The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison

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More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too…but that’s another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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Bonhoeffer on God’s Will (from Ethics)

Last week I picked up Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this work, but I did anticipate a satisfying challenge to wrestle again with this 20th-century theological giant.  Having only read his Cost of Discipleship, however, I was unprepared for the struggle that lay ahead of me…this book is not an easy read!

While I’m not yet finished with the first chapter, I came across the following thought-provoking quote today in my reading:

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God” (Rom 12.2).  “I pray that your love may about yet more and more in knowledge and discernment, that ye may prove the different situations (i.e., what is in each case right)” (Phil 1.0 and 10; cf. Rom 2.18).  “Walk as children of light…proving what is acceptable unto the Lord” (Eph 5.8ff.).  These sayings show the error of the view that the simple recognition of the will of God must take the form of an intuition which excludes any sort of reflexion and that it must be the naive grasping of the first thought or feeling to force itself upon the mind, the error, in other words, of that psychologizing misrepresentation of the new life which has begun in Jesus.  It is not said at all that the will of God forces its way into the human heart without further ado, charged with the accent of uniqueness, or that it is simply obvious, and identical with whatever the heart may think.  The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of available possibilities.  The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.  The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task.

In short, I think Bonhoeffer is saying, “In any given situation, the will of God is not necessarily an easy thing to discover.”  How far this is from what we often read and hear in the contemporary Church!

So what does anyone think?  Is Bonhoeffer on to something here?  I plan to write more later but wanted to throw this quote out to whet the appetite…

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Luther on Youth Ministry…sort of

Tonight as I was reading through (and furiously marking up) Luther’s Large Catechism, I came across these words in his exposition of the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your father and your mother”) that are so prophetic they are frightening:

If [bringing up children in the fear and knowledge of God above all things] were done, God would also richly bless us and give us grace to train men by whom land and people might be improved.  He would also bless us with well-educated citizens, chaste and domestic wives, who, afterward, would raise godly children and servants.  Here consider now what deadly harm you are doing if you are negligent and fail on your part to bring up your children to usefulness and piety.  Consider how you bring upon yourself all sin and wrath, earning hell by your own children, even though you are otherwise pious and holy.  Because this matter is disregarded, God so fearfully punishes the world that there is no discipline, government or peace.  We all complain about this but do not see that is is our fault.  The way we train children and subjects spoils them makes them disobedient.

(Large Catechism, “The Fourth Commandment,” emphasis mine)

Once you get past the ‘chaste and domestic wives’ bit and finish reading the paragraph (ahem), let us focus especially on the italicized indictments statements.  Luther reminds us that the piety of parents is of no avail if the ‘training’ and ‘discipling’ of our children consists of shuffling them off to amusing (literally), relevant, worldly, youth ‘ministry’ events that are more focused on being hip, cool, and trendy than they are teaching the true Word of God.  Please don’t get me wrong, not all youth ministry is infected with these vices (nor is all youth ministry necessarily off base, there are many good youth ministers and ministries out there…praise be to God) but enough of these ‘ministries’ are plagued in these ways that Luther’s rebuke must be heard.

More than this, parents, let us take heed of Luther’s closing remarks.  Many of us tend to sit around and cast stones, complaining about the state of youth ministry and how our children are not learning or being discipled as they should (see the preceding paragraph for a great example…grin).  “Wake up!”  Luther shouts!  The responsibility lies not on youth pastors nor youth ministries to teach, disciple, rear, and catechize our children…the responsibility lies primarily on we parents and especially we fathers to take seriously our biblical role.  It is not for no reason that Luther prefaces each section of his Small Catechism with the words, “As the Head of the Family should teach it in the simplest way to his household…”

May God grant us grace to so teach and raise our children (by word and deed) that the blessings of God mentioned by Dr. Luther find their realization in our homes and land!

CoD Part 7, Hidden Righteousness

In Cost of Discipleship, while moving from his exposition of Matthew 5 to Matthew 6, Bonhoeffer raises an interesting paradox that our devotional or homiletical reading of Scripture in little chunks often overlooks.  In chapter five, Jesus goes on and on about the visible nature of the Christian life:

  • Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…(v.16)
  • If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…(v.38)
  • Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…(v.42)

In chapter six, however, Jesus begins with what seems to be a great contradiction.  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (v.1).  Taken at face value, these teachings are seemingly irreconcilable, and yet they are spoken almost in the same breath, (which a continuous reading of the Sermon on the Mount readily shows).  How can this be?  What is Bonhoeffer’s answer to his question?  In short, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness.”  Surely this answer will take some flushing out…

To reword his answer, the Christian life and good works must necessarily be visible, but they must not be visible for the sake of their visibility.  “There are of course proper grounds for insisting on the visible nature of Christian discipleship,” Bonhoeffer says, “but the visibility is never an end in itself; and if it becomes so we have lost sight of our primary aim, which is to follow Jesus.”  More simply, if we do our good works childishly in order to win ‘gold stars’ or accolades in the eyes of others or ourselves, we have missed the point.

Bonhoeffer’s explanation of these chapters becomes even more clear (and more pointed) when he asks the question, “From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship?”  He answers:

Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light.  No.  We are to hide it from ourselves.  Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing.  We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural.  Thus we hide the visible from ourselves in obedience to the word of Jesus.

In giving this seemingly difficult teaching at the beginning of Matthew 6, the resolution of which Bonhoeffer shows is really quite simple, our Savior has again struck to the core of human sin and pride.

We are to hide our good works from our own selves, because failing to do so unfailingly generates pride and puffs us up.  Jesus knows all too well that if we perform good works with conscious focus on the works themselves, our inclination…no, our inevitable desire…is to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments and turn our focus inward to self instead of keeping our gaze on Christ and the cross.  Turning our focus towards ourselves is a tragic first step towards self-righteousness (at best) and an un-Christian theology of salvation by works (at worst).  The solution, of course, is to keep our eyes on Christ.  “Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word.  But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ…Love, in the sense of spontaneous, unreflective action, spells the death of the old man.”

Lord Jesus, grant us the grace and strength to keep our eyes firmly fixed on you, our Captain, and keep them from turning inward to ourselves.  Amen.