Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach, 7. Straying

Outreach happens most simply through families when a husband and wife have children and bring them to church. I’ll be clear that families do not exist for the sake of outreach, as if families are only good because they’re useful. Rather families are a great good in and of themselves, and God has honored them highly by making them a great blessing to his Church.

We now move out another ring, from the congregation, from the families of the congregation, to the straying members of the congregation. These are people who in their confirmation vows, when they were asked, “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” said, “I do, by the grace of God.” And when they were asked, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” said, “I do, by the grace of God.”

These are people who have confessed the same faith that you do—and expressed their intention to remain steadfast in that confession—and yet have fallen away. Before we talk about bringing new people into the congregation, we must do everything in our power to reach out to those who already claim to belong to us. Now we can face this sobering fact up front: many of those who have absented themselves from our assemblies will not return. They have become “apostate,” a Greek word that means “standing apart,” and has come to signify in the Church those who have rejected the faith. Nevertheless, we go after these people as if they were our own blood—because they are, or at least were.

There was a preacher who lived in the fourth century named John Chrysostom, who once preached a sermon called “To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly.” He began the sermon by noting that many of those who belonged to the congregation were not present. “Again our church is desolate of her children,” as he put it (To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly, §1). And in the rest of the sermon he noted the poor excuses people give for skipping church, how some people only come for special festival days, and what those who are present can do for their wandering brethren.

This is the summary of his recommendations: first, you have a duty toward those who are not here, and second, be persistent. Applying it to our context, first, we should not relegate the care of delinquent members to the pastor and elders. Calling back the erring is the responsibility of all Christians. And second, those who claim to be Christians have no right getting offended by those who try to bring them back. We need not fear the reaction of the straying. They’re the ones who said they intended to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully. If they feel put off by the Church, that’s their problem; we certainly shouldn’t feel like we’re intruding or doing something wrong by trying to bring them back and aid them in keeping their own vows.

A word that Chrysostom likes in his sermon is “impudence,” which means persistence to the point of being annoying. You can think of the parable of the friend at midnight in Luke 11, when the man goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night and keeps knocking on his door asking for something to serve his guest who has unexpectedly come to him. Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs” (Lk. 11:8). So also, Christians, by their impudence, can bring back the straying.

Here’s what Chrysostom preaches: “For ‘a continual dripping of water,’ it says, ‘bores into a rock.’ And yet what is softer than water? And what is harder than rock? But nevertheless, the persistency overcame its nature. And if persistency overcomes nature, how much more will it be able to prevail over the will” (Ibid., §1). And again, “‘What, then, if they do not want it?’ someone says. Make them want it by your continual besieging. For if they see us pressing upon them they will assuredly want it” (Ibid., §3).

And he doesn’t think it’s going too far to recommend even this: “Each one of you: meet at the houses of your neighbors, wait for those who come out, seize them, and lead them back to your common mother. And imitate those who are mad for the theater, who with all zeal make arrangements with one another, and in this way wait at dawn for that lawless spectacle” (Ibid., §4). Just as the pagan world strives to bring along its own to its sinful gatherings, so also Christians strive to bring along their own to the congregation, the Church, their common mother.

So, don’t be bashful in pursuing the straying. Don’t even hesitate to quote their own vows to them if they get indignant or try to put you off: “You’re the one who said that you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully. You’re the one who said that you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.” Pester them until they blush and return, or until they curse Christ and you.

Don’t fear that you’re pushing people away by your efforts. If one of the straying becomes one of the damned, it won’t be because you pursued him. It will be because he hardened his heart against the Word of Christ. You’re motivated by love for your brethren, such that even impudence isn’t going too far. If people refuse your love, then you are being conformed to the image of Christ, who has been impudent with us, and thereby saved us. Sharing in the unjust scorn that Christ bore is no cause of shame but a cause of rejoicing. Therefore, by pursuing the straying we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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. This post is chapter 7 of the book: Straying.


Comments

Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach, 7. Straying — 3 Comments

  1. I am being alienated from my congregation by this very issue. I am currently serving as an elder and, given my past bad experiences in Evangelicalism, I am trying to steer the Board and the Pastors away from an Evangelical approach to outreach. Their solution is to introduce a new worship service on Saturday evenings which will basically involve more modern music, a relaxed atmosphere (in the Fellowship Hall), and Bible teaching. It sounds like there will be no Lord’s Supper, no Absolution, no formal offering taken, etc. Am I being obstinate for opposing this? I was the only no vote and I was really put on the spot to explain what I didn’t like about it and what my solution to the problem of outreach would be. Perhaps I’m in the wrong for even posting about this publicly?

  2. @Mark #1

    Just so you don’t feel alone… I am another Mark who has been through this very thing. I think you can make the case that Martin Luther was obstinate and thank God that he was.

    Dear friends at ABC Lutheran Church,

    The time has come for me to say goodbye.
    I have been mulling this decision for nearly three years, well into ABC’s run at church growth and revitalization, the premise of which is that liturgical, orthodox churches have lost their ability to evangelize and make disciples. Liturgical, orthodox churches were characterized as obtuse and unresponsive to the outsider. We were told these churches, including ABC, have curved in on themselves and have lost the ability to reach out to the neighbors outside their walls. They are further characterized as self-satisfied and care next to nothing about the lost. Thus, we needed a reawakening and revitalization to do more and do better to show a love for neighbor that we did not have. The first step in the process is to lay a load of guilt on the laity so we felt motivated to do something about our lapse by resolving to reach out to the community and make a difference in our corner of the world. We were then guided in this effort to find people of passion to pray intensely for a vision to cast – which is a concept eisegetically read into Scripture. We began the practice of “prayer walking” thinking it would somehow help us get God’s attention more so than the ordinary means of prayer would. It was time to abandon the ordinary and move into the extraordinary. Like you, I trusted our District leaders and bought this line at the time, but now realize there are problems with this disparaging view of the church and further realize that change made to our worship service to accommodate skeptics and seekers is wrong:

    Lutheran churches especially don’t change good, Gospel-centered, Christ-promoting, confessional practices for the sake of the unchurched or for individuals from other churches who don’t understand or appreciate them.
    The Fire and the Staff, Lutheran Theology in Practice. Copyright 2004 Klemet I. Preus; Page 422

    I use this quote from a book I read recently because I couldn’t say it any better and because the Divine Service is for the benefit of the sheep of the flock first and foremost. Lutheran worship leaders should not take creative license that obscures or dilutes the pure Gospel where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered for the forgiveness of sins. The Divine Service is not the place for social experimentation but a place where Christians, in unity of Spirit in the bond of peace, receive the gifts of God for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Nothing serves the Gospel better than the reverential, ancient, and catholic rites of the Divine Service handed down over the centuries, teaching sound doctrine through the practice of liturgy and hymnody. There are just some things that are not negotiable. Those leading revitalization who said, “It’s not about you,” were simply wrong. There is an order to everything Christ does in His church and the first order of business is to feed and comfort a repentant flock with the Word, Absolution, and the Sacrament through the Office of the Holy Ministry. It was inevitable that revitalization efforts and church growth measures would effectively split ABC into two dissimilar congregations under one roof.

    Like so many Lutheran churches in the Missouri Synod, ABC confuses its identity. It is, by choice, a hybrid of Lutheran[ism] and American evangelicalism. It wants the best of both worlds (including contemporary worship, open communion, women elders, non-Lutheran teachers and authors) and, truth be told, wants nothing of the controversial baggage of being Lutheran. Many Lutherans are somewhat embarrassed and speak uncomfortably of their Lutheran heritage as though it were a liability and crack jokes about the church’s stodginess and aversion to change. But these attributes are what keep her out of danger and from drifting into false doctrine and practice. The idea is not to be new and different, hip and trendy, allowing cultural and extra-biblical influences into the Church but rather to be faithful to our Confessions, come what may. Incidentally, recall that the hill on which the call committee and the voters were willing to die was the issue of whether a pastoral candidate was willing to work with women elders.

    It is not for a lack of love that I leave ABC. But love is not enough. ABC is a loving church but would be hard pressed, for example, to out-love most churches in the ELCA or the Unitarian Universalist Churches. But that kind of love is a human love expressed as fondness, friendliness, affection and kindness separate from faithfulness to the Word of God. But it is the love born of faithfulness to God’s Word that enables friends not to let a friend drive drunk; it is a tough love when necessary to keep people from making a terrible mistake, to keep the flock from drifting into false teaching and practice or omitting, in part or in whole, the truth of the pure Gospel. The Lutheran Confessions are an anthology of not only what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess but also what we specifically condemn and reject, which is just as important. They are the guard rails that keep us out of trouble and protect us from the doctrines of man and worse. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Lutheran Confessions should be a staple in any and every Lutheran church and taught along with Scripture to safeguard doctrine and practice.

    So, when the opportunity arose, I waited for the changing of the guard at ABC to discuss my concerns with the new pastor, concerns he had the authority to alleviate. It was a long shot but, alas, teaching the Lutheran Confessions would not be a priority at ABC nor is correcting our heterodox practices. It seems heteropraxy at ABC is too ingrained in its membership to even begin to correct its course no matter how gradually. For example, the Elders team learned last year that some members complained that our blended service was too traditional and not contemporary enough. Ecclesiastical discipline and admonition lovingly administered are nonexistent at churches like ABC (as is catechesis) – only tolerance is practiced under the guise of discreetness for fear of embarrassing or upsetting members and driving them away. Our people don’t know what the Lutheran Confessions teach because no one has taken the time to teach them consistently for any number of reasons, so, inevitably, they don’t know what they don’t know. Or worse, they do know but have rejected them. I recently overheard a proponent of contemporary worship in our congregation say that she is worried about our kids leaving and not coming back if we don’t give ourselves over to modernity in the church. Really?! We are going to allow ourselves to be coerced into letting our Youth dictate the content and style of our worship? I’m sorry, but that is wrong on so many levels and on any planet.

    I depart ABC with no animus or anger for any of you, only sadness. We all need something specific from church that we are getting only in part at ABC. There is a great need for unity of Spirit in the bond of peace. I wish I knew why more “Lutherans” (if we can presume to be called by that noble name) aren’t interested in their heritage, history, and confessions. I don’t know why exactly only some see pure doctrine and practice as important to the life of the church and a worthy goal while most think it no big deal and mostly unrealistic or irrelevant. So, we have become tolerant of aberrant doctrine and practice because it’s not worth disturbing the peace over and we take the path of least resistance. We continue to teach from doctrinally dubious sources such as Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley, to name only two. That’s the American way of tolerance but it is not Biblical. Whether a church or a synod grows depends on the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace and God’s providential will, but some of us think that in our Christian freedom we can tamper with what isn’t broken to fix the problem of disengagement in the church and bring new members in on our own terms. So, we endeavor to make church engaging and alluring and yet we see no appreciable gain. Church by its very nature is otherworldly but we put the world right back in it and call it contemporary and relatable – a mistake in retrospect. From our own experience, maybe we can all agree that the orthodox, liturgical Divine Service isn’t the problem, after all, with shrinking membership and attendance. This problem can be explained by idolatry, the love of self, and the prevalence of hatred for God in our nation. It’s pretty simple, actually.

    After XX years of membership, I am now out of place at ABC owing to a confluence of events in the Synod and in American Christianity in general which have opened my eyes to where drifting churches like ours are headed, and in some respects have already arrived. You may say, “We’re not as bad as the ELCA,” and my reply is, “Not yet.” I firmly believe something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to human institutions as well as closed systems in physics and left to our own human devices, ABC will continue incorporating more of the world, instead of standing out in sharp contrast to it. Unless we are intentionally confessional as a church body, we will continue to gravitate to unrecognizable practices attempting to be all things to all people. My wish for all Lutheran churches in the throes of fighting against a culture out of control is to go back to your roots. The very thing the Lutheran church has to offer like no other is the distinctives of the confession of the conservative Reformation which I have coined in my mind as “settled science” and that need no contemporary embellishment or improvement. We may be denounced for it but Lutherans are the keepers of the best exposition of Scripture known to man in the Book of Concord of 1580. We would be wise to study it, not as a replacement of Holy Scripture but to use it as a guide to better understanding it. The two go hand in hand and the one demystifies the other.

    I admit that I am the one who has changed my worldview over time and have come to understand that the Lutheran Confessions are the theological underpinnings and moorings that keep reformed Christians from drifting further away from the truth of Scripture. Alas, it was too much to hope that we could find the time to teach the Confessions to our people and to our leadership especially. We have elevated the teachings of non-Lutheran authors and teachers such that Lutheran scholars could not rise to their level of profundity. But, as C.P. Krauth, 19th Century Lutheran pastor, theologian and educator, wrote so eloquently:

    We must begin by knowing ourselves, and being true to that knowledge. Let us not, with our rich coffers, play the part of beggars, and ask favors where we have every ability to impart them. No Church can maintain her self-respect or inspire respect in others, which is afraid or ashamed of her own history, and which rears a dubious fabric on the ignorance of her ministry and of her members.

    The so-called “worship war” in the LCMS is nothing new. Lutherans have been struggling with the same issues for centuries. Some things never change and that is why Lutheran churches must vigilantly make the good confession or take their place in the confusing world of American Christianity as a hodge-podge of people with their own blend of personal beliefs and superstitions formed far removed from sound catechesis. While the church will never enjoy 100% concurrence on doctrine this side of glory, she is duty-bound to continue to faithfully preach and teach it in purity and clarity, come what may. The good news is that after 500 years Confessional Lutheran[ism] has not been drummed out but is doing the drumming. I believe it has God’s approbation.

    As for me, I will find and attend an unapologetically Lutheran church that is careful not to embrace heteropraxy for the sake of outreach and doesn’t hesitate to teach the core of what it means to be Christ’s church on earth; a church that isn’t reluctant to teach the whole counsel of God and to lead people to the comfort, joy and certainty of the pure Gospel through the means of grace. Please don’t conclude that I condemn ABC as heretical on a hell-bound train. I do not. My point is, why would you deprive Christians of the abundant blessings of the Lutheran Confessions and concomitant practice that are readily available and accessible? ABC has only begun to mine the treasures found in the Lutheran Service Book. Why do we shy away from perfectly good DS settings at our fingertips? Why would an orthodox church body dismiss its own history and be satisfied with aberrant practice that leads to aberrant theology that argues with the Church fathers and disputes the clarity of Scripture? History is cycling.

    Pastor and I have had confidential discussion about my concerns since his arrival and we are at an impasse. I don’t think rearranging the deck chairs will be useful at this point. He is free to share my eight-page letter written to him (all but completed before his arrival to ABC) with the Board if he so chooses. As persuasive as I have tried to be, our two visions for the future of ABC do not align.

    Therefore, I request a peaceful release from membership.

    In repentant faith I am,

  3. Mark #2,

    Thanks, this is really quite good. It’s spooky how much of this letter I can relate to.

    When I was asked to explain my no vote, I tried to get across the point that I don’t even agree with the basic premises and presuppositions that were being used to discuss the issue. Lots of evangelical buzzwords and slogans were being thrown around. At one point, I did say that the reason people don’t go to church is because they are dead in their trespasses and sins. That really didn’t go over well.

    We really need good, faithful pastors to keep up the good fight or else I fear the concerns you mentioned will become a reality.

    Thanks again,
    Mark

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