The following was written for an Introduction to Systematics prompt. The prompt was long and I had to hit on quite a few points covered in the class. The assignment has five different segments that will be graded. Just roll with it for me without having to see the prompt – let me know your thoughts.
And no – I’m not a pastor, and no – that I know of there is no Bucksnort Lutheran Church in TN.
I also don’t know why when copying from Word into my WordPress Blog some paragraphs are indented and others are not.
Dear saints of Bucksnort Lutheran Church,
The Lord be with you!
A conversation emerged at one of our weekly, late night men’s meetings at Dunkin’ Donuts that I think is of importance to share with the whole congregation. This last week turned into one of those burning of the midnight oil sessions as the topic of discussion turned to the declining membership of our church. Our group was divided over what role evangelism plays in our response to the “dying” state of our congregation. Likely other conversations are emerging among you concerning solutions to this felt need to acquire more members for congregational survival, so I am writing to address this matter. First I will layout the two sides that were drawn in our men’s meeting. After presenting the two positions I aim to give meaning to our current situation in light of Church history, before offering a very important theological distinction concerning the nature of evangelism. I will then close with my concrete recommendation for how we should proceed as a congregation concerning evangelism in our church and to our community.
The discussion led us to two distinct camps. The one camp stressed that we needed to have an intentional, concerted, congregation-wide effort to gain new members. The term campaign was given to define this endeavor. This campaign would entail increased evangelism, outreach, and witness in our individual vocations and as a congregation. Door to door evangelism visits and invitations to the church were suggested, regularly placing flyers in all the public boards at the community center and town markets, hosting a town hall style meeting at our church to address pornography, since our town is largely known for the adult video store right off our I-40 exit, registering a booth at all the town fairs, and pulling together a community wide venison donation in partnership with Hunters for the Hungry, were all ideas of what could be added to what we are currently doing in the Bucksnort community to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
The other camp that formed emphasized that such planned acts of outreach on our part would be a lack of trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. They stressed that faith is a gift from God and that by our own reason and abilities we cannot believe in Jesus or draw near to him. They understood a campaign to gain new members through “doing more” to be a misguided movement since “our doing” offers no guarantee of new members, since that desired outcome is not dependent upon us, but God’s work alone. This position held that as a congregation we should just trust God with the “survival” of our congregation.
At this point, I think it is important to note that this church body divide is not unique to our congregation. Our Synod was divided over Ablaze, a goal to have a certain number of Gospel “touches” with a tracking of how many of those touches led to church connection. The reason for this goal was to counter dwindling numbers in the Synod as a whole, and the arguments against it were the same as what we see here in Bucksnort Lutheran Church. When I was a seminary student, an Ethiopian student shared with me that his denomination had this same conflict. Their situation was a little different though. Their goal to reach a certain number of people with the Gospel was motivated out of a desire to sustain growth, to preserve their legacy, since their denomination is the largest Lutheran denomination in the world; they wanted to stay that way.
Much of what we are experiencing today can also be placed into a broader historical understanding of the rise and fall of Christendom. In the first century when the apostles walked the earth and the New Testament cannon was still being written, churches were small, Christians were by far a minority, even thought for a while to be a wayward cult of Judaism. When we think of the early Christians, we might tend to try and place our cultural understanding and experience of congregational life into our readings of Paul’s letters to the churches. When we think of the Church of Corinth in the first century, we might picture a congregation with a church building like ours with set service times on a sign in their yard, but this was simply not the case. The church in Corinth likely met in a home or a rented space with as few as 40 people and as many as 100 or so believers in their gatherings. These numbers place our current Sunday gatherings of about 70 people to be in the middle range of what the church in Corinth could have been. Reading their letter from Paul, we don’t typically come to the conclusion that they were a dying congregation, despite their many conflicts, divisions, and obvious sin within their church body. Paul gave no allusion to their congregation dying. Instead, he called for them to address the sin in their congregation through church discipline and exhorted them to remember what was of first importance: that Christ died for sins, was buried, and rose again to life on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
The early Church certainly endured as Christ promised it would, though some congregations might have ceased to gather due to various reasons. More than endure, the Church in fact within about three hundred years of its inception became the dominant religious entity in the Roman Empire thanks to Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity. The Church and the State were married and this gave way to what is called Christendom. The culture by and large became Christian and Christianity was known by all in the land; it could be assumed that most people in the State were Christian, or at least knew the Christian message of Christ.
Does this sound familiar?
I assume many of us have thought in this way about our culture and even our government, thinking of America as a Christian nation. With this notion, we could be tempted to think that the unconverted or individuals who wouldn’t deny Jesus is God but would never ever grace the halls of church building (lots of these folk in TN) simply need to be awakened to the truth that they’re swimming in every day of their lives simply by the virtue of being born an American. This “awakening” is perceived to come about from a simple nudge to go to church by a neighbor, through the Church meeting a particular need or interest of the individual, or by making the Church service a place they feel convertible. Or… what sometimes happens when the Church and State are so entwined, whatever good that comes from the marketplace of the society is interpreted as being from the Lord. Since we have much to be thankful for as Americans, the process of “awakening” the soul in our context becomes a process of pointing people to God by pointing them to the State and all the benefits of being American. At its worst in Church history, this process became a convert or die scenario as the Church extended its borders and ensured control within the State.
Though many Christians in America are quite guilty of thinking along these various lines of “Constantine Christianity,” what I heard presented at Dunkin’ Donuts from the evangelism camp was not the concept that all we had to do was stir people up to embrace the God of America or to point people to American exceptionalism as the means to Church growth. I heard plenty of recognition that we needed to gain new members by reaching into our community through proper missionary work – which is a manifestation of the reign of Christ through following the way of Christ, coupled with the proclaimed Word of God! This is great. Serving and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ is what we are called to do as the Church when making disciples.
Such “missions” won’t guarantee growth in congregational membership, however. On this point, the other camp was correct. Faith is a gift and a work of the Holy Spirit that comes to individuals through their hearing of God’s grace won for them through the persona and work of Jesus of Nazareth. God has entrusted his people with his written Word that was given to the prophets and apostles to be spoken by us to others as the means by which salvation (by grace through faith) comes to individuals. Even in the Sacraments (baptism and communion), grace is delivered directly to individuals through the spoken words of promise: “I baptize you” and “this is for you.” This means are called to “do the Word” and “proclaim the Word.”
The theological distinction that needs to be made is that of efficacy and effectiveness. The Word of God is always efficacious, meaning it always has the power to accomplish the intended effect. The Gospel is the power of God to save for all who believe. (Romans 1:16) However, the Word of God is not always effective. God’s Word (the Gospel) has the power to save, yet It can be resisted, rejected. (Ezekiel 2:5, Isaiah 66:4, John 10:27, Matthew 23:3) Though God’s Word can be resisted, it will not return empty. It will accomplish what God desires for it to accomplish when and where he pleases. (Isaiah 55:11). God’s Word illumines the path to salvation. (Psalm 119:105, 2 Peter 1:19, John 1:1-14) Yet, men reject the light, because they love darkness. (John 3:19:21) God’s Word is understood/discerned spiritually, not by human reason, so that even infants who we do not perceive to be capable of comprehending God’s Word, or any words for that matter, may know God and His Word and have faith in Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Timothy 3:15). This is a mind-blowing mystery concerning how God’s Word is always efficacious but not always effective, yet because we have received this paradox from the Lord in Scripture, we can trust it to be true.
My recommendation from my understanding of the situation, analysis, and assessment, is that we should think of ourselves as living in a “Post-Christian America” or a “Post-Constantine Christianity,” which means we should look to how the Church functioned “Pre-Constantine.” We see that the early Christians “did the text” of God’s Word which put them in stark contrast to the pagans that surrounded them on all sides. Their way of life – caring for each other, loving everyone, giving to those in need, blessing those who persecuted them, doing the things of God’s bidding to love others as ourselves – attracted non-believers to their community. Then they heard the proclaimed word of God that came from within that community, and some believed and joined the family of God in baptism.
This means we should do what both camps have said (in part). The ideas raised by the evangelism camp were good and some of the men were volunteering to spearhead such efforts. Yet, in our discussion we came to the conclusion that such works needed to be done from a proper motivation, not out of fear for our congregation’s survival, but done from a Gospel motivation to share the love we have received from Christ with others. The call to trust in the Holy Spirit from the other camp was also important. We came to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit has gifted us all in the Body of Christ for service in the mission of disciple-making – enacting the reign of Christ here, now, and proclaiming his love and saving work to one and all. In “our working,” we recognize that the Spirit gets the credit, and we must recognize that when we proclaim the Gospel, he works when and where he pleases to bring faith to people.
Peace in Christ,