The Crisis of Our Present Time
In 2017 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As I have been reflecting on my time at Concordia Seminary I am acutely aware of the fact that I will be ordained 500 years after the young Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. With this single act, Luther began a spiritual, social, and intellectual revolution that single-handedly reshaped Western history and the nature of the Christian Church, the effects of which we are all heirs.
As such, the question that I have to ask myself is, “What will our legacy, as the religious descendants of Luther, be in the next 500 years of the Reformation?” This is a pressing question for us in the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod. While the Lutheran Church, like many churches, is growing rapidly in the Majority World, in the West we are in a state of decline. Fully 2/3rds of our congregations worship 125 people or less on a Sunday morning, and are not even able to financially support a full-time pastor. And if these trends continue then it means that this generation of seminarians will most likely minister over the death of at least one congregation over the life of their ministries.
And so, we must ask ourselves the question, “What will our legacy be? What will our gifts to the global Church and the world be?” Sadly, if you take our history as any indication of our trajectory, our prospects do not look good. While we have remained a church committed to sound doctrine and biblical faithfulness, we have historically been insular, reactionary, and isolationist.
Throughout the short life of our Synod we have swung back and forth between the poles of a false dichotomy: we will engage with others only if we have complete doctrinal agreement or we walk away from the table. The two choices that we seem to feel we have are either that we compromise who we are for the sake of unity with others or we remain isolated; a church body apart for the sake of preserving our Confessional identity.
And I have to ask, “Are those our only options or is there another way forward?”
Recovering Our Reformation Identity
I believe that there is a third way and it begins by reminding ourselves of our birth as a church body. We are the heirs of the Reformation. Our founder is the man credited with sparking this titanic shift in the history of Christianity. But what was the Reformation? How do we understand it?
Some have defined the Reformation as a prophetic movement, with Martin Luther and his contemporaries calling the Church, God’s people, to repent of the ways in which they had betrayed God and departed from the Scriptures. Others have defined the Reformation as a missionary movement, with Luther and the reformers reintroducing a pagan people to the true faith and preaching to those who, despite living under the auspices of Christendom, had not heard the good news.
And while both of these pictures contain an element of the truth, neither of them fully captures the spirit and essential nature of the Reformation. I would argue that the Reformation was essentially a Gospel movement. That may sound overly simple, but I believe that this, more than anything, brings together both the prophetic and missionary aspects of the Reformation movement, for at its core it is about reintroducing people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to the good news that God, apart from any work or merit of our own, entered into our world and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. We are carried along by the words of St. Paul: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The Reformers like Luther and Melanchthon were about radically engaging the world with this message. Rather than retreating into their Saxon enclaves, they published, spoke, met with opponents, and debated. They preached to the leaders of the Church and the laity, to nobles and peasants. They were well-educated, well-read, and knowledgeable of both the classics as well as the writings of their contemporaries. Rather than hiding in Germany and withdrawing from other Christians for the sake of protecting their pure doctrine, they sought dialogue and engaged the world with their Confessions. They were able to speak with persuasion and chose to stay in conversation where there were differences rather than walk away.
Lutheran Engagement in the 21st Century
And I believe that is this posture that we must recapture in the new millennium. We must recapture our calling to be a Gospel movement speaking the good news of Christ to Christian and non-Christian alike.
So what does this look like? I believe it takes place on two fronts. The first involves positive involvement with the Church catholic, the una sancta. The reality is that, for all of our theological and doctrinal rigor, we in the LCMS have not had a significant influence on Christian theology in the 20th and 21st centuries beyond our own theological tradition.
And yet, I would argue that there is a deep hunger within the global church for robust theology that we, with all of our resources, can meet. I cite a couple of examples from within the Western world.
Two of the largest evangelical leaders, Timothy Keller and Tullian Tchividijan, have each produced two books in the last several years that were directly drawn from the unique theological insights of the Lutheran tradition.
Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor is directly based on Luther’s view of vocation. His book Counterfeit Gods was inspired by his own reflections on Luther’s comments regarding the first commandment in the Large Catechism. Tchividijan’s book One Way Love is directly based on the Lutheran view of the one-way nature of salvation from God to us, and was an insight he gleaned from reading Kolb and Arand’s book The Genius of Luther’s Theology. Likewise, his book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free is his own meditation on the power of the theology of the Cross for those facing hardship and pain.
Do you see what I’m getting at? People are interested!!! These books have all topped the bestseller charts. Furthermore, these are two incredibly influential Christian leaders on the international scene. And my question is, “Why weren’t we on the front lines of this?” Why is it that these two leaders had to find us on their own? Why weren’t we in relationship with them, talking theology, discussing the nature of the Gospel, thinking about how it shapes how we, as members of the una sancta, engage the world?
Likewise, the Acts 29 Network, perhaps one of the most successful church planting organizations in the nondenominational world, recently hosted a conference in which a major topic was the importance of Law-Gospel preaching in the teaching ministry of pastors. Again, my question is, “Where were we?”
I believe that we need to find ways of positively interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the wider Church. Part of what made the Reformation, as a movement, so influential was that the reformers out-published the Catholic Church 8-to-1. And yet, we as the LCMS publish only for ourselves. I believe we need to be publishing our books and works through non-Lutheran publishers and encouraging our theologians and pastors to write. We should be marketing our theological books and commentaries to seminaries and church bodies beyond our own.
Furthermore, we need to be involved in many of the conferences and organizations that are shaping the character of Christendom around the world. Organizations like The Gospel Coalition, the Verge network, Acts 29, and The Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization are just a few of the organizations that are significantly shaping the theology and practice of the church in the West and abroad. And yet, Lutherans are conspicuously absent, leading one blogger for The Gospel Coalition to write, “Where have all the Lutherans gone?”
This is not a call to ecumenism nor is it a call to formally unite with other churches into one denomination. Rather, it is a call to be involved with and participate in the many inter-denominational organizations that are shaping the theology, practice, and witness of the Church, for these are chances to bring our doctrinal and confessional distinctives to the table, share them with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and have an influence in shaping the consciousness of the global Church.
The second front involves a recommitment to world evangelization. Sadly, over the past several years fewer and fewer dollars have been spent Synod-wide on domestic and foreign missions. Likewise, fewer and fewer programs designed to reach the lost have been started. The decline in missions giving and of evangelistic programs like the Ablaze campaign has not only hindered our witness, but has led to the decline of our church body in the West.
And yet, the Lutheran church abroad, because of its passion for witnessing to the lost is growing by leaps and bounds. Furthermore, on the domestic front, the districts which have experienced the highest rate of district-wide giving and growth are those with a clear emphasis on church planting and evangelism.
Why? Because the mission of Christ is contagious. It motivates His people to lives of faithful witness and passionate service. And, most importantly, it leads people from darkness to light, from death to life. So a major priority for us, as a church body, is to recommit ourselves to world evangelization. This should involve concrete actions directed toward planting new churches, equipping and sending new missionaries, and developing new initiatives designed to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Toward a Lutheran Legacy
The first 500 years of the Reformation have been a rich period of theological reflection, cultural engagement, and worldwide missions in the history of the Church. My prayer is that the next 500 years of the Reformation will not only continue in this great tradition, but offer new insights, cross new boundaries, and continue to reach the world with the good news of Christ. And I pray that we, as Lutheran Christians, would be a part of that legacy as we live out our calling as Reformation people.
To God alone be the glory. Amen.