Tag Archives: Luther

Vocation and Temptation: Acedia, Anfechtung and Me

I know I have been absent from this blog for some time. My apologies for this. Initially my absence was due to some planned vacation and travel. But then other elements began influencing it—Acedia (spiritual apathy) and Anfecthung (affliction). This post will speak a little bit about these challenges, which may just resonate with a number of you as well.

I’ve written much about the importance of every Christian’s daily vocation—our daily stations of life as a spouse, parent, son, daughter, worker, Christian neighbor, and congregational member, and how they function to serve our neighbor and be the places where we can witness to others. However, it is also precisely in these vocations that Satan begins his attacks on us. His aim is to get us to abandon each of these vocations. And he will do so by afflicting us in any number of ways.

Spiritual warfare is a sinister and tumultuous battle all Christians endure, but fewer and fewer are recognizing how it works, myself included. John Kleinig has written wonderfully on this in his book Grace Upon Grace, and insightfully unpacks the nature of Satan’s attacks: In short he says, “The German word Anfechtung describes Satan’s attack upon our faith in Christ and God’s condemnation of us as sinners” (p.22).

But it is also helpful for us to understand that this Anfechtung has multiple dimensions to it. Luther himself used it in three different ways. David Scaer unpacks the word and the toll each dimension brings upon the human soul:

The American Translation of Luther’s Works uses all three [translation of the word Anechtung], “temptation,” “trial,” and “affliction,” plus “tribulation.” Each of these English words develops one facet of Luther’s Anfecthung and related words. “Temptation” points to the Christian’s life as a period of testing by Satan. In this temptation the Christian is given the opportunity by God to overcome Satan personally, but there can be no suggestion that God is the origin of sin or provokes the Christian to sin. “Trial” suggests a probationary period before God’s bestowing a great good. Through the trial, God puts the Christian to the test to measure the depth and sincerity of faith and to bring it to a higher level. Thus, trial points to God’s control over the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung. Suffering does not happen through chance. “Affliction” reflects the real suffering and pain the Christian endures during the Anfechtung. The Christian does not necessarily experience physical pain, but real agony in his soul about his personal salvation. “Tribulation” also refers to the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung but suggests the wider dimension as affliction suffered by all Christians. (“The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1983, p.15).

There are other elements that can be added to this affliction. For me, it is not Anfechtung alone that’s been plaguing my soul. It’s been combined with what is seen as a debilitating form of spiritual apathy that is known by the ancients as Acedia (a-kah-dee-ah). (Presently, very few would be able to observe these things about me, as I’m guessing is true for many of you out there as well. But, it is an intense internal spiritual battle that, if left unchecked and untreated, can certainly begin to manifest itself in spiritually unhealthy and observable ways. Thus, at this point, other than my wife and Father Confessor, few would know that I have been wrestling with this.)

In any case, the notion of Acedia is probably best unearthed by others more well-versed in it than I. As such, Kathleen Norris in her 2008 work Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life vividly opens up the depth of this affliction by drawing on her own experience, and even more aptly, by engaging in the insights of one of the ancient monastic Desert Fathers:

“Acedia” may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years…

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

…I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Boredom tempts him “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour].” But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an “issue,” puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free. “He’s describing half my life,” I thought to myself. To discover an ancient monk’s account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I’d had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian…

The desert monks termed acedia “the noonday demon” because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself (“training” being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard—it is a given.

We might well ask if these crazy monks don’t have it coming: if your goal is to “pray without ceasing,” aren’t you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that “the literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’ The Greek word for rest,” he adds, “is ‘hesychia,’ and ‘hesychasm’ is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.” The “rest” that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it “has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.” Acedia is the monk’s temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, “Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere.”

Yes, I will attest that it is always noon somewhere. Much more could be said. But the means of this spiritual warfare are clear. Affliction and the apathy have been diagnosed. And Satan is relentless with them. Others who have experienced the depths of these afflictions are no doubt nodding their heads. The Apostle Paul is quick to remind us of the vastness of this war: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).

He is also quick to give us the remedy: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11).

Kleinig summarizes the battle like this: When Satan attacks us, we experience the righteousness and truth of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the intellect; we experience the sweetness and loveliness of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the emotions; we experience the power and strength of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the body. Temptation is therefore the touchstone that God uses to assess our spirituality. Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us. Just as a pawnbroker uses a touchstone to test the presence and purity of gold in a coin or a piece of jewelry, temptation also tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health. (Grace Upon Grace, p.21)

However, speaking in all honesty, the attacks are painful and debilitating, and the “experience” Kleinig speaks of, at least for me, is seemingly fleeting. But perhaps that simply describes my own ongoing wrestling. After all, Satan’s desire for all of us is to give up and let him win. But here’s the thing. Jesus has already won. He is the victor! The defeated one is Satan, and as my Father Confessor reminds me, the Lord Jesus fights for me (and for you dear reader.) It remains something I have to constantly remind myself to “rest in.” Yes pastors, especially pastors, suffer from such spiritual maladies and desperately need the Gospel like everyone else.

May the words of the hymn below be for you as they are for me; solace in the midst of all my vocations:

Lord Jesus, since You love me, Now spread Your wings above me And shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, Let angel guards sing o’er me: This child of God shall meet no harm. “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” Lutheran Service Book, 880.

Until next time,

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

Market Strategy ≠ Church Growth: So Say Evangelicals

I know I haven’t posted in awhile. The busy Lenten season, National Lutheran Schools Week, along with a family of four young kids has been keeping me on my toes. Nonetheless, I came across another fascinating critique from within the evangelical church found on Skye Jethani’s site www.outofur.com. It was a two part interview with Jim Gilmore entitled “Risky Business.” I have posted it here in its entirety. I may not totally agree with his short answer on “ministry” in the church as well as a few other small tidbits, nonetheless it is an utterly fascinating critique. See what you think.

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I first discovered Jim Gilmore when his book, The Experience Economy, was handed to me by a nationally known church consultant in 2002. If I wanted my church to grow, he explained, I had to employ the marketplace strategies in Gilmore’s book. Years later I wrote about my encounter with the church consultant in my first book, The Divine Commodity, and how I believed his advice was misguided. I specifically mentioned the danger of applying Gilmore’s book to the church. A few months later my phone rang. It was Jim Gilmore calling to thank me. That was the start of our friendship.

Jim’s bio will fill you in on his business chops and publishing accolades, but he’s best described as a “professional observer.” And his skills are highly sought after by companies and universities. When I’m curious about a random topic, an email to Jim will include a reply with five must-read books on the subject. He seems to know something about everything! He’s also the only person I know who teaches at a business school, seminary, and architecture program. As I continue my research for my next book, I spoke with Jim about the current state of the church and how Christians should think about engaging the world.

Skye: You spend a lot of time in the gap between the business world and the ministry world. Why do you find this space so important?

Jim Gilmore: Because business is the most corrupting influence on the visible church today. I only became fascinated with this space when I learned of so many pastors reading our book, The Experience Economy. I would normally have been delighted to have readership emerge in any pocket of the population, except the book was not being read to obtain a better understanding of the commercial culture in which congregants live, but in many cases as a primer for “doing church.” I found it particularly troubling when our models for staging experiences in the world were being specifically applied to worship practices.

The talk of “multi-sensory worship,” the installation of video screens, the use of PowerPoint, having cup-holders in sanctuaries — and I’m not talking about for the placement of communion cups — and even more ridiculous applications really took me back. I even read of a pastor who performed a high-wire act, literally–above his congregation. All of this effort to enhance the so-called “worship experience” arose at the same time that I detected a decline in the number of preachers actually faithfully preaching the gospel through sound exposition of the scriptural text.

Skye: Why do you think it’s so dangerous to use what’s effective in the marketplace in the church?

The church is to stand apart from the marketplace. The church is not a business; she should sell no economic offerings. In an age when more and more of life is being commodified — we are going beyond just the buying and selling of goods and services and now charging for life experiences and personal transformations — the church needs to refrain from participating in this activity. Just because experiences and transformations “sounds like what we do,” as one pastor once told me, that is not a reason to abandon the very limited role for the organized church as prescribed in scripture. The church should not number itself among other worldly enterprises, performing roles properly assigned to other institutions. Instead, the church should be the place where individuals are equipped for when they go forth in their daily pursuits.

I am greatly influenced here by Abraham Kuyper’s spheres of sovereignty and recent “Two Kingdoms” thinking. We are dual citizens of an eternal and a temporal kingdom, but we should not confuse the two. If in sharing this perspective I turn some of your readers off, well, let me point to someone of a very different theological stripe: Robert Farrar Capon. I love his treatment of the parables of Jesus. Every pastor who truly wants the best for his flock should read his three books on the parables. Capon makes it very clear: the church and pastors are not here to help improve peoples’ lives. Leave that for the marketplace and private charity. No, they’re here to provoke people into understanding the need to die to self and to be found in Christ. No orchestrated experience can substitute for good old fashioned preaching of the gospel.

We were at a conference together last year, and you got very uncomfortable when a presenter repeatedly said, “The church is in the transformation business.” Was he wrong?

The church does not exist to help guide transformations, and this goes for two types of transformations. The church has no role in guiding personal transformations in individuals, which only contributes to turning Christianity into what Christian Smith has described as therapeutic moralistic deism. Neither should the church see itself as guiding collective transformations–ushering in some new worldwide ethos-system, the kind of “parousia” nonsense that Brian McLaren fantasizes about.

The church exists to proclaim the gospel: to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, to exercise proper church discipline. And that’s about it. The rest we should do as private individuals and in collective efforts with others outside of church.

Skye: So what is the solution to the captivity of ministry leaders to business models?

I’ve got a theory: to the extent that the church does not know its Bible, really know the Bible, the more it seeks distraction in terms of participating in other ministries and making junkets to ministry conferences.

We truly neglect the reading of God’s Word today. We give it lip service, beginning with pastors. But I have heard too many pastors who obviously know more about Seth Godin’s Purple Cow than know about historical-critical interpretation of the Bible.

And I’ve got a very simple suggestion. Pastors should preach through the book of Galatians and read the epistle in its entirety every day in the process. Encourage your congregation to do the same. Luther called Galatians the Magna Carta of Christianity. If we committed ourselves to that, we probably wouldn’t need most of these ministry conferences. Let me add, no church should ever send any pastor to any conference if they have not first read Luther’s commentary on Galatians.

Skye: How is ministry a different calling than leadership in other areas?

“Ministry” in the church should not be singled out as distinct from other vocations in terms of being ministry. I’ll tell you who and what is very helpful here: Os Guinness and his book, The Call. We do a great disservice when we treat those who do not hold positions in the church as somehow not equally called to ministry. We set up a false sense of guilt. Worse, we end up with some of the most unqualified men in the pulpit.

Skye: I’m working on a book, in part, about vocation and how Christians should relate to the world. Who has influenced your thinking on that issue?

Again, I find Os Guinness so helpful here. As he puts it, calling means “Do what you are” not “You are what you do.” And I’ve always held as a conviction what I heard James Boice preach during my college days at Penn: Labor where God has placed you. How should one relate to the world? Don’t develop grandiose schemes for greatness, just labor where God has placed you. Don’t do some rain dance; dig some ditches.

Skye: And how should pastors think differently about the culture?

Why, oh why, do they have this need to “engage the culture”? The culture ain’t interested back. Now, I think pastors and elders, and deacons, and all church members should seek to understand culture. I teach a course in cultural hermeneutics at Westminster Seminary California. Here’s what I tell my students: Invest the minimal amount of effort for the maximum amount of understanding so that you can know the cultural norms in which your congregants are situated.

Some simple suggestions: Read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and your local newspaper daily; these are wonderful filters for what is happening of significance. Channel surf TV once a week on different nights of the week, with your spouse, so you know what others are watching. Read movie reviews more than you actually watch movies. Movies, while the dominant medium of our time, are an enormous waste of time. Visit the magazine rack once a month; take note of the headline topics, and look especially for premier issues of new publications. Walk the mall. Watch what people wear, and notice what they do. If you look closely, you’ll find it quite easy to engage culture simply by calling attention to what you observe. Jesus had this skill of observation. Seek likewise to look, really look, for yourself. I think just noticing what others miss as they walk by, head buried in a screen, goes a long way in this regard.

Experiencing God in Worship…

An interesting report recently came out from the Barna group that raises questions on the nature and purpose of Christian worship. Missional guru Skye Jethani commented on it in his January 11 post over at Out of Ur.com: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/01/study_says_godc.html  

[N]ew research released this week from Barna reveals that most churchgoers rarely experience God in worship services. While most people surveyed can recall a “real and personal connection” with God while at church (66%), they also reported that these connections are “rare.” Among those who attend church every week, less than half (44%) say they experience God’s presence. And one-third of those who have attended church report never feeling God’s presence in a worship gathering.

If worship is reduced to how you or I “feel” about God, or how we “feel” connected to God, there should be no surprise by the meager reports. Feelings are like the wind. They can come and go, swirl and gust. They change directions based on the day we’re having, how much sleep we got, how the kids are behaving, how the job is going, and how the marriage is doing.

Feelings are subjective. But God is objective. His Word speaks to feelings and through feelings and it imparts faith. And the thing about faith is that it is not “felt,” but it is “believed.” Yes, of course, emotions flow from our faith. And yes, of course, the Scriptures declare that God is love. But faith is “believed.”

Emotions are prone to fail us and fool us. Yet faith is believed, even when our emotions might tell us otherwise. Jesus begins his ministry with a call to “repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:14-15). Sure, “good news” can have a way of enlivening us and making us “feel” better. But this Good News is not felt, it is, above all, believed!

The fact is, contrary to what some may claim, we will not “experience” God through our emotions. Can you imagine how easy it would be to mislead someone depending on how you or I might be feeling? This is why, as Lutherans, “we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament” (Luther, Smalcald Articles VIII, Confession, §10).

Lutheran worship (liturgy) intentionally reflects this. In fact, it rejoices in the reality that regardless if one is a distracted mother tending to her children, a day dreaming teenager, a burdened husband, or a hard of hearing 89 year-old, God still connects to them regardless of how they are feeling! He connects to them through His Word going into their ear holes. He connects to them through His Word that opens their lips in prayer and praise. He connects to them with the body and blood of Christ on their lips and in their mouths. Forgiveness is given. Love is declared. Salvation is granted. God is present!

However, if the measure of our experience of God is based on how we feel about Him, and if the effectiveness of worship is also measured on how we feel about God during worship (or how much we feel transformed by Him in worship) we may find ourselves in a very scary place—alone with our emotions and alone with our sins. You and I both know how fickle our emotions can be. You and I both know that the wages of sin is death.

Nonetheless, somehow “feelings” have become the determining factor for the effectiveness of the worship of and the experience of God. As a result, countless varying worship styles have been developed and emerged in an attempt to better situate the “feelings” of people so that they can have a “God connection”—whatever that means. Yet, for all of that effort, what’s been discovered? Sky Jethani sums it up and even offers an intriguing remedy:

Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about “emerging generations” and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective…Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don’t believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.

Thus, I think it’s worth repeating: “We should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament.” When He gives His Word and His sacraments, we can’t not “experience” Him. Sure, He’s mysterious that way. But He is mysteriously and sacramentally (sacramentum in the Latin) powerful! It’s what Lutherans have confessed and practiced for centuries. Perhaps it’s a good idea for us to continue doing so.

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

Where Have All the Seelsorgers (Pastors) Gone?

Within the North America church, the role of pastor has morphed from the biblical and historic role of Seelsorger (one who gives care of souls) and giver of God’s gifts, to that of a CEO, administrator, and/or therapist.

Lutheran pastor and professor, Harold Senkbeil notes, “We must admit that something is missing in the life of the church as we know it. We have lost the art of the individual care of souls.  Over the generations, great treasures have been allowed to languish dust-covered and untouched in our ecclesiastical attics, while we have been busy using second-hand tools of our own devising.” (“Generation X and the Care of the Soul” in Mysteria Dei: Essays in Honor of Kurt Marquart. 2000).

It is alarming that within the North American church not only has the pastoral art for the care of souls seemingly been lost, but so has the teaching of the truth about the Gospel in and out of the worship service.

However, it is not the first time something like this has happened. In Luther’s day faithful seelsorgers were few and far between. In the preface to his Large Catechism, Luther gives a scathing criticism of the pastors of his day regarding what he perceived to be their lack of biblical knowledge and propriety for their role as pastors among a worshipping community. His assessment was bolstered by their unwillingness to learn the Catechism, let alone the Scriptures and prayers of the church, and put such learning into practice for the benefit and care of the people they served:

It is not for trivial reasons that we constantly treat the catechism and exhort and implore others to do the same, for we see that unfortunately many preachers and pastors are very negligent in doing so and thus despise both their office and this teaching…Oh these shameful gluttons and servants of their bellies are better suited to be swineherds and keepers of dogs than guardians of souls and pastors.

It would seem Luther’s criticism is warranted for any present day North American pastor, Lutheran or otherwise. In fact, echoes of his near five hundred year-old criticism can be heard today. And what is fascinating, is that those leading the criticisms over the abandonment of the church’s historic practices and pastoral care of souls are many prominent mainstream evangelicals themselves.

One notable critic is Congregationalist minister and distinguished Professor David F. Wells, who has written about the good intentions of the North American church, but still remains an ardent critic:

This new experiment in “doing church” is rooted, I am confident, in the desire, even the passion, to see the Church grow.  What has not been grasped, however, is that in the modern world, the means that are available for this task are so effective that we need very little truth in order to have success.  Marketing the faith works.  At least, it works to the extent that churches can be filled very quickly if the mix between humor, fun, friendliness, music, entertainment, and inspiration is right.  But Os Guinness is right to ask what the “decisive authority” is in each church.  The church is only the church, he says, when it lives by God’s truth, and if anything substitutes for this authority, “Christians risk living unauthorized lives of faith, exercising unauthorized ministries, and proclaiming an unauthorized gospel.” (Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World, 2005, p. 307)

John MacArthur, a well known evangelical community church pastor and teacher, as well as a seminary president, sharply criticizes the church and her pastors in one of his recent books, The Truth War: “The church has grown lazy, worldly, and self-satisfied. Church leaders are obsessed with style and methodology, losing interest in the glory of God and becoming grossly apathetic about truth and sound doctrine.” (The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, 2007, xvii.)

Eugene H. Peterson, Presbyterian scholar and pastor for over 30 years, gives a scathing indictment against pastors, reminiscent even of Luther:

American Pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the churches pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics.  They drop names. They discuss influence and status, matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for the mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shop they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money…The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in town and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them.  In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community.  It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades. (Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, 1987, p. 2)

William H. Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church in the USA, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and considered by some to be one of America’s best known preachers, also has profound insights as well as criticism for the church and her pastors to heed:

The gospel is not simply about meeting people’s needs. The gospel is also a critique of our needs, an attempt to give us needs worth having.  The Bible appears to have little interest in so many of the needs and desires that consume present-day North Americans.  Therefore, Christian pastoral care will be about much more than meeting people’s needs.  It will also be about indoctrination, inculturation, which is also—from the peculiar viewpoint of the gospel—care.  Our care must form people into the sort of people who have had their needs rearranged in light of Christ. (Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 2002, 96.)

And the late, internationally renowned, Catholic theologian and priest, beloved professor and pastor, Henri Nouwen, offers a powerful and piercing lament:

Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of us have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice and the ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 1989, 85-87. 

Unique to each critique is the reliance upon not only the Scriptures, but the historic practices of the church. They set out to intentionally demonstrate (some more in depth than others) how the historical heritage of the church and her pastors’ caring for souls is integral and exemplary for the contemporary care of souls, the witness of Christ, and the growth of His kingdom.

Willimon sums it up well when he says, “There is much to be said for the pastor being educated in the classic forms of Christian ministry. The Church has much experience as a minority movement. We need to draw from that experience today. In that regard, I predict a recovery of the classical shape of ministry: to teach, to preach, and to evangelize through the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order. I sense the end of a proliferation of ministerial duties and a reclamation of the essential classical tasks of Christian ministry.” (Pastor, 70-71.) May this prediction come true!

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Yours,

Rev. Woodford