Mission: Decline of the Church, Self-Esteem, and the Small Catechism

At the recent LCMS convention, a recurring topic was the decline of the church. President Harrison had written about it in his report. Some had criticized one part of what he said, the part about declined birth rates among church people. Our birth rates are below the replacement rate. Other explanations also circulate, and each one has its critics.

The explanations and the criticisms of them are important because they are part of what drives our approach to mission.

I’ll add one more that is not the be all and end all explanation, but should be in the mix. We have had one full generation raised with the doctrine of self-esteem. That generation now is raising the next one with a doctrine whose name has yet to be crystalized, but it follows on from the trajectory of self-esteem.

Why does this matter?

It matters because people are not interested in what the Gospel proclaims when they are entrenched in self-esteem’s denial of sin and judgment. Self-esteem is a temperamental fortress against the witness of the Law about our sin.

This poses multiple challenges for how the Lutheran church is to proclaim God’s Word.

  • How to preach the Law to self-esteemers without turning into legalists.
  • How to preach the Law for the purpose of bringing self-esteemers to Christ without confusing that preaching with the mere promotion of civil righteousness.
  • At the same time, how to promote civil righteousness.
  • How to preach the Gospel in a way that does not become a mere general amnesty, but depends entirely on the sacrificial blood atonement of Christ, and the delivery of the justification of the world Jesus won on the cross through the means of grace.

At first, this does not sound so simple. It reminds me of a juggler, trying to keep several balls in the air without dropping any. To accomplish all this is what we might call the Lutheran art of proclamation. We need to be able to practice this art in the pulpit, at the font, at the rail, and with our neighbors in our vocations.

The Holy Spirit is sovereign over the effect of the preaching of the Word. It would be tempting to just proclaim the Word and then “Let go and let God.” The “Let go and let God” part would work if only the “Just proclaim” part happened. But let’s face it. In the Lutheran church, one arm of the body of Christ is not doing its share of work.

The two arms are:

  • All believers are royal priests and possess the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Laity in this royal priesthood has the right and the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in their vocations to family, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. The Holy Spirit gives efficacy to this proclamation.
  • God has established a particular office to proclaim the Word, administer the Sacraments, and administer the Office of the Keys publically on behalf of the church. This Office of Public Ministry is to be held only by certain men who possess scripturally prescribed qualifications and who are rightly called into this office.

The priestly work of the people of God and the special calling to the office of preaching and the administration of the sacraments on behalf of the church are complementary. They are not competing. They exist side by side in Scripture and in the life of the church.

The pastors who are examined, called, and ordained into the Office of Public Ministry are practicing the art of Lutheran proclamation, as they have been trained to do. That arm is working.

The other arm – the laity, the royal priesthood – not so much.

Our vocations are presenting opportunity continually. The adage, “Opportunity only knocks once,” of questionable veracity even where it usually is applied, has no veracity at all when applied to the mission of the royal priesthood. Opportunity for witness is like wisdom in the book of Proverbs who calls aloud outside, raises her voice in the open squares, cries out in the chief concourses and at the openings of the gates in the city, and seldom gets an audience.

We actually know that. Whereas some decades ago Christians typically said they were waiting for a good opportunity to be a witness, I seldom hear that any more. What I hear nowadays is that “I don’t know how to present it.” People ask for classes, and even after having classes, the royal priesthood still often is AWOL.

This often is the result of bad experiences people have had in witnessing now that we are speaking to so many people who are sunk in self-esteem. The royal priests of the laity intuitively feel that they don’t have the art for this situation, and they don’t see how they ever are going to acquire the art.

But, this art has been given to us.

This art is in Dr. Luther’s Small Catechism. Here is the Law without legalism. Here is the Law to bring people to Christ. Here is the Law to promote civil righteousness, but without confusion of that with bringing people to Christ. Here is the Gospel that is not a trivial general amnesty but the Word of the cross of Christ and his holy, innocent, and bitter sufferings and death for our sin. Here is forgiveness not because God must be at least as nice a guy as we are, but for Christ’s sake, without which there would be no remission of sin.

The order of the six chief parts of Christian doctrine in the Small Catechism shows us the order in which to proclaim the Word. Luther upended the order of the catechism that had prevailed, placing the Law first in the Ten Commandments, then the Gospel in the Creed, and then the Christian life in the Lord’s Prayer.

He made the Gospel predominate. Even in the Ten Commandments, while he explains that each commandment means that we must fear God, he also includes love and trust. The Law commands love, but gives no power to love, so the Law alone would strike dread and despair. Certainly trust would be beyond hope, except that we already are anticipating the Gospel. This is a presentation of the Law that leads to Christ. Learn these words, “fear, love, and trust.” Meditate about why Luther chose them. These words make all of the commandment parts of the first commandment, and these words lead to the Gospel.

At every turn, in the commandments, in the creed, in prayer, in the sacraments, the Catechism is throbbing with genius, already all worked out for you, and distilled into a couple dozen pamphlet-sized pages.

To be a witness for Christ does not require learning something more or different from what you learned to be a Christian confirmed in your baptismal faith. When opportunity to be Christ’s witness arises, simply think catechetically. As you listen to your relative, neighbor, friend, or coworker, think to yourself, what part of the Catechism touches this? Then bring forth that part. The Catechism is small enough and simple enough that you can do it.

It is most gratifying to see that in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Board for National Mission and the Office of National Mission are on to the strategic power of the Catechism for lay evangelism. They have developed a new Every One His Witness lay vocational evangelism program. This program weaves the Small Catechism into every part of its fabric. If you are in the LC-MS, look for your chance to participate in this program. Ask your pastor about it. Call the Office of National Mission.

But that is not the only way you could acquire the art. Here are things anyone can do:

  • Like Luther, read from the Catechism every day.
  • Learn to pray the Catechism.

Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. We cannot meditate on what we don’t know. We cannot give witness to what is not dear enough to us to meditate on. Get the Catechism into your heart. Meditate on it. When it is in your heart, your mouth will be able to speak it.

While we should learn to pray the Catechism for the value of doing that in and of itself, it also will have a side effect for witness. When you can speak from the Catechism to God, you can speak from the Catechism in vocation to your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Just now, a fabulous new resource for praying the Catechism has been published. Every Christian home should have a copy of Praying Luther’s Small Catechism by John T. Pless. Husbands and wives should read this together, discuss it, and pray the Catechism together. Parents should read this to their children and pray the Catechism with their children. For $9, you can learn to pray the Catechism, and you can learn to speak the Catechism in witness for Christ.

True enough, the Holy Spirit remains sovereign to create faith where and when he wills. But He freely bound himself to the means of the Word, and He has given it to us, the royal priesthood, to speak the Word vocationally. Dr. Luther’s Small Catechism in the layperson’s little Bible. It contains the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, which are enough for anyone to witness for Christ.

People do not believe a Word they have not heard. Let’s open our mouths and speak the Word, and wait upon the Holy Spirit.

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