Tag Archives: John Pless

The Mission of God

The September issue of The Lutheran Witness lays out the six mission priorities of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I was extremely flattered and honored when I was informed they would be using my book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Great Confessionas well as the congregation I serve (Zion Lutheran, Mayer, MN) as an example of their first mission priority: Revitalizing Churches. The brief quote from the article is below.

“Zion Lutheran Church, Mayer Minn, is shepherded by the Rev. Lucas Woodford (see his book Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession? Published by Wipf & Stock). Pastor Woodford describes the congregation’s focus as growing out of Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed so that the royal priesthood called to faith by the Gospel is enlivened for liturgical living. God serves us in Word and Sacrament, and we serve our neighbors in and through our various vocations in the world. Rather than slavery to strategic plans crafted by worldly wisdom, the congregation is freed to live in Christ by faith and in the world by love.” Lutheran Witness, September Issue, p. 9.

Here are a few quotes of how I speak about it in my book:

When the saints assemble around Word and Sacrament, they do so to be ritually forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed out into the vocations of their daily lives. In worship, the royal priesthood is served by God. He loves us. He feeds us. He nourishes us. In turn, we are then sent out into the vocations of our lives to serve and love our neighbors. Thus, it is my contention that worship is the wheel that moves the church out into the world… (p. 166).

At the center of this wheel is Christ and His Gospel, who “calls” and “gathers” disciples around Him through Word and Sacrament, where believers are ritually forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed into their vocations to serve their neighbor and gossip the Gospel. Here others are then called by that Gospel, and so they too are gathered (discipled) into the community of saints through Word and sacrament. The pattern repeats itself, daily and weekly, as confessed in Luther’s explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed. It’s the wheel that moves the church out into the world, while bringing people in to the faith. It’s a sorely underemphasized theology. But if it would be celebrated and championed by the church there would be, I contend, an increased vibrancy to the daily life of the church and an increased fidelity to the mission of God (p. 186).

As I get back into the swing of things, and as a reminder, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk 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.


Rev. Woodford


Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

As a pastor and student of theology, I like to keep up on the various movements within the Holy Christian Church. One recent movement is known as the Emerging or Emergent Church Movement. I’ve posted on it briefly in the past, but a recent article has caught my attention. Enough so, that I felt compelled to write a response to it here (and perhaps pursue a formal one as well.)

The article was from the just released Spring 2012 issue of the Concordia Journal and is titled, “The End of Theology?: The Emergent Church in the Lutheran Perspective” and written by Ph. D. candidate Chad Lakies. I’ve never met Chad and I’d love to talk to him in person about this, but as I read his article I’m not sure it was as helpful as he had hoped.

His title would make one think there would be some thoughtful evaluations of the movement and its theology from a Lutheran perspective. Curiously, that was not the case. Rather, as Lakies states, “I want to show what they are ‘up to’ in a way that, perhaps, does not cause us to raise so quickly the alarm of concern” (p.118). In short, he takes particular issue with what he considers an overly negative assessment of the Emergent Church movement by Dr. Carol Geisler in her May 13, 2011 article “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” http://concordiatheology.org/2011/05/reframing-the-story-the-end-of-the-emergent-conversation/ (He is also critical of a corresponding CTCR document about the Emergent Church Movement. http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=675). His desire is “to suggest a different kind of evaluation that is more congenial for interacting with ‘cultural sensibilities’ as they are manifest in the life of the church—for this is what I suggest emergents are doing, manifesting a sensibility, rather than presenting an entirely new theology” (p.118). I would respectfully disagree. To be sure, I agree they are intentionally manifesting a sensibility, but it is one that most certainly informs and shapes an emerging tendency to create “new” if not, amorphous theology (not to mention ecclesiology).

Lakies primary objections fall in that there is no official Emergent “church body” to fairly evaluate, as well as Lutherans who have a knee jerk and uninformed reaction to movements like these:

“Typical of Lutheran authors who set themselves up to examine the beliefs and confession of a different body from their own, Geisler begins comparing what she sees as the beliefs and confession of emergents with those of Missouri Synod Lutherans. A major problem with this approach is that fact that there really is no particular body or denomination called ‘the Emergent Church’…From the outset, the assumption, which is uncritically employed, is that Lutherans are plainly and simply right. From the very beginning, it is as if confessional Missouri Synod Lutheranism owns the market on theology…Such a methodology of evaluating the beliefs and confessions of others is problematic for a whole slew of different reasons. But ultimately it assumes that ‘theology is over,’ that orthodoxy has once-for-all been established and is guarded and maintained in our Confession, and thus it is our God-given task to sound the alarm when others get out of line…For all the good intentions that are the impetus for both works [CTCR document and Geisler] in trying to help the church understand emergents, I am concerned that both works are based only on bibliographical research alone” (p.119-120, 125).

I’m not exactly sure what Lakies aims to communicate with this. Should confessional Lutherans not subscribe to the orthodoxy of their faith? Should they not declare, with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”? How else should confessional Lutherans evaluate other faith claims? I certainly embrace the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, but I am uncomfortable with what Lakies seems to insinuate about Lutheran orthodoxy. In sum, Lakies desires to give the emergent church movement a more favorable treatment with the hopes “that this different approach might prove informative and helpful for those reflective practitioners who are attempting to navigate relationships with the emergent movement…” (p.125).

First, a couple of brief concerns, and then I’ll offer a more in-depth assessment in narrative (emergent) form. To begin, Lakies rightly sides with the Emergent premise “that what one really believes is evidenced in what one does” over against the current “flawed” model and “bad anthropology” of contemporary Christendom that emphasizes (only) right belief with little or no emphasis on right practice or life (p.121). But then he acknowledges that “Their criticisms (which are aimed mostly at evangelicalism since many of them come from that tradition) demand they tell a different story” (p.121). However, he fails to note that Lutheran theology has always had a robust love of neighbor and doctrine for life inherent in it. This seems to imply that Lutherans are also in need of this emerging corrective. But if this is so, and perhaps sadly in some cases it is, it will only go to show how some Lutherans have abandoned thier historic confession of faith and adopted evangelicalism, as opposed to somehow insinuating that Lutherans need to embrace what emergents think they have discovered.

Second, I find it interesting (and partially true) that Lakies feels it unfair to wholesale evaluate the movement since it is not an official denomination. But then he wishes to go and defend and speak for it wholesale. I find this a bit inconsistent, i.e. “Emergents do not want to end up simply repristinating the kind of ‘violent’ practices and positions from which they are ‘emerging’” (p. 122). Further, as one who has not only read volumes of emergent books, documents, and blogs, has interviewed emergent leaders (i.e. Doug Pagitt, of Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis, MN) and has written and published a detailed chapter about the Emergent Church in my recent book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Or Great Confession? (see chapter 5), I feel it is in fact legitimate to provide wholesale evaluations. Perhaps there may be various brands that need to be noted, i.e. “Emerging” and “Emergent,” but they do tend to be very similar, where the above notion of “manifesting a sensibility” does certainly tend toward “new” hermeneutics and new theology (or in some cases, retreads of old trendy theology).

One short but startling example comes from a book that Lakies notes, but fails to adequately evaluate. Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, makes a bold assertion. She states that the notion of using “Luther’s sola scriptura… is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.” (p. 151). Tickle then goes on to explain their new hermeneutic and its “authority base” as it flows out of the idea of “network theory” and “crowd sourcing.” In short, if “manifesting a sensibility” means abandoning Sola Scriptura, then it most certainly is a new theology.

And this brings me to my final point. I fear Lakies over plays and under evaluates the claim that Emergents are really just about “having a certain sensibility.” In fact, if I might be so bold, I think he has played right into the hands of the emerging hermeneutic. I’ll try to explain by way of a narrative (emergent) hermeneutic.

Consider Jane Austen’s well know novel, Sense and Sensibility. The title of the book conveys the philosophical depth and intent of this 19th century classic romance novel. The “Sense” or prudent, good judgment of the novel is most notably embodied by Elinor Dashwood. She is the reserved eldest (19) daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is portrayed as one who has a keen sense of responsibility to her family and friends and so places their welfare and interests above her own, suppressing her own strong emotions in a way that often leads others to think she is indifferent or cold-hearted.

This is contrasted with the “Sensibility” or the passions, (the following of your heart above all other rules and conventions) of the novel which are embodied by Marianne Dashwood. She is the romantically inclined and eagerly expressive second daughter (16) of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood, who develops an intense affection for the philanderer, Mr. Willoughby.

As the novel plays out, the reader is invited to see how the variations of “sense” and “sensibility” unfold in each of the characters’ lives, particularly in Marianne and Elinor. The reader is meant to become romantically enthralled by the impact and consequence of each characters decisions as they’re set in the midst of their 19th century British upper class cultural and social norms.

In the end, Marianne comes to assess what has passed with “sense” rather than emotion, i.e. “sensibility,” and sees that she could never have been happy with Mr. Willoughby’s immoral and expensive nature and so eventually comes to marry the more honorable Colonel Christopher Brandon.

Though this is simply a romance novel, it is nonetheless a descriptor, a narrative of life that speaks to the realities of life. In it “sense” is found to offer greater clarity, while “sensibility” tended to cloud judgment. I wonder if Lakies has disregarded the “sense” of Lutheran theology and fallen in with the “sensibility” of emergents. I don’t mean that as a disrespectful slight, but rather, as it was for Marianne Dashwood, a surrender to the charming allure of a “sensibility” that seemed so much more appealing, more visceral, and more compelling, which prompted her to, for a time, disregard “sense.”

In the end, I’ll stand with John Pless who provided an early astute evaluation of the emergent church movement: “Missing Luther’s radical move, the Emerging Church begins with life not doctrine, and with ethics not faith. While claiming to be generous, open, and tolerant, McLaren—with his incessant focus on the necessity for authentic discipleship, obedience rather than knowledge, and lives characterized by compassion slips into a rigidity that is unattainable. While the language might sound inclusive and undiscriminating, it is the language of the law… The Emerging Church is not nearly as free from the dreary moralism that they decry. Gerhard Forde has helpfully observed that those who begin with the presupposition of freedom end in bondage. Only a theology that begins with the presupposition that humanity is in bondage can end in freedom—the freedom of the Spirit.” “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly (July/ October, 2007), p 320.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk 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.


Rev. Woodford

High Five or Holy Blessing

This past week I had a chance to spend some time with one of my in-laws on a hunting trip we took together with some other family members. Interspersed amid our laughter, high fives for a good shot, and general camaraderie, he told me of a recent trip back to his wife’s home (LCMS) church.

The congregation was celebrating Holy Communion. My in-law’s family custom (as with many families) is to bring their young children forward with them to receive a holy blessing from the pastor while they partake of the Lord’s Supper.

In this case, as usual, their seven-year-old daughter went forward to receive the blessing. The congregation had a new young associate pastor, who, as I understand it, is well liked by the congregation. They were on his side for the distribution. When my niece came forward for the blessing, the young pastor held his out his hand, however it was not to give a blessing, but to give a “high five.” My niece was puzzled, but obliged, and was then ushered on. Then they all returned to their seats and, as it was related to me, had one of those “what just happened” moments.

I do not know the young pastor, nor is it my desire to disparage his ministry, and I do not know if this is his regular practice. In fact, I am confident he is most likely a fine young man. My prayer for him is that the Lord continues to use him to faithfully feed the lambs of His kingdom. But what strikes me, at least for the purposes of this blog, is how easily sacred rituals and holy acts continue to be traded out for secular and fashionable acts.

It is telling, and perhaps disquieting, when people who long for the holy and sacred notice when they are missing. Unfortunately this is an ever increasing trend among Lutherans. Old Testament (Australian) Lutheran Scholar, John Kleinig, has much to say about it:

I fear that such talk of holiness tends to fall on rather deaf ears even in Lutheran circles for a number of reasons. First, we are traditionally accustomed to equate holiness with morality. Sanctification is then regarded as nothing more than the life of moral renewal and good works which follows on justification. Secondly, we have been told, and some of us have even been convinced, that Jesus got rid of the primitive, half-pagan distinction between the sacred and the profane. After all, didn’t Jesus, and Paul after him, maintain that everything which God has created was good, and therefore holy? Thirdly, much modern scholarship tends to regard those parts of the Old Testament which are dominated by the language of holiness, like the ‘priestly’ sections of the Pentateuch and the book of Ezekiel, as corrected by the prophets and superseded by our Lord. Fourthly, we are uneasy about too keen an interest in holiness, for we tend to associate it largely with Catholic sacramentalism, Calvinist rigorism, Methodist revivalism and Pentecostal enthusiasm. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we have been so indoctrinated by the cultural secularism of our desacralised society that we have lost a sense for what is holy.

Whatever the reason, the language of holiness is as lost on us as a foreign tongue. Many of us have become quite unfamiliar with the grammar of holiness. This loss of a sense for holiness has, I believe, created some problems for us in the Lutheran church. Most obviously, many of our people see little reason for them to attend worship. If they do attend, our pattern of worship makes little or no sense to them. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf; see also his must have Concordia Commentary on Leviticus).

Lutheran pastor and professor, John Pless, has also detailed this for quite some time: Church buildings in their very design were once built to reflect the fact that here we come into the presence of Holy God. The chancel was lifted up giving prominence to the altar as the symbol of the Lord’s presence. An altar rail draws a line between God and the world. The Baptismal font was given a prominent place, often near the door of the church reminding worshipers that we have access to God only through the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. Stained glass windows illustrated the holy history of our salvation. Nowadays church buildings are designed that look very secular, like auditoriums. And it is no wonder that the things which transpire within them have little connection with heavenly realities. Ministers act as though they were talk show hosts, not stewards of the mysteries of God. Homemade liturgies tell us more about the creativity of those who devised them than they do about the Triune God. (“Holy Lord… Holy Things…Holy People,” 1998 Agnus Dei conference paper, pdf.)

Pastors stand as those who have been given by the Lord to give Holy things for God’s Holy people, particularly in worship. As Kleinig notes: The language of holiness is therefore the language of worship, for holiness has to do with God’s presence, and access to that presence is given in worship. Where God is present, there holiness is to be found; where he is worshipped according to his word, there his presence sanctifies his people and everything connected with their worship. (“Sharing in God’s Holiness” Luther Seminary, Adelaide, Australia, pdf).

Thus, when a holy ritual (i.e. a blessing of God’s holy name) is traded out for a secular ritual (i.e. a “high five”) God’s holiness is unnecessarily withheld and worshipers are left confused, or worse, taught to see the holiness of God given in worship as equivalent to the rituals of a hunting trip or sports event.

Kleinig sums it up well: Every pastor is either a witting or unwitting ritualist. He is, after all, responsible for the performance of that ritual which is necessary for the communication of the Gospel to the members of his congregation. That is not always an easy business, nor is its importance always appreciated; for, while the Lutheran Church has traditionally been a liturgical church, it exists in a culture where liturgical worship, with its emphasis on corporate and supernatural activity, has become alien, incomprehensible, and even nonsensical to many people. So, unless the pastor understands the role of ritual in worship, and creates some appreciation for it by his leadership, both he and his congregation will suffer confusion. They will be caught between the devil of trendy, liturgical innovation, and the deep blue sea of obstinate, liturgical traditionalism. As a church we, therefore, need to perform our rituals wittingly, without becoming either reactionary ritualists, insensitive to the needs of people, or individualistic anti-ritualists who damage our congregations. We may even eventually come to a rather unexpected appreciation of the liberating power and enriching beauty of ritual.  (“Witting or Unwitting Ritualists,” Lutheran Theological Journal 22/1, 1988, 22).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk 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.


Rev. Woodford


The Beginnings of a Vocational Manifesto

Not everyone is called to be a missionary. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Ordinarily both of these vocations, according to the scriptures and Lutheran confessions, are specifically trained, intensely taught, and accompanied by a regular call and ordination. True, baptism does make all Christians into a royal priesthood, but strictly speaking, it does not make every Christian into a pastor or missionary.

Confessional Lutheran theology has long recognized this distinction, never trying to pit one against the other, or make one more important than the other, but affirming the order and station God has created for both. However, the recent “missional” emphasis would seem to blur these lines, using unhelpful nomenclature that asserts that everyone is indeed a missionary, even if they are not called, ordained, or trained.

Though perhaps well-intentioned, the intent to make everyone into a minister, or into a missionary, ends up devaluing and disordering the vocational roles God has apportioned for the good of society and the good of His Church.

Each person has a distinct vocation, just as valid and just as important as missionary or pastor, but nonetheless uniquely arranged for that believer and their life of service.  As Norman Nagel notes, “The Holy Spirit is alive and at work through his gifts in every Christian, who then ‘offers Spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Christians are both the temple and the royal priesthood and the sacrifice: all of them, all of their lives, bodily (Romans 12). What follows there, as in 1 Peter 2, is Haustafel—paranesis—which recognizes, indeed rejoices in, the diversity of the way the same gifts, which are given by the Spirit as confessed in the Third Article, work out in the particularity of each Christian life. Here there is no bondage of ‘all men are equal.’ Each is unique.” (“Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers,” Concordia Theological, October 1997, 293.)

Thus, whether parent, postman, pastor, painter, or paralegal, each vocation brings us into contact with others around us, first to serve them according to that vocation, and then, where possible, during the natural course of interactions, to proclaim the good news of Christ as appropriate to the opportunity and situation.

As most of us know, sharing the faith with unbelievers or new believers is very often most effectively done through personal, trusted relationships. No, it won’t happen every time an interaction occurs, but the joy of life in our vocation is that it is God pleasing, independent of our Gospel sharing. “As Luther and the Lutheran Confessions understand vocation, it is not a call of the Spirit out of the world but the calling of the Spirit to live within the mundane estates of congregation, family, and government. Luther spoke of these orders as the most fundamental forms of human existence. In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper of 1528, Luther calls them ‘religious institutions’ for they are sanctified by God’s word for the service of the neighbor.”  (John Pless, “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71, 2007, 363.)

Unfortunately, this profound understanding of vocation is often undermined when the value of the ordinary estates of everyday life are trivialized and dismissed as unimportant by the church in the name of what is claimed to be a more important “missional” way of life—whatever that means.

For example, a mother and her four young children go to the grocery store and meet a fellow shopper, but because she needs to tend to her children and the grocery shopping for her family she does not evangelize to the fellow shopper. Does this mean that she is not a “missional” person, or worse, that she is sinning? What about the college student who is tending to his studies instead of formally evangelizing the students on campus? Does he lack a “missional” attitude? Is he sinning? Or is he simply living his vocation as a student?

Demands to be “missional” can often evoke guilt or the illegitimate abandonment of a God given vocation. As Gustaf Wingren has demonstrated, the mission of God encompasses the greater whole of life. Therefore, perhaps the church should consider if “missional” pressure to abandon one’s vocation is not the greater disservice to the church.

Yet, to be clear, this is not saying that ordinary Christians cannot witness to others. Rather, when the priesthood of the baptized assemble around Word and Sacrament, they do so to be forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed out into the vocations of their daily lives. And, the more God-centered (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) they are in life, the more active they become in faith. Being regularly discipled, makes regular disciples, where they become more and more cognizant that through baptism and the Holy Spirit they are Christ-bearers and Kingdom-bringers to those around them in their vocation.

What is more, in worship, the priesthood of the baptized regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, wherein the Second Petition asks, “Thy Kingdom come.” The explanation of this petition in Luther’s Small Catechism brings us deeper into the prayer. “God’s kingdom comes when our Heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

People most regularly lead their lives here, in time, through their daily vocations. Note the profound connection between what the Holy Spirit gives (faith and the Kingdom of God) and where the Holy Spirit places believers (in the world to live a godly, vocational, life). “The same Spirit who calls us to faith through the externality of his word also calls us to life in creation” (Pless, 362). Consequently, the more active believers are in the faith, that is, the more discipled they are through (liturgy), Word, and Sacrament, the more prone (and prepared) they are to share the faith through the vocations of thier life.

It is my claim that if the church would begin to focus more intentionally upon the doctrine of vocation and celebrate the vibrant work of the Holy Spirit in the priesthood of the baptized, amid the mundane and ordinariness of their lives, rather than focusing upon the empty aesthetics of “abstracted Christianity,” and law-oriented demands to be “missional,” there would be a renewed vitality and discipled growth within the church.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk 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.


Rev. Woodford