Tag Archives: Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

Radical Obedience…to the Gospel?

“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe. And I am convinced we have a choice. You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him.”

 These are the words evangelical mega-church Pastor David Platt writes in his popular 2010 book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. His aim is to provide a corrective for what he views as a terribly self-centered North American church, and he is passionate about it:

Here we stand amid an American dream dominated by self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism. Yet I want to show you our desperate need to revisit the words of Jesus, to listen to them, to believe them, and to obey them. We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel, because the cost of not doing so is great for our lives, our families, our churches, and the world around us…

 For the sake of more than a billion people today who have yet even to hear the gospel, I want to risk it all. For the same of the twenty-six thousand children who will die today of starvation or a preventable disease, I want to risk it all. For the sake of an increasingly marginalized and relatively ineffective church in our culture, I want to risk it all. For the sake of my life, my family, and the people who surround me, I want to risk it all.”

Platt is to be commended for his insight into the condition of many North America churches, as well as his boldness in calling them out. Also laudable is his insistence on lifting up the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone, as the way of salvation. “In the Gospel God reveals the depth of our need for him. He shows us that there is absolutely nothing we can do to come to him.”

 However, as one reads along with him, a repeated theme and ever increasing burden begins to reveal itself. In short, though he notes it is by grace alone that we are saved, he asserts it is by this same grace that we are “required,” “commanded,” and even “demanded” to reshape our lives into radical obedience to Jesus and his command to make disciples of all nations.

“If you are serious about taking this journey I believe a couple of preconditions exist. This goes back to the two big questions I started asking myself when I realized I was a megachurch leader trying to follow a minichurch leader. First, from the outset you need to “commit” to “believe” whatever Jesus says…Then second, you need to “commit” to “obey” what you have heard. The gospel does not prompt you to mere reflection; the gospel requires a response.”

 The title of his book is Radical for a reason. His premise is that if Christians had an authentic radical obedience to Jesus Christ, they would look and act a lot different than what is typical in churches today.

” And I am not alone. In the faith family I have the privilege to lead, I am joined by wealthy doctors who are selling their homes and giving to the poor or moving overseas; successful business leaders who are mobilizing their companies to help the hurting; young couples who have moved into the inner city to live out the gospel; and senior adults, stay-at-home moms, college students, and teenagers who are reorienting their lives around radical abandonment to Jesus. I’ll introduce you to many of them in the course of this book…”

 This is where the burden begins to continually increase. Though he claims we are saved by grace alone, through Jesus Christ alone, the portrayal of this grace turns out to be rather confusing and decidedly legalistic.

You might think this sounds as though we have to earn our way to Jesus through radical obedience, but that is not the case at all. Indeed, “it is by grace you [are] saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are saved from our sins by a free gift of grace, something that only God can do in us and that we cannot manufacture ourselves… [Yet] we want him so much that we abandon everything else to experience him. This is the only proper response to the revelation of God in the gospel.

 With that last sentence all of his wonderful gift and grace language is, in the end, utterly destroyed by assertions of “the only proper response” is to “abandon everything else to experience him.”

Lutheran theology is very uncomfortable with theology that says one can experience God through our own actions or behaviors. This is why Lutherans are so profoundly sacramental in our understanding of how we experience God. “Accordingly, we should and must maintain that God will not deal with us except through his eternal Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil.” (SA, Part III, Article IV, 10).

True, Platt is offering God’s Word. And he is simply saying that we must be “radically obedient” to it. But the problem is that the way he speaks about God’s grace is not consistent with how he portrays God’s grace: “While the wonder of grace is worthy of our attention, if that grace is disconnected from its purpose, the sad result is a self-centered Christianity that bypasses the heart of God.” The purpose of this grace, then, is portrayed through all those whom he notes to abandon everything, go overseas, care for the poor, and give up their life for the Gospel. Though he attempts to say doing such things are not necessary for salvation, he is bold to question the authenticity of someone’s faith who does not do such things. Thus, his portrayal of grace goes from a gift of love to a demand for obedience.

However, for my thoughtful critics out there, please note. I do get it. I understand where Platt is coming from. My first congregation was a white collar, advanced degree, business oriented, suburban, (LCMS) Lutheran mega-church, that had three full time pastors and 3,300 members. So believe me when I say I get what he is saying. But even so, I cannot give up my Lutheran sensibilities that clearly disagree with making the gift of the Gospel into a law to be obeyed.

When I later became the Sr. Pastor of a mid-sized, small town congregation (800+ members) and school, filled with primarily blue collar and farming, salt of the earth folks, I question if Platt’s critique is aimed more at his own evangelical denominational affluent cultural tendencies, rather than all of North American Christianity?

Even so, I found no small amount of irony in his book. Though he wants to risk it all, I find it curious that he remains in all the comforts of his megachurch lead pastor role. Even more, it is curious that the congregational members, who he elevates as wonderful examples of responding to the Gospel, come primarily from an affluent, white collar, business oriented, advanced degree, privileged culture—the very culture he is railing against!

Yet, the farmers, the electricians, the mechanics, the construction workers, the carpenters, the factory workers, and the teachers who make up the majority of my congregation, would be made to feel inadequate in their “response” to the gospel because they do not have the skills that doctors do or the means that wealthy business owners do. Sure, they can serve the Lord, their neighbor, and their family in their vocations, and they can most certainly give witness to their neighbors, but should they read Radical, they would quickly get the feeling that what they are doing is not enough, and most certainly not “the proper response to the Gospel.”

In the end, I appreciate the corrective that Platt is trying to make upon the organizational nature of many North American churches. I also commend him in his zeal to reach out to the lost by radical means. But I cannot agree with how he portrays grace. For all of his wonderful propositional statements about the grace of God in Jesus Christ, his narrative demands of grace will leave most readers feeling unworthy and inadequate, quite possibly even despairing if they are doing enough to “properly respond to the Gospel.” For Lutherans, that is not grace. That is not the Gospel.

As always, I invite your collegial reactions and your 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

An 85% Christian?

What does it take to make someone a Christian? Or perhaps the better question is, what does it mean to be a Christian? Is there a difference? It depends on who you ask. Lutherans have always held that faith and works go hand in hand; faith (alone) in Christ justifies, where the natural fruit of that faith is seen in works of love and service to our neighbor (any fellow human being).

Thus, going back to the question, what does it then mean to be a Christian? How much love and which works are necessary for one to qualify as a Christian? I have found attempting to measure one’s Christianity to be a rather dubious business. The notion of someone trying to quantify Christianity throws it into the realm of subjective sinful human beings. However, I am by no means advocating a fruitless, deedless, or loveless form of Christianity. I am simply saying that any attempt to measure it is sure to run into problems.

If we deem one’s Christianity to be measureable, just how should we go about doing the measuring? Should we use the commandments? If so, how many? For example, which commandments should be kept in order to constitute being a true and authentic Christian? How about commandments 1-3—the First Table of the law? Would keeping 3 out of 10 count for anything? If we are talking baseball, batting .300 makes you an All Star, and gets you millions of dollars in the big leagues. But being a 30% Christian doesn’t sound so good. What is more, if we are talking gymnastics, or diving, that’s actually a lousy score. There you need 8’s and 9’s to be anywhere near the top. So would keeping, say, 8.5 commandments make one an authentic Christian? Or would it mean that one is only 85% percent Christian? And does 85% cut it? I seem to remember Jesus saying something about being perfect.

So how do we measure Christianity? Right now, the North American Church— Lutherans included—are debating just this. In short, they are debating
the nature of the works Christians are to do if they are truly Christian. They
are asking similar questions to the ones above. But with a bit of a new perspective: “What does it mean to follow Jesus?”

I believe Jesus had plenty to say about this. And historically the confessional documents of Lutherans have had a solid grasp about this. However, this is the issue being debated right now in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The particular issue is not so much about the 10 commandments, but about the commandment of Jesus to make disciples of all nations.

Presently, congregations and individual Christians are being evaluated and measured on how well they are fulfilling this command of Jesus. But this can prove to be a dubious matter. For the subjective nature of fallen human beings is bound to rear its ugly head. Who gets to say how much is enough? Who gets to say when you have tried hard enough, sacrificed long enough, and given enough? Could it truly ever be enough? Doesn’t Jesus demand perfection?

Please do not misunderstand. I would never advocate against keeping the commandments or against intentionally witnessing to our neighbor about Jesus Christ. Rather I am simply asking for a reality check about the burdens and demands being placed upon individual Christians as a condition of their authentic Christianity. And I am also asking for honesty about the way that we
talk.

Again, how should we measure our Christianity? How much is enough? How many commandments need to be kept? Is tithing mandatory, or can a person give only 8.5% of their finances and still be considered a Christian? Is winning one person for Jesus enough? Or is there a larger minimum requirement? And
how fast should we be able to do it in? Can the busy stay-at-home mother of four
young children feel good about spending her time caring for her family and raising her children in the faith, or does she bear a bigger obligation? Who gets
to say when she has done enough to count her as a Christian? How about the
couple who downsizes to a smaller house so that they can give to the poor, and
spend time in the streets? Or the missionary who is killed because he dared to
take the Gospel into a Muslim country? Does that make them “better” Christians? Who gets to say? Does Jesus love them more?

Please understand. I aptly realize that the “missional movement” is aimed at shaking up what is perceived to be a complacent, inward focused, and, dare I say, lazy, North American church. I get this. I also agree with some of the critiques the movement has about the current state of the North American church. However, speaking as an evangelical Lutheran, there is a degree of theological integrity we must also be willing to wrestle with as we confront the context of the North American church. And attempts to measure levels of authentic Christianity would seem to threaten the integrity of our confession of faith, particularly by confounding law and Gospel (see previous post), and burdening consciences of pastors and people alike. Thus, my continual plea for dialogue.

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

Lutherans, Liturgy, and Life… Seriously?!

Through the ages, Word and Sacrament Lutheran worship has most often been given expression by “the historic liturgy that has been used by countless Christians for almost fourteen hundred years, perhaps even longer.” (Arthur Just, Heaven on Earth,13). However, as noted in the previous post, the worship wars of the last half century have been disturbing and dividing Lutherans—often times vehemently so.

Yet, if Lutherans are being honest, until recently, the liturgical nature of Lutheran worship had always been a part of the Lutheran identity and life. And, to be sure, as noted in the previous post, there can be some flexibility in the practice and forms of the liturgy. (Perhaps a further honest and frank discussion exploring the freedoms and limits of that flexibility would be good.) However the point has been, that until recently, Lutherans being Lutherans, have always expressed and framed Word and sacrament worship by means of the liturgy. And this has been for good reason that goes beyond mere tradition.

The nature of the liturgy becomes significant, not because it is what we have always done, though I suppose that could be a part of it, but because it is the story that forms us. Much more than a mere mundane order of a formal worship service, it is the narrative that tells our story, or rather, the story of Christ, which, by faith, is also our story.

What has become so provocative in our postmodern times is the recognition that the narrative nature of the liturgy is indispensible to the postmodern church. That is, with postmodernism so incredulous toward metanarratives people now emerge in a world where they do not know the story of the world. It is not a narratable world for them, and so they are left with many questions.  “Who am I? Where am I going?  How do I make sense of this chaotic world?”

Here the church need not answer with arrogant certainties, but with a simple confession of faith, telling her story, through her vocational witness, but also and especially through her liturgy. As Robert Jenson notes, “The church has in fact had great experience in this role. One of the many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence…The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.” (From his article, “How the Church lost its story.”)

Arthur Just explains it this way: This is how the Church has survived persecution, heresy, wars, famine, and plague. It had a place to retreat and to engage in a confident expression of the story of the world. When it seemed as if the World might be coming to an end, or even worse, as if the world was losing its story, the Church regrouped to the measured cadences of the biblical story told through the historic liturgy. When things looked as if they could not get much worse, the Church entered into the safe haven of the historic liturgy, where through Kyrie and Gloria, through Sanctus and Agnus Dei, it proclaimed to a world in chaos the story of God’s redeeming love.”(13).

In this way, liturgy was more than a stuffy, old fashioned way of doing church. It told the church’s story and confessed the faith all at once. In fact, there has been a tremendous call for the postmodern church to make an intense and intentional return to the ancient liturgy precisely because of the narrative that it is. Reformed author James K. Smith is adamant: “I will argue that the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy” (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 25). In other words, the liturgy tells the story of Jesus Christ and places us in that story.

Even more, the ancient rituals associated with the liturgy enliven the heart, the mind, the body, and the soul of worshipers by imbuing them with the body and blood of Christ and his comforting words of life and salvation.

It is intriguing that a call for a return to the liturgical ethos of the church is not simply by liturgical traditionalists or preservationists, but also by the postmodern Emergent Church as well. Invoking a return to the various practices of the “ancient” liturgy has enlivened the Emergent Church in new ways, while simultaneously testifying to the timeless appeal of this ritual-filled narrative. (See especially the Emergent Church book series, The Ancient Practices Series, particularly Brian McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again, and Joan Chittister’s, The Liturgical Year).

Australian Lutheran, John Klenig, is resolute in affirming the powerful role of such narrative-driven, liturgical rituals. “[R]ituals do not just embody the basic values of a community; they constitute and maintain its common life. The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge this function when they insist that rites and ceremonies are necessary for ‘the good order’ and ‘well being’ of the Church.  Rituals are not just dramatic performances which celebrate what people have in common; they are performative actions which do what they mean.” (From his article, “Witting or Unwitting Ritualist,” Lutheran Theological Journal.)

In fact, the ritual of worship has been thoroughly demonstrated to assimilate converts into the faith.  “E. Bryon Anderson summarizes a growing body of material from theology, religious education and anthropology, concluding that ritual is the primary way one learns faith, for in ritual one is most fully engaged in the religious message. Anderson asserts that ‘liturgical practice is intrinsically formational and transformational. It is a means by which we come to know ourselves as people of faith and to know the God whom we worship.’ Supporting John Westerhoff’s argument, Anderson asserts that rituals are the most important influence in shaping faith, character, and consciousness.  Succinctly put, it is through ritual that we learn how to be a Christian.” (Todd E. Johnson. “Truth Decay: Rethinking Evangelism in the New Century.” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, 129).

Thus, with the above said, is it fair to say that there is a demonstrable value to the liturgy beyond mere appeals to tradition? Perhaps the following can summarize: Through the liturgy of the church, Lutheran believers are a story formed, ritualized people of the Gospel, who, as a community of saints, assemble around the narrative of Word and Sacrament in order to be forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed into the vocations of their daily lives to serve their neighbor and give witness to their Savior.

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

The Postmodern (Lutheran) Church

What have Christian thinkers and theologians been saying about our North American postmodern condition? Though many have decried postmodernism as an evil—and many elements of it rightly so—more and more Christian authors have begun to develop a hermeneutic that aims to thoughtfully engage postmodernism, and therefore the people living in the midst of it.

Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson begins by noting that not only is North American postmodern, but it is also post-Christian. And when asking, “Who is a post-Christian?” Jenson answers with an indictment: “There are whole immense congregations, of all denominations or none, that are post-Christian at least in their public self-presentation. Their theology is a collection of clichéd abstractions—‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ and ‘empowerment’ and ‘peace-and-justice’ (one word), and so on—and they could easily make any hero or mythic figure at all be the loving or accepting or empowering one, or the guru of peace-and-justice, instead of Jesus, and sometimes do.” His point is that “abstracted Christianity” is really no Christianity at all. (“What is a Post-Christian?” in The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World, p.28)

 He is certainly not alone in his assertions. Carl Raschke, in his book GloboChrist, has much to say about the church’s movement toward postmodern cultural relevance. Combating this urge, he juxtaposes the “culturally relevant” church and the Apostles’ Creed to demonstrate what true relevancy means. “The church can never be relevant, however, when it seeks mainly to be attractive to a particular focus group or demographic constituency. It can only be relevant when it is the catholic church, as confessed in the Apostle’s Creed” (168).

It is an assertion with which confessing Lutherans would readily agree. Relevancy comes not through the culture, but by confession of the faith, particularly one that has been historically confessed throughout the ages. In other words, a confessing church speaks through the culture. It does not subject itself to it. There is a distinct difference.

Reformed scholar James K. Smith, in his book Whose Afraid of Postmodernism, aims to draw this out. He is resolute about dealing honestly with those who urge for cultural relevancy, while at the same time advocating an ancient, yet postmodern ethos for the church:

“The postmodern church resists the tendency of pragmatic evangelism, which tries to ‘dumb down’ the story to make it accessible or attractive to the culture. Instead, the postmodern church affirms the timelessness (and timeliness) of the biblical narrative as it is told. Rather than trying to translate the biblical story into a contemporary, more ‘acceptable’ narrative (which usually ends up compromising the narrative to culture), the postmodern church seeks to initiate listeners into the narrative. Authentic Christian worship both invites outsiders into the gospel story and provides a significant means for the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ” (p.77).

Christian formation by means of worship is a profound reality Lutherans have long understood! For Lutherans following the confessional and creedal tradition, this formation has historically been word and sacrament liturgical worship, set within the liturgical church year. LCMS Lutheran liturgist and exegete Arthur Just encourages Lutherans to simply do some thoughtful reflection:

“Is there an alternative between the ‘culture friendly’ and ‘culture critical’ camps that will allow us to be faithful to our liturgical tradition, while at the same time contemporary in our expressions? Yes! Lutherans have a liturgical tradition that mediates between the two extremes and still maintains a liturgical ethos that is incarnational and sacramental. Luther restored the historic liturgy in a relatively simple setting, especially when compared to other liturgical traditions. Lutheran liturgy is liturgical without being ceremonial, timeless without being inaccessible. Instead of seeking after greener liturgical pastures, we should look at our own tradition, learn it, and discover its riches.” (From his online article “Liturgy and Culture”)

Thus, there is a deep timelessness and timeliness about this ritualized worship. It is framed around the life and time of Christ while administering a timely (here and now) giving of His gifts of grace. Such worship moves beyond “attracting” people to church by being “relevant.” Such worship moves beyond simply getting worshipers to think about Jesus, it actually gathers them around word and sacrament and gives them Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In short, the narrative of the liturgy and the liturgical church year weave the community of saints into the story of Jesus Christ, week after week, and year after year. Where postmodernism permits micronarratives, it would seem that the liturgy and the liturgical church year become quintessential narrative marks for the worship and witness of the Holy Christian Church.

Robert Jenson sums it up aptly, “In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant,’ here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.” (“How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things. October, 1993).

Thus, given the contemporary debates about the need for the church to be relevant, it seems it would be most helpful for the church to understand that the effectiveness of the church’s message is not in how much the world likes it or thinks it hip or relevant, but how consistently and faithfully it confesses what it has historically confessed, along with how regularly it worships as it has historically worshiped.

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

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

What does it mean to believe in the Holy Spirit? There are vast assertions out there, all depending on the denomination to which one belongs. At a minimum, the historic Apostles’ Creed reminds all Christians what belief in the Holy Spirit entails—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.

From here, Lutherans have much more to say on how the Holy Spirit is received, what He does and how He works. From the Augsburg Confession, Article V: To obtain such faith, God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.

For Lutherans, then, there are a couple of important recognitions. First, faith is completely and utterly a gift from God the Holy Spirit working through the means of the gospel and the sacrament. Nothing we do can earn it, achieve it, or will it into existence. It is all a gift. Second, (and this is, I think, an oft over looked reality) the Holy Spirit works faith in those “where and when he wills.”

Perhaps it seems a bit arbitrary, perhaps a bit unfair. But this confession of faith is merely reflecting the words of both Isaiah (6:9-10) and then of Jesus when he uses Isaiah to explain his use of parables (Mark 4:12): so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” In short, those in continual rejection of Jesus will remain in their unbelief, not because the Holy Spirit has not spoken to them, but rather because they have hardened their heart to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. In other words, the Holy Spirit does not coerce, and will not go where He is not welcome.

However, the debate today is often over if people are really rejecting Jesus or if they really just don’t understand. The thought is, if we can just make things more understandable to them, (i.e. cultural relevance, felt needs, emotional appeal, rational thought), they will be more likely to become believers in Jesus Christ.

True, there is something to be said about speaking the Gospel clearly and using understandable words. But, at least for Lutherans, there must be the willingness to let the Holy Spirit do His work “when and where he wills.” This is not to say that every reasonable effort should not be made to communicate the gospel clearly to someone. Rather, it is that the limitations of human effort to create faith in someone else must be understood. For here, one’s desire may be so grand and zealous that, in essence, they end up telling the Holy Spirit, “No thanks, I got this one,” as if somehow, by their own persuasion, appeal, or relevancy, they can bring one to faith apart from the Holy Spirit speaking through the gospel.

Consider the quotes below. The first is a recent post from Ed Stetzer on his LifeWay blog. I by no means intend to dismiss him entirely, as he does have some good things for the church to consider. Nonetheless, the larger point will be to look a how Lutherans differ in our understanding of the work of Holy Spirit “when and where he wills” as it is compared to the call for the church to become relevant. Again, I am not rejecting Stetzer out of hand as he does have some thoughtful things to say. However, from a Lutheran perspective, I think there are some theological realities that he overlooks, of which, the second quote, from Herman Sasse, aims to draw out.

To engage culture with a biblically faithful message, we also need culturally relevant strategies. Again, fundamental to the nature of the gospel is the proclamation of the gospel. But even further, fundamental to the proclamation of the gospel is being sent to people–and that means we must understand those people. Cultural relevance is understanding and communicating with the people God has sent you to reach. People are afraid of that term because it seems to be a compromise. It need not be.

Cool and trendy does not necessarily mean culturally relevant because the definition changes from community to community across America. It changes even more dramatically across cultures. I would encourage you to be a church that seeks out those who are far from an understanding of the gospel and make the gospel comprehensible to them. Everyone who interacts with your church ought to understand what is going on while he or she is there. That is what being culturally relevant means. It is an issue of communication, making sure church forms, style, and method support and aid gospel proclamation. One important focus of being culturally relevant is to create an environment where people are comfortable, at ease and their defenses are disarmed, so they can receive the message of the gospel.

You cannot always be sensitive. The gospel is not sensitive to the conscience or practices of the lost. The cross is scandalous and causes people to stumble across it. It is supposed to offend the sinner, pierce their conscience, and convict their soul. But the church should never create an environment, systems, or rules that cause people to stumble before they even get to the cross. Instead, as ambassadors, we should speak winsomely and act graciously toward those in need of our King’s message. Ed Stetzer, The Life Way Research Blog

Again, this second quote is from Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse and his take on that state of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod already in 1960. Hopefully it makes the distinct perspectives clear.

The optimism and synergism prevalent in America have made such inroads into American Lutheranism that the Augsburg Confession’s ‘where and when it pleases God’ has for practical purposes been given up. Evidence of this is the uncritical taking over of ideas and programs of stewardship and evangelism from such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists. The pastor schools the people so that with the right kind of pious talk they will then be equipped to win other people for the church.

In place of the office of preaching reconciliation comes the training of ‘soul-winners,’ teaching them just the right way of talking with people, to make maximum use of the techniques of psychological manipulation. The system admittedly derives from the methods of American business. Thus people are to be brought into the church, made to feel at home there, led to a decision, and then all together are to carry on their building of the kingdom of God.

What the Word of God is no longer trusted to do is achieved with the psychological techniques of modern evangelization. There is of course talk of the Holy Spirit, but one no longer knows who He is. It seems He can be measured and quantified. Such evangelism produces results. Thousands are won for church membership.

On the other hand we may recall the failure of the Biblical prophets and of our Lord Himself. When one considers the latter, one begins to understand the full earnestness of ‘where and when it pleases God.’ Jesus said: ‘…so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven’(Mark 4:12; cf. Is.6:9-10). Whoever is not awed by what is hidden deep in these words will never truly know the Holy Spirit.  Hermann Sasse, “On the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Letters to Lutheran Pastors,” No. 51 July/August 1960 in We Confess 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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford