Quo Vadis, LCMS?

Calvary_Lutheran_Church_near_Bradley,_South_Dakota

That’s the title of a presentation I offered this past week at the Best Practices for Ministry Conference in Phoenix. Hosted by Christ Church Lutheran (that’s their correct name), this conference is now the largest single conference in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Christ Church provides the venue, meals, atmosphere, and opportunity for over 2,200 people, pastors and educators to gather and to share ideas and best practices for mission and ministry.

My presentation, subtitled: Wine, Women, Worship, Witness, Warfare, was based on the question “Where are you going, LCMS?” Here are a few excerpts:

Introduction: During the past 52 years I’ve served The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in numerous capacities. Throughout those years I’ve experienced its strength, beauty, and weakness. Today I share my heartfelt perspectives on matters that hinder the health and growth of our beloved synod. I pray this offering will stimulate healthy, responsible, evangelical conversation among us, to the glory of God and the building of his Church on earth.

Wine: [In our Synod] the Lord’s Supper has become a source of division and offense rather than the expression of unity and powerful force for conversion and spiritual sustenance it is intended to be. Unless and until we resolve the issue of what is called “close” or “closed” communion among us, the LCMS will continue to be seen as a group of separatistic sectarians and will continue to bring unnecessary offense to repentant Christian sinners who hunger and thirst after the miraculous and life giving blessings offered in this precious gift of God.

Women: I’m not arguing for a de facto reversal of our Synod’s position against ordination of women. I’m simply saying that women in Holy Scripture appear to have been entrusted with greater responsibility than our Synod has given to women today, e.g., the role of prophetess. We cannot ignore the exodus from our church body of spiritually gifted women who see our position of limiting the role of women as, at best, not clearly supported by Scripture and, at worst, misogynistic.

Worship: Some in our Synod maintain that the only true and pure worship must come exclusively from officially approved Synod hymnals. Others obviously disagree. Congregations utilizing a variety of worship formats are experiencing an amazingly high percentage of all new adult confirmations in the Synod. The implications of such objective facts cannot be ignored.

Witness: There must be no compromise, no apology, no confusion about our Christian witness whenever we have the opportunity to share it by “offering prayers, speaking, and reading Scripture” in public gatherings. Unless and until we in the LCMS get over our reticence and reluctance to give witness to Christ anytime, anywhere, under any circumstance, using testimony, dialog, prayer, preaching, or any other means of communication, we will fail to demonstrate the boldness and compassion so desperately needed by people in our country and world who live in darkness, desperation, and despair.

Warfare: When the unbelieving world sees and hears how disrespectfully we treat one another, they want nothing to do with us. All the insistence in the world about pure doctrine pales into insignificance when outsiders fail to see what we proclaim … that we love one another.

My Best Practices presentation was a slightly revised version of an article published by Lutheran Society for Missiology in the May 2017 edition of Lutheran Mission Matters, available at https://www.lsfm.global/LMM-5-17.html.

Ablaze!

Ablaze

At the 2004 national convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, this resolution was adopted: “LCMS World Mission, in collaboration with its North American and worldwide partners, will share the Good News of Jesus Christ with 100 million unreached or uncommitted people by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.”

Today is that day.

Although efforts to achieve this goal have received minimal publicity since the 2010 LCMS national convention, I thank God for the millions of people around the world who have heard the Gospel through the efforts of faithful folks who take seriously this ongoing endeavor.

“By grace you have been saved, through faith. It is a gift of God!” To God alone be the glory!

A blessed 500th Reformation anniversary to each of you!

The Last Gasps

Credit:  C. Mackowiak

Credit: C. Mackowiak

 

 

Last week I read an article titled The 10 Last Gasps of a Dying Church by Brian Dodd. Click on this link to read the entire article: http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/175170-brian-dodd-last-gasps-of-a-dying-church.html. Here are some excerpts:

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If you don’t like changeyou’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Those are the words of General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, who [was recently] in the news because of the VA scandal.

There are few things as sad as watching a once great church grow old, become irrelevant and slowly die. What is worse is that they either don’t know they’re dying, or they simply don’t care as long as those remaining are happy. Sadly, I have witnessed this more times than I wish to count. In addition, I have attended this type of church before.

Here is what I have noticed about many of these churches—at a pivotal point, a decision was made to continue doing ministry the way they always have rather than alter their approach to reach a changing community or the next generation. After months of committee meetings and off-line conversations, the church finally utters The 10 Last Words of Dying Churches—“We’ve never done it that way before. We’re not changing.”

Those 10 powerful words subsequently have a ripple effect that lasts generations.

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Statistics a few years ago showed that 51% of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations had worship attendance of fewer than 100 per week. Of 5,860 congregations reporting, 1,335 had 49 or fewer and another 1,659 had between 50 and 100 in attendance.

There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with small congregations, especially those who face demographic circumstances beyond their control. Nor is there anything particularly virtuous about larger ones. Most congregations I know simply find no joy in becoming smaller.

Whether large, small or midsize, congregations with dwindling worship attendance and their leaders are well advised to reflect prayerfully on the reasons for the shrinkage and to determine a strategy, without in any way mitigating the Gospel, for reversing the trend. Doing so sooner rather than later may help avoid the realities that might otherwise lead to last gasps.

Your Thoughts About Church Visitors

Church 1Perspectives articles the past two weeks have dealt with church visitors. Before moving on from this topic, it seems good to share a few responses I’ve received from readers. So here we go:

• Nathan wrote: “I think it is better to think of them (people who come to our churches) as guests rather than visitors. Guests are anticipated, prepared for and welcomed. Visitors are often viewed as an inconvenience.”

• Paul wrote: “This [discussion about church visitors] assumes that there are so many visitors coming to our churches that we need to develop answers to the questions being asked. Many of our churches have very few visitors. We really do need to get out of the church building (rather than expect all the people to come to us) and be the church in the community where people are living. That will help us discover the questions [church visitors are actually asking]!”

• Bill wrote: “Mama-Missouri stands at a crossroads between irrelevancy and connectedness. If we remain staunchly dedicated to being our grandfathers’ church (page 5 and 15), we hasten our demise. If, rather, we seek to connect with the lost, hurting and broken people around us, we might actually come closer to God’s idea of “church” in James 1:27: ”Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

• Paul also wrote: “When they [church visitors or guests] show up, we need to have a group of people (congregation) who are willing to engage with them and all they bring in appropriate ways, with answers and postures and a heart filled with Jesus type love and activity. That means a church engaged with people where they are–the public zone.

“We just are not too good at that. We figure that if we offer enough programs and resources and ‘stuff,’ people will hear about it and then choose what we offer rather than the same choices from other organizations down the street, at their work, with their friends, etc. I am not saying we shouldn’t have stuff happening at church. But relying on that to bring in visitors is probably too optimistic in our world today.

“Actually, what we do at church should probably be focused on developing the faithful to be faithful and faith filled in their communities! [We do well by] using our gathering as a means to an end—being washed by grace and then prepared and motivated to share [that grace] when we get our boots on the ground in the marketplace.”

Thanks for sharing your perspectives! Perhaps this little series of articles will stimulate some reflective thinking and creative acting! The Gospel is too precious to keep to ourselves! As the “This Little Gospel Light of Mine” song says: “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna’ let it shine!”

Let it shine! All the time! Let it shine!

More about Church Visitors

Visitor 2

Last week’s article listed “Nine questions visitors aren’t asking but churches are still trying to answer.” It generated quite a few responses, including several asking for a list of questions church visitors are asking these days.

So here’s a partial list of such questions, some of which were provided by my readers, most of which come from my own experience:

  1. Is the parking lot always this full?
  2. Where are the bathrooms?
  3. Are they clean and will they smell fresh?
  4. Will my young child be well cared for in the nursery and feel loved and safe there?
  5. How long will the worship service last?
  6. Will I be able to understand and follow what goes on in the service?
  7. Does the pastor preach from the Bible and does he really practice what he preaches?
  8. Does he always preach this long?
  9. Does he always preach this well (or poorly)?
  10. For what primary purpose does this church exist?
  11. What is the quality of the children’s ministry?
  12. Will my teenagers be excited about becoming involved here?
  13. Is there a ministry for senior adults?
  14. Do the people here get along with other Christians in the community?
  15. If they have communion today will I be allowed to participate?
  16. Will the time I spend here help me find answers to questions I have about God?
  17. Will the time I spend here help me find answers to questions I have about life?
  18. Would I be proud to invite my friends and family to come to this church with me?
  19. Will I leave here knowing and feeling that I have been in the presence of God?
  20. Will I leave here feeling more guilty than when I came or will I feel forgiven?

Pastors and lay leaders should have conversations about these and other questions visitors to your church are likely to ask. Such conversations are best when respectful and non-accusatory, asked and answered with sincere desire to represent with excellence the God we worship.

Remember last week’s reminder of our responsibility as Christians, stated in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” That’s a huge responsibility and awesome privilege!

Church Visitors

Visitors 1Recently I saw an interesting article on MinistryMatters.com titled “Nine questions church visitors aren’t asking but churches are still trying to answer.” Here we go:

  1. So how soon can I get involved with your committees?
  2. Can I get a longer bulletin—maybe something with more detail?
  3. Will you please single me out in front of all the people during worship this morning?
  4. Will you please send some “callers” by my house later and interrupt me while I fix dinner?
  5. Can you please seat us in those uncomfortable pews with our fidgety kids and aging parents?
  6. How quickly can I fill out a pledge card?
  7. Does this church have weekly meetings, rehearsals and other activities that will consume most of our family’s free time?
  8. I need more paperwork! Can you give me a folder filled with glossy pamphlets, old newsletters and denominational statements of belief?
  9. During the worship service, can someone with a monotone voice speak (at length) about all the insider church happenings and people’s private health matters? I find this so inspiring.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. Perhaps this brief article will inspire church leaders to consider carefully what to do and what not to do when communicating with church visitors, assuming some of those folks still exist in your community and are not totally extinct.
  2. We do well to be sensitive to the thoughts, impressions, needs and feelings of folks who take what to them may very well be a significant risk of becoming a church visitor.
  3. It is very important for us to see our church as others see it, including its exterior and interior features, restrooms, nursery, etc., and to see ourselves as they see us!
  4. Perhaps before we continue providing answers to questions no one is asking, we should take time to discern the questions people actually have on their minds.

Why is all this important? Purely because of our responsibility as Christians, stated in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

That’s an awesome responsibility and incredible privilege! Regardless of the reason people visit our church, they are people for whom Christ died! And we are Christ’s representatives to them!

Five Two Wiki and Best Practices Conferences

Conference 1The first title above may sound a bit strange for a conference name, especially one hosted by an LCMS congregation with 700 excited participants who are almost all LCMS folks. It’s going on this week in Katy, Texas. Attendees from around the country are quite a bit younger than the average LCMS member, most of them having strong interest in mission and ministry.

The second conference referenced above is what its title describes—a conference whose presenters share with leaders who attend the conference best ministry practices that are working well in their congregations. My sense is that the average age of the 600 also excited attendees at this conference, held in Phoenix in February, may be slightly higher than the Wiki folks, but still quite a bit younger than average. They, too, have strong interest in mission and ministry.

Both of these unofficial conferences are sponsored by congregations and pastors, Bill Woolsey at Cross Point Community Lutheran in Katy and Jeff Schrank at Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix, who sense needs begging to be met. Those needs include missional information, ideas and encouragement, presented without the distraction of political motivation or controversy.

These conferences attract people focused on figuring out how best to communicate the Gospel to people not attracted to church as most of us know it. The worship is mostly “contemporary” and quite spirited. The atmosphere is saturated with Scriptural teaching and preaching. The concern is clearly focused on the eternal destiny of people without Christ. Most ideas and strategies shared are tried and tested. Others are more embryonic and visionary.

An important objective of these conferences is the gathering of men and women who share a focus on mission and ministry that goes beyond traditional patterns and frequently unfruitful expressions. The folks who attend are eager to learn more about how to proclaim the love of Christ in faithful ways to new generations of people who are spiritually hungry but also either not attracted to or even turned off by most of what happens in the organized church.

My commendation is hereby offered to conference organizers, sponsors and presenters, along with attendees and their congregations back home. They are the ones whose ministry and mission will benefit from the return of rejuvenated, reenergized, recommitted workers and leaders.

The mission is real! The field is ripe for harvest! The eternal destination of people who live in darkness and disbelief is at stake! God be praised for the results that his blessing on these conferences will produce!

The LCMS in Convention

LCMS Convention

Credit: Christian Post

On June 7, 1970, I was ordained into the pastoral ministry. The next summer I attended my first national convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Milwaukee. The 65th Regular Convention of the LCMS concludes today in St. Louis. It’s the thirteenth national convention I’ve attended, never as a voting delegate and never having missed one in 43 years of ministry.

In numerous ways, this one was not the same as those in the recent past. Having chaired four district conventions in Texas and three national conventions, I had become accustomed, with gavel either handy or actually in hand, to viewing from the podium a sea of delegate faces.

Things look quite different from the rear of the auditorium, looking at the back of many heads, faces of which are not visible. In addition, that perspective forces one to see more clearly the mass exodus of folks headed for biological breaks as soon as the convention essayist appears. No blame assigned in that regard. Nature does call.

It’s not my intent here to summarize the decisions made or elections completed at this convention. That information is available elsewhere. Nor is it my intent to criticize, in spite of the old Adam within me being at least mildly tempted to do so. Instead, I hope to offer a few observations about this convention’s demeanor and culture and a few related thoughts.

For the most part, at least during the time I was able to pay attention and was not responding to kind, cordial and even emotional greetings from many dear friends of Terry’s and mine from the past, delegates this year were seemingly less hostile or mean spirited than at some conventions I’ve attended and chaired. Could it be that the people at this convention were simply nicer or kinder or gentler than those present at other conventions? I think not.

My guess is that delegates at previous conventions were more emotionally charged upon their arrival than this year’s delegates. How so? Delegates in the past anticipated the election of a Synod president at the convention itself. This year, under the new rubric for doing so, the election of the president had already been completed and the results announced two weeks earlier.

In years past, pre-convention emotionality and anticipation were fueled by stacks of correspondence sent to delegates by interested parties, extolling the virtues of one candidate and exaggerating the vices of others. The absence of election anticipation in the context of such often vitriolic, voluminous, uninvited and un-welcomed material, contributed to a much calmer atmosphere this year than in previous conventions. Election fervor simply did not appear to be in the hearts and heads of this year’s delegates upon arrival.

In addition, based on my informal sense and unscientific analysis of voting results and other general observations, it might appear that the kind of delegates who in the past have been quite animated, vocal and even cantankerous didn’t show up. It’s more likely that such delegates were indeed present but chose not to find many things to fuss about, at least while I was paying attention as noted above. I could speak more specifically about the reasons for this observation, but my mother told me long ago that if I can’t say anything nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.

Obvious in the wording of numerous resolutions submitted by floor committees to the delegates was a concentrated effort to increase visitation, observation and supervision of congregations, institutions and pastors. Most of those resolutions were adopted handily, for what delegate is not in favor of ascertaining that the Holy Scriptures are cherished and taught in their truth and purity and the Lutheran Confessions honored and upheld among us as a correct interpretation thereof?

Not insignificantly, most of those resolutions concentrated significant authority in the hands of a few. That is something most of us either do or do not applaud or appreciate, depending largely upon the identity of the few and the level of trust placed in those so identified. Most in the LCMS hope and pray that such concentration of authority will be handled evangelically, faithfully and fraternally. Time will tell whether or not that is the case.

In the meantime, here are some realities as I see them:

  • The greatest blessing we have is the Gospel of Christ, our Lord and Savior!
  • The greatest challenge we have is acting as though we truly believe there is a hell and that the public proclamation and personal sharing of the Gospel for the sake of eternal salvation of the souls of people is the most important reason the church, including the LCMS, exists!
  • We must focus ever more seriously on our God given privilege and responsibility of accomplishing his mission of reaching the world with the unadulterated, uncompromised, unfettered news of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ!

Unless and until we do so in ways that are at the same time courageous, fearless and winsome:

  • Our witness to the world will be dulled and doubted.
  • Our acts of mercy will become difficult and disassociated from the love of Christ.
  • Our life together will continue to be characterized by distrust and division, whether or not such are detected at an LCMS convention.

Two reminders to myself and encouragement for each of you:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-6)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!