The Anti-Church

ChurchNew ideas require new ways of speaking.  Old terminology doesn’t cut it when it comes to modern conceptions of church, especially when those modern approaches represent a radical break from traditional ecclesiology.  To be sure, it is helpful when this is recognized.  There’s nothing worse than attending what you think is a confessional Lutheran church only to find out it’s more Baptist than Lutheran.  There seems to be a trend among some Lutheran churches to drop “Lutheran” from their name (usually in the name of outreach).  While I lament the decline of the Lutheran church, I’d rather a nominal Lutheran church not identify themselves as “Lutheran.”  For these churches to make this identification is misleading and gives people the wrong idea as to what Lutheranism is really all about.

To the “missional” crowd, using the language of the confessions to describe the Church is the equivalent of putting new wine into old wineskins (Matthew 9:17).  “Out with the old, in with the new.”  New ways of speaking are needed to describe new understandings of the church (as are new creeds, liturgies, etc.).  For the missionals to use traditional language and identify themselves with the traditional symbols is misleading.  In this respect, it is actually helpful for those who promote ahistoric understandings of the church to use novel terms like “missional.”

Lucas Woodford traces the origin of the term “missional” back to 1998, which arose during a time when there was a desire to “stop, check our assumptions, and ask if there might be a different way of being the church.” [endnote 1]  However, this new understanding of church is actually anti-church, quite the opposite of biblical ecclesiology.

For Lutherans, there is no better summary of biblical ecclesiology than Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, which says, “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”  For the missionally-minded, such an understanding of  church is too inwardly focused.  The missional, according to Carl Raschke, are those who “must incessantly reach out to those who are beyond the fringes of established Christianity, and they must do so in a way that is integral rather than incidental to their mission and purpose.” [endnote 2]  It is striking how different this conception of church is from AC VII.  While AC VII emphasizes those who belong to Jesus (saints gathered around Word and Sacrament), the missional conception emphasizes those who do not.

In addition to needing new language to describe itself, the missional church is constantly looking for new ways of doing things.  Time Anti-churchthat could have been spent on exegesis is instead spent writing new liturgies.  Hymnals, which contain texts that cannot be manipulated, are replaced by screens, where the message is supposed to change.  The body of Christ, in which each part plays a vital role and members are dependent on one another (1 Cor 12:21) is severed into several parts (“small groups”), which have little to no interaction with one another.  Ironically, the focus on outreach is quickly lost, and the true mission of the missional church becomes one of reinvention, of coming up with new ways of expressing itself.  The Gospel is replaced with the endless quest of coming up with the next big thing.

That the missional approach to church is anti-church can also be seen in their loss of the church’s marks, the purely preached Gospel and rightly administered sacraments.  The distinction between Law and Gospel no longer plays a vital role in preaching or the liturgy, which is replaced with a desire to motivate or entertain.  The proper administration of the sacraments is disregarded, which is particularly evident in the practice of open communion and the use of women in distributing the Sacrament.  Anything that would hinder a total stranger to Christianity from fully participating or feeling immediately comfortable in the service is removed.  The culture sets the agenda and the church begins practicing what William Willimon calls “promiscuous ministry–ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving.” [endnote 3]  He continues, “We have become the victims of a culture of insatiable need.  We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than ‘meeting our needs.’” [endnote 4]

The classic definition of church, as set forth in AC VII, is a truly “missional” definition (if we may risk identifying ourselves with such a term).  For there, God is at work accomplishing His mission.  Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who creates faith when and where it pleases God (AC V).  In this Church, the Holy Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying His people (SC, Creed, III).  Replacing doctrine with emotional manipulation, compromising with the culture, and the latest strategies from TCN will not “grow the church”; they are anti-church.  Only God gives growth, and He does it in the same way He always has.

[1] Woodford, “Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession?”  Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012 (4).

[2] Woodford, 5.

[3] Woodford, 4 (fn 8).

[4] Ibid.

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