Beyond the Open Door: 21st-Century Trends and Issues in the LCMS

By Matthew Becker

 INTRODUCTION[1]

          Christians are taught to be mindful of the future, “to watch the signs of the times,” so that they will not be caught unprepared when the Son of Man and his Kingdom fully arrive (see Luke 21:25-28).  Yet, Christians also know from experience that the signs of the times are ambiguous.  We cannot always distinguish what the will of God is from what Satan is doing.  Because of human finitude and the power of sin to corrupt human thinking and action, most Christians are skeptical about those who claim to know the future so clearly.  Contrary to those who appear to know the mind of God better than God Himself, Paul exhorts, “We see as a person looking into a dim mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12).  While Christians have confidence about the future and believe that the broadest contours of history have already been disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth, the specific details of the future remain sketchy.  We don’t see that future too well at present.  “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son…” (Mark 13:32).

          Over the centuries, many Christians have sought to make sense of the times while also accounting for the universal human inability to see the future clearly.  Among the first was St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) whose “big picture” of history was marked by the conflict between the earthly city of sin/evil (i.e., the old aeon of Adam and his kind) and the city of God (i.e., God’s coming Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Second Adam).[2]  In the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who was influenced deeply by Augustine’s theology of history, developed a Christian understanding of history that takes seriously the pervasiveness and intractability of human sin and the provisional character of all human good.[3]  Luther’s down-to-earth theology also influenced Niebuhr, who was thus critical of all utopian ideals about the future.  Other Christian theologians in the twentieth century have also focused on the question of the meaning of history and the nature of Christian hope.[4]  Even several historians—who happen also to be Christians—have put their hand to similar theological accountings of hope and the future.[5]

Among Lutheran theologians in America, the recent work of Robert Benne stands out as a particularly helpful articulation of a distinctively Lutheran understanding of history and the future.[6]  Drawing on theologians such as Augustine, Luther, and both of the Niebuhr brothers, Benne sets forth a paradoxical vision of history in which God’s work of salvation in the crucified Jesus is qualitatively distinct from all human efforts at improving the world.[7]  While the Kingdom of God is coming and has even already come in Jesus of Nazareth, it has not fully come, nor will it come until God decides in His own good time.

Considering the intractability of human sin and evil, the end will not come smoothly or without judgment. Nevertheless, God’s kingdom will come. God’s sovereignty will finally be completely realized in a kingdom that has been anticipated in the coming of Jesus as the Christ. History, then, is an interim in which God struggles with the forces of darkness. Hints and parables of the future kingdom of God may appear in history, but they will not triumph completely until God brings in his future. The kingdom has come and it will come.[8]

This paradoxical vision informs the present essay.  In keeping with a Lutheran vision of history, the present essay is not an attempt to forecast the future or even to paint the bigger picture of a supposed meaning to History; rather, this essay is an attempt to identify certain trends and issues that appear to be looming on the horizon of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, of whose many families the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is but one member.  Such a Lutheran vision is blurry; we are at best looking into “a clouded mirror.” Consequently, this essay is by no means an exhaustive summary of the church’s challenges ahead.  Still less is it a prescription for better glasses.  Instead, the essay offers one person’s informed guesses as to what will be important for Lutheran Christians in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, as they and their congregations “head out the door that God has opened for them” into the twenty-first century.[9]

The challenges ahead appear to be many, but they can be conveniently discussed under four broad headings:  1) sociological, 2) cultural, 3) ethical, and 4) theological.

SOCIOLOGICAL CHALLENGES

While the vast majority of contemporary Americans consider themselves to be religious, for many of them religion is a private matter as opposed to a shared or communal experience.  An overwhelming number of Americans (approx. 86%) consider themselves to be “Christian.” Only 8% of all Americans claim “no religion.”  Out West, however, the latter percentage is higher.  Oregon and Washington top the list of states with the highest number of people who claim no religious affiliation.  Nearly one in five people in Oregon (17%) claim “no religious affiliation.”  For Washington, that figure is 14%.[10]  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has recently reported that “the Pacific Northwest may be God’s country, but no region in the United States is less religious.”[11]  The data in Kosmin’s and Lachman’s study confirm that the Pacific Northwest is the most unchurched region in the United States.  Less than 35% of the population of Oregon and Washington claim any kind of church membership.  While four in ten Americans still attend a church on any given Sunday, actual church attendance in the West is substantially lower than in any other part of the country.  But in addition to being the most unchurched area in the United States, the Pacific Northwest is also the most religiously diverse area.  Religious diversity, evidently, goes hand in hand with high levels of irreligion.

Why is this? Answers vary, but generally sociologists of religion suggest three main factors that have influenced the high levels of irreligion and religious diversity in the Pacific Northwest:  1) high mobility within the population (which leads to large numbers of people without “roots”); 2) the natural environment (e.g., many in the Pacific Northwest would agree with the notion that “weekends are made for skiing, hiking, finding oneself,” etc.); and 3) the dominance of a “frontier mentality” (e.g., people migrate to the open West to escape tradition and to explore new life-styles). Like the West in general, the Pacific Northwest has been a haven for political mavericks and social freethinkers who have rejected established institutions (especially religious ones) or have sought to reform them in sometimes radical ways.  Feelings and attitudes toward religious institutions have often been quite negative in the history of the West.  For example, it was only seventy-five years ago that the Oregon legislature passed a law outlawing parochial schools (which law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1925).[12]  A more recent example:  Only three years ago did Oregonians narrowly pass a law which makes physician-assisted suicide legal in their state.  During the months that Oregon voters were contemplating that particular legislation many letters to the Portland Oregonian displayed attitudes highly critical of religious institutions that “interfere in the moral choices of individuals.”

Whereas more than one-third of the Minnesota and Dakotas populations is Lutheran, self-identified Lutherans number fewer than 2.5% of the population in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  Those who are actually registered as Lutheran members (i.e., baptized members of a particular Lutheran congregation) are, of course, fewer (less than 1.7% of the population of these states).  The following chart provides the most recent data (1990) on Lutherans in the Pacific Northwest.[13]

STATE                        LCMS                                                 ELCA

(baptized members/congregations)     (baptized members/congregations)

Washington                 30,569/115                                          95,609/287

Oregon                        19,837/88                                            36,116/118

Idaho                           9,553/43                                              9,017/40

Alaska                         2,163/10                                              6,275/28

Roughly half of the LCMS congregations in the NW District have fewer than 200 baptized members.  Fourteen parishes claim baptized members totaling more than 800:

Our Savior, Tacoma, WA (3073 baptized members)

Christ the King, Coeur d’Alene, ID (1983)

Redeemer, Spokane, WA (1891)

St. Luke, Federal Way, WA (1819)

Grace, Pocatello, ID (1506)

Hope, Seattle, WA (1345)

Immanuel, Puyallup, WA (1284)

Trinity, Hillsboro, OR (929)

Good Shepherd, Tacoma, WA (892)

Bethlehem, Yakima, WA (894)

Beautiful Savior, Portland, OR (866)

Holy Cross, Spokane, WA (853)

St. John, Vancouver, WA (822)

Beautiful Savior, Milton, WA (818)

The following chart groups the remainder of LCMS congregations in the NW District according to size of baptized membership:

BAPTIZED MEMBERSHIP             NUMBER OF CONGREGATIONS

700-799 Members                               10 Congregations

600-699 Members                               10 Congregations

500-599 Members                               10 Congregations

400-499 Members                               19 Congregations

300-399 Members                               48 Congregations

200-299 Members                               30 Congregations

100-199 Members                               56 Congregations

Under 100 Members                           58 Congregations[14]

Since 1980, thirty-one new congregations have been formed (total baptized membership in these congregations: 4685 in 1999).[15]

But what do these statistics mean? If we compare these 1990 and 1998 figures with those from 1980, we learn that the number of LCMS congregations in the NW District increased slightly, from 239 to 262; however, the number of baptized members in LCMS congregations in the NW District decreased from 87,916 to 85,705.[16]  This decrease in membership is more significant when one considers the tremendous population growth that Washington and Oregon have experienced in the past twenty years.  The population of Washington went from 4.1 million in 1980 to 5.7 million in 1999 and that of Oregon went from 2.6 million to 3.3 million in the same period.  Yet during the same period the net loss in baptized membership in LCMS congregations in the NW District was 2,211.

These statistics confirm the general conclusion of most sociologists of religion in America, namely, the institutional character of religions has become attenuated for a great number of Americans, especially in the northwestern United States.[17]  The findings of Bellah and Wuthnow and others suggest that Americans’ personal ambitions and private interests are undermining the bonds of community and disrupting peoples’ sense of belonging.  While Americans, particularly in the western United States, characterize themselves as “spiritual seekers,” they wish to be spiritual apart from religious institutions. The emphasis is upon private spirituality, on “personal needs,” on “taking care of oneself.”  Many within the institutional churches also display this private, utilitarian concern of “what’s in it for me?”[18]  For example, at least a few Christian churches across the country have experienced numerical growth of members partly because they self-consciously seek to minister to these individualistic and utilitarian desires in the process of caring for individuals and their needs.  (Assemblies of God congregations in the Northwest, for example, have registered significant gains in membership over the past two decades.)  Yet Wuthnow and others warn all Christian congregations that in the long run such individualism and utilitarianism will further erode religious community within congregations.[19]  Other factors that also contribute to the breakup of religious communal bonds and the loss of denominational loyalty include the increasing involvement of women in the labor force (and thereby decreasing their time and energy for volunteering) and the increasing mobility within the labor force as a whole.  Some sociologists now speak of a “new voluntarism” in which Americans modify their faith in view of the breakdown of traditional community loyalties.[20]

Instead of remaining loyal to one congregation, or even to a single denomination, we flit from one church to another, depending on where our jobs take us, what happens to be most convenient, and how we happen to feel at the moment…  My book The Restructuring of American Religion showed that denominational loyalties are indeed becoming increasingly fragile.  Substantial minorities of the members of nearly all denominations and faiths were raised in some other religious tradition than their present one.  Many are married to someone of a different faith.  Many have switched denominations several times during their adult lives.  And many more choose their friends outside their churches, attend a variety of churches, and see little reason why they should become members of a particular denomination—especially when the denominations themselves no longer draw sharp distinctions between members and nonmembers.[21]

Kosmin and Lachman confirm that among Lutherans denominational loyalty is apparently not as important as it once was.  “Among the [American] populace, Lutheranism is viewed broadly, as an ethnic or community church:  Very few of our Lutheran respondents qualified their reply by specifying their particular denomination.”[22]

            If the sociologists of religion are correct, then there is the real possibility that individualism, utilitarianism, voluntarism, and the social trends reinforcing these trends (e.g., consumerism, high mobility within the job force) will greatly diminish the church’s ability to sustain community in the future.  On the other hand, these trends may help to define the churches’ challenges and unique calling in the twenty-first century.  As Wuthnow suggests:

There is also the possibility that the inherent desire for community that seems to pervade so many of our lives, together with the enormous resources the church still has at its disposal, will continue to give the church an important community-sustaining role in our society. At present, the best available evidence suggests that churchgoers are indeed community-oriented, but they are individualistic at the same time.[23]

Whether the sociologists are correct or only partially correct, Christian congregations in the twenty-first century will need to examine themselves to discern what God would have them be and do in the face of these sociological pressures.

CULTURAL CHALLENGES

Related to issues of sociology are issues that fit more properly under the category of culture. Admittedly, this word culture has a wide variety of complex meanings associated with it.[24]  For our simple purposes, culture comprises “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.”[25]  In such a definition, culture is that which is produced and conserved by human beings, in social groupings of a certain time and place, for certain temporal and material ends (usually understood to be “good ends”), and in contrast to other values of other cultures.  To even write about culture (in the singular) at present is difficult, especially in the West, since we live in a situation of many cultures and values.  Such multiculturalism and pluralism will continue in the twenty-first century, especially in the West, which will see a huge influx of peoples from Asia and the Pacific rim and also tremendous growth within the Hispanic population.

The very facts of multiculturalism and pluralism are central issues for Christian churches on their way into the twenty-first century.  Such facts are especially central for congregations of the LCMS since these congregations are often perceived as manifestations of a particular culture, namely, that of the German or generally Northern European.  For example, here is one cultural-sociological reading of how Lutheranism looks culturally:

It is difficult to separate what is Lutheran from what is northern European ethnic in the character of the Upper Midwest.  In part this is because of the region’s physical environment of forests, lakes, and severe winters is very close to its populations ancestral homeland in the Nordic countries.  This may help to explain why there is so much similarity between the cultural and social environments of the region’s rural areas and those of northern Europe.[26]

In the minds of many non-Lutherans, Lutheranism is synonymous with German and/or Northern European.  This definition has its roots also in the history of the LCMS, the most persistently ethnic of the major Lutheran denominations in the US.  For example, just six years (1905) after the formation of the Northwest District of the Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten (German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and other States), the Missouri Synod in convention voted to remain “always German.”  According to those who supported this vote, doctrine and theology could not properly be understood in any other language, except the original biblical languages and Latin.  For these people the faith depended upon speaking and understanding the German language.

As a part of its desire to remain pure in doctrine, the Synod urged its members to be separate from wider societal ideas and influences beyond just the English language (e.g., to be wary of common American economic practices such as the charging of interest, investing in the stock market, and purchasing of insurance, and to avoid scientific ideas that were commonly taught in the public schools).  Nonetheless, irresistible forces after WWI led toward greater Americanization within the LCMS.[27]  Ironically, despite the 1905 vote, by the end of the 1930s, 72% of the members of LCMS congregations spoke English as their primary language.  To give some idea how far the LCMS has come since the start of the twentieth century:  Today, only one congregation in the NW District, the mother congregation of the district, Zion in downtown Portland, continues to hold a German Gottesdienst (German worship service), but only one Sunday a month. 

While some have continued to think that the change from German to English was the beginning of the end of “pure” Missouri, others suggest that the mission of the LCMS would have floundered if the Synod had not adapted itself at least partly to its changing circumstances in the cultural environments of WWI and WWII America.  The Lutheran Hour Ministries had its start in the decades between the world wars and it was in this period that the LCMS witnessed its fastest rate of numerical growth to date.  Many congregations in this period self-consciously began to reach out to non-German Americans.  Surely these evangelism efforts were partly the result of paying attention to the doors that God was operating:  While one door was partly being closed (i.e., the German door), another was opening wider!

A host of issues develops when God opens doors to the cultures that surround His church.  What is cultural (and therefore transitory) within the church and what is permanent and in need of conservation?  How can the church adapt positively to cultural expressions that have been foreign to her history without loss to her evangelical heart and substance?  Admittedly, throughout much of its history, the LCMS, in securing its safety on an enclave island in the seas of American culture, has limited its cultural-intellectual engagement.  While a number of examples could be explored, perhaps one of the most striking ones has been the Synod’s quandary about how to deal with the natural sciences.[28]  Mark Noll’s analysis of “the scandal of the evangelical mind” describes the dominant perspective in the LCMS for the past thirty years.[29]

How much latitude can there be in the practices of LCMS congregations, and even in their formulations of theology, insofar as these practices and formulations are culturally sensitive and missionally oriented?  What does it mean to be culturally sensitive and missionally-oriented?  The strength of the current polity of the LCMS is that it allows for local congregations and institutions (e.g., the individual Concordia colleges and universities) to make local decisions about what is helpful for their local mission.  Article VII of the LCMS Constitution helps to serve the mission of the church because it allows for local congregations (and institutions) to decide what is in the best interest of their mission, all within the framework of fidelity to their biblical faith and confessional commitment.[30]

Cultural-theological issues that are even now looming large on the landscape of the LCMS include the following:  the (re)-interpretation of a doctrinal and liturgical heritage that has been decisively shaped by people living in a sixteenth century northern European culture and which is increasingly distant from the multicultural situation of the Pacific Northwest; the relationship of men and women to each other in Christ in the church (including the questions surrounding the ministry of women in the church and the relation of this issue to the mission of the church and the meaning of Scripture); the relation of legitimate scientific and medical findings to articulations of the catholic-evangelical faith; the place of technology, especially computer technology, in the mission of the church; the challenge of making disciples of young people and people other than northern Europeans; and the call and challenge to world mission within a global multi-cultural situation.

   While this is not the place to provide a detailed answer to these questions, I would like to suggest a model of cultural-intellectual engagement for the church to consider as it “moves through the door” that leads into the twenty-first century.  This model is not new, though it has been fairly untapped in the history of the LCMS. [31]  This model of cultural engagement views the relation of Christ to culture as a paradox.[32]  In this Lutheran vision of culture, God’s saving work in the world is through the crucifixion of an obscure Jewish peasant who lived in the first century, Jesus of Nazareth.  God turned Christ’s defeat into the redemption of the entire world.  God takes His wrath against humanity’s own sin and puts it upon himself through Christ.  While God created his creation good, all human beings and all human actions have become corrupted through the power of sin and the presence of evil. God’s law stands over against all of humanity as a word that accuses one to death.  However, paradoxically, God’s gospel is a word that promises forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.  This gospel word of God, in contrast to the law word of God, invites people to trust that they are acceptable to God by grace through faith alone in Christ and because of what He has done for them.  Consequently, Christians live “in the polarity and tension of Christ and culture[;] life must be lived precariously and sinfully in the hope of a justification which lies beyond history.”[33] 

Lutheran Christians believe that this paradoxical rule of God in the world, through his law and gospel, opens the door to a lively, ongoing, though ultimately irresolvable conversation between the Christian faith and culture.

Each pole—the Christian and the cultural in its many guises—participates in a question and answer dialectic that tries to arrive at more truthful interpretations of our life and world.  The Christian pole—the Christian vision—is a comprehensive and coherent vision of life, but is highly general and open to other insights that flesh it out.  So it offers insights and raises questions about almost anything of importance.  The cultural pole…also offers insights and raises questions not only [about cultural matters] but also in relation to the Christian vision itself.  [Culture offers] more detailed theories and knowledge that both complement and challenge the Christian vision.[34]

The conversation between the two poles of Christ and culture is often awkward and problematic. Yet, the Lutheran vision will avoid withdrawing from the many difficult challenges presented by the culture, e.g., ignoring the knowledge and valid insights that human cultures have produced (see also Philippians 4:8).  The Lutheran vision will acknowledge a kind of integrity that culture has in the world and will seek to benefit from the valid contributions that culture makes to life in the world.

As an example of an LCMS thinker doing this kind of cultural engagement, one can point to the work of Dr. Charles Kunert, a molecular biologist at Concordia University, Portland (and an active member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Portland).  According to Dr. Kunert, we need to become well-informed about scientific issues and approach them with humility on the basis of our Christian faith.[35]  The challenge is to interpret both the scientific consensus and an evangelical understanding of the Scriptures in critical and constructive relation to each other.  Consequently, in contrast to those Christians who are guided by the religious vision of liberalism, those who are guided by the paradoxical vision will also critique cultural values that lead toward greater secularization, e.g., consumerism, individualism, materialism, atheistic naturalism, and relativism.

While there is a real danger that the church will succumb to idolatry if it uncritically accepts any and all cultural claims to truth and relevance, the greater danger in our church at present is to withdraw from such cultural engagement, which leads to the ghettoizing of the faith.  Such disengagement is to make of the LCMS a cultural enclave.  To take this stance is to shut the door to the vast majority of people living around us.  If the mission of the church is only to reach those who are willing to live and be “exactly ‘like us’ in every way,” then the LCMS in the Pacific Northwest seems doomed to further declines in membership.   As the Roman Catholic Church did in its aggiornamento (updating) in the 1960s, members of the LCMS should give serious thought to opening the doors to the world as a means of engaging people in the culture in a mutual (and critical) conversation that centers in the paradoxical vision.

In this regard, the theological method of another twentieth-century Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, holds promise for critical and constructive cultural engagement.[36]  I am not alone in suggesting that a correlationalist model of cultural engagement is an excellent means for the Christian church to engage its surrounding culture.  At a recent pastors’ conference in the NW District, the current president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, stated publicly that Tillich’s method of cultural engagement provides the LCMS with a more viable model than those which would seek to build a protective wall around the church’s confession of faith and its theological formulations.[37]  Tillich calls his “question and answer” model correlationalist since it seeks to correlate the Christian message with the contemporary culture.  Christians seek to correlate Christian answers to critical questions that surface by means of exploration of their surrounding culture.[38]

At the present time, the LCMS cannot afford merely to retreat into catechesis (e.g., attempting to pass down to later generations the cultural-doctrinal formulations of previous generations) and thus avoid the difficult task of correlating the Christian gospel to the surrounding culture in language and thought-forms that people in the culture understand.  Aggiornamento (updating) of the church’s theology and practice is one step in the process, although, of course, the faithful will disagree among themselves as to how the church can remain faithful to its heart and center, the gospel of Jesus Christ, without disengaging itself from the people who live in the present world.  The perennial task of the church, as it heads out the door and into the mission field, is to proclaim the gospel in meaningful terms to people living in this (post)modern world, without compromising the one gospel of God.[39]  Outmoded theological language and formulations (e.g., terminology that is necessarily encased in historical cultural expressions that are removed from our present situation) won’t be able to cross the historic doctrine of the gospel into our contemporary multicultural culture.  Besides, the gospel of Jesus is too lively for that kind of repristination.  Rather, the gospel of Jesus gives the church its freedom to step boldly through the door and into these many cultural settings.

The members of the LCMS need to steer a careful course between succumbing to an uncritical modernism/liberalism, on the one hand, and giving in to an uncritical fundamentalism/conservativism, on the other.  I am suggesting that in avoiding becoming yet another declining liberal, mainstream Christian denomination, the LCMS should at the same time avoid becoming a biblicistic, fundamentalist sect. [40]  The paradoxical vision offers an alternative beyond fundamentalism and liberalism.

ETHICAL CHALLENGES

In the minds of many Christians, including members of the LCMS, the word culture has a decidedly ethical dimension.  Out West, as in other parts of the country, many of the ethical challenges concern the impact of culture on people in society, especially relating to issues of human life and death.  So-called end-of-life issues are the most visible:  at one end of life there is abortion and, at the other, there is the (now legal in Oregon) practice of physician-assisted suicide.  These two issues will continue to stir many LCMS people to careful ethical reflection, moral discussion, and even political action to limit or outlaw grossly immoral behavior.[41]

Related to these issues are a host of questions and challenges created by genetic research. This research is both promising and threatening.  The most significant project in this area of research is the so-called Human Genome Project, a $3 billion effort to map and sequence the human DNA.  This mapping will eventually provide detailed information about the approximately 100,000 genes in each of the body’s cells. This map will therefore help to “identify the genetic basis for the 4,000 or so genes that are suspected to be responsible for inherited diseases and prepare the way for treatment through genetic therapy… The new knowledge will require new thinking about the ethical, legal, and social dimensions of life for the human beings whose cells contain the DNA undergoing studies.”[42]

Ted Peters (a Lutheran theologian) and others have raised a host of ethical issues in this area.  Among them are genetic discrimination (discrimination by insurance companies and others against those who are genetically predisposed toward particular diseases), embryo research, patenting of DNA sequences, cloning, genetic determinism/human freedom, gene therapy, eugenics, and the question of human dignity.  How will genetic research affect how people in our culture think of themselves?  “Are we asking our scientists to play God?”  How can Christians contribute positively to the ethical discussions surrounding these various genetic projects, especially the Human Genome Project (whose director, interestingly, was converted to the Christian faith through careful study of the writings of C. S. Lewis and is now a practicing Christian)?  How will these discussions affect the way Christians will think of their Christian faith and act upon it? 

            But end-of-life and genetics issues are not the only ethical issues that will confront members of the LCMS as they walk through the door leading to mission in the twenty-first century world.  One could also cite several other significant ethical issues that all Christians will have to be concerned about in this next century.[43]  Among these are the problems of widespread poverty and underdevelopment, the exploitation and destruction of the natural world (including especially the Greenhouse Effect, which most scientists now acknowledge as a real threat to our world), the subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on individuals’ worth by various forces at work in society, the fragmentation of society, and the lack of realistic hope, especially among young people today.  Included here have to be concerns about the view of human life engendered by American capitalism.  (Witness such popular television shows as Greed, Do You Want to Be a Millionaire? and 21, and their not-so-subtle messages that the main goal in life is to have a lot of money and that people are valued for how many possessions they possess.)

How will the LCMS (and the wider Christian church) be able to speak a truthful word about these issues that confront all human beings in the world today?  The temptation will be to isolate ourselves from the public and keep the faith as merely a matter of the heart or merely a matter for private discussion within the walls of a church building.  The exception to the general rule of our LCMS tradition of seeking the safety of retreat into a cultural enclave is, of course, our public pro-life stance.  But this exception only underscores our diffidence at public participation in a host of other public arenas of ethical decision.  Obviously, the LCMS is in no danger of succumbing to the liberal view that the church’s mission is identical with social-political engagement.  But either of such moves tends to be inconsistent with the paradoxical vision.  The church is called to address both words of God, his law and his gospel, not just to people who already belong to the church, but also to those who are on the other side of the church’s doors.  There is a public dimension to the church’s theology and moral voice.  Though making this theological and moral voice public is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, the church is sometimes called to make its theological and moral voice heard in public.  The question then becomes, “How should the church make its theological and moral convictions public?”

As a part of its attempt to avoid the misguided options of fundamentalism and liberalism, the LCMS will want to participate in discussions about the nature of modernity and postmodernism, since these discussions also shape people’s ethical reflections and actions today.[44]  Postmodernism complicates the processes by which the church articulates its moral voice and through which it makes that voice heard in public.  One feature of postmodernism is the idea that all ways of thinking are historical, cultural, and merely a matter of perspective. There is no such thing as universal reason, only particular, culturally-bound uses of reason. Nietzsche’s philosophical comments/aphorisms and reflections, central to the postmodernist perspective, challenged the view that there is any universal or absolute truth.  All truth is historical and perspectival, and therefore relative. For Nietzsche, the distinction between right and wrong is merely cultural, historical, and perspectival.  One of the criticisms of postmodernism is that it has a difficult time talking about universal moral rights (as Kant was able to do with his categorical imperative).  For example, several months ago, a college student remarked in a class, “Well, Hitler was just acting on his own opinions.  He’s entitled to his opinions.  That’s his perspective.  I may not like his perspective, but he’s entitled to have it just the same.  Each person should be free to decide what he or she thinks is right.  What may be right for one person may not be right for another.” [45]

Benne has provided us with a cogent and persuasive response to the issue of how the church can make its moral voice heard in the (postmodern) publics in which we live.  His model of public theology is one that the congregations and members of the LCMS may wish to heed as they move through that twenty-first century door, especially since our Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) has modeled steps toward this way of doing theology in some of its recent reports, such as the ones on Church and State and End-of-Life issues.  Benne identifies four means whereby the church’s theology and moral convictions can be made responsibly and effectively in the public realm. 

The first way in which the church engages ethical issues is by means of indirect and unintentional influence.  In this way, congregations become centers of moral discourse and the hearts, minds, and souls of members are shaped according to “the core religious and moral vision” of that congregation.  Indirect and unintentional influence occurs when the outlook and character of people in a congregation are shaped and patterned according to the central vision of that congregation’s tradition and teaching.  This is the most fundamental and potentially the most effective way in which the church affects the public order (e.g., politics, economics, cultural life).  Here the church is concerned to offer doctrinal and ethical persuasion to its own members and let the members get involved on their own in matters relating to the public good.  Benne notes that historically the LCMS has represented this mode of public theology well.

The second way is also an indirect approach on the part of the church, but it differs from the first way in that the church now “strives to bring its religious and moral vision to bear consciously and intentionally on the public challenges facing it and the laity.”[46]  Benne notes that as the church moves to address specific issues of public concern, “great disagreements emerge about which methods are most effective in reaching a generally agreed upon goal.”[47]  Here individual congregations would seek to carry on educational programs about various social/ethical issues in order “to bridge Sunday and Monday.”  Once again, congregations can become places for moral discourse in order that laity can be encouraged to relate their theological and moral convictions to matters of society.  Within the paradoxical vision, such a relationship is not an easy one to make, as people of good faith can arrive at very different conclusions about specific applications of fundamental values to social and ethical problems.  Members seek the best available insight and information on various issues but are quite aware that many ethical and social problems are fraught with ambiguity.

The third level of public engagement on the part of the church is through what Benne calls direct and intentional influence.  Here the church itself, as an institution in society, seeks to affect society through its corporate actions in public.  Examples of this approach are the statements on various social issues that the American Roman Catholic bishops have crafted to persuade the American people about a particular social concern (e.g., their letters on the ethics of nuclear deterrence and on the American economy).  The LCMS has often attempted to make its collective voice heard in public on various pro-life issues.  Here the theology and moral reasoning of the church “is addressed directly to society as well as to its own members.”[48]  While the practice of making social statements has been sorely abused by mainstream Christian denominations (e.g., the National Council of Churches’ statements on foreign policy, which have been unpersuasive even among the members of the churches that are a part of the NCC!), there are occasions when the church needs to speak a clear and cogent word to society about matters that directly contradict the core religious and moral teachings of the Christian faith.  Benne says that these times should be quite rare, especially since political and social engagement within the churches have a divisive effect on the communal life of the church.  (One of Wuthnow’s theses is that political divisions among Christians are leading to “the restructuring of American religion.”)[49]

After all, the church is a corporate body with a coherent religious and moral identity; it is more than its deployed laity.  It is responsible for stewarding the whole Word of God—both law and gospel.  As the corporate body of Christ it is called to address the world directly with both law and gospel.  If God has not abandoned society, surely the church should not withdraw from a measure of responsibility in and for society.  One important way it exercises that responsibility is by directly addressing society.[50]

Finally, the corporate church might also be motivated to act intentionally and directly.  There is great risk to the church (and society) when the church moves into this mode of public engagement, especially since the church can compromise and obscure its primary mission to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, and because it appears quite powerless in the midst of society.  Consequently, the church as a corporate entity needs to act very cautiously and deliberately when it moves into this mode of action.  Through this means the church attempts directly to change social policy or to change society through whatever means the church has available (e.g., funds, political weight).  This level of engagement is a last resort, since the church’s primary mission is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The church needs to address God’s law to society, but its mission is never to wield power in the realm of the law, lest it compromise its mission which is to proclaim the gospel.

DOCTRINAL-THEOLOGICAL CHALLENGES

          The relation between stability and change continues to be near the heart of discussions about doctrine, theology, and practice in the LCMS today.  What is cultural (and therefore ephemeral) and what is of the faith (and therefore universal and temporally permanent) are not always easy to distinguish. While people in the LCMS will continue to raise many questions relating to the issue of faith and culture, it seems to be too simplistic to say that the disagreements in the LCMS today about this issue are merely the result of differences of opinion about acculturation or Americanization.  In other words, people in the LCMS are engaging in matters that do not fit properly under the category of faith and culture.  There are issues in the LCMS that are properly theological and hermeneutical (i.e., having to do with theological understanding and biblical interpretation).  What are these theological issues?

1) The first and arguably the most important theological issue that we in the LCMS will have to address carefully in the next century is the nature and purpose of theological reflection. What is the most adequate and faithful method for thinking and articulating the faith in our time?  We need to ask the question whether we have a final and complete set of theological formulations that are perfectly adequate for our present situation.  Those who rest on the perfection and unquestioned contemporary relevance of past LCMS theological formulations may think that these formulations need only to be repeated in the present.  But against this view, others assert that the task of rethinking the faith for the present situation and context is a perennial task.[51]  Precisely because our situation is different from previous periods of history, it is not enough merely to reproduce a theology of the past.  Past theologies, though helpful, may not be adequate to the task of speaking the gospel to our contemporary situations. (The fact that the LCMS switched from German to English—and this despite protest—means that the Synod has recognized, at least in principle, the task of reinterpreting and translating the historic faith into contemporary language.)[52]

Consequently, the theological task entails a number of basic questions:  What is biblical doctrine and how should it be understood and taught today and in the future?  How are doctrine and theological reflection distinct from each other and yet still related?  How are doctrine and life to be related?  How are doctrine and practice distinct from each other and yet still related? While a number of attempts at answering this last question have been made in the history of the LCMS, none has been capable of establishing a consensus in the LCMS.[53]

Some, of course, use the terms theology, doctrine, confession, dogma, and gospel interchangeably, as though these words refer to the same thing, but such a use does not easily reckon with the theological and doctrinal changes which have occurred even within the brief history of the LCMS.  Because the church has had to encounter new situations and contexts, it has had to rethink how the gospel is to be spoken and applied in those new situations and contexts.

How does one confess contextually the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins?  How does this gospel articulation inform all other doctrines that the church is to teach and confess?  What is the most appropriate theological method with which one is to understand and articulate the doctrine of the gospel today in its relation to all other church teaching?  How are certain scriptural texts to be interpreted today in light of the gospel and contemporary hermeneutics (i.e., the principles which one follows in order to read and understand the Scriptures properly)?

In every age there is disagreement as to how the truth of the gospel is to be articulated and applied in each new situation and context and in relation to contemporary understandings of the other doctrines of the church.  Our time is no different from any other in the history of the church.  The distinctively Lutheran basis for our discussions and decisions is two-fold:  1) “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice”; and 2)  the evangelical Confessions as “a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God…”[54]  But, according to the Confessions themselves, the key to understanding and interpreting the Scriptures themselves is always solely the gospel.  So the church must always return to the source and basis for its faith, the scriptural gospel of Jesus Christ, whose glorious light illuminates the church in its efforts to address new questions and issues that surface in its mission.  How else has the LCMS been able to reformulate and sometimes even to correct its public teaching and practice in the past!

We must acknowledge that the Synod has had to change its theological formulations and applications over time.  Waldemar Wehmeier has identified many “public doctrines” and “practical questions based on doctrinal considerations” that have been reinterpreted or restated over the history of the Synod: church and ministry, “unionism,” “prayer fellowship,” position on Scouting, State aid to parochial schools, usury, life insurance, “separation of church and state,” male and female parochial school teachers, military chaplaincy, dancing, unions, conscientious objection, female participation on synod boards and committees and seminary faculties, female voting in congregations, cooperation with other church social organizations and missionary endeavors, “rightful betrothal” in marriage.[55]  While Wehmeier notes the positive side of Missouri’s public doctrinal position(s)—mainly the strength and unity such a position provided pastors and laity—he also recognizes that “Missouri’s public doctrine sometimes seems to have replaced the Lutheran Confessions by frequent quotations of Lutheran and synodical dogmaticians, synodical and district proceedings.  Sometimes Missouri’s folk theology was elevated to the level of synodical position in some minds¼[and] sometimes Missouri’s traditional public doctrine tended to become unduly rigid with an insistence on the same wording and formulation of a doctrine or biblical concept.” [56]  The fact of such doctrinal change underscores the need for thinking through a theological method that is faithful to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and adequate to the church’s mission today.

Many in the LCMS today will recognize that the questions about theological method and hermeneutics have been controversial and problematic in the LCMS, especially during the past fifty years.[57]  These issues were a part of the turbulent 1970s, but the issues have never been satisfactorily settled in the history of the Synod by means of adequate theological reflection itself.  These issues center not so much in the question of biblical authority but in finding the most adequate way of understanding and applying biblical teaching today.  Differences of thought about these questions among various LCMS members naturally persist.

Christian theology and Christian education in general—if they are going to be appropriate to the Christian faith and adequate to the challenges that are raised by the three publics to which theology is responsible (i.e., the church, the academy, and society)—will have to address more than just churchly matters.[58]  Christian theology is more than just practical and parochial in nature, more than just tools to address hospital and cemetery situations.  For Christian theology must also address questions about the object of its reflection which in turn raise questions about the truth of theology and its future viability in the two publics beyond the church.  While “the way to truth can be frustrating,” there are important contemporary Christian theologians who can be conversation partners with us on the way toward discerning and articulating the truth of theology.[59]  We can also benefit from close analysis of certain nineteenth-century Lutheran theologians, such as Johann von Hofmann (1810-1877), who creatively restated the historic faith for their contemporary world.[60]  Attention to those articulations, in view of the academy and society as well as the church, is an important aspect of the church’s mission to the world.

Many in our Northwest District congregations desire such conversation.  They want their church to engage in responsible, evangelical thought and action in publics that go beyond just the congregation or even the Synod, i.e., in wider ecumenical discussions and actions, within the secular academy, and within society.  These other publics have always been in tension with the LCMS as a denomination, and within LCMS congregations, but to avoid these publics or to withdraw from them, is to short-circuit theological responsibility and to limit the mission of the church.  Of course, the risk to the LCMS is that it will change its public theological understandings the more it engages these other publics.  It’s a risk worth taking, if we are to move out the door and into the twenty-first-century mission field.

A key aspect of articulating an adequate theological method is reflecting carefully on the nature of biblical and confessional interpretation and theological understanding.  To address the three publics adequately, we must ask anew how to undertake the interpretation of the Bible.[61] How is the triune God to be understood truly today?  How are the Scriptures to be understood as witness to this God and to this God’s addressing us?  How are the two words of this God (e.g., law and promise) to be understood in relation to each other so that the word of promise alone is able to create and nourish faith alone in the crucified Christ?  What interpretive principles should we follow so that we understand what meaning the biblical texts have had in the past and what meaning they continue to have in the present?[62]

Similarly, we must wrestle with the issue of how we are to understand and utilize the Lutheran Confessional writings as resources for the church’s contemporary theological task.  One approach to the Lutheran Confessional writings tends to interpret the Confessional writings as if they contain timeless or ahistorical doctrinal propositions that have little or no intrinsic relation to the historical situation in which the one gospel was articulated and confessed in the sixteenth century by our theological forebears.  As is the case with a similar approach to the biblical texts, this approach tends to overlook the facts that we live in a different world from sixteenth-century Germany and that all texts emerge out of specific contexts which largely shape the meaning of those texts.  But over against this ahistorical way of reading the Confessions, another approach recognizes the historical distance between the Confessional texts and our contemporary situation and yet seeks to pattern theological reflection and action today on the “evangelical pattern of doctrine” disclosed in the Confessional writings.[63]  This way seeks to disclose the intricate relation between the doctrine of the gospel and all other true church doctrines.

The analogy that O. P. Kretzmann uses to discuss this method of doing confessional theology is helpful.[64]  All church doctrines revolve around and relate to “the doctrine of the gospel” like spokes around a hub.  The outer wheel or rim that keeps the spokes grounded in the gospel-hub is the interpretive criterion of the proper distinction between law and gospel (see Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, the exegetical criterion by which the Confessional writings are to be properly understood).  This wheel keeps each spoke properly connected to the central hub.  Hub, spokes, and wheel—when working properly together—keep the gospel rolling…[65]  The wheel, of course—indeed, the whole wagon of our church—must move through the ground of its culture and social context, in which we can easily get stuck, mired, and surely muddy.  But that reality only makes the task of addressing the issue of theological method imperative as we open the door which God places before us in this new millennium.

Needless to say, the way in which one goes about the theological-interpretive task will largely shape one’s response to a host of other theological questions/issues that confront people in the LCMS as they head out that twenty-first-century door into the mission field.  If the need for an adequate and appropriate theological method is the single most important theological issue facing the LCMS in the early-twenty-first century, what are the other theological issues related to it?

2) How will the church assist people in connecting their faith with their daily lives?  A national study of LCMS congregations concluded in 1995 that “The LCMS’s traditional strength in doctrine and beliefs is not being experienced and lived out in the lives of most members in congregations.”[66]  How will the gospel get “crossed” into the daily lives of people?  That’s not just a practice issue, but also a theological question.  For many people, the doctrine(s) of the church have little or no relation to their daily lives.  I’m suggesting that the primary culprit here is a theological method that is inadequate to our contemporary sociological and cultural situation.  But basic to this issue is also an authentic love for people, rooted in the gospel.  “If I speak and defend the purest Christian doctrines, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal…”

3) How will the church be able to confess the doctrine of the gospel to people who understand themselves in light of modern scientific conclusions about our universe?  How many people have already walked out the back door of the LCMS or have never been tempted to enter in the front door, because of inappropriate or inadequate theological witness on the part of those attempting to engage them in loving conversation about the faith?

4) The issue of the service of women in the church will continue to be very important to large numbers of LCMS people, who are critical of the current LCMS position because they are not persuaded by the dominant theological rationale in this area and because they are convinced that the current position interferes in the church’s mission to contemporary men and women. How many women and men have left the LCMS, or have never been tempted to become a member of an LCMS congregation, because they felt that the prevailing theological position of our Synod about women’s service in the church does not take into account the full counsel of Scripture nor its evangelical pattern of doctrine.  Many in the Synod continue to ask the question of whether or not the Scriptures clearly teach that women cannot serve in church offices that have been off-limits to them simply because of their gender.

5) The doctrine and practice of ministry will continue to be a central issue for the Synod in the twenty-first century, as it has been throughout most of its history.  This doctrine is perhaps still the most controverted doctrine in the Lutheran Church today.  The confusions about the doctrine and practice of the ministry today involve a number of subordinate facts and issues:

a) There is an apparently growing militancy among recent seminary graduates. Many congregations that have called candidates directly from the seminary have received a pastor “who wants to cleanse the Church of heresy and heretics” (i.e., of those who have a difference of opinion about a particular theological formulation on a tertiary matter of the faith).  There is also a lack of trust between the recent generation of pastors and those who are of an older vintage.[67]

b) There is conflict between congregation and pastor.  “The most frequent reason that pastors leave ministry is because of a mismatch of pastor and congregation.  Many of these differences are in the areas of worship style and communion practice.  Sometimes pastors and parishioners do not agree on how the pastor spends time.  Too often, heated disputes arise over absurd and mundane details (e.g., what color to paint the bathrooms).”[68]  “Approximately, 1,000 pastors are currently in advanced stages of career and personal burnout…  A second 1,000 parish pastors are rapidly approaching that stage of distress.”[69]

c) So, it is no wonder that the LCMS is facing a clergy “crisis” of unprecedented proportion.  The LCMS Board for Higher Education found that during the ten years of 1988-1997 there was a net loss of 1,305 clergy in the LCMS.  A recent study concludes that if this trend continues, by the year 2017 roughly 77% of all LCMS congregations will be vacant (currently 25% of all LCMS congregations are without a called pastor).[70]

d) The Northwest District has been at the forefront in responding to this crisis by suggesting a model of theological education and pastoral ministry that allows locally trained laypeople to be set aside for word and sacrament ministries and responsible primarily to the local people who identify and support them for service.[71]  The Northwest District has been supporting the Alaska Mission Committee and its innovative model of theological education (through Concordia Portland and on-site pastoral mentors).  The lay-assistant program of the District has been educating and training laity for a variety of creative and faithful ministries.  For example, Idaho Circuit Rider Pastor Jerry Reinke together with Pastors Hemsath, Camin, Berndt, and Shimkus have been training several lay leaders to teach Bible classes and confirmation classes, to lead worship, and to help meet other needs within outlying communities in their region.  The Makah people at Neah Bay in Washington are being served by Lay Assistant Dan Doran and his wife, Caroline.  Denali Lutheran Church, a congregation spread out over the largest geographical area in the LCMS, has benefited from this Pauline form of Word and Sacrament ministry.  In addition to the above areas, a similar model will likely be introduced along the Oregon coast.  In the twenty-first century many LCMS congregations will need to respond creatively to the twin challenges of dwindling members coupled to the rising costs of pastors’ salaries and benefits.  Many congregations will join with others to call a pastor who would serve them jointly, but many others will seek to adapt a lay-assistant model of church leadership for their needs.

Concordia University, Portland, has also increased its efforts at recruiting and educating future professional church workers.  Each year, Concordia hosts a “Consider the Call” retreat for high school students who are interested in learning more about the various opportunities for professional ministry in Christ’s church and about how Concordia, Portland, can help to equip them for such ministry.  This weekend retreat allows Concordia faculty and students to interact with the thirty retreat participants as together they pray, study the Bible, and reflect upon their potential vocation(s) in the church.

            6) Related to the doctrine of ministry is, of course, the doctrine of the church. What does it mean to be church in the twenty-first century?  A whole host of related questions emerge in this theological area:  What will the church look like theologically in the twenty-first century?  A growing international movement of house churches has already begun to affect how some in the LCMS think of church.  Perceived legalisms among us in the Synod also affects how we think the church ought to live and move and carry out its biblical mission.  To be sure, for Lutheran Christians, the one gospel of Jesus and his sacraments, administered in accordance with that gospel, are the sufficient basis for church unity (see Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, which happens to run parallel to Article VII of the LCMS Constitution).  In the twenty-first century, there will be a need to renew an AC VII/LCMS VII way of being the church that avoids a sterile, unevangelical, legalistic formality and uniformity among the people of the LCMS.  More and more people believe that the late twentieth century has witnessed centralization and authoritarianism within the LCMS that appear to be contrary to this VII-VII understanding of the church.[72]

7) Eucharistic hospitality will continue to be a concern for many in the LCMS. The 1998 Synodical Convention witnessed a sometimes heated debate about the nature of the Lord’s Supper and its responsible administration in the local congregations of the Synod.  Some in the Synod are questioning the scriptural nature of the Synod’s traditional practice of limiting the Lord’s Supper only to those who are members of the Synod or in complete agreement with the doctrinal formulations of the LCMS.[73]

The understanding of the Scriptural evidence requires what may be termed Close Communion… [Scripture] requires that the prospective communicant be a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior, that there be an acceptance of the Biblical doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and that the individual who comes to the Sacrament examine him or herself.  The Scripture makes no denominational requirement, and where Scripture is silent, we must be silent as well.  To withhold the Eucharist from any Christian who meets the requirements that the Scriptures lay down is to act lovelessly and in a way that is contrary to Christ’s invitation for all to drink from the cup.  Any effort to go beyond the Biblical requirements is to fall into a snare of divisiveness similar to the factionalism that shattered the unity of the congregation in Corinth.[74]

8) The way that the congregations of the LCMS go about the Lord’s ministry to the social needs of their community will become more and more important in the twenty-first century.  At the forefront of this re-thinking of the church’s response to social issues and problems is the current Atlantic District President, Dr. David Benke, who provides the LCMS with an excellent theological rationale that grounds purposeful Christian action in the public realm on a trinitarian-baptismal basis (not unlike Benne’s model identified above).

It is my contention that the Lutheran tradition provides the strongest possible theological motivation for participation in what we’ll call in the widest way “social ministry,” that is, engagement with the world.  It is my further contention that we need to enlist this theological motivation in the strongest way toward parish and wider church social engagement at all levels, be they care, cure, housing, education, anti-poverty, living wage jobs, senior care, social change, governmental lobbying and many others.  We enter the fray for all the right reasons.  It is my further contention that when we enter the fray, Lutherans of the Missouri Synod persuasion will enter into alliances with other Christians including other Lutherans as well as simply others who agree.  Entering the fray will be messy as far as some of the other neat and theoretical suppositions concerning issues of fellowship are concerned.  And it is my final contention that by entering the fray into this particular set of messes on purpose, both mission and nurture components of our church’s design for the future can be addressed in an authentically earnest way.[75]

9) The twenty-first century may witness a revised way in which the congregations and people of the LCMS undertake conversation and even public action with non-LCMS Christians and others.  If the process of secularization continues, Lutheran Christians in the Pacific Northwest will be forced to rethink their commonalities with fellow Christians in the same geographical region.  Such rethinking may also encourage the Synodical leadership to rethink how it goes about ecumenical conversation and dialogue with other Christian (and even non-Christian) religious denominations and groups.

10) There are controverted theological issues in the Synod and there will always be controverted theological issues in the Synod.  The question is, How can brothers and sisters in Christ, who are committed to the Confessional basis of the Synod (Article II of the Constitution), go about discussing and addressing these issues in a fraternal/sororal  and evangelical spirit? How are the members of the Synod to address fraternally/sororally and evangelically the theological (not necessarily doctrinal) and practical differences that arise among members in the Synod?  Perhaps a good way for us to start is to re-examine the meaning and application of 1 Corinthians 13 (and Matthew 18!) in light of our Lord’s will that his disciples “be one,” even as He and His Father are one (John 17).[76]

CONCLUSION

As we reflect in faith on the sociological, cultural, ethical, and theological challenges that appear on the horizon, we can see that God is opening many doors for His people in the LCMS, human institution that it is.  At the same time, a number of other doors appear to be closing or are already shut.  While none of us knows the future, we need not fear the future, despite all of its challenges and dangers.  Instead, we are emboldened to continue in the mission that God has given us.

While there are a number of implications that one could draw from the above reflections, I will single out just three:

1)  There is a tremendous opportunity for Christian mission in the northwestern United States!  So many around us do not know the love and mercy of God as given in and through his only Son, Jesus.  So many around us are people who are walking in spiritual darkness, outside of the light of Jesus the Christ and beyond the embrace of his community of love.  So many around us are seeking, and yet they don’t know who it is that can fill the void that prompts them to seek.  For example, we must be sensitive to the large numbers of Asian and Hispanics that are settling in the Pacific Northwest.  We should seek to understand their language, culture and traditions in an effort to engage them missionally.  The good news is that God continues to open doors, even those which at present seem steadfastly shut and locked.  Already in Acts 14:27 we read: “When [Paul and Barnabas and their companions] arrived [in Antioch], they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.”  Let us pray that God would open “a door of faith” or “a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15) for these seekers.  Is he not calling us to discern and act upon the special opportunities He gives us to share His love and grace with those who do not yet know Him or with those who for one reason or another have disengaged themselves from his religious community?  We cannot afford not to be in mission to the lost and the lonely.  The Lord “has set before us an open door…” (Rev. 3:8; see also Col. 4:3)

2)  We are a pilgrim-missional people.  Out here in the West, we Christians (let alone Lutheran, let alone “Missouri-Lutheran”) are like exiles and often under fire from others for the faith and hope that are in us.  The temptation is “to circle the wagons” or to retreat from the apparently hostile forces in our society.  But to go that way is to keep the doors of God’s grace shut to others.  Instead, God calls us to go outside.  How else will those who walk in darkness be called into the light of God’s grace (see Romans 10)?  How else will the church minister to people who are hurting and who are in need of compassion?  Likewise, as pilgrims, we can’t afford to be isolated from our fellow pilgrims as together we live in exile.  Jesus prays in his high priestly prayer for the unity of all those who call upon him and confess him before others (John 17).  The LCMS is part of a much larger pilgrim band.  We cannot forget this, especially so that we can comfort our fellow pilgrims, pray for one another, strategize with one another, take joy in one another, act with one another.  But even in all of these actions, our focus is not upon ourselves; our focus is upon our common Christian mission and our common gospel witness to the world that does not yet know God in Jesus Christ.  God has opened the door of His grace for us, and so now he wants to call others through us into that same marvelous light of His grace.

3)  While some may ponder the flaws in our mission to the world and hopefully learn from them, we need also to learn from our fellow-pilgrims whose local missionizing is working well.  And we can start with our own fellow LCMSers. (I think of people like Pr. Daryl Wildermuth and the congregational ministry of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Tacoma, WA.  We should find out why it is that this congregation has grown so much during the past thirty years, while so many others have not grown.  How can we learn from those fifteen or twenty partishs in our District that have shown significant growth in the past ten or fifteen years?)  The mission of the church doesn’t just happen.  The mission of Christ’s church is also intentional.  It takes strategic planning and keeping the long-range goal in constant view.  Part of such strategic planning is being aware of the external and internal environments of each congregation that affect it and its mission to the world.  What is the specific mission of each congregation in its unique setting?  What specific actions should it be taking in order to act effectively and faithfully in this most unchurched part of North America?  And are there sociological pressures that should be steadfastly resisted by the faithful?

              Conversely, how should the faithful adapt themselves to current sociological factors in order to reach as many as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Clearly, there is risk involved in the Christian mission, and Christians will not always agree with one another about where to draw the line between succumbing to sociological pressures that should be resisted and adapting oneself as much as possible to the sociological pressures in order to reach as many as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  After careful strategic planning and with unity of spirit in its mission, a congregation is ready to take action and risks for the gospel in its unique sociological setting.  Sometimes we need “to sin boldly, but trust in the grace of God more boldly still.”   Such risk is based on a vision that is as wide as God’s mercy and as inclusive as the New Creation that comes with the Resurrected Christ.  The good news is that the triune God is already out in front of us, beyond the door that he is opening for us.  That’s His promise.

 


[1] Hans Spalteholz, Dwaine Brandt, Dan Czaplewski, Will Hassold, Emil Jaech, Art Linnemann, and Dan Martin read an earlier draft of this essay and offered helpful criticism. I am grateful to them for their assistance.

[2] Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1984).

[3] See especially, Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937); idem, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944); idem, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, 1943); idem, Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949).

[4] See especially, Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 527-646; and Gerhard Sauter, What Dare We Hope? (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999).

[5] See Roland Bainton, Yesterday, Today, and What Next?: Reflections on History and Hope (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978) and the collection of essays by contemporary historians in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald Wells (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[6] Robert Benne, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1995).

[7] For H. Richard Niebuhr’s theology of history, see especially, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956); idem, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959); and idem, Theology, History, and Culture, ed. William Stacy Johnson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

[8] Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 119.

[9] For more in-depth analysis of the church’s challenges and trends through that door into the future, the reader should consult the following: Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); idem, Christianity in the 21st Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);  Barry Kosmin and Symour Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York: Crown, 1993); Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Comprehended (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Martin Marty, ed., Trends in American Religion and the Protestant World (New York: K. G. Saur, 1992).

[10] Kosmin and Lachman, One Nation Under God, 1-2. This 1990 research project is the most extensive and most recent survey of religious identification in twentieth-century America.

[11] Quoted in Kosmin and Lachman, 83.

[12] Pierce et al. v. Society of Sisters. Since the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court has ruled on a number of cases which have led some legal commentators to lament the development of a particular conception of “the separation of church and state” that has hastened “the secularization” of American culture. See especially, Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); Terry Eastland, ed., Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate Over Church and State (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993); Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Anchor, 1993), and idem, The Dissent of the Governed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). “In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though faith does not matter to them,”  The Culture of Disbelief, 7.

[13] This data is from Adherents.com. See http://www.adherents.com/adhloc/index_adherentsWhere.html. This 1990 data is slightly different from the statistics provided in the 1997 NW District Convention Workbook. This 1997 Workbook indicates the NW District (in 1996) was comprised of 85,705 baptized members in 262 congregations (including Honk Kong and Beijing). According to this workbook, the Northwest District is 1st in geographical size among the 35 districts, 1st in the number of early childhood centers, 4th in number of congregations, and 11th in size of membership.

[14] Six of these congregations have been founded since 1985. This data comes from the 1998 Statistical Reports, Office of Planning and Research, LCMS.

[15] 1998 Statistical Reports, Office of Planning and Research, LCMS.

[16] The 1980 data is taken from Where Are the Lutherans? (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).

[17] See esp. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion, 71-99 (“Decline of Denominationalism”) and Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

[18] Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century, 38; See also Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society (New York: Macmillan, 1967).

[19] See also Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[20] Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

[21] Wuthnow,  Christianity in the 21st Century, 39-40.

[22] Kosmin and Lachman, 59.

[23] Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century, 40.

[24] See especially H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 29-39.

[25] Ibid., 32.

[26] Kosmin and Lachman, 60.

[27] Americanization for most LCMS theologians has been tantamount to a watering down of theological truth through compromise with American values, ideals, and ideas.  A more neutral usage of Americanization includes the general American culture, values, attitudes, and ideas which affect all social groups in America, including the LCMS.  See Everette Meier and Herbert T. Mayer, “The Process of Americanization,” in Carl S. Meyer, ed.,  Moving Frontiers (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 344-385.  For a discussion of changes in doctrine and practice in the LCMS after WWII, see Arthur C. Repp, “Changes in the Missouri Synod,” Concordia Theological Monthly 38 (July-August 1967), 474-478. 

[28] On more than one occasion, members of the LCMS have supported so-called “scientific creationism.”  For the influence of LCMS pastors on the development of “scientific creationism” in America, see especially Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1992), 106-121, 192-243, 274-275, 300-305. See also George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991); Joel Carpenter, The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Milton Rudnick, Fundamentalism and the Missouri Synod: A Historical Study of Their Interaction and Mutual Influence (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966). “The very conservative, creedally strict Missouri Synod Lutherans…made the proclamation of the gospel and opposition to modernism central concerns, but they were also critical of true fundamentalists. They abhorred fundamentalists’ emphasis on conversion and deemphasis of the sacraments, their interdenominational latitude, and their views of biblical prophecy.” Carpenter, op. cit., 8.

[29] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[30] “In relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.”  1998 Handbook (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1998), 11.

[31] See especially Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 181-224. Benne’s vision has had a major impact on a recent report of the LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations. See Render Unto Caesar and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State (St. Louis: LCMS, 1995).

[32] In addition to the works of Niebuhr and Benne cited above, see also Benne, “A Lutheran Vision/Version of Christian Humanism,”  unpublished essay.

[33] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 43 (emphasis in original).

[34] Benne, “A Lutheran Vision/Version of Christian Humanism,” 9-10.

[35] See also the work of another Northwest District LCMS member, who is both a pastor and a scientist (with a Ph.D. in geology/paleontology from Columbia University), Harold Roellig (currently interim pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, Monmouth),  The God Who Cares: A Christian Interpretation of Time, Life, and Man (New York: Branch Press, 1971).

[36] See Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959); idem, The Religious Situation (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1932); and especially his three volume Systematic Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951-1963).

[37] John Johnson, “Lutheran Identity in the Twenty-first Century,” the NW District’s All-worker Conference, October 19, 1999, Portland, Oregon.

[38] For a more recent correlational model of theology, one that revises Tillich’s so as to take seriously the questions and the answers that arise from within one’s cultural situation, see David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (Minneapolis: Seabury, 1975), The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1987), and Plurality and Ambiguity (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

[39] Robert Kolb’s description of “Christian conversation” has some similarities to a “correlationalist” model.  See Robert Kolb, Speaking the Gospel Today, 2d ed. (St. Louis: CPH, 1995), 9-19.

[40] On the critique of Christian liberalism’s uncritical accommodation to a secular agenda, see especially Dean M. Kelly, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Steve Bruce, A House Divided: Protestantism, Schism, and Secularization (New York: Routledge, 1990); Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1992); and J. Edward Carothers, The Paralysis of Mainstream Protestant Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990).

[41] For example, see Christian Care at Life’s End, a Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St. Louis: LCMS, 1993).

[42] Ted Peters, “Genes, Theology, and Social Ethics: Are We Playing God?” in Genetics, ed. Ted Peters (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998), 2. See also idem,  Playing God: Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[43] These ethical issues are identified and discussed by Robert Schmidt in his textbook, used at Concordia University, Portland, Values, Society, and the Future: Biblical Values for Contemporary Society, 3rd ed. (Portland: Transformation Media, 1995), 13-16.

[44] For an overview of the main theological responses to debates about modernity and postmodernity, see Modern Christian Thought, ed. James Livingston and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, 2d ed.,  vol. 2 (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2000).  For an evangelical-conservative response to the discussions about postmodernity, see Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

[45] For an analysis of this postmodern way of thinking, see Paul Ricoeur, “The Erosion of Tolerance and the Resistance of the Intolerable,” in Tolerance: Between Intolerance and the Intolerable, ed. Paul Ricoeur (Providence, R.I.:  Berghahn Books, 1996), 189-201. See also Jeffrey Stout, The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[46] Benne, The Paradoxical Vision, 191.

[47] Ibid., 192.

[48] Ibid., 202.

[49] “…liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians find more agreement with each other than they do with conservatives of their own confessions. Conversely, conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians make common cause against liberals in their respective churches.” Walter Sundberg, “Religious Trends in Twentieth-Century America,” Word and World 20/1 (Winter 2000), 28.

[50] Benne, Paradoxical Vision, 205.

[51] See especially Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991). Hall’s approach to Christian theology fits the “correlationalist” model described above.

[52] See, for example, the recent work of LCMS theologian, Robert Kolb, who is also concerned about this issue.

[53] For example, see A Review of the Question, “What Is a Doctrine?,”  a Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (St. Louis: LCMS, 1967) and the discussions surrounding this report when it first appeared.

[54] Art. II of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; 1998 Synodical Handbook, 9.

[55] Waldemar Wehmeier, “Missouri and Public Doctrine,” in Currents in Theology and Mission 2 (February 1975): 23-31. This article is a summary of Wehmeier’s Th.D. dissertation, “Public Doctrine in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,” Concordia Seminary, 1973.

[56] Ibid., 30-31. See also, A. C. Repp, “Changes in the Missouri Synod,”  458-478, and especially, Mary Todd, Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

[57] See Mary Todd, Authority Vested, 259-280.

[58] See David Tracy’s helpful analysis of the three publics of theology (society, academy, church) in The Analogical Imagination, 3-46.  See also Douglas John Hall, 247-367.

[59] Eberhard Jüngel, “Metaphorical Truth: Reflections on the theological relevance of metaphor as a contribution to the hermeneutics of narrative theology,” Theological Essays, ed. and trans. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 16-71.

[60] See Matthew Becker, “The Unfolding God:  Trinitarian Historicality and Kenosis in the Theology of Johann von Hofmann” (Ph.D. diss. in preparation for submission to The University of Chicago).

[61] For a helpful place to begin the discussion, see Paul Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. and intro. Lewis Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).

[62] A very helpful introduction to the issue of biblical interpretation is by Herbert F. Mayer, Interpreting the Holy Scriptures (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967). See also, Francis Watson, Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); and idem, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

[63] See especially, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “Suggested Principles for a Hermeneutics of the Lutheran Symbols,” Concordia Theological Monthly 28 (January 1958): 1-24; Robert Bertram, “The Hermeneutical Significance of Apology IV,” A Project in Biblical Hermeneutics, (St. Louis: Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1969), 124-126; and Paul M. Bretscher, “Theses on the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Theological Monthly 24 (March 1953): 216-220.

[64] O. P. Kretzmann, Preface to “The Orthodox Teacher and the Word of God,” Cresset 25 (March, 1962), 8.

[65] For creative, faithful, and contemporary ways of using the Confessional writings as a resource for interpreting the Scriptural texts and for articulating an evangelical-Lutheran confessional theology today, see the various postings at the “Crossings Community” website, http://www.crossings.org.

[66] Peter Benson, Eugene Roehlkepartain, and I. Shelby Andress, Congregations at Crossroads: A National Study of Adults and Youth in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Minneapolis: Search Institute, 1995), 31. Emphasis in original. Todd also cites this study, Authority Vested, 276.

[67] “People are spending a lot of time verbally and emotionally beating on each other. Pastors are beating on pastors. It has gotten so bad that some Winkels [local pastoral meetings] will not celebrate Holy Communion together. Important numbers of pastors do not trust each other. As a result many pastors are extremely lonely. Pastors and parishioners are beating on each other. They fight about details of congregation life. They insist on getting their way and making life miserable for each other when they do not. They engage in EGOcentric ministry, meaning they are only interested in what they prefer, and intolerant of another point of view. (EGO stands for Edging God Out.).” Alan Klaas and Cheryl Klaas, Clergy Shortage Study (St. Louis: Mission Growth Ministries, 1999), 56.

[68] Ibid., 58.

[69] Ibid.,  59.

[70] Ibid.,  4-5.

[71] For the theological rationale of this model of the church and ministry, see Robert Schmidt, “The Transformation of the Church.” This essay is found at http://day-star.net/transform.htm.

[72] For an excellent analysis of the relationship of the doctrine of the gospel to the doctrines of church and ministry, see especially David Treumper, “Freedom for Ministry in the Lutheran Confessional Writings.” This essay is found at http://day-star.net/freemin.htm.

[73] See especially William J. Hassold, “Eucharistic Doctrine and Practice: Its Biblical Basis” (Ovieda, Florida, 2000).  Dr. Hassold and other people in the Florida-Georgia District of the LCMS have been responsible for encouraging dialogue about this issue.

[74] Ibid., 26.

[75]David Benke, “Social Ministry and Church Fellowship or The Radical and Subversive Nature of Ecumenical and Interfaith Social Ministry Efforts (And Why The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Should Lead the Way in Participation) or Looking for Prayer Wherever You Can Or Cristo Rompe Las Cadenas: Breaking the Bonds of  Irony through Purposeful Christian Action.” This essay is found at http://day-star.net/socmin.htm.

[76] See also Matthew Becker, “Some Theses on Freedom and Discipline in the Christian Church,”  found at the following web address:  http://day-star.net/freedom_discipline.htm

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