The Center for U.S. Missions: Incarnational and Sacramental?

Lutherans are incarnational. We believe that God is not somewhere up there, where we climb a ladder to reach Him with our good works or with our emotional experience or with our intellectual knowledge. God is down here, with us, for us, in us. His plan to redeem His fallen creatures is so absurd that it comes down to this: He became one of us. God hungers, He thirsts, He dies. He justifies. Only a man could pay for the sin of Adam. Of course, Jesus paid for the sin of all people for all time, because He is also God, incarnate, in the flesh. Only God could pay an infinite debt.

Lutherans are sacramental. We believe, because Scripture teaches, that God works through means. In Baptism, simple water combined with the Word forgives our sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s Word along with His very body and blood, under the earthy elements of bread and wine, work forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The sermonic words pouring from the lips of your pastor, sometimes wondrous, sometimes seemingly humdrum, deluging you with water and blood, work and sustain faith. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.

The Word, always the Word, creates the things of which it speaks. This should come as no surprise to us. Baptismal and Eucharistic imagery fill the verses of the Old Testament. The ark of the Church is buoyed up by water. The Passover lamb becomes the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Equally preposterous, the finite now contains the infinite. And so we circle right back from the sacramental, to the incarnational. These wondrous mysteries that we Lutherans embrace surround us and make us who we are, Baptized children of God. To lack these things would mean the death of who we are, and ultimately the death of Christianity. The Word rightly preached. The Sacraments rightly delivered. These are the marks of Christ’s Church. These are the things that should permeate everything we do. These are the things we look for to verify that what is being taught and practiced is truly Scriptural, truly Lutheran. Which brings us to the temporal part of this post, a brief review of the Center for United States Missions (hereafter called Center). According to the Center home page:

The Center for U.S. Missions trains and equips mission leaders to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to unreached groups in the United States by:

  • Offering training that is biblical, practical and focused on the New Testament model of church planting missions.
  • Performing research to provide better information and tools for planting missions.
  • Forwarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the ethnic, cultural and generational diverse communities of the United States.

“Major supporters” of the Center are Concordia University Irvine, “Concordia Theological [sic] Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri,” and North America Mission Executives of the LCMS. There are also 15 district partners (reference here).

Their introductory video, would like you to know that the Center is “a catalyst in the LCMS for continuing the mission fervor of our missional theology, a catalyst for investing in the front line of reaching lost people, people who normally wouldn’t go to church….” Their goal: “As committed Christ-followers led by the Holy Spirit we wish to accelerate our effort so we are effectively serving 300 or more new mission outposts across the United States each and every year until our Lord’s return.”

So what is the missional theology of the Center? Let’s answer that question by examining three areas, their stated theological basis, a survey related to “effective missionary leadership,” and a highlighted Mission Plan from a church plant.

The “Theological Basis for the Center for U.S. Missions” page starts out on a high note, mentioning Christ’s atoning work on the cross. From there they develop a series of proof texts to support their church planting goals. Here, because of their missional presuppositions (really their theology), our Lutheran sacramental distinctives become misshapen. Consider their statements on the Sacraments:

Here the Holy Spirit, through the Word and Sacraments, empowers them with gifts for service (Rm. 12:68).

We affirm the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9) bestowed upon believers at their baptism, and the need to involve God’s people in the ministry of the church according to their gifts (Ephesians 4:11).

These new churches train and instruct their people in the Word of God (Rm. 15:4) and together celebrate the sacraments (I Cor. 11:23, Acts 2:42). This enables and empowers them to serve as the priesthood of believers (I Pet. 2:9) in that place.

Did you notice what happened? The Sacraments are no longer particularly salvific, offering forgiveness, life, and salvation; they have now become missional tools, used to “enable” and “empower” the priesthood of all believers in their ministry goals. Justification by grace through faith has been hopscotched to get to the sanctified missional life. What was given at the beginning of the page, Christ’s incarnation and His atoning death on the cross, has in a sense been taken away, by co-opting the Sacraments into a missional tool. The sacramental has been deformed.

In one of the Center’sMission Moments,” a survey called The Leadership Stool is highly recommended, designed to help understand and augment your “missional intelligence.” They state:

It is no great secret or mystery that God Himself initiates, plants and grows the church through His appointed “means of grace” (the Word, the Sacraments and the Holy Spirit). And yet missionary leaders and congregations can limit, block or slow the God-intended growth (Kingdom Impact) of the local church through failure to apply appropriate emotional intelligence. [emphasis in original]

The survey presents a series of statements, asking you to rate yourself on a scale from “Not Really” to “Almost Always.” Here are a few representative statements (this from the “Senior Pastor” survey; there’s also a “Christian Leader” survey):

  • I rely on the Holy Spirit to know how to lead.
  • I am good at reading the energy level of a crowd.
  • I often adjust my sermon because of the response of the audience.
  • My job is to get people organized and moving forward in the same direction.
  • I look for new ways to increase the group spirit of our church.
  • I articulate a clear vision for the future of our church.
  • My devotional life is rich and fulfilling.
  • I love attending a good party.
  • I consciously follow Jesus’ example in my daily life.
  • On Sundays, lay people cast vision by publically sharing their ministry experiences.
  • My primary goal in life is to advance the Kingdom of God.
  • I practice many of the spiritual disciplines.
  • I have strong spiritual instincts.

Again, this survey is referred to as a “very fine tool.” Obviously, it’s not a generic business survey, used to pick team leaders at Walmart. It was written by a Christian. Equally obvious, it isn’t incarnational or sacramental. It’s written by an enthusiast, not someone who understands that all mission flows from cross, font, and altar. Once again, what was a given in the Center’s initial discussion, Word and Sacrament, is taken away by the survey. There is very little sense that the survey itself considers it important that a potential church planter’s theological belief includes an incarnational and sacramental basis. One wonders if this tool is used by the Center’s LCMS Church Planters Assessment Center (CPAC) as it

helps a potential church planter clarify — and church planting sponsors verify — whether or not he or she has the specific calling, necessary gifts, skills and character to be a lead church planter. Relying on research-based church planter qualifications and multiple perspectives, a group of trained assessors use behavioral interviews, proven self-awareness inventories, self-discovery experiences, group projects, carefully gathered references, testing and interviews by a licensed Christian psychologist, all under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to prayerfully evaluate candidates.

As one of the Center’s resources, they have posted two sample Mission Plans from existing church plants “as an encouragement to other churches interested in preparing a plan of their own.” The mission statement of one of these Mission Plans reads: “X X Ministry ignites, empowers, and energizes people for a vibrant life in Jesus Christ.” How do they do this? By understanding the surrounding community and drawing them into a “faith experience.” They say:

X X is a people that offers a safe haven to those who may feel threatened and insecure. We will offer comfort, support, encouragement, and hope to people who live in fear and apprehension. Our world is filled with stress and anxiety and worry. These things rip at our soul and distract us from the comfort and encouragement that Jesus offers us so we can feel rested and supported. Living Water is a people that will offer the world a sense of purpose and direction. We will be “purpose driven” to the mission of Jesus to save the lost and grow in our own faith relationship. To this end, we will offer experiences that will allow people to explore where they are going in their own lives and how Jesus directed his own followers to see a greater purpose.

Circles of CommittmentWhat type of purpose are they talking about? “The philosophical base of our congregation is a purpose driven congregation based on Rick Warren’s model at Saddleback Church in California.” They are ordering their congregation based on Warren’s “Circles of Commitment” found in The Purpose-Driven Church, and catechizing their members with the “40 Days of Purpose” campaign associated with The Purpose-Driven Life. The purpose-driven life is a Law-driven life. By default, Pastor Warren rejects our incarnational and sacramental theology. A Christ who cannot be present in Communion, whom you must reach by climbing a ladder to the right hand of God, is not the Christ of Scripture and rejects the incarnation. A Baptism that does not save, and that is a work performed by you rather than Christ, is a rejection of the Sacraments.

The purpose-driven template eliminates the Baptismal life. There is no rhythm of daily repentance and absolution. It’s all about purpose, vital community, empowering worship, experiences, and visionary and accountable leadership. This type of theology turns us in on ourselves and what we are doing, rather than outwards to Christ and what He does. This is why they talk about commitment and purpose – they’re preaching the Christian, not the Christ. Bishop Bo Giertz adds to the conversation:

The miracle that took place in the incarnation when the Word became flesh continues in the church and the sacraments. He who does not understand the sacraments will not understand the depth of what Christ has done for us. Faith becomes a philosophy. Jesus becomes a moral role model. The Spirit is replaced with the idealism of good intentions. But faith in God’s world-embracing liberation deed in the incarnation, the jubilation in God’s having come to us in His Son and freed us from sin and death, everything that is part of the great drama of our salvation, it all is obliterated, forgotten or reinterpreted. Thereby Christianity itself is dissolved. Living and genuine Christianity is in its innermost essence faith in the incarnation and the atonement. It is in its innermost essence sacramental, it is the message of God’s real and wondrous presence in the midst of the fallen creation, in the Lord Christ and His Church. (Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future, (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2010) Kindle edition, location 2548-50)

We can praise the Center for wanting to plant churches. Who could argue? Yet looking at these three examples, they seem to be building without a proper foundation and operating with a lack of doctrinal care. Without an all encompassing incarnational and sacramental emphasis, forming Christians who first view their entire life as one of repentance and then engaging the world in their various vocations, we are building on sand. All of our church planting endeavors should be pervaded by the incarnational and the sacramental, so that the Body of Christ is properly built up rather than curved inward on ourselves. We encourage the Center to work towards a proper and thorough-going embrace of this Scriptural basis.

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