Tag Archives: Missional

If you’re not “missional”… (Revised with apology)

***This post has been revised as of 11/30/12. The original post included some language towards my District that was not consistent with the collegial tone that I desire to maintain. Though the theological evaluation and call for dialogue remains the same, I have done my best to remove uncharacteristic inflammatory language, with my apologies to those I have offended by not first speaking to them in person. Be assured I am in the process of personally speaking with individuals regarding this transgression, while also aiming to continue an in-person dialogue on this topic.     

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This world is full of unbelievers. We need simply look around and we’ll find someone who does not know that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Like you, they are in desperate need of the truth of the Gospel—that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). It’s a powerful truth. God’s love is so intense that He sent Jesus to be “crucified, dead, and buried” for their sin, my sin, and your sin.

I like the way Paul put it to young Pastor Timothy: “[God our savior] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:4-5). In other words, God does not discriminate. His love is clear. He wants all to receive it, rest in it, and share it. His ultimate desire is for “all” people to have faith and receive, as the creed says, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The Lutheran church (LCMS) has long stood upon this truth (AC IV) and the desire to make sure the Gospel gets delivered. As our confessions simply state:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ. Augsburg Confession, Article V.

However, as of late, many in the Holy Christian Church, and notably in my own Lutheran church, feel that the church has lost her way, that the mission of the church has somehow been displaced. As a result, a new movement has emerged. It’s called the Missional Movement. I’ve already written about it at some length. But it needs continued dialogue. Many are still confused about it. Many are frustrated it’s not being embraced. There’s even much discussion about using the word “missional” itself. It’s a new word. Some like it. Others don’t. Does it describe a behavior or imply a particular theology? Not everyone is sure. In short, we need to talk.

Thus, I propose that we engage in some forthright, collegial, and honest conversation about what it means to be missional, and how for better or for worse, the movement is impacting our Lutheran church body. So, once again, here we go. I apologize for the length of this post in advance. But since I’ve been away for a while, perhaps you won’t mind.

In short, the Missional Movement has the desire to “reclaim” the mission of the church—to take back what some say has been high jacked by a “maintenance mentality” that only seeks to serve “their own,” ignore the lost, and remain insulated from the invading and changing culture. Consequently, a passionate “missional” paradigm shift is being thrust upon the church. It’s crossed denominational lines. But as we’ll see, its origination has a distinct identity.

At its core, the desire is to get the Gospel out. This is, of course, an awesome thing to do! However, as we will also find out, the understanding of the Gospel does not have uniform agreement or understanding within the Missional Movement. (Just consider Matt Chandler’s recent book, The Explicit Gospel, as well as J.D. Greear’s recent book, Gospel: Recovering the Power that made Christianity Revolutionary. Both are written as reactions to the movement’s inability to maintain a clear confession of the Gospel.)

In short, the paradigm being offered attempts to organize the ecclesiology of congregations (i.e. church governances, organizational structure, and their defining purpose) in a way that is entirely focused on getting the message out to the lost. Part of this includes the emphasis on “making disciples who make disciples” though what those “disciples” actually look like is also not always agreed upon.

One book in particular attempts to establish this paradigm in great clarity. It is titled, Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. Simply put, it’s a guide to developing missional leaders and missional communities: “Missional leaders, along with their leadership teams, have a clear vision for creating authentic missional communities. Everything they do is designed to facilitate development of Christians as missionaries sent by God to live and proclaim His kingdom in their world. Ultimately, the leadership team desires every member of the community to function in a missional lifestyle, equipped and empowered for effective ministry” p.168.

Shaped by God’s Heart?

The book is a favorite among missional advocates, and is a Leadership Network Publication written by the experienced Baptist Pastor, Milfred Minatrea. It is perhaps the best articulation of the movement’s missional paradigm and ecclesiastical desire. As such, it also provides a distinct opportunity for insight into the paradigm’s inherent theology and some of the resulting friction it creates with our Lutheran theology and practice.

The book is divided into three parts: Part One—The Church in a New and Changing World, establishes the belief that most churches in North America are “maintenance” churches that are only focused on “survival” and thus are failing God’s mission and therefore need to move to becoming “missional.”

Part Two—The Nine Essential Practices of Missional Churches, explore what “missional” churches do on a regular basis: 1) Have a High Threshold for membership, 2) Be Real, Not Religious, 3) Teach to Obey Rather than to Know, 4) Rewrite Worship every Week, 5) Live Apostolically, 6) Expect to Change the World, 7) Order actions according to Purpose, 8) Measure Growth by Capacity to Release, Not Retain, 9) Place Kingdom Concerns First.

And Part Three—Structures and Strategies for Becoming Missional provides some specific details of the organizational change the congregation must go through to become “authentic disciples” and “truly missional.”

What becomes apparent from the very beginning of the book is the context from which the author is speaking. His regular comparing and contrasting of “missional” to “maintenance” churches reveals that he is operating with a distinct theological and ecclesiastical context that is unmistakably Baptist in nature (including nondenominational or evangelical expressions of this theology).

He is quick to criticize (rightly I might add) how many congregations “have adopted and adapted to consumer culture” where “just as they count on Wal-Mart meeting their material needs, they expect their churches to provide religious goods and services” (p.7). But then he also asserts that maintenance mentality churches merely focus on “preserving the ‘savedness’ of the members, and the church’s function to manage that salvation” where in such churches, “both clergy and laity lose sight of their obligation to make disciples” (p. 9).

However, with this assertion he offers no consideration of the ongoing spiritual needs of church members (i.e. the forgiveness of sins, despairing souls etc.), or any recognition of how sin can continually wreak havoc on the faithful and the peculiarities of each afflicted sinner, nor about the God pleasing nature of vocation. To be sure, he does note how each person has a “sphere of influence” where they can share the Gospel, which includes their place of work (which I completely agree with). However, that is portrayed as a divinely mandated obligation and issue of obedience rather than an outworking of the Gospel, to say nothing of the God pleasing nature of their other various family or work vocations.

His attempt to theologically back up this assertion reveals a distinct difference in how his “missional” mind understands the desire of God and how Lutherans understand the desire of God: “God desires His church to relish in His glory, share His glory among the nations, and reflect His glory in word and deed. The church is a Body made in His image, sent on His mission, to be His glory!” (p.9). The glory of God is not explained in terms of the forgiveness of sins through Christ (central for Lutheran theology), but rather in people coming to worship God.

In other words, it appears that according to this paradigm, missional churches do not emphasize the forgiveness of sins, but rather that people are to praise God, worship God, and give God glory. “Their passion is to see the people of all nations worship God” (p.122). To be sure, worship of our Creator and Redeemer is indeed a salutary and proper activity. But Lutherans recognize worship consists of things far greater than our human endeavors of praise and adoration, and can only occur because of God’s gracious activity toward us.

This approach should not be surprising. It would only be consistent with the non-sacramental nature of Baptist and nondenominational theology, (i.e. that worship is all about the human action of giving praise and glory to God, not about God serving the forgiveness of sins and the gifts of His grace—Word and sacrament worship in Lutheran parlance.) This would also help us understand why he emphasizes the importance of his missional practice number four: Rewrite Worship Every Week (p.65-75). Though he says “worship is about content, not form” he still emphasizes that missional churches are to “make sure worship stays fresh” so that a “relevant” connection can be made with worshipers (p.66). Thus, by theological default, the emphasis of this missional paradigm is repeatedly on the law—what we are to do. As such, if we are being honest, this creates friction for Lutherans.

Law and Gospel or Just Law?

By-in-large, this is the reoccurring theological emphasis of the book. Though he attempts to portray this paradigm as simple “practices” of missional churches, the reality is no practice is theologically neutral, nor is any ecclesiology theologically neutral. They have inherent to them the theological disposition of those creating any such “practice” or “church structure.”

Consider what he says are the four “dimensions of missional churches.” These are what establish the heart and soul of being a missional church—what it is and what it does: Dimension one: Love God—worship and obey. Dimension two: Live His mission—serve and share. Dimension three: Love people—embrace and invite. Dimension Four: Lead them to follow—equip and empower (p. 16-26). Nowhere is the Gospel clearly declared, at least not as Lutherans understand it.

Again, the emphasis is all on the human action rather than on what God in Christ has done and is doing. In fact, from a Lutheran perspective, the Gospel is made into a law—do this, do that—love, live, lead. To be sure, those are sanctified activities and even part of the works that God has in advanced prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). But that is not the Gospel. The saving work of Jesus Christ is the Gospel.

Ironically, the book is titled Shaped by God’s Heart, but seems to have missed the mark of what makes God’s heart beat, (not to mention the marks of the church)—namely, the justification of the ungodly in the cross of Jesus Christ; the forgiveness of sins regularly doled out through Word and sacrament.

Instead, the Gospel is depicted as activities that must be done by those who are “authentic” disciples of Jesus. (By the way, does this mean that non-missional folks are not authentic or real disciples? He is fond of backhandedly indicting those who are not missional: “Missional churches are communities of authentic disciples. These churches take discipleship seriously.” p.45. Does this mean that the rest of us don’t?

Also consider this quote by Erwin McManus: “I think that in the traditional church what you oftentimes have is the affirmation of beliefs, and that’s how people get fed. In a missional church it’s the implementation of the actions of beliefs and the fleshing out of beliefs. We actually hold ourselves more fundamentally to the scripture. Honestly, I think most traditional churches don’t really obey the scriptures” p.56. (Seriously?!)

Unfortunately (and perhaps ironically) sin and repentance are dealt with very little in this paradigm. At one point, Minatrea depicts repentance as a past act with no apparent continued need, where it is portrayed more as a part of a past church culture, rather than as a vital part of “authentic” faith:

Leroy Eims is a marvelous disciple builder, author, and master storyteller who called for authentic discipleship in the twentieth century as a representative of the Navigators. Some years ago, as he tells the story, he was listening to the radio while driving toward his Colorado Springs home, It was Saturday evening, and he was listening to sounds of the Big Band era. While enjoying one of his favorites, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” the song was suddenly drowned out by a higher-powered station broadcasting a “fire and brimstone” preacher who shouted, “Repent. Repent, now!” In response to this appeal, Eims replied, “Now my problem is I’ve already done that. I did that years ago. I have repented. Right now, I am trying to listen to ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo! But he won’t let me listen to ‘Chatanooga Choo-Choo’; instead he insists that I repent!” Living apostolically can be like that. Our connection to the church can be so strong that it repeatedly interrupts our attempts to move beyond the church and into the culture of the world. While we try to hear what is being said in the world, the sounds of our religious traditions continue to overpower us.” (p.78).

I believe his aim is to challenge the prescriptions of a particular church culture (which can be a fair approach), but in so doing he reveals that the forgiveness of sins is not necessarily central to “missional” congregations (which would not be a healthy approach). Rather, being missional seems to mean that a person is someone who gets others to know who Jesus is; know his love (whatever that might mean) and what he did a long time ago on the cross, but not necessarily know the ongoing effects of sin and the need for the forgiveness of sins today and tomorrow. In other words, the life of evangelism, not the life of repentance, is the core of the “authentic” disciple’s life.

Measures of Success

What is more, the “success” of missional congregations is not measured by the presence of the forgiveness of sins, but rather by a numerical evaluation: “Concerning measures of success… ‘The measure of church success may need to be reevaluated. One day, a church may evaluate its fulfillment of Christ’s commission not only on the basis of attendance, its strength of fellowship, budget and cash flow, but by the number of congregation it begets.’ Indeed, missional churches are redefining what it means to be a church” (p.122-123).

In the end, this is what concerns me about this movement. Confessional Lutherans maintain the nature of the church does not change. This missional paradigm says it does. If we are being honest, we would have to acknowledge that, at a minimum, this poses some very significant concerns.

Ultimately, this is what makes the book, along with many elements of the movement itself, so disenfranchising for me as a Lutheran. Minatrea claims the missional church wants to work with all churches, and not compete with other churches since they are “members of the same team” (p.135). However, I find it troublesome when he notes that “moving to missional is a deep change that is inherently difficult because it requires leaving established ways of doing things” (p.173). Sometimes there are things that are not up for debate. There is not the option to leave them.

Thus, I occasionally wonder if we are really on the same team when there are such disparities of understanding the Gospel. Is the Gospel Jesus’ work for me or my work for Jesus? Lutherans say it’s the former, this missional paradigm says it’s the latter. Leaving the way of Jesus “for me” is to leave the way of the forgiveness of sins. That’s not an option for Lutherans.

This is by no means to disavow all non-Lutheran Christians. Rather, it is to simply affirm the clarity of the Gospel—the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ—for the sake of God’s kingdom and the sake of those sinners called into it. In fact, I love how Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Tullian Tchividjian puts it in his just released book: Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free:

Listen carefully: Christianity is not first and foremost about our behavior, our obedience, our response, and our daily victory over sin—as important as all these are. It is not first and foremost about us at all–it is first and foremost about Jesus! It is about His person; His substitutionary work; His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. We are justified—and sanctified—by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Even now, the banner under which Christians live reads, “It is finished.” Everything we need, and everything we look for in things smaller than Jesus, is already ours in Christ (p.83).

Thus, it should be clear that I’m not trying to be elitist, snobbish, or a preservationist. I simply desire to affirm the Lutheran principle that doctrine and practice go together; that doctrine is not negotiable, that Christ is central, that sinners need to be forgiven, and that life is very often much more messy than what this missional paradigm seems to acknowledge.

I like how Luther puts it in his 1535 commentary to the Galatians: “Therefore, as I often warn you, doctrine must be carefully distinguished from life. Doctrine is heaven; life is earth. In life there is sin, error, uncleanness, and misery, mixed, as the saying goes, ‘with vinegar.’ Here love should condone, tolerate, be deceived, trust, hope, and endure all things (1 Cor. 13:7); here the forgiveness of sins should have complete sway, provided that sin and error are not defended… But by the grace of God our doctrine is pure; we have all the articles of faith solidly established in sacred scripture. The devil would dearly love to corrupt and overthrow these; that is why he attacks us so cleverly with this specious argument about not offending against love and the harmony among the churches” (p.41-42).

Doctrine and Danger

Yes, as with all books, there are some helpful things that can be learned from this one. Congregational structures can be tenuous and difficult, and there are some helpful pointers that could be gleaned from Minatrea. But the inadequacies of this paradigm as its presented here prevents me from being able to recommend this book.

Curiously, one of the dangers Minatrea notes about the movement is one that I have observed with some frequency. Minatrea offers this warning: “The Missional community must shun the pretense of viewing themselves as ‘more spiritual’ than members of the church who do not pursue the missional vision” (p.177).

It has been my observation that there is a significant amount of pressure to be “missional” even though not everyone agrees or understands on what it actually means to be missional. Nonetheless, congregations and pastors are being evaluated and assessed (implicitly and explicitly) on how “missional” they are. This book itself has multiple missional assessment tools after each chapter that can be used to measure pastors’ and congregations’ missional effectiveness.

I will acknowledge that tools can be helpful to take stock of a congregation’s situation, however this particular mode of measurement would seem to be foreign to Lutheran theology and practice. It does not lend itself to creating a unified atmosphere of Lutheran ministry, but would rather seem to divide and label by way of a new emerging (and yet uncertain) movement.

As a result, those that are not be deemed to be “missional” (either by choice or by circumstance) end up getting looked down upon. Very often they are then viewed or labeled as inferior. They’re seen as upholding a “maintenance” congregation. They get a mark against them and, for some, are seen as a hindrance to “real” ministry. The intent of such measurements may indeed be sincere. But such resulting labels are unfortunate, particularly in view of Minatrea’s own warnings.

In the end, if measurement tools are going to be used, at least from a Lutheran theological and practical perspective, I wonder how pastors and congregations would feel if they were to be evaluated by similar tools on whether they are being truly Lutheran? I know, its a touchy statement. But it draws out the accusatory slippery slope we risk when utilizing such assessment tools.

I believe the Missional Movement desires to get congregations headed in the right direction. I just think Lutheran theology has been pointing us there long before this movement came along.

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

Of Truth and Compassion

One of the endeavors of this blog is to create dialogue with fellow Lutherans regarding the mission of the Holy Christian Church, particularly with those of us who may have a different perspective. We (the LCMS) have been plagued by extreme labeling and vitriolic divisiveness for quite some time.  And if we are being honest, such divisions stem from different perspectives on, and practices of, Lutheran theology. Therefore it seems a return to collegial and honest theological dialogue would be beneficial to all involved.

Such dialogue takes patience and compassion, with a simultaneous commitment to the Word of Truth. And I’m happy to have begun many such dialogues (online and offline). But be assured, I realize that not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion. And I do not hold to the superstitious belief that dialog is the infallible means to settling everything. I hold to the truth of God’s Word, and His Word calls us to speak the truth in love (compassion) and not arrogance (Ephesians 4:15).

As such, I think the Gospel reading for this past Sunday (Mark 1:40-45) demonstrates the compassion that is necessary to lead such dialogues: 40And a leper came to [Jesus], imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 45But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter 

Jesus is moved with “pity.” The Greek word means an overwhelming visceral compassion coming from one’s innards. It’s where you look out at the condition that somebody is in and it compels you with a genuine desire to love them.

Perhaps if the divisions in our Synod viewed each other with this compassion rather than with our typical labels and disdain, greater ground could be gained and greater understanding could be fostered. (As of late, I find the labels that I’ve been given by some to be, well, interesting; while others are simply misinformed).

Nonetheless, maybe before we’re going to be willing to give such compassion, we need to be cleansed. On his death bed Luther wrote, “We are all beggars, this is true.” Thus, like a leper begging for mercy, our Kyries cry out. We need cleansing, not only for our disease (sin/death), but for our condition (uncleanness). Arrogance, pride, and disdain leave no “labeled” Lutheran untouched (yours truly included). And very often we forget to look around and see the other “confessional” and “missional” lepers there with us. Jesus touches both.

He makes us clean! Salvation is proffered. What joy there is to be had! But then, sadly, we start arguing about who of us is being the better leper. One is off to see “the priest” while the other is off to “spread the news.” Surely telling others about what Jesus has done must take precedence? Yet, why then does Jesus give the “stern charge” to the leper “to say nothing to anyone,” but that he was to go show himself to the priest?

What are we to do? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who is being the better leper? We have to know, ‘cause the social status of a leper is pretty important. It’s a dog eat dog world after all.

Isn’t that just like lepers? Begging for mercy one moment, and then forgetting the compassion they were just given in the next. Perhaps the answer does lie with the priest. Leviticus (chapter 14) reminds us that he was the one appointed by God to cleanse lepers. Yet, it was also the priest(s) who would point the Jews (and us) to the Great High Priest.

Jesus knew that the reentry of a leper into society could not happen apart from a visit to the priest. Sacrifices, cleansing, ritual, and washing had to take place. It was the law. And Jesus had not come to abolish it, but to fulfill it. Sending the leper back to the priest pointed to the fullness of who Jesus was and what he had come to do. Missing out on the priest wouldn’t give a full picture of who Jesus was. The priest pointed to how Jesus would become the Great High Priest—by sacrificing Himself on the cross, cleansing all lepers/sinners (including “confessional” and “missional” sinners), and instituting some new rituals, priests (pastors), and washings along the way (baptism).

Without question, His compassion is for all lepers to enjoy, and for all to share. Without question, the truth and depth of Jesus Christ is for all lepers to enjoy, and for all to share. They go together. Perhaps we (“confessional” and “missional” Lutherans) can rejoice in His truth AND His compassion. And perhaps we can intentionally and collegially talk with each other about what it means for Lutherans to put this truth AND this compassion into practice as the Holy Christian Church.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

What the Church Needs Now

I am simply amazed by the recognitions that many in the missional movement continue to make. I have applauded them for their honesty and willingness to make such diagnoses. First, there was the recognition that attractional worship models no longer work. Next, was their observations that mega-churches are a bust; then small groups are a flop; then programmatic churches are failing to make disciples; then, more recently, being “missional” itself has become a burden that potentially blinds the mission.

I have chronicled each critique and have been impressed by their candor. But I remain equally flabbergasted by the unawareness of these admissions by some “missional” minded folks in my own church body (LCMS). (Please remember, I am absolutely for missions, for reaching the lost, and for growing the Kingdom of God! But I am also for being honest about the way my Lutheran theology shapes how Lutherans do that.)

Nonetheless, I’m now in an even greater state of amazement over one of the most recent critiques of the North American church by missional guru Skye Jethani. In short, he notes the church is in desperate need of recognizing, get this, the value of vocation!

I have long urged the need for the church to recover and celebrate the depth of our Lutheran understanding of vocation. It’s a doctrine that became integral to my own congregation’s mission and strategic plan (see the diagram for a snapshot of our congregation’s mission strategy). My forthcoming book emphasizes its importance. And I have written about vocation numerous times on this blog.

What Jethani says is utterly affirming and deeply insightful about what has been missing in “missional” theology (particularly for young adults), but is aptly present in our historic Lutheran theology:

[T]he missional approach relies on a young adult’s spare time, extra resources, and expendable energy. It doesn’t capture a core identity issue the way family-based ministries do. When a church helps a 40-year-old mother with her struggling marriage and anxiety-driven parenting, it is applying Christian faith to the center of her life and identity. Missional ministries that try to engage a single 30-year-old don’t accomplish this because they ignore what’s at the center of his life to nibble at the margins. And what is at the center for most young adults? Vocation.

Despite being a significant focus of Reformation theology for centuries within the Protestant tradition, contemporary churches are largely silent on the issue…

What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others? How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector? Does being an artist matter to God? How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ? Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business? I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter? Can I be a soldier and be a Christian? Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?

My guess is most church leaders would have to think a lot longer to answer any of these questions. We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit. http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/01/back_to_a_theol.html

Please. I am pleading. I am urging. I am begging all my Lutheran brothers and sisters—rejoice in our theology! Let’s study it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s share it. Let’s allow it to guide our understanding of what it means to be The Holy Christian Church.

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

Unwasted Theology

Right now many theologians, pastors, and church consultants define the chief and the sole purpose of the church to be about missions. This emphasis is also highlighted in what is now called “missional living.” In short, the whole point of the Christian life and the life of the church is to simply witness to Jesus Christ.

Consider what John Piper, a well-known Baptist preacher and author from my neck of the woods (Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN), recently had to say about this at one of his popular conferences. The snippets of his message (below) have been neatly packed into a short motivational video on YouTube as well as at: http://www.vergenetwork.org/2012/01/06/john-piper-go-video/:

The unwasted life is the life that puts Christ on display as supremely valuable…

A God centered theology has to be a missionary theology…  There are only three kinds of Christians when it comes to missions: Zealous goers; Zealous senders; Disobedient…

The need of the nations who do not know the name of Jesus is an immeasurable need. It’s an infinite need. 2.6 billion people live in unreached people groups…

It seems to be woven into the very fabric of our consumer culture that we move toward comfort, toward security, toward ease, toward safety, away from stress, away from trouble, away from danger, and it ought to be exactly the opposite!

They are provocative words. And by my eyes, they’re also a bit inflammatory. But that’s what good motivational speakers do, right? They incite our consciences by portraying their desired point in dramatic fashion. (To get the full effect you do need to watch the video.)

But when the music is silenced, the drama removed, and the sentences examined, what remains? I have my thoughts. I’ll summarize them with two words: Irresponsible theology. I’m not saying he’s all wrong. But they do portray the purpose of the church and the Christian life in a limited, and from my perspective, irresponsible way.

But this is the debate of our time isn’t it? What is the purpose of the church? What’s the purpose of our Christian lives?

Time and again people are told they “don’t get it.” Time and again people in the pews are told they are a bunch of self-centered, self serving people who only think of themselves. And so what are they to do? If the purpose of the church is to be missional, they’re told to get off their butts, stop thinking about themselves, stop wasting their lives, and tell someone about the good news of Jesus.

If we use Piper’s theology, they’re “wasting” their lives when they struggle with their sin and “fail to put Christ on display as supremely valuable.” To use Piper’s theology, they add to their sins when they’re “disobedient” and care more about the challenges of their own daily life than about “zealously” giving witness to Christ. To use Piper’s theology, they don’t believe rightly if they think about God without a “missionary theology.”

I realize I’m not giving Piper a full and fair shake by this. (However, a fuller examination of his theology would show I’m not that far off). But here’s my point. I believe that those who feel they have finally discovered the real mission of the church and are now self-declared “zealous” missionaries (while others of us are not), irresponsibly portray the theology and mission of the church when they reduce it to a demand to be missional.

Our theology is much broader and much deeper than that. And, if we are being honest, (at least from a Lutheran perspective), our theology does not begin with missionaries. It begins with Christ. And He did not first send; He first forgave.

Please do not misunderstand. I am for missions! I am for reaching the lost! (This past month I spent over 30 hours with just one unchurched couple—providing groceries, transportation, and shelter, in addition to teaching, praying, and blessing in the name of Christ.) But I am first for understanding the Gospel rightly so that I can not only reach the lost, but so that I can also reach “the found.”

Believers have an “immeasurable need” for the Gospel just the same as those who have not yet received it. Sinners don’t stop being sinners. And when theologies are developed that start with “sending missionaries” rather than with the sent Son of God who came to bring the forgiveness of sins, there is a stark reconstitution of the church’s theology and purpose.

Yes, sinners who are self-centered, self serving people need to repent. But they also then need the Gospel! Not a demand to be missional. Not a guilt trip that says they are wasting their lives. For it is the Gospel itself that will bring them to share it’s joys with others. Not guilt ridden demands.

We can do better than that. Lutherans in particular have to do better than that. Our theology demands it. We cannot let our theology go to waste. We need to be honest and responsible with our theology. We have to stop settling for the latest version of someone else’s theology and start being honest about our own.

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

Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?

I came across a fascinating post this past weekend from the missional website www.vergenetwork.org.  It was titled, “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” and was written by missional guru Mike Breen.

He cuts to the chase and offers an interesting perspective: It’s time we start being brutally honest about the missional movement that has emerged in the last 10-15 years: Chances are better than not it’s going to fail. That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.”

What’s the engine that is missing? Without question, Breen says, it is discipleship. In short, he says that the North American church has become so obsessed with getting the message out that they are failing to get the message right, and are therefore failing to actually make disciples: We took 30 days and examined the Twitter conversations happening. We discovered there are between 100-150 times as many people talking about mission as there are discipleship (to be clear, that’s a 100:1). We are a group of people addicted to and obsessed with the work of the Kingdom, with little to no idea how to be with the King.”

Breen cites another fascinating (must read) post from the missional website (Out of Ur.com, www.outofur.com; the July 18, 2011 post by Skye Jethani) titled “Has the Mission Become Our Idol?” Here, too, there is an internal alarm being sounded about the recent “missional” push by the North American church.

Jethani offers no small indictment: [M]any church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.”  He goes on, “When we come to believe that our faith is primarily about what we can do for God in the world, it is like throwing gasoline on our fear of insignificance. The resulting fire may be presented to others as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance–the kind of drive evident in the Apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul and rooted in the Spirit. Instead the relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.”

That the missional movements’ own leaders are sounding such alarms should make us sit up and listen. Still, it’s not that they are necessarily giving up on the movement. They want to offer a course correction to the overall missional movement’s perceived correction for the greater church. However, the ironic thing is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the course correction they are urging is what evangelical Lutherans have always maintained to be the course of the church—the making of disciples! The long cherished use of Luther’s Small Catechism is an ample reminder of how confessional Lutherans have an affinity for getting the message right so that we can then get the message out rightly.

Breen’s sentiments echo this: While the “missional” conversation is imbued with the energy and vitality that comes with kingdom work, it seems to be missing some of the hallmark reality that those of us who have lived it over time have come to expect: Mission is messy. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul. And it’s completely unsustainable without discipleship. Thus, it seems catechetical Lutherans simply ought to stay the course and do what they have done for centuries.

Nonetheless, the notion of getting the message out continues to remain an intense push among many Lutherans circles, motivating some to take increasingly confusing steps towards the end of getting the message out. From adopting theologically foreign methodologies, to measuring the faithfulness of a church solely by the numerical growth of members, to forcing the sale of an active congregational church building to turn a large profit—all are being done in the name of getting the message out.

But what we are finding is that such measures do not have the impact many thought they would. Consider what Detlev Schulz offers in his 2009 book Mission from the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission:

Christianity has voiced its optimism of those who have and continue to envision total  world evangelization… Many evangelical groups conceived of mission in unrealistically optimistic terms… Today, this optimism has surfaced again… Denominations and movements of every kind—whether Protestant, Evangelical, Ecumenical, Roman Catholic, or  Pentecostal/ Charismatic—launched global plans and made solemn pledges to complete Christ’s commission on earth in that decade. But as Barret points out, the results of such campaigns were disappointing. The envisaged ten-year period of unstoppable expansion of Christianity did not materialize. Despite an overall increase in expenditure during that period (topping more than $70 billion), Christianity made no substantial progress (p.7).

Consequently, then, is there any evidence that the priority of getting the message out has somehow morphed into getting the message wrong? Christian Smith’s 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, would seem to answer in the affirmative.

In the largest survey ever of its kind, Smith and his team assessed the faith life of American teens and their families. What he found is that, despite all the concerted efforts of Evangelicalism for the last three decades to Christianize American culture, America has its own unique religion, which he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” where, in short, people “believe God exists,” but only to “help them when they are in need,” yet “wants them to be good, fair, and nice,” but is otherwise “uninvolved in their life,” where, in the end, “good people go to heaven when they die.” (162-163).

Compound this with what missional guru Skye Jethani observes about the profound pressure some Christians feel to be “missional,” and it is easy to see how people get the message wrong: Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised within Christian communities for their good works. This temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness. Gordon MacDonald calls it “missionalism.” It is “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” He continues: “Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.”

Sadly, in the end, by the testimony of those closest to the missional movement, the priority of getting the message out has confounded getting the clear message of Jesus Christ right. Thus, I believe it is time that evangelical Lutherans be allowed to be evangelical Lutherans. I believe it’s time we stop being afraid of practicing the profound catechizing, discipling, and confessional faith for which we are known! I believe it’s time to have honest, open, candid, and collegial 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). For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts.

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

Demanding the Gospel or a Gospel that Demands?

The hallmark for Lutheran preaching and teaching has long been the presence and proper distinction of law and Gospel. In short, it is the division of God’s Word that, on the one hand, declares what God demands of you, and on the other hand, proclaims what God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

In his classic work, Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther asserts that the “Law is anything that refers to what we are to do,” while “the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or word of God that does not require works from us and does not command us to do something but bids us simply to accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of sins and the everlasting bliss offered us.” This division of law and Gospel has long been one of the defining characteristics that make Lutherans, and their theology, distinct in their understanding and application of God’s Word. Historically, it has been standard Lutheran operating procedure.

However, the current “missional” and “emergent” church debates have drawn this practice into question. In short, the movement’s stated goal is to return a wayward church to its original “mission” by unabashedly following the Great Commission and calling all Christians to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. Consequently, it often critiques Christians, congregations, and whole denominations, for dismissing the need to seek and save the lost.

As Lutherans feel they have always maintained theological clarity regarding the nature and mission of the church, (AC VII) the movement is viewed with uncertainty by some, particularly when the Gospel is portrayed as a demand of obedience. Thus, when “traditional” Lutherans and “missional” Lutherans (for lack of better terms) debate the nature and mission of the Holy Christian Church, the issue often gets boiled down to the nature of what Jesus told us to do versus what Jesus has done for us. To be sure, Jesus did both. But how we speak about them (i.e. our preaching and teaching), as well as our (in)ability to talk collegially with one another, has become the issue.

On the one hand, there is the refrain, “Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples and we have to obey that command. Jesus demands it.” If we don’t, depending on the author or person speaking, the legitimacy and authenticity of our faith may be called into question. On the other hand, there is the simple exhortation, (as above) that the Gospel makes no demands.

True, Luther was unequivocal about the Gospel: “The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands on us but only proclaims everything that is good, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners. This good news also includes that He is to be our Shepherd, seeking us starving and scattered sheep, giving His life for us, redeeming us from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.” Yet, Jesus did say, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). What’s a Lutheran to do?

Maybe it comes down to letting all the words of Jesus be the words of Jesus, and not just our favorite few. And maybe it means duly noting and distinguishing all of His words (and actions) of law, and all his words (and actions) of Gospel. This way the law remains the law, and the Gospel remains the Gospel.

Historically, for a Lutheran to make the Gospel into a burden of obedience is a high offense. Lutherans have long cherished the claim that the Gospel frees. That is, it does not coerce, it does not force, and it does not insist. Rather, Lutherans have long held that it is the law that demands: “You shall do this” and “You shall not do that.”

What is more, not only does the law demand obedience, but it accuses us when we fail to fulfill it. But the Gospel makes no demands whatsoever! It is all gift. It is all love. It utterly frees. It frees us from our sins. It frees us to love others. Not because we “have” to, not because we “get” to, but simply because that is what Christ’s love for us and in us does to us.

Likewise, the Gospel frees us to share our faith and to give witness to others, not because we “have” to, not because we “need” to, but because (by the Holy Spirit) we are freed to. This is the proclamation of the Gospel. To make it a demand (i.e. following Jesus means you must sell your house, you must give to the poor, you must go on a mission trip, you must forget retirement, and you must work only for the Gospel), burdens the conscience, destroys the freedom of the Gospel, and no longer trusts the Holy Spirit to do what He says He will do. Sure, the law can demand things of us, but the Gospel does not “demand.” It does not burden. It frees.

Yes, the freedom of the Gospel permits us not to love others. But then we must deal with the law. For here is the right work of the law: it convicts and condemns us for our lack of love and drives us to repentance, back into the gift of the Gospel, and back to the freedom and power of the Gospel, wherein we go about doing the works (loving, serving, witnessing) God has prepared in advance for us to do.

It is a high art to rightly preach and teach law and Gospel. Lutherans have long held to this endeavor. Given the current church debates, and current confusion about the mission of the Church, I think it is worth revisiting.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? Does the recent mandate to be “missional” have tendencies to make the Gospel into law? Or is the desire for right doctrine (rightly dividing law and Gospel) promote hair splitting?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions 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