We had a guest speaker at my church this past Sunday—a missionary who spoke to us about mission—both the specific program he oversees and the broader task of making disciples of all nations given to the Church. He gave everyone a lot to think about—much good, but some bad. Given how many churches he’s spoken at, I’d wager a lot of other Lutherans have heard him as well, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on his presentation here.
First, some of his good points:
- Don’t be normal.
Just to clarify, his message here was not that of the modern American cult of Self—to have contempt for “normal” things like marriage, family, responsibility, etc so that you have as much room as possible to gratify your own narcissism by pretending you’re too extraordinary for the rest of humanity. I would never be labeling that as a good point.
There’s a far better sense in which we shouldn’t be normal, and I believe another way of putting his point is “Don’t be worldly.” It’s worldly to be casual about mission, to keep religion and private life separate, to despise the teaching of God’s word as an annoying obligation rather than a gift, etc. Like the miracle of birth, Christianity is a truly extraordinary thing no matter how much we might be surrounded by it. Merely going through the usual motions and keeping your participation in Christ’s Church as convenient and unobtrusive as possible is inconsistent with what Christ has done and is doing for us, within us, and around us.
For a long time, America was considered a Christian nation to some extent. Cultural norms reflected religious norms. But the less true that this becomes, the less that faithful Christians are going to look like ordinary Americans. We can no longer simply go with the flow. What remains is coming up with the best ways of going against the tide, and that’s a task we need to start taking personally and seriously.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about politics.
Obviously there’s a time and a place for this subject and politics are not the point of Christianity, but Christians are terrified of any assigning any time and place for this–especially in church and Bible studies. But if God’s Word addresses a subject of popular controversy, then any preacher or teacher of that Word should be likewise addressing that subject.
If you’re too scared of inadvertently causing offense, you’re never going to speak to people in any profound way. People get argumentative and offended about subjects like politics (and religion, for that matter) because those subjects are extremely important to them. If you never allow your message to be offensive, then you’re literally making your message unimportant to your hearers. This is precisely why Jesus, his Apostles, and the Prophets were constantly being put to death for offending everyone around them.
And he practiced what he preached—he brought up subjects like abortion, gay marriage, the trans movement, etc and faithfully presented what God’s word says about them in Scripture.
There was also one point that was good so long as it is understood properly.
- Everyone is a missionary.
Inasmuch as this means that we should all witness to the people God brings into our lives and not just assume that church staff will take care of it, then this is important. First and foremost, parents should be explicitly raising their children in the faith. That means talking to them about God, praying with them, teaching them what they’re able to understand, bringing them to Christ’s church to receive His Word and Sacraments, etc. There are also adult children and grandchildren who have left the Church. Sometimes, there are friends and neighbors. Anyone with whom you talk about important things is someone with whom you can talk about the Most Important Thing.
However, we should discard this point inasmuch as it expunges the notion of vocation and creates two tiers of Christians (ones who evangelize and ones who merely do the things God has told them to do like raise their kids and feed their families and whatnot.) One of the great realizations of the Reformers is that the faithful maid or blacksmith isn’t any less spiritual than the monk or the priest (or missionary.) We all have different gifts and callings, and we shouldn’t be in the business of forcing everyone into the same mold or declaring that some gifts put their bearers in a higher tier of godliness.
And here, I need to give special attention to my fellow introverts. The people who go through the conference circuit, have a billion personal evangelism stories, or visit 1700 churches to give talks about missionary work are usually raging extroverts. They genuinely fail to understand that introverts aren’t constantly talking with our neighbors and coworkers, that we don’t have a huge social circle, and that we don’t strike up conversations with strangers. They ask the congregation when they last invited their neighbors to church, and we’re all sitting there trying to remember the last time we even spoke with our neighbors and what their names are. The natural consequence of this is that the shape of personal evangelism is very very different for us. Super-spiritual extroverts tend to dismiss that difference as shyness, cowardice, laziness, ungodliness, and so forth, but they do so in great ignorance.
Remember the Widow’s Mite. Though she offered only a small coin, Jesus said that out of her poverty she gave more than anyone else. The same holds true when it comes to the introverted, the autistic, and all those who live in some manner of social poverty. Popular speakers who are socially wealthy may not know what personal evangelism costs you, but God does.
God instructs us to test our teachers, and unfortunately, I have to point out that it was not all great. Along with the good, he did make a number of faulty points as well that deserve to be addressed.
- We’re shrinking because of our shameful lack of witness.
This is an empirical falsehood that still gets thrown around by missional Lutherans. According to recent independent studies commissioned by the LCMS, we are actually pretty good at evangelizing relative to other American denominations. It takes us roughly 44 adult members to get one convert. By comparison, it takes Southern Baptists, who have a very good reputation for evangelism, 47 adult members. That’s pretty comparable. Even the Mormons, with their extremely rigorous efforts at outreach, still need about 40 adult members.
The actual cause of our decline is simple demographics. The LCMS is growing where the broader population is growing and shrinking where the broader population is shrinking. In other words, there are so few kids in church because we haven’t been having very many kids—something that is affecting most Christian denominations in the West. We’re reaping the consequences of generations of the West’s selfish anti-child mindset that has been adopted by Western Christians. It’s a critical problem that, even if we all repent today, will take generations to fix—should we last that long.
To be sure, our conversion rate is good only by American standards. In contrast, the missionary pointed out that 1000’s of people are being baptized every day in Ethiopia. But there are a whole lot of other differences going on between America and Ethiopia besides less enthusiastic witness (remember how hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?) God is to be praised for what He’s doing there, and we are rightly condemned for our own lukewarm disregard for Christ here. We absolutely should embrace and support mission work both at home and abroad. But none of that changes the underlying demographic reality of our decline. Christ has given us enough to do without taking on the additional burden of thinking that conversion is our work rather than the Holy Spirit’s.
- Lutheranism sucks.
No, he didn’t say this explicitly. However, I couldn’t help but notice that his every reference to Lutheranism was derogatory or derisive. And yes, I mean that literally. He consistently treated our denomination, our traditions, and our theology as some kind of shackle from which we need to be released. There was definitely a strong note of that “Oh, if only we were more like Baptists, then an omnipotent and omniscient God could maybe finally find some way to use us to proclaim His Word” nonsense from the previous point.
It’s not as though I think Lutherans or the Synod are beyond criticism—a quick review of this blog will tell you that. At the same time, our heritage of theology, hymnody, and history is a precious treasure won through hard-fought spiritual warfare against the Devil and this world. There are certainly things we need to change—mainly having to do with our embrace of modern worldliness and rejection of God’s word and our theological heritage—but one should not broadly treat precious things in such a manner, nor encourage others to do the same.
- Theology sucks.
Again, this wasn’t an explicit statement, but he repeatedly mocked people who use theological words like “exegetical” as ineffective at best and Pharisaical at worst. Now, I think that what he was trying to do was encourage people without a strong theological background to take up their tasks as missionaries as well—and so they should.
But there are two huge problems with this approach. First, elevating one group of people by tearing down another is not only uncreative, it’s downright cruel and discouraging to the second group who have their own work to do in the Church. More importantly, he was maligning the rigorous study of God’s word in a cultural context of Biblical and theological illiteracy where most Christians have very little conscious knowledge of what they believe and why they believe it. It’s really hard to tell people about something you don’t really get yourself.
We should remember that Christ praised Mary over Martha when the former chose to sit at her Master’s feet and learn from him while the latter busied herself with serving. To be sure, Christianity is not in any way a religion for scholars alone. But everyone should witness according to the knowledge that has been given to them, and learn according to their intellectual aptitude. In other words, be at least as learned and articulate about Christianity as you are about football, Game of Thrones, or whatever your other favorite things happen to be. Theological terminology is there for a reason, and capable people should embrace learning it rather than being made ashamed of it.
- We need a revival!
This one was an explicit statement, and he did mean it in the Baptist sense (in one of his many jabs at Lutheranism, he said in mock horror “Oh no! That’s a Baptist word! We can’t say that!”)
But we do not need that kind of revival. Why? Because revivalism was and is all about creating motivation through emotional excitement. While there’s nothing wrong with excitement, the Church is not built on a foundation of emotional highs, for they always wear off before too long. If you look revivalism, what you’ll find is a history of charismatic preachers trying to find ever more extreme ways of eliciting those emotional highs and suffering the usual diminishing returns associated with getting their next fix. You get places like the “burned over” districts that spawned people like Joseph Smith—places visited by so many revivalists that everyone was too jaded to be set on fire for the Lord anymore and required heresy just to become interested. The end (I hope) result of all that is preachers doing Sunday-morning bull-riding and other such nonsense just to try to keep the crowds coming in the doors.
The Church needs better than a storm of manipulated emotions. We need Jesus Christ. We need his teachings handed down through the Apostles. We need the sacraments he instituted. Our job as missionaries is not to artificially create crowds, it’s to take what we have been given in Christ and hand it to the rest of the world. I believe that if we were more faithful in this task, we would see God working through it in profound ways. But even if we saw no such thing, that remains what He has called us to do. A tiny congregation of geriatrics in a dying rural town need Christ no less than the multitudes of Ethiopia. Let Christ save and grow his Church—you do what has been given to you.