A present push in the North American context is for the church to be relevant. However, what that actually means is regularly being debated. What is it that makes a church relevant—the carpet, liturgy, felt needs, music style, programs, architecture, video screens, Jesus? And who gets to decide what is actually relevant—church consultants, pastors, believers, unbelievers, church boards, culture, Jesus? They are reasonable and important questions for us to thoughtfully and collegially consider.
Lutheran theology has much to offer in this regard. Perhaps the most familiar element might be the historic confession of faith contained in the Third Article of the Apostles Creed, along with Luther’s explanation of it in the Small Catechism. The Creed reminds us of the relevance with which the church has spoke for millennia: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. To be sure, the role of the Creed is not to seal faith into the confines of nostalgic certitude, but to give it a living voice—one that has a historic familiarity and authentic sincerity—one that has absolute relevance as to what it is and what it does.
Luther’s explanation then provides a perspective on the challenges of being relevant: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel…” For Lutherans, then, the relevant church is the church that boldly proclaims the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
However, it would seem that more than a few LCMS Lutherans are not so sure. Presently, the thought by some is that a culturally relevant church will translate into a growing church. Thus, the logic follows, “If we can just get our church to be relevant we can grow our church and therefore grow God’s kingdom.” But the challenge comes in who is defining what is and what is not relevant.
In terms of our culture, “Boomers” had their say for a time, but now “Gen Xer’s” and “Millennials” are taking their turn. Interestingly enough, each of their voices have been heard by the North American church. In the hopes of being relevant, “Boomers” brought on the “Church Growth” movement. But that didn’t cut it for Gen Xer’s. They wanted something different and something more honest. Thus they protested the Church Growth Movement and created a whole new movement of their own—the Emergent Church Movement:
“Too often in recent years, church leaders have acted as if being sensitive to seekers means sliding into a one-size-fits-all, franchise, clone, mimic-the-model mentality. Too often, we exchange one set of rigid traditional styles and methods and ways of thinking for equally rigid ‘contemporary’ ones. Too often, we have acted without sufficient reflection, without thinking deeply about the profound relationship between church and culture, between past and present and future, between our methods and our message. And we have been gimmick-prone and thoughtlessly (sometimes desperately) pragmatic, without being as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16).” These are the inflammatory words Brian McLaren offers as part of his forward to Dan Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church. It is no small indictment.
For Emergents, the certainty and arrogance of the Church Growth Movement led to its inadequacy and failure. Thus, they created a counter movement with the hopes of becoming relevant to the people of the 21st century. This time, it has been said, it will be a movement that lasts and will eventually constitute no less than sixty percent of Christianity. At least, that is what fellow Emergent, Phyllis Tickle claims in her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.
Curious, is that it is a movement that is self-described as a “conversation” and is decidedly ambiguous about making definitive theological statements. As such, it seems that the hope is the movement itself will become the “relevant” factor that will bring new growth to the church. However, it remains to be seen if this will truly be a lasting change, or just another generational “movement.”
With all that said, what is it that, at least for some, makes Lutheran churches and Lutheran theology irrelevant for today? And what measurement is the basis for such an assessment—statistics, consultants, attendance, Jesus? And how does that evaluation square, not only the history of the Holy Christian Church, but the historic confession of faith subscribed to by LCMS Lutherans and expressed in the Third Article of the Apostles Creed? Here an honest and collegial dialogue with those of differing perspectives is entirely desirable.
As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.