless more. Church bodies in places like Ghana, Korea, and Japan are the direct result of our missionaries bringing the Gospel to the very nonwhite peoples there. And those are just a few examples of our international mission work. So we’re ultimately talking about a multitude to whom the Word was sown and alongside whom we shall stand before the Lamb clothed in white.
I think we can all agree that such things are good deliberate evangelism. But there’s a perfectly natural circumstance to all these missions: None of them have made the LCMS any less white because these brothers and sisters are typically not LCMS members.
Most of them belong to different church bodies with whom we are in partnership–in other words, they’re fellow Christians and Lutherans who confess what we confess. That’s a wonderful reality that would in no way be improved by trying to finagle them into the LCMS bureaucracy. Making LCMS members of all nations was never the point of the Great Commission. Effective mission is declaring God’s Word to people and giving them the Sacraments, not giving them membership in an organization so that we can virtue-signal about our racial demographics.
Ah, but you might say that that’s all a matter of international mission. Surely, when it comes to domestic matters, any effective evangelism would be resulting in a larger and broader LCMS membership.
Why should it?
I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m not particularly adept at evangelism. Nevertheless, even I have had opportunities to share the pure Gospel with those who needed it. Sometimes I’ve even been blessed to actually see it received with joy. I’ve also had opportunities to invite people to my congregation to connect them with Word and Sacrament ministry. I’ve invited a few people that I know. I’ve canvassed a few neighborhoods to invite strangers. Yeah; It’s not much. But considering how difficult personal evangelism is for those of us on the spectrum, I’m not ashamed coram mundo. Certainly, I’ve repented coram deo for opportunities I know I’ve missed, but we’re all in that boat.
But I don’t remember ever specifically encouraging someone to join my denomination, and I have no idea if I’ve had any impact on our membership numbers apart from my own children. And you know what? I don’t consider myself guilty of sin for that lack, so I’m certainly not going to judge someone else for it.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; I’m grateful for what it’s offered to me; and I’m happy to remain within her. It’s simply that membership is a matter of administration rather than evangelism. It’s not a great metric when it comes to simply sowing the Word.
Then what about connecting people with congregations? Yes; we should do that too. But we’re either going to connect them with established congregations or with new church plants. Those are two very different organs of the same Church, and judging both by demographics is ridiculous.
Established congregations do not, can not, and should not operate like brand new missionary churches. Church plants have the advantages of adaptability, novelty, and enthusiasm. They are very well-suited to bringing the Gospel to unbelievers in a locale and building a new Christian community. Established churches have the advantages of heritage, mature organizational skills & structures, and capital. They are very well-suited to feeding a community of existing Christians and their posterity with Word and Sacrament.
Both of these are wonderful gifts of God that bring people into His kingdom. Accordingly, neither should become the eye telling the ear we have no need of you. Quite frankly, I think a lot of our frustration with ineffective mission is a result of people who are unwilling to embrace the uncertainty of a church plant instead trying to co-opt established congregations and change them into something they’re not.
And we should remember: Every church plant that lasts is going to become an established congregation eventually. After all, we don’t gather people in just so that we can abandon them. That is not failure of mission; that is success.
The LCMS is an established church body. We should be judging it by those standards rather than expecting every Sunday at every congregation to be a local Pentecost that gathers in everyone within a 10-mile radius around the church regardless of demographics. We have our own way of doing things. Some people love that way. Some people are ambivalent about that way. Some people hate that way. The thing is, all of those opinions are totally fine for fellow Christians to hold. We cannot be an organization that all tribes and nations are going to flock to in response to our evangelism, and we should not expect ourselves to be.
What happens when we do judge ourselves by the standard of established church bodies? According to studies commissioned by the Synod a few years back, the LCMS is actually reasonably good at evangelism. It takes us 44 adult members to gain a single convert. That puts us right between the adult-evangelism-focused Southern Baptists at 47 and the Mormons at 40 who, despite their heresy, are nevertheless famous for their rigorous missionary efforts. For an established church body, I’d consider that “effectively missional.”
But that brings us right back to what I wrote last time. Established churches tend to bring in their own children and the people they naturally encounter in their day-to-day lives. These are not random samples of the community. Rather than 44 adults for one convert, it only takes two fertile Lutherans to catechize their kids and create 1-6 new members. (At least it would if we still had families. If we’re going to accuse the LCMS of sin based on its demographics, we should start with our adoption of the world’s hatred of having children. That is absolutely the biggest coram mundo standard that we fail.)
My point is this: whether by new or established congregations, the wedding feast of the lamb is filled either way–it’s just that the congregations look different. And God never gave us diversity quotas that should make us ashamed of our looks. Accusing our churches of being too white is merely burdening them with meaningless traditions of men.
Again, I’m not saying we can’t be better at evangelism. I would be happy if we started sending missionaries domestically the way we’ve done internationally. Plant a church in a neighborhood that needs the Gospel and adapt its administration to the qualities of that community. But make it a partner church that holds to the Lutheran confessions and with whom we share fellowship instead of trying to shoehorn it into LCMS bureaucracies and customs. Unlike the Gospel, those are not a good fit for every demographic.
Obviously we should evangelize more. That’s a simple truism that anyone can repeat to score piety points. But I’m surely not going to accuse anyone of sin for not doing that because not everyone is called to be a missionary. Neither is everyone obligated to share my opinions on what constitutes good evangelism strategies.
And bringing it back to our original question, neither is any such missionary effort obligated to ethnic diversity. At best, even missionary church plants are only going to look like their communities in the beginning. In the end, they will become established churches that don’t necessarily undergo the same demographic changes as its surrounding neighborhood. That evolution isn’t even failure, let alone sin. It’s different provision for different circumstances.
Criticizing mission is easy because there’s literally always something more you can do. But complaining about the racial makeup of our membership is still just meaningless virtue-signaling. It comes from the Spirit of the Age, not the Holy Spirit. The Church catholic will make disciples of all tribes and nations. As one small part of her, the LCMS will make disciples of some tribes and nations. We should praise God for that instead of joining the world’s condemnation of it.