The last gavel has been struck; the convention is over. No more licensed deacons and plans are underway to find an easier way to rid the Synod of honest dissenters. Moderates are mostly retired and mission minded folks are concentrating on better practices, not a better administration. Three years from now there will be fewer of us who learned our Gospel openness from the earlier faculties of St. Louis, River Forest, Portland, Valparaiso, Seward and others. For those who hope for a better Synod, the time is running out. Perhaps now is the time to forget about winning elections and instead, learning from the prophets, cast a vision for a future we will never see but might inspire and strengthen our descendants.
A Prophetic Vision
Destruction and restoration were the twin themes of the prophetic witness. When there was no hope of changing rulers someone had to speak of what was happening and where true hope might be found. Though none of us have had our lips burned with coals from the altar or given God’s words to eat, the message of the prophets is clear and has a special relevance to our situation.
The prophets to Israel and Judah spoke at a time when destruction threatened the institutions people had trusted to keep them safe in a chaotic world. Not only are moderates aging but so is the Synod. But, it is also happening in the ELCA, mainline Protestant churches, American Catholicism, and even many of the evangelical mega churches. The pervading secularism that has been closing churches in Europe is now growing in America.
Nowhere is this movement so evident as it is with the Millennial generation. While church leaders proudly parade the young people who remain, the statistics, empty pews, dwindling church budgets, and demoralized pastors tell another story. A young graduate student notices that none of the kids in her confirmation class still attend church. While some young people impatiently tire of church because it has not moved on significant social issues, others just prefer sinning to righteousness. Across the country seminaries are in trouble, the new mission starts, once popular in the 50s and 60s, have almost ceased.
Is it that bad? Whenever the Biblical prophets spoke, they were challenged by the false prophets representing the institution. Amos was simply told to leave. Jeremiah was challenged by Hananiah. “Things are not that bad,” they say. Yet, the erosion continues. Church periodicals are full of uplifting stories but are lite on any bad news that challenge the institutional narrative.
On a deeper and more profound level, the Biblical prophets were vitally concerned with economic and political crimes. The concerned themselves with the inequality between rich and poor, innocents being killed, the inhospitality to refugees, and the military atrocities of the nations. No nation is innocent and the Lord will not revoke his punishment. A global war, which has occurred about once every hundred years in the nation-state system, is about to repeat with new disputes about trade and unemployment and increased military spending across the globe. It is a sickening vision but incomplete. The rest of the vision is one of hope, of completion, of all the blessings of God one might wish for.
To those who merely hoped for a change of kings or a better administration, disappointment was sure to follow. No, that is a vision too small. Instead, there will be forgiveness of those who cheated, robbed, and killed people, forgiveness for unjust wars, forgiveness for bad governance. There will be food for the hungry, water in the wilderness, healing for the disabled. Once more people will have a job and home when they sit under their own vine and fig tree. Slaves and prisoners will be released. Beating their swords into plowshares, they will not learn war anymore.
That happy vision will not happen when people put their trust in any human institution or human administration. It will only happen when God is seen as emperor, as monarch, as president, as governor, as pope, or as pastor. We had a glimpse of it when the Galilean said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news. The focus of repentance is forgiving, feeding, hydrating, clothing, and visiting. But even harder is the faith that the unbelievable happens and good things are sure to come to pass, like seeds growing in a field, like a net gathering all kinds of fish. Beginning small, like a mustard seed, birds later nest in its branches. It’s such a treasure, you can sell everything to have it. This is the prophetic vision: destruction and restoration.
It is a hopeless vision for the aging who will never live long enough to see it happen, but it is an inspiring vision for the young. Impatient with the organized church, they grove on Jesus who evokes a larger vision than keeping the church alive and paying the pastor’s salary. What would a church look like that placed the promises of the Kingdom before the priority of institutional maintenance?
A Winsome Church
What might a church look like when Christ is pastor and pope? He started over. Though occasionally he preached in the synagogue, he recruited his future leaders not from the Yeshiva but at the seashore, under fig trees, and at the tax agency. As leader of this small band, the money was negligible, not even enough to provide a place to lay his head. Because he was not part of a religious institution that needed ongoing support from the “haves,” He could spend most of his time with the “have nots.” Unafraid of the critics who complained that he hung around with the immoral and “no good” people, he said that unless we became as a child, we would not even enter his Kingdom.
But how can we carry out the mission, the commission, without funds, and buildings, and professionals. Might we start with those Millennials in whom here is no guile, who are looking for ways to feed the hungry, tend the sick, love their enemies, trade in guns for hoes and nurture the planet? But how will they be called, educated, and equipped for mission? It is not likely to happen in a church program. Instead, some future disciples might be found at Habitat for Humanity, Doctors without Borders, refugee centers, and environmental and peace groups. Others will be found at campuses, prisons, retirement centers, campaign headquarters, summer camps, and even at seminaries.
From those, called by Christ, inspired by the vision of his Kingdom, and freed from Institutional constraints will come the call, “follow me.” Education will be in the pattern of Jesus, blessing the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, and those desperately hungering for righteousness. This will be followed by demonstrating Christ’s love, reflection on what happened, and sending them out for further service.
Under extreme and hazardous settings, these disciples of Christ will gather together for mutual strength and comfort. The stress of working for Kingdom promises, in an often hostile setting, will drive them to the Scriptures. Comforted and inspired by Jesus in his ministry they put aside their labors for a time and receive new hope.
Some the of natural leaders are blessed to lead the small gathering and simply shown how to remember Christ’s suffering and resurrection in the breaking of bread and drinking of wine. Receiving Christ’s own body and blood for forgiveness, they are helped to forgive others and prepared to serve others, a slave’s work of washing feet. Remembering Christ’s love on their behalf they put aside the differences that have divided them. In this “winsome church” love overcomes the divisions of the centuries, neither Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male or female, Catholic or Protestant, they are one in Christ Jesus.
A Word of Witness
Is there a good word that can be spoken in struggling congregations and denominations by those of us whose horizons were opened by the Gospel? Perhaps it is too late in the Synod to say how things should be. Maybe all we can do is to tell our stories and witness to the welcoming Christ we know and love. How did we get to be the people we are? Yes, the Bible and confessional quotes are important, but what in our lives opened our eyes to a new vision, a more winsome church.
For some, it was a parent who questioned denominational orthodoxy or a wife raising an eyebrow about our church rules. For others it was in the congregational trenches stretching us in first uncomfortable, then liberating, ways. Was it the mission field where fellow Christians, of whatever brand, knelt together in prayer? Was it in campus ministry where we needed to sift out the institutional stuff to reveal the Gospel? And many of us learned it from great and godly professors and colleagues.
We have all been invited to witness to our faith in Christ to our unchurched neighbor. Now is also the time to tell our stories to our fellow believers of how Christ has opened our eyes to again see the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church working in new ways, with new people, to recognize and work for the Kingdom of God among us.
Robert Schmidt was a seminary professor in Nigeria, a campus pastor at Colorado State University and the University of Washington, and he served as the Dean of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Portland. He is currently the editor of the Daystar Journal.