OK. I’ve got your attention. You just may continue reading. What is church? That’s a question that is apparently once again facing my particular district of the LCMS. Or, more to the point, this district is seeking to reinvent church.
Last night I sat through a presentation on a “church-planting” program through the district. At the end of it I’m quite certain that I have now alienated these particular district reps. as well as having branded myself as anti-evangelism. (Before we go there, please reference this comment left on another blog.) So, now that we’ve set that aside, let’s consider some things.
I’m a fan of church planting. Where there is no area Lutheran church, I’m all for putting one in to serve area Lutherans and to be an instrument of outreach (I said it again. Man, I must be in favor of it.). The pitch went like this (my own paraphrase:
We’re Lutherans, and that’s good. But there are some things in our tradition that are roadblocks to mission. We’re a church of the head, not one about evangelism. We need to learn the purpose of the Father (that’s right, purpose) so that we can unite in that purpose. And the purpose of the Father is to unite all things in Christ. We can safely say that uniting all things in Christ is obviously mission, and we just need to get on bus with that and everything will be just great. Now, a church is where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, right? So we’re going to start social peer groups in the area. Maybe we’ll have a weekly fishing group here and a weekly basketball group there. So you start off playing ball or fishing and then you can work around to praying and reading the bible together and boom! you’ve got little churches. And maybe these churches will get together into one big church and you’ve gor your church plant.
We listened to the pitch. It was further suggested that pastors basically stay away from these groups, because these people are really afraid to get into “church,” and they don’t want to have any contact with a pastor for goodness’ sake. “After all, there was no St. Louis Seminary in the early church. They just asked an educated layman to step forward and lead the house church” (That’s actually a direct quote. So there wasn’t a seminary education–but there was a call to ministry).
When they’d finished I finally spoke. “What you’re suggesting is actually against what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutherans. We define church as ‘the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.'”
“Yes, that’s right. We’re talking about a paradigm shift in the way that we do things. And it works! All I can tell you is that in my *however many decades* of experience that it works.”
It went on from there. The Confessions, the Office of the Public Ministry–pretty much Lutheran doctrine–is a roadblock to planting what would be Lutheran churches! And I’m the narrow-minded jerk who isn’t willing to throw out Scripture and the Confessions so we can start social peer groups and call them churches.
In addition to selling out Lutheran theology, such programs merely give lip service to the power and work of the Holy Spirit, yet they don’t seem to realize how they theoretically and functionally limit that power and work. “Let’s take the Word of God out of the equation so that we don’t scare people away and then we’ll decide when the time is just right for that Word, by which the Holy Spirit works, to be proclaimed. He couldn’t possibly work effectively unless we pull a theological hoodwink on our unsuspecting targets of evangelism. Hey, we’re just going to shoot some hoops weekly. It’ll be great! Oh, yeah, three months into it I’ll complete the bait and switch on you by letting you know that you’ve really been going to church all this time, and would you like to receive Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” Honesty of purpose and trusting the Holy Spirit to do what we confess that he does in the Third Article is so sixteenth century. Does this sound like Amway to anyone else?
Relational evangelism is good. Lay persons generally have more contact with non-Christians in their individual stations, and they have relationships in which they can share the Word of God (through which the Holy Spirit works faith when and where He will). But social structures, peer groups, and the like do not constitute church, even as all saints of God are included in the church. These are not church.
“Where two or three are gathered…” Not to labor the point too much, but there is a contextual consideration to this little phrase.
Matthew 18.18-20: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The context is that of church discipline. So often this is said of any gathering together of Christians (although given that Jesus–and in fact, the Godhead–is omnipresent, he is certainly there even with the single person, Christian or not). Yet I’d argue that this is a word of comfort to those with the unfortunate task of reflecting the proclamation of heaven against the unrepentant sinner. This gathering is not a church. This would seem to be a gathering from within a church; not a church in itself.
I’m for evangelism. I’m for church planting. But really, can’t we be just a little bit better than this? Must we resort to redefining away our distinctive identity and proclamation? Must we constantly repent of our theology? Must we trade it all away so that we can pat ourselves on the back for our vast numbers and measurable successes in pandering to the lowest common denominator on everything? Shall we be about bringing people just as far as we can without upsetting the delicate equilibrium of their unregenerate selves, or do we take all of Scripture seriously?