The “Best Practices for Ministry” description is brief on the convention website. “A FREE conference encouraging pastors, church workers and lay people as we reach out with the Gospel of Christ. For those who love: the local church, the unchurched, the LCMS.” They also say that they’re “Bible-Based, Gospel-Centered, Mission-Driven, & Future-Oriented.”
That sums up the official information. It’s no secret, however, that this has become a popular destination for members of the Missouri Synod who are “missionally” minded. Why not? The well-organized conference is teeming with professional speakers at every turn, helpful volunteers, and delicious cookies.
But this place isn’t about the externals. Spiritual things are happening. Here a deeper understanding of “ministry” is cultivated and reinforced. It quickly becomes apparent that there is not one ministry. Ministries are everywhere and they potentially belong to anyone who has a heart for it. These ministries are the fundamental activity of the church. It’s an externally oriented movement that continually adapts to the world’s circumstances so it can draw outsiders into a visible assembly of people who experience God. This is the church. Ministries are what it does. Why? Because the world is in crisis, and church’s ministries are its last hope. How does this work? Outsiders are brought in through relationships which are initiated through these ministries. Whatever the method of outreach, it’s about making a personal connections with people in a dying world. Once they’re in the door, they have an opportunity to deepen and grow into a new, experience laden, relationship with God.
Out in the Synod that they so love, there’s opposition from the “confessionals” who challenge the very biblical basis for such a model. But here at “Best Practices” they’ll find reprieve from the nagging attacks that ceaselessly spring from the lips of the doctrine lovers and orthodoxy hounds. Sure, doctrine is important, but not all that necessary to talk about, especially when it comes to practical things, like outreach and ministries. Here they’re empowered and equipped to return to their congregations with renewed zeal and vision. There’s advice form one worker to the next on how to implement the latest changes of governance to facilitate the pastor’s role as a leader. They’ll learn how to disciple their followers and cultivate them into leaders so they too can establish and operate various ministries. The laying on of hands is common. Prayers are offered. Applause often reverberates through the gymnasium after a powerfully moving message and prayer. If I recall, there were nearly 1500 attendees. The sheer number of like-minded church workers offered the consolation that they’re not alone. Far from it. They are vast. They might even be growing.
The language and themes that permeated from one room to the next revolved around empowerment, equipping, affirmation, and discipleship. In Bill Woolsey’s plenary session on “Giving Away Authority and How that Blesses Leadership,” they learned that authority cannot be appealed to, it must instead be given away to equip others, like the younger millennials, for ministry. “Start new, reach new.” Right? What that might say about those who appeal to the authority of God’s Word and the confessions, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t sound good.
I’m a typical Fort Wayne grad. I’ve drunk from the streams of our confessional theology and delight in orthodoxy which is Jesus’ doctrine. Thus, much of the conference’s language and argumentation eluded me. This is a problem because I’m often in conversation with fellow pastors who use this wildly different ecclesial vocabulary. Church and ministry simply do not mean the same things between us. But these languages are not two equally valid options for articulating the same thing. One rests on the foundation of Scripture and the confessions. The other you can find in business seminars and the self-help section of the bookstore. The laity need to know this. They have to know that leadership principles and tips on interpersonal relationships are not to be equated with the Gospel, the holy ministry, or faithful pastoral practice. I came and heckled with Twitter, if you can call tweeting heckling. I thought it would be good if both the pastors and laity saw that the permeating themes of the conference are not approved by everyone in the Synod. Far from it.
The tweets didn’t last long. One of the organizers explained that my use of their hashtag was harmful. It necessarily tied the reputation of the conference to many and various opinions of the speakers. The thought is that the conference was free to just about anybody, anyone could come and present, so it’s not fair to tag the conference in direct connection with the teaching of its presenters. Thinking back on it, I could have stood my ground and argued that nobody owns hashtags. They’re a way to identify your comments in relation to a place or idea. Nevertheless, the damage had already been done. Feelings were hurt and the good vibes of solidarity and peace were shaken.
Someone explained to me that the reason so many attendees were upset with my comments was because they were there to be “rejuvenated and renewed.” By calling attention to problems with the conference and its presenters, it made it hard for these church workers to relax. After thinking about this comment, I became incredibly sad. I realized that many of these church workers, pastors, and laity had been fed program after program to implement by these folks in the past, but with limited to no results. Who do you blame when you come up short? They beat themselves up and head back out to Phoenix. Then they hear about the new, statistically proven program that grows congregations, and the next popular movement that’s bringing the most people into the church. When they hear this, they’re invited to jump on to the cusp of the wave of relevance. They’re equipped with more tools, more visions, and PowerPoint after PowerPoint of diagrams that show them how everything they’ve been doing wrong and the new plan to fix it.
This is bondage to the Law. Pastors especially, who have suffered under their congregations’ criticism and feel the pain of losing member after member to secular society, come here to reload the magic bullets that are supposed the solve the numbers and money problem. This inevitably leads to a desire to change their behaviors and attitudes, reworking their own personality to become a better leader. It will also mean reorganizing whoever they have left in the pews to do the work of ministry for them, probably because they’ve proven themselves insufficient in making enough personal relationships to grow the church. Either way, by coming back to this conference, their consciences are being soothed with a false hope, a hope found in the ingenuity and strength of men.
These pastors and church workers need to hear that Satan is raging against them. That he’s snatching one member after another from their congregations. The church is going to be assaulted by new winds of false doctrine and the cleverly devised myths of culture. Yes, the Lord has promised that his Church shall endure (Matt. 16:18), but that doesn’t mean that she’ll not suffer.
When our churches suffer from loss of any type, this is the time for examination and repentance. Under the glare of God’s Law we’ll see all our good intentions and efforts at outreach have been laced with pride and vanity from the start. Terror and sorrow are soon to follow for the person who does not harden himself against the truth. But now what? Where do we find help? Do we wander the path of the Law, by seeking out new programs and visions to implement?
No. This is the time for the Gospel. These pastors need to hear that they have come up short, but that Jesus’ promise of mercy has not abandoned them. True rejuvenation begins with absolution found at an orthodox altar. Repentance, not restructuring, the Lord’s promises, not new programs are what’s needed. It’s only from this starting point that both pastors and laity can relearn both the identity and the purpose of the Christian church. Upon this rock of atonement, forgiveness, and grace, they’ll learn that the church is not a fluid movement that defined by leaders and followers. The church is a rock, a holy institution of Christ where there the ministry of Law and Gospel preaching never changes. Yes the circumstances in the world change, but the Jesus’ own instituting words are never abandoned for the sake of relevance. There’s more than ample opportunity to talk about edifying practices, but this is pure poison if Jesus’ doctrine and institutions are not retained. The pastor must find his consolation in the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, not the newest path to success that he can implement through his own works.
While many of these sectionals would be fine as a secular seminar on interpersonal communication and business advice, I’m afraid that their place in the church corrupts and changes the very language that should be used to describe and think about the body of Christ. Orthodoxy, after all, is a conformity of language, a familiar pattern of expressing the faith that would be recognizable to both Christ’s apostles who first preached the Scriptures and our Lutheran fathers who confessed them.
The best practices were established by Jesus, his preaching and sacraments which impart forgiveness and life, and these never change.