Official Publication of the LMS-USA
Volume 15, Number 3
In this Issue:
The 2008 LMS-USA Annual Conference Report
by Rev. Richard W. Horn
Secretary of the Ministerium, LMS-USA
Stop! Look! Listen! You may not hear railroad whistles, but the clamor all around us is astounding. If we stop to look and listen, both in the world and in the Church, we hear and see God’s creation in turmoil. To all of this babbling, what does God have to say through us?
The world is facing the continuing threats of genocide, a seemingly endless “war on terror,” and a renewed “cold war” of ideologies and economics. Meanwhile, the Church reminds us of the Old Gray Mare: “she ain’t what she used to be!” So, the 2008 Lutheran Ministerium and Synod - USA Annual Conference examined the need to be faithful as a Church in fulfilling our mission to the world in crisis. “Ministry Today” is essential for a faithful witness to God’s Word proclaimed to the world. The outstanding presentations and discussions were moderated by Dr. Ralph W. Spears, President of the Ministerium of the LMS-USA.
The Context in Which Ministry Takes Place Today
The keynote presentation was given by Pastor John Erickson, President of the Synod of the LMS-USA and Vice-President of the Ministerium, with a remarkably thorough paper on “The Context in Which Ministry Takes Place Today.” The underlying premise is that the Church of every age has as its primary responsibility to preach the Word of God as revealed in Holy Scriptures through the Law and Gospel and as the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ. This responsibility is to be fulfilled at all times and in all circumstances, “to preach the Word in season and out of season.” [II Timothy 4:2] Jesus commissioned the disciples [Matthew 10] to go out, to preach, and to do actions of ministry with the authority to meet the specific and pressing needs before them.
We, too, are sent out to preach and to do ministry; but in what context and to what needs as Confessional Lutherans? In quoting from Professor Jeffrey Kloha in the Concordia Theological Quarterly, Pr. Erickson showed a shift from prior generations questioning the authority of the Bible and the Church in the First Century to questioning the credibility of the Church in the Second Century as it established and expressed the faith.
Is this merely theological rhetoric? It is certainly not mere rhetoric if we look at how modern novels (such as The DaVinci Code) question the Truth, or rather, the truths presented to people today. How many people are rejecting denominations and the established churches in favor of “spirituality” or humanistic thinking? How many view Oprah as more authentic for religious leadership than even the Pope?
Civil authorities have influenced and assisted this turning away from the historic faiths by placing an emphasis on “tolerance” equated with a granting of equal validity to any and all ideas, then accepting and syncretizing all of these ideas. Clearly, the theistic ideas of God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are pushed aside for the scientific and “provable,” from a God-centered universe to a people (human) centered life in which absolutes are replaced by relativity. Such a shift is far more than theologically significant; it is reflected in morality (established on the basis of what feels good or acceptable right now), sexuality, ethics, politics, and every other aspect of life. “Thus says the Lord…” is replaced by a post-modern chaos in which life is transient and meaningless beyond the immediate present. Pilate’s question “What is truth?” [John 19:38a] is answered by subjective “truths” determined by the communal experience.
Perhaps the most obvious expression of post-modern religiosity is seen in the documents of the American Humanist Association. In their documents, all “religion” based on the supernatural or on revelation is dismissed and replaced with an enthronement of man as part of nature and within the context of a natural process. “Reason” and “Science” determine values as one seeks for satisfaction in life. The highest goal for anyone is self-fulfillment within a society of respect and peace. One is ultimately responsible to oneself within society’s shared humane values. As for “traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter.” (from the Preface of the American Humanist Association “Humanist Manifesto II”)
Our society has its expectations of “understanding” and “tolerance” for all of our citizens. But does that mean we, as Confessional Lutherans, could or should be able to understand other religions? There is a multiplicity within Christianity which defies anyone to “understand” it; and the diversity with other faiths is more astounding. Have some individuals, churches or faiths begun to accept these other standards? Have we caved in to the context of our ministry?
Our task as a Church and as members of the Body of Christ is not diminished or made any less clear by the context of our society and culture. With a solid knowledge of and consistency with Scriptures and with respect for tradition through the Confessions of the Church, we must “Go, preach and minister” with sure confidence in the words of Jesus: “I will be with you always.” [Matthew 28:20]
In the World But Not Of the World
Dr. Spears continued the theme with his presentation “In the World But Not Of the World.” Clearly, the world is multicultural; and with pluralistic societies, it exemplifies the ancient struggle contrasting good and evil. That is not new, of course.
Look how the Romans followed the earlier traditions (and often the practices) of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians by imposing their practices, will and culture on a reluctant people. The books of Daniel and Revelation are likely written for such a people who faced persecution and death if they did not succumb to these new ways. In the days of Jesus and Paul, Greek and Hebrew ideas and practices were constantly at odds: over the beauty of the body naked, over foods and idols, over gods (known and “unknown” [see Acts 17:23]) and the God who is One; over being the dominant people and being “the Chosen People.”
How did the Church survive in such a mixed and often hostile culture? With some of the same reactions we experience – in ways that are often visceral, emotional, and strong.
On Personal ‘gods’
Seminarian Tylan Dalrymple capsulized the issue of our relationship with God in his presentation “On Personal ‘gods’.”
Imaginary friends were the companions many of us had in our childhood years. These were very personal “friends” – created in our minds, in our imagination, in our image – to support and reinforce us. The imaginary friend is an extension of “self” and will agree with us, defend us, know us, even lie for us, and will change opinions on issues depending on our needs or moods. This imaginary friend, this very private and personal friend, reinforces what we think is “right” for us (and which may be very different for someone else).
Many church members, in their emphasis on a “personal relationship with God,” have only substituted a “god” for their “imaginary friend,” a “god” who balks at doctrines or absolutes or standards, a “god” willing to reinterpret Scriptures to suit our wants and needs. There are also many churches and church leaders who have helped in the development of these personal “gods.”
But when there are no standards, there is no doctrine; and without doctrine, believers are adrift and will cling to their personal ideas of a personal “god.” Clearly this is contrary to what the Scriptures say and the Confessions teach. For the Church of the Reformation, the motto of “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum” (“The Word of the Lord Endures Forever”) relies on Scripture as the Word of God, as God’s Self-Revelation alone. There is no individual revelation contrary to the Word (though many people may think they are in special circumstances where [their personal] God gives special exceptions to the Word and applies those exceptions to them alone). It should be noted that, even in Scripture, God’s words of personal address are very uncommon, and they are not inconsistent with the rest of Scriptures. Prayer, too, is rooted in the Word of God as an important and necessary part of the relationship God has with all His people.
The Word of God, therefore, reveals God as He really is. Our human searches for other “gods” (Luther reminds us of the “gods” of money, possessions, learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, honor, etc.) are always falling short (the definition of “sin”!). St. Paul warns against those who teach “a different doctrine” [I Timothy 6:3] and who proclaim “a different gospel.” [Galatians 1:6] Even in the early centuries of the Church there were people who believed that they had special knowledge (“gnosis”) of God – apart from that proclaimed by the apostles and their successors.
Instead, we must understand God through His self-revelation as infinite and personal in ways unlike any other; our relationship with God is orchestrated by and dependent upon God alone. Only after acknowledging God and the eternal life given to us in Jesus Christ are we then able to know ourselves in the light of the Word. Our proclamation is then rooted in Scripture and becomes an extension of God’s relationship with us. Notice that the emphasis is, and must always be, not on the “personal” but on the “relationship.”
This relationship with God, rooted in Scripture, finds its completion only within the wholeness of God’s Word as both Law and Gospel. This understanding of the Word is central to being able to understand Scripture, God, and ourselves, and it enables our proclamation of Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,…full of grace and truth.” [John 1:1,14]
How Does the Church Present Its Message in a Pluralistic Society?
Completing the “circle” of the theme of the Conference, Seminarian Kenneth Howes made a presentation on “How Does the Church Present Its Message in a Pluralistic Society?”
Two or three generations ago, understandings and use of the Bible, and faith within America, did not have very much diversity. The King James Authorized Version of 1611 was in standard use, and 96% of people identified themselves as Christian (with 3% identifying themselves as Jewish and the remaining 1% as agnostic or other – but with a good idea of Christian terminology).
Today, however, the percentages are quite different, and church terminology is more likely learned from television (especially from comedy like Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” or the film “Three Weddings and a Funeral”). Societal values began to influence Biblical translations, and the Dead Sea Scrolls and other rediscovered texts took on new “importance” in Biblical interpretations. Clergy, some prominent in their denominations, expressed their lack of faith in many of the traditional and basic doctrines of the Church – and the laity were forced to defend the faith or follow away. In an effort to slow the drop in membership, churches then further watered down their doctrines and practices. Academic skepticism became clerical unbelief that fostered a laity discouraged and disheartened by the unbelief even they began to accept.
Dr. John W. Montgomery said it well: “In the 18th century, the Bible was killed. In the 19th century, God was killed. In the 20th century, man has been killed.” During the 1700s, deists wanted to maintain Biblical morality and a general belief in God while still discarding or modifying the Biblical accounts. By the 1800s, however, faith in Jesus Christ was viewed as for the weak and for women, not for the rational and strong (i.e. “men”). Christianity was seen as a sentimental religion; many of its hymn writers were women, expressing the pietism and sentimentality of the churches. Against this religious position, philosophers sought a humanistic religion. For Nietzsche, this meant that man at his ultimate best creates his own morality, and this superior will is imposed on others; for Marx, humanity would cast off the “opiate” of religion and the masses would take charge. In the 20th century, these philosophies undergirded the inhumanities of Nazism and Marxist communism; and, although those extreme atrocities are mostly behind us, others follow in intellectual and political circles across the globe.
In the life of the Church, biblical literalism and infallibility were tempered by arguments of inconsistency, error and unreliability; the Scriptures are to be understood as containing the Word of God, but not equated with it. The reasoning was seen as simple and logical: the Bible is no longer reliable, so there is no reliable witness to God, therefore there is no requirement to believe and live according to Scripture, and now you can “do your own thing” and simply be “spiritual,” to find the “spirit” within you.
Society, with its advances in science and technology, reflected a similar attitude of “do your own thing.” Pleasure and the emotional highs of drugs and sex have no boundaries of responsibility imposed by either Scripture or society.
The response of the Church has generally taken one of at least five forms: liberalism, fundamentalism, the church growth movement, liturgical Catholicism, and solid apologetics. With liberalism, the Gospel is adapted to the new (and changing) mores of society, to be relevant in every possible way, chameleon-like. The danger of this approach is that the Church becomes invisible; its message is indistinct, indifferent, and unheard.
Fundamentalism is essentially a withdrawal from society, drawing in upon itself to isolate and protect the faithful against the world. It sets up rules, establishes requirements, and uses special or unique vocabulary to separate the church members from others. “Fellowship” becomes a verb. But instead of being “a peculiar people” as Scripture speaks (“chosen,” “set apart,” “distinct” and “distinctive”), they simply become “strange” – and who wants to be “weird”?
Other churches and persons, including many Lutherans, have sought success in terms of money and numbers through the “Church Growth” movement of mega-churches, especially in the style of the Willow Creek Association. Like the liberals, they try to blend in with Starbucks and easy chairs and rock bands; but, like the fundamentalists, they have their own special vocabulary and jargon (like “purpose driven,” “a heart for mission,” “reaching the lost,” “seeker-friendly”). Perhaps not surprisingly, Willow Creek has found that, while they got millions of people through the doors, they didn’t produce many Christians. Many of these churches take Jesus’ command “Feed my sheep” and give God’s People “candy” instead of “food.” Within Lutheranism, some have also turned away from both liberalism and fundamentalism by looking to a generic “Protestantism” with all of the rough edges of the Law smoothed off so no one is offended.
Others, including among the Lutherans, have turned toward more liturgical churches in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, either by converting to them or by incorporating much of their vocabulary and tradition. (For example, reference to “Mary” is usually to “the Blessed Virgin Mary;” and “the Office of Holy Ministry” is used rather than the “preaching office” or the “pastoral office”).
Don’t give up! There is hope for the Church in this world and in this age!
It is not helpful to preach a “Word” that is not “The Word,” and it doesn’t communicate if the hearer cannot understand the special vocabulary. Honest apologetics means having a clear and faithful proclamation, showing both the fallacy of unbelief and the truth and credibility of the Bible, especially of the New Testament. The Gospel message is more reliable than that of any other ancient history, even using the evidentiary standards applied to any ancient text. That Jesus Christ lived, was crucified, and rose again is known with more certainty than the reign of Tiberius Caesar as emperor of Rome!
Even this evidentiary apologetics will not convince or convert everyone, just as Agrippa responded to St. Paul: “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” [Acts 26:28] The Holy Spirit works where He wills to create faith. The role of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel and to bring the presence of God through the Word and the Sacraments so that the work of the Holy Spirit can bring forth the harvest.
With an articulate proclamation, the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod – USA has been blessed by these presenters and by their practical application of the theme “Ministry Today.” We have an urgent requirement to faithfully, clearly, articulately, and solidly proclaim the Word of God to all who will listen!
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How Does The Church Present Its Message in a Pluralistic Society?
by Kenneth Howes
Presentated to the LMS-USA Conference, June 20, 2008
There is an enormous challenge facing all of us as we attempt to proclaim the Gospel in a society where the average unchurched person has no idea of what the language of Christianity means. Two generations ago, if someone was unchurched, he was someone who had abandoned the church in which he was raised. Almost everyone except a few children in radical circles had been raised in some religion. And in American society two generations ago, saying “some religion” meant either Christianity—the religion of 96% of the people—or Judaism, the religion of about 3%. And most of that remaining 1% was agnostics who, however, had a fair idea what Christian terminology referred to.
There was one Bible version used by almost everyone. That was the King James Bible. The main line churches were starting to use the Revised Standard Version. As the Dead Sea Scrolls came into light, the research that would produce the more modern translations—the NIV, the Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bibles, the NRSV, ESV, etc.—was underway. But if you quoted from the King James Bible, it immediately brought recognition. Its figures of speech, especially the proverbs, had permeated our everyday conversation, though increasingly adapted to the 20th century.
Today, most unchurched people aren’t lapsed Christians or Jews. They’re people who have never set foot in their life inside a church other than perhaps to attend a friend’s wedding or funeral. Their view of Christians is something drawn from popular comedy—Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady”—“Well, isn’t that special?” or Cheech and Chong’s Jesus Freak: “Before, I was all messed up on drugs; now I’m all messed up on the Lord.”
The groundwork for this change at the popular level was laid long before in intellectual society. It’s no news to anyone who was theologically conscious even one generation ago that there was a period, roughly 1950 to 1980, when, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s expression in the Screwtape Letters, it was the clergy who shocked the people with their unbelief rather than vice versa. It was the laity of Missouri Synod who, in 1969-74, rejected the teachings of their theology professors and insisted that the Scriptures are indeed the inspired Word of God in their totality. It was Episcopal laity who were up in arms about the discarding of their 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was the last in a succession of magnificent liturgical books, replaced by the mishmash that was introduced in 1979 as a new Book of Common Prayer. It was Roman laity who still wanted to sing “Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.” It was the clergy forcing the unwelcome changes.
Indeed, how much of the secularization of our society began with the efforts of clergy to water down doctrine and practice for a supposedly unbelieving people when in fact the only unbelief in play was their own? But they created unbelief with their own unbelief. The historical criticism that had once been a thing of academic research and speculation in university divinity schools and then spread to seminaries, came from the seminaries to the pulpits and to the popular media, where it seemed once a week some “main line” Protestant theologian, or even radical Roman priest, was announcing that “the best modern scholarship” had shown that this or that ancient teaching wasn’t true.
There had been a time when the intellectual culture was as Christian as that of the people, or perhaps more so. In the late 17th century, Thomas Hobbes, though an unbeliever, framed his arguments in Scriptural language, because that was the language in which intellectuals thought. He was a contemporary of the late orthodox dogmaticians—in Lutheran terms, he was of the generation of Hollaz and Dannhauer, and he was writing in England for the generation that had just produced the single edition of the Book of Common Prayer that would remain in use longer than any other, the 1662 book. As John Warwick Montgomery says, “Hobbes was an atheist. But he had to use Christian language to make sense.”
Montgomery says, “In the 18th century, the Bible was killed. In the 19th century, God was killed. In the 20th century, man has been killed.” The 18th century deists wanted to retain Biblical morality and a belief in God generally while discarding the Bible. In Europe, that was the era of Semler and the other early higher-critical scholars. In America, many of the leading thinkers of the Revolution, notably Paine and Franklin, were deists, and Jefferson, though not initially a deist, drifted in that direction, producing an edition of the Bible from which all the miraculous passages had been deleted. The first edition of that Bible was printed at government expense. They continued to work, however, with the language and inherited moral concepts of the Bible.
Cut off from its source, however, that morality and that language began to wither. By the late 19th century, belief in Jesus had become viewed in intellectual circles as weakness and something for women. That latter was furthered by the pietistic and highly sentimental hymns of that century, largely written by women—Fanny Crosby and Frances Havergal being perhaps the best-known examples. Many of our older Lutheran hymnals were filled with such hymns. Against such a sentimental religion, the philosophers, such as Nietzsche, saw technological progress and the way open for a “superman,” an Übermensch, to make his own morality and impose his will by might. The weak, who cling to faith, would be run over. What Nietzsche saw as coming from the top, Marx saw coming from the bottom—instead of the one superman who would take charge, the masses would cast off their “opiate” of religion and take charge.
Still, though morality was dying out, convention, and the time lag between intellectual leadership and practical society, kept Nietzsche’s and Marx’s prescriptions from becoming real. But by the 20th century, a Marx-influenced Nietzscheanism took power in Germany while a Nietzsche-influenced Marxism took power in Russia. A nucleus of Übermenschen seized power both places and simply murdered those who got in their way, including those churchmen who protested or even just refused to become stooges for this new order. It took until 1945 to stop the one—the other has been crippled since 1991, but it is still very fashionable in our intellectual circles, meaning it will be back, like the beast after its wound in Rev. 13.
But the Bible has also long since departed from the “main line” churches. Their theologians had been teaching that the Bible was not the infallible Word of God—that at best it contains the Word of God, but also contains errors and is not a reliable witness for several generations. It was at the same time as the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960’s that the clergy finally dared to preach such things from the pulpit. The hope was apparently that such preaching would now make Christianity—to use the buzzword of the late 60’s—relevant.
The people took them at their word. Since the Bible was no longer a reliable witness, there WAS no reliable witness to God, and if there is no reliable witness, then why believe at all? And if one believed at all, why believe according to Scripture? In the 60’s language, why not “do your own thing”, “discover yourself,” and find the Spirit within us.
This has been aided by the sexual revolution. The physical pleasures and the emotional highs of sexual relationships without the sanction and concomitant responsibilities of marriage are tempting. Many people are looking for such relationships; and those who love them will often in turn go into such relationships in the hope that living together can eventually turn into marriage. But those relationships are NOT marriage, and they are not what Christianity approves. The Christian who has wandered into such a relationship starts avoiding the Church the way a man deep in debt starts avoiding the bank. And his children, seeing this, begin to take his faith to be nothing but hypocrisy, and they abandon the faith entirely.
It is to that kind of a world that we are trying to bring the Gospel. The Church has had at least three responses.
The main line churches, and even some Roman and supposedly evangelical churches, try to conform the Gospel to the new mores of society. When society was confident in the advances of science and optimistic that it was on the way to utopia, so was liberal Christianity, announcing its agreement with Darwin. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, was euphoric that the so-called Piltdown man was the missing link—indeed there has been some thought that he might even be implicated in the fraud which Piltdown Man proved to be.
In Montgomery’s terms, liberalism has sought to be like a chameleon. It has changed from optimistic scientism to pessimistic existentialism to radical liberationism to permissive libertinism as the surrounding society, and especially the thinking of the intellectual elites, has changed. But just as the chameleon, by fitting into its surroundings becomes invisible, so does liberal Christianity. What IS the message of the Episcopal Church today? Or of the Presbyterian Church USA? Or of the ELCA? Or, for that matter, of the liberal Catholicism that dominates the Roman Catholic church in the US today? With nothing worth hearing, these churches gradually lose listeners.
The second response of the Church to the changes in society has been, in the case of many fundamentalist groups, to withdraw from it. We are enjoined to be a people apart. These churches attempt to protect their faithful against the world. We are not, however, enjoined to build walls between ourselves and others. If the Church withdraws in upon itself, it no longer preaches the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it.
The fundamentalist churches have, through the years, built up a whole set of rules. They told their people not to play cards. That rule had a point at one time. Montgomery gives the example of card-playing. Playing cards was something that went on in the saloons and went together with drunkenness, prostitution and neglect of men’s families. Eventually card playing was separated from the saloons, and there was no objective reason not to play cards any more, but these churches continued to forbid their people to play cards. The rule became simply a divider between church members and others. It also created the impression that being a Christian meant stopping doing things.
It also has led to a whole separate vocabulary in the self-imposed fundamentalist ghetto. Montgomery notes that only among fundamentalists is “fellowship” a verb. Similarly their preachers, especially in their prayers, keep using the word “just” in an essentially meaningless way: “Lord, we just wanna …” This vocabulary becomes a membership card.
The whole behavior pattern starts marking fundamentalists out as a “peculiar people” in a sense the Bible never meant. By the third generation, these churches dump their former teachings, even many of the things about which they were right, as that third generation no longer wants to be considered weird.
To some extent conservative Lutheranism runs in danger of going this route. The conservative Lutheran synods—Wisconsin and ELS in the 1950’s, Missouri in the 1970’s—marked themselves off from the rest of Protestantism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture and a firm, even strict adherence to the Confessions. Now, they were right to do so. Correct doctrine does not change, and Scripture and the Confessions are the anchors of correct teaching. But there was a growing in upon themselves, and we are now at that third generation.
Today not only Missouri but Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent ELS, see that third generation trying to shake off their grandfathers’ separation from the rest of Christianity and the rest of society. One group seeks to reach into the community with a generic Protestant message, with all the rough edges of Law filed off to avoid offense to the hearers.
Another looks longingly toward other liturgical churches—to Rome and the East. In certain quarters, there has been an adoption of a vocabulary that sounds like a very old, traditionalist Roman or Eastern vocabulary—of tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary (never just “Mary”), the Office of Holy Ministry (never the office of preaching, or the pastoral office). And some of the most prominent of these have over the last fifteen years gone east or to Rome, beginning with Neuhaus and Pelikan and in more recent years Fenton and Hogg.
But exchanging a Lutheran ghetto for a Campbellite or Roman ghetto does not solve the problem, and exchanging it for a more conservative-sounding version of liberal Christianity leaves one just where liberal Christianity is. Perhaps the most successful, in terms of numbers and money, of the Church Growth churches is the Willow Creek church near Chicago. A considerable number of Lutheran churches, mostly LCMS, but also some ELCA, have joined the Willow Creek Association.
These churches are combining the faults of the liberals and the fundamentalists. While they bring in the Starbucks shops, easy chairs and rock bands in an effort to blend with society, they have their own vocabulary like fundamentalists. “Purpose driven”, “a heart for mission,” “reaching the lost,” “seeker friendly”— these phrases have a specific meaning in the jargon of Church growth.
Some of these concepts run foursquare against the theology of the Reformation. The Church Growth movement insists that there are millions of “seekers” looking for God but scared off by unwelcoming churches and afraid to commit. The Lutherans in the Church Growth movement simply ignore what we are told by Scripture and the confessions about those who do not believe.
There are no “seekers.” St. Paul says to us, “There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God.” So there is no one who would only believe if he could hear the Gospel while sitting in an easy chair listening to “Christian rock” that tells about how God makes Christians feel, with a Starbucks latte in his hand.
Now the Willow Creek church has come to a conclusion that was astounding for them, but shouldn’t surprise any of us. While their market-savvy approach got thousands of people in the door, they’re not producing Christians! There is no growth in the faith among these people beyond that first step inside their doors. The Church Growth movement takes Christ’s commandment to feed His sheep—and is giving them candy. Oh, they’re coming for the candy, but it isn’t good for them.
if liberalism, fundamentalism (including Lutheran or Roman separatism) and the Church Growth movement are non-answers, what is the answer?
The answer is sound apologetics. It does no good either to preach a word that is not the Word or to preach it in a way that the audience simply shuts off the moment they hear it because it is laden with that separate vocabulary that is not the language of the hearer.
There are two general schools of apologetics. One is the so-called presuppositionalist apologetics, which is entirely negative. Because of the inherent sinfulness of mankind, the only thing apologetics can do, presuppositionalists say, is, in Cornelius van Til’s words, rip the mask off anti-Christian arguments to show the irrationality and logical inconsistencies of those arguments, to show that if anything unbelief is a greater leap of faith than is Christianity.
Montgomery is the leading proponent of another school of apologetics, one that is gaining traction in Lutheran theology. It is evidentialism. It is his contention that the place to start is to show, not only through negative arguments as to the foolishness of the opposing party but also through affirmative evaluation of the credibility of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament, that the Gospel message is credible. These arguments rely on no theological jargon, no inside buzz-words, but on plain expository language common to everyone’s experience and use.
His central message is that the proof of the life, death and Resurrection of Christ is better-attested and more reliable, by the evidential standards we would use to evaluate any other ancient text, than anything else in ancient history. We know with more certainty, Montgomery says, that Jesus Christ lived, was crucified, and rose again than that Tiberius Caesar was emperor of Rome when most of these events happened. The Bible is more credible, by normal evidentiary standards, than the histories of Tacitus, Suetonius or Thucydides. Yet no one questions whether these are reliable sources of history. So if the New Testament can be read with as much confidence as the most respected histories of those days, then it makes simple logical sense to listen to the preaching of the Gospel—to hear what Jesus said and what His apostles said about Him.
Montgomery does not claim that his apologetic approach will convert anyone. What he says is that it helps the hearer to hear and read the Gospel. The great Bible example of evidentialist apologetics is St. Paul before Agrippa. He concludes that “these things were not done in a corner.” Agrippa’s response is “Almost you persuade me to become a Christian.” Almost isn’t there yet.
Ultimately it all rests on the Gospel. The Holy Spirit works, when and where He wills, to create faith. It is in this way and in no other, namely when one hears the Gospel preached or hears it, and in the Sacraments, that God desires to bring men to him and to believe that they have a good God who loves and has redeemed them. When we bring the Gospel, one that sounds nothing at all like The Church Lady or the Jesus Freak, in that context, the Spirit will work where and when He wills. We will not be preaching to closed ears and turned backs. ?
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