Ablaze? Or Merely Flaming?
A graduate of MIT and Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois, Karen Miller teaches junior high school at Christ Lutheran School, Rancho Palos Verde, California. Ms. Miller is a frequent contributor to the Journal.
The last two years in the LCMS have seen some of the rudest and most inappropriate attacks focused on the Ablaze! initiative. However, many of these objections have defied all sense and reason in their attempts to paint Ablaze! as the church growth bogeyman. It would appear that while much of the synod strives to be ablaze with God’s love for a dying world, a small but vocal minority would prefer a pointless flame war.
What Is Ablaze!?
Ablaze! is a movement, the vision of LCMS World Mission, to encourage a culture of missions among Lutherans worldwide. The hope and prayer is that every entity, from synodical mission organizations to single congregations, from partner churches in countries around the world to individual Christians in our own communities, would work toward a common goal: Share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with 100 million unreached or uncommitted people by 2017.
What Is the Point of Ablaze!?
First, it’s important to understand what Ablaze! is not. It is not a church growth program focused on increasing membership. That this is the case should be obvious from the process. “Church growth” programs fall short in their often blind emphasis on numbers of people in the door. However, Ablaze! is not counting numbers of people in the door. In fact, they aren’t even counting the numbers of people who hear the Gospel. What is being counted aren’t people at all, but actions—witnessing events.
Further, how are these witnessing events being counted? If the primary goal of Ablaze! were truly in the numbers, why then is there no objectively verified reporting process? Instead, any member, any entity, can go to the synod’s web site and record their witnessing events. Clearly the focus is not on the numbers but on the actions of sharing the Gospel and reporting it—not on the receiver but on the sender.
In other words, Ablaze! is as much about our own conversions as it is about 100 million others. It’s primary target is our own actions and attitudes. Ablaze! will have accomplished its goals when our church is of one mind and one culture, focused on one goal—sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who needs to hear it.
It’s the Great Commission, Stupid!
When the Democratic party campaigned against George Bush with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” they were sending the message that priorities matter, that we must share a common goal, a common focus. How much more should we as believers, especially as Lutheran believers, share a common goal, a common focus—the Gospel!
What is our purpose as a church? It certainly is not to become inwardly focused to the point of self-destructive self-absorption. Instead, it is to redirect our focus outward. Christ’s command is quite clear: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Our purpose as the body of Christ is to carry out his will, and his will is that the good news be preached in all the world. His will is that we move beyond our inherently self-limiting inward focus and instead preach the Gospel that has no limits.
This purpose is so over-arching, so central, that it is to provide the goal for every set or subset of Christians, from entire church bodies down to each individual believer. It is not enough that this be our collective raison d’etre; it must be the purpose and goal of each and every one of us who bears the name of Christ and the sign of the cross given in our baptisms.
Why All the Flaming about Ablaze!?
Opponents of Ablaze! generally offer one (or both) of the following objections:
Objection 1: Some believe Ablaze! is based on the principles of the church growth movement, which will compromise any and all doctrinal truths to get people in the door.
The first crucial flaw in this objection is that the goal of Ablaze! is not and never has been to get people in the door. Quite the opposite! The goal is to get us out the door! Rather than looking inward, Ablaze! is prompting us to be more assertive, even aggressive, about taking the Gospel out to a lost and dying world.
The second flaw in this objection is that, while Ablaze! does call for a culture change within the LCMS, it does not call for the church to adapt to the culture of the world. In fact, the main Ablaze! web site specifically suggests that groups, congregations, etc., find whatever outreach method is best-suited to their group in their environment and employ it. So long as the event entails active outreach, activities specifically intended to share the Gospel with the unchurched, it counts. Possibilities listed on theAblaze! web site include such things as acts of kindness and disaster relief efforts that include a Gospel message. Surely these cannot be dismissed as “church growth techniques”!
Objection 2: President Kieschnick is promoting the Ablaze! movement for political reasons.
This objection would have more merit if Ablaze! originated with the synodical president’s office. However, this movement not only springs from the vision of LCMS World Mission as an extension of their ministry, but it began under President Al Barry’s administration! It’s difficult to see how this movement could be construed as politically motivated except in the sense that any success makes a difference. Where would the success of Ablaze! bring political gain to anyone apart from that success which indirectly speaks volumes about effective leadership? Are objectors to Ablaze! so blinded by politics that they cannot celebrate the spread of the Gospel, but must reject it if it happens on their opponent’s watch?
What Are the REAL Objections to Ablaze!?
Unfortunately, it is not difficult to trace patterns underlying the objections to Ablaze! that we see and hear. First and loudest, though perhaps least important, when the synod turns in a positive, constructive, evangelical direction, the professional vultures among us lose momentum because they are denied the attention they crave. To those whose sense of success depends on the extent to which they can disturb, disrupt or negate the ministry of those they despise, this positive focus is marginalizing and cannot be tolerated. Thankfully this is a small minority even among those who object to Ablaze!.
Second, the Ablaze! movement’s outward focus is in direct opposition to the isolationism so prevalent among its detractors. Not only do they object to a prayer offered in a stadium full of hurting non-Christians, they object to a prayer offered among other hurting Christians, even among other Lutherans, and tragically, even among other Missouri Synod Lutherans. No group is so elite, no clique so small, that we can’t form yet another inner doctrinal circle. All too often we act as if anyone God really wanted would find their way into our churches, so we don’t have to go out to talk to them. We act as if Jesus’ words to us had been, “Stay put, therefore, but do make disciples of everyone who shows up on your doorstep.…”
Third, all too often we reject the idea merely because of whose name it bears. Given the similarities between Ablaze! and other recent synodical missions emphases, the source of the objections is suspect at best. Can we support what is right even if it comes from someone we don’t appreciate?
Finally, the Ablaze! goal of every entity and every individual being a missionary where God has called them is a direct threat to some objectors’ views of their own place and calling in the kingdom of God. An equipped, empowered, educated priesthood of believers might begin to break free from that dependence, that learned helplessness, that leaves them acting as if only a pastor is competent to share the Gospel. Clericalism has no place in Ablaze!—and for at least some of its opponents that is a fatal flaw.
What Good Can We Hope For from Ablaze!?
The most important hoped-for outcome of Ablaze! is a church in which every member is fully engaged in its mission and every member is a missionary in their own environment. When every member is a missionary in their own environment, our synodical culture will be focused outward instead of inward, battling the devil instead of each other, and able to focus on a common goal, a common purpose in the great commission.
Just as the fires of Pentecost used the speaking of many different tongues to bring unity, pray that our church body can once again find unity for the same purpose—to “Tell The Good News About Jesus!”