Steadfast Lutherans will soon be publishing a book titled “Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach.” The book will be available as a free PDF and in print for the cost of printing at Lulu.com. The chapters of the book will be published over the next several weeks as posts here on the blog. The following is a diagram illustrating the approach of the book, followed by chapter 2: Faithfulness.
The diagram illustrates the approach of this book. Rather than sending our minds reeling toward the far reaches of the earth, we shall begin with the familiar church home, addressing faithfulness to the Scriptures, beauty, and hospitality. From there, we will reflect on the families of the congregation and matters of marriage, procreation, and catechesis. Next, we will examine what we might do for the straying members of the congregation. And finally, we will look around our vocations and consider the delight of inviting people to church. Each chapter heading is followed by a Roman numeral corresponding to this diagram.
2. Faithfulness, ring I, part 1
The term outreach brings to mind a wonderful picture of the Gospel. Jesus says in John 16, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (Jn. 16:28). Jesus runs his course, like the sun encircling the earth (cf. Psalm 19). He starts and ends in the same place, beginning at the Father and finishing at the Father. The circuit of Jesus’ saving work was like the Father reaching out his arm into the world, encompassing mankind, and drawing his arm back to himself again, and us with it.
In the same way, we can think of congregational outreach as the arm of Jesus reaching out through us as he feeds us his body and blood at the altar and dismisses us in peace to our vocations, then sweeping us back to himself, to his altar, and not only us, but others with us.
Notice that outreach begins and ends at the same point, and we must always keep the question in mind: is it worth arriving at that point? Many congregations do “outreach.” Many congregations teach lies, and it’s not worth being the victims of their outreach; it’s not worth being swept back to the bosom from which their devilish arm extends. Arriving to a heretical congregation is not like being saved alive out of the sea but is like being fitted with the concrete shoes of false doctrine and consigned to the depths. In other words, the outreach of heretics is not the outreach of the Father and the Son, because instead of reaching down from heaven and sweeping people up to heaven, heretical outreach reaches up from the abyss and drags people screaming down to hell.
How do we distinguish the outreach of the Father from the outreach of the devil? How do we judge which is which? By the Word of God alone. The devil would be very pleased if we thought good outreach had nothing to do with keen attention to sound doctrine, as if bringing people into a church building—any church building—were an end in itself. “The world doesn’t need ‘doctrine,’” the devil says. “That’s so stuffy. You need to be a welcoming, embracing place. You need to worry about offering programs and amenities. You need to worry about the wants of your consumers. If you’re preoccupied with doctrine you’re just going to drive people away.”
No, devil, you lie. Good outreach must bring people to a faithful congregation that holds tenaciously to the Scriptures, that is, one that loves sound doctrine. Indeed, a congregation cannot claim to love Jesus unless it loves sound doctrine, as Jesus says in John 14, “If anyone loves me, he will hold fast to my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn. 14:23). The Father and the Son make their home with those who love the Word of Christ. Such places are places of divine outreach. From such places God’s arm extends to draw people out of the world into heaven.
Now how do you ensure that your congregation is a faithful congregation? By ensuring that the preaching and teaching are faithful. As to how we should judge preaching within a congregation, Jesus says, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk. 24:46-47). Preaching should convict of sin, not excuse it. Preaching should offer the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and not teach us to rely on our works for salvation. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified.” The proclamation of Christ’s death—and resurrection—is the life of the Church. Sound preaching is preaching about Jesus: not Jesus as moral example, but Jesus as the crucified Savior.
Sound preaching and teaching also teach what Scripture teaches. The Lutheran Reformers wrote in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, “we receive and embrace with our whole heart the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged” (SD, Summary, Rule, Norm, §3). In the book of Acts, the Bereans are held up as an example worthy of emulation: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Ac. 17:11).
Fortunately, it’s standard practice within our congregations to have Scripture readings during the service, and it’s also standard practice that the pastor preach on one of those readings. This gives easy and immediate opportunity to compare the preaching with the Scriptures. This practice also shows our dedication to the primacy of God’s Word. We don’t ask pastors to begin with their preconceived notions, go searching through the Scriptures to validate their opinions, and then preach man-made doctrines. Rather we have a schedule of readings, and the preaching in our congregations begins with and flows from God’s Word.
Note that congregants may not like everything that their pastor says, even if everything their pastor says is true. Many people didn’t like Jesus, yet he never spoke a single word of falsehood. So, if you object to something your pastor has said, ask yourself whether it’s because God’s Word objects, or because your sinful nature objects. The sinful nature objects to sound doctrine, because the Law of God convicts of sin and the Gospel appears to be weakness and folly. And yet, the Law’s conviction remains a necessary part of preaching, as does the true strength and wisdom of Christ. If you’re in doubt as to why you object, simply ask your pastor about it. He cares about sound teaching and he cares about you.
Consider also that the liturgy and hymns fall into the categories of true or false teaching, and that in terms of doctrine some orders of service and some hymns are better than others. Learn to love hymns based on their purity of doctrine, not based on their sentimental value. “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” does a much better job of teaching sound doctrine than “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” “From God Can Nothing Move Me” is objectively better than “Amazing Grace,” if we’re going to judge according to how well it gives a full picture of Christ’s teaching. Unbelievers who come into our congregations need solid hymns that impress healthy doctrine on their hearts. Indeed, all of us need that.
Let congregations ensure that they give their pastors plenty of time to study the Scriptures. St. Paul charges Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching…Attend to these things, be in these things, in order that your progress may be manifest to all. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Remain in them, for by doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:13, 15-16).
And how does a congregation help a pastor study the Scriptures? Seek to relieve him of administrative tasks or excessive meetings that would distract him from the duties God has given him. Let the elders ask the pastor regularly what he’s reading, and what he’s learning. Make sure the pastor has the means to acquire good books and attend continuing education classes. Whatever you do, don’t begrudge him time in his study. If you walk in on him with his nose in a Greek book, thank God that your pastor cares about you enough to keep studying the biblical languages. You will receive excellent fruit from it.
Sound doctrine is life, because sound doctrine is Jesus’ teaching. Confessing sound doctrine is no burden or chore, but the Church’s delight, as it says in Psalm 119, “Your testimonies are my delight” (Ps. 119:24), “I delight in your instruction” (Ps. 119:70). Such delight in God’s Word and confession of sound doctrine is a mark of a faithful congregation. At such a congregation God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is reaching out his arm and drawing people to himself.