We all struggle with forward motion: answering questions from “Called Forward Together in Christ,” part 1.

Reliant K was, for many years, one of my guilty pleasures. I didn’t want to admit that I liked them, but I did. Particularly their album Two lefts don’t make a right but three do which featured the song “We all struggle with forward motion” has a special place in my heart. More than anything I liked the song because it seemed to sum my life in high school pretty well.

Recently, I got an email from Bishop Eaton (presiding Bishop of the ELCA) describing a new “conversation” that the church is about to take part in. It was entitled “Called Forward Together” and it can be found here.[1] Instantly memories of reliant K came to mind because is the noble tradition of the people of God to struggle with forward motion.

This isn’t meant as a criticism, or even a cynical statement. Actually I believe that we will be called forward together because God is just that awesome. But I chuckle again as I remember that even God had to deal with the people constantly looking back as they wandered through the wilderness.

That is all a digression though. Bishop Eaton says that part of this conversation is going to be answering six big questions. they are:

1. What is distinctive about our identity as Lutherans?

2. What kind of Church do we believe God is calling us to become?

3. How do we become an inclusive, diverse church that is inspiring and relevant in different communities?

4. What is God calling us to do in a world that is facing unprecedented levels of poverty, conflict and violence, inter-religious tension, and massive displacement of people?

5. What do we expect from our church leaders? how do we recruit, invest, and support them to lead this church into the future?

6. Will our current structures serve the church well into the future?

So since this is going to be a “conversation” and since Mike and I describe ourselves as adding our voices “to the sea of noise that is the internet” I decided that I would attempt to answer these questions as best as I could .

1. What is distinctive about our identity as Lutherans?

Ask this question and you are bound to get a thousand different answers. If ever there was a true “sea of noise” out there it would be the answers to this question. However, as I said, we here at the Fire Escape aim to add our modest voices to that sea of noise.

The reason there is so much noise around this question is that Lutherans are, from beginning to end, really distinctive from much of Christianity. It becomes hard to nail down absolutely everything that makes our identity unique. So instead of trying and failing miserably at that I’m not going to try. Instead I am going to offer up two things that I find crucially important about Lutheranism: An emphasis on grace and an emphasis on theology of the cross.

A) Grace as the primary focus: It must be said at the outset that grace is not a uniquely Lutheran concept (as much as we would like to think that it is). Somewhere along the way Christians almost always find a way to talk about grace. So do not mistake me as saying “Lutherans are the only people with grace.” Heck… I don’t even thing Christians are the only people have grace as a key part of their ethical/religious/ philosophical system.

That said, Lutherans are unique in that a grace filled and merciful God is the key concept from which all other theology flows. What do I mean by that? My Alma mater is Calvin College (as in John Calvin). Needless say, Calvinism, including the dreaded Predestination doctrine, is pretty big there. Over the many theology classes I had I finally came to a realization: talk to the average student and most of them would say that God’s sovereignty is the key and center from which all other theology flows.

OK, but what does all that nonsense actually mean? Well let us put it this way: Fill in the blank, God is _______.  If you had to define God with one word what would it be?  How you answer that question makes a huge difference to your theology. Talk to many students at Calvin and the answer would be God is sovereign or God is King. Certainly, they would say, God is merciful. However, God’s mercy is something that flows from God being King.

All sorts of traditions answer this question differently. Some would say that God is Holy, and from there you get much of the theology that emphasizes holy living beyond all other things. Other traditions look to First John  and say God is love and a completely different outlook on God and life.

The Lutheran tradition (individual Lutherans will say different things) answer this question by saying that God is merciful. From there, you get a theological outlook that results in many things. I once met a person at a conference who was responsible for a lot of ecumenical dialogue (translation: official conversations between church bodies). When he figured out I was Lutheran he said “We love the Lutherans. Many traditions have someone they wont talk to. You all will talk to anyone!” Perhaps an exaggeration, but the point was well taken. Mercy being the key to who God is can allow us to be remarkably flexible. 

B) The theology of the cross: this is perhaps a harder one to nail down; especially since when Lutherans talk about “the theology of the cross” we are typically talking about a broad outlook on theology in general and not just “what happened on the cross.

Broadly speaking one of the main questions of theology since Martin Luther’s day has been this: how do we know God? Calvin devotes much of Book 1 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion to trying to answer this question. Luther, while not nearly as organized as Calvin, also spent much time trying to answer this question. In the end Luther came up with an answer that went something like this: you know God through either the cross or through glory. Thus Luther described two types of theologians, Theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. Luther very clearly said that the best way to be a theologian is to be a theologian of the cross.

Books have been written on this subject so I will try to brief. Simply put, a theologian of Glory finds God in the very visible things of the world and a theologian of the cross finds God in.. well the cross.

Now I can hear you say “well… what is wrong with finding God in the visible things of the world? I see God in the sunset and the stars all the time.” Well dear reader, finding God in the sunsets or the stars (for me its at my bonfire in the back yard) is a wonderful thing and nothing is particularly wrong with that. However, when you start saying that you can usually or always find God in the readily visible things of the world than strange things start to come from your mouth.

For example: every time a natural disaster afflicts a city some pastor out there (who I usually have very nasty words for) comes forward and says “the disaster was sent by God because God wanted to punish that city for its sins.”[2] That, dear readers, is a theology of glory because it looks at a readily visible thing and finds God. In this case, the theologian of glory looks at the hurricane and says “oh it happened because God did it.” Then the theologian of glory does what every theologian of glory does and tries to get into the mind of God and attempts to explain what God was doing. Usually this explanation results in a horrible picture of God. This is what Luther means when he writes that a ” A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.”

On the other hand, Luther writes that “A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” A theologian of the cross believes that God is most revealed at Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. This means that we fundamentally believe that (1) suffering and death exist and (2) God is present and working in suffering and death, but those things still remain evil. They are not the will of some angry God.

Another example: my congregation worships, on average, about 70; we are clearly in an inner-city neighborhood; and money is not an abundant resource. However, many in my congregation remember when there was something like 500 in worship; when our neighborhood was the suburbs of its day; and when there was money everywhere. Because a theologian of glory is always so concerned with what is visible, that theologian of glory looks on all this and despairs because obviously it is a bad thing. Also, a theologian of glory will usually make the next step and say that we have obviously done something wrong because good ministry means good, visible, growth.

On the other hand, I can look at these things and say, as a theologian of cross, that God really is working still in this community. Because I believe that God, through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, worked salvation for all I can say that God is still working in churches even if visible numerical growth is absent. So in my congregation I can say that a grace filled thing is that because we are smaller, less wealthy, and in a different kind of neighborhood that means that we have really had to get to know our neighbors and depend not on our own wealth or numbers, but God. I would say that is a good thing.

And this is why I think our Identity as Lutherans depends so much on the theology of the cross. In a world that seems dominated by church growth strategies and church mission consultants that so often emphasize works we have a message that says God works in these amazing and awesome ways; and often they aren’t as visible as we would like.

2. What kind of church do we believe God is calling us to become?

This is an odd question.

Sorry folks, but I have no other way to put it. I actually asked this question to a discussion group at my church and one person’s response summed up my thoughts pretty well: “aren’t we called to be Jesus’ Church?”

Yep. We are. We can add all sorts of other things to list. We could be called to be a smaller church, a larger church, a more multicultural church, but all these things are these things are simply qualifiers on the larger issue: we are called to Jesus’ church.

The problem that I think many have with that answer is that it puts us in a pretty precarious situation. There are no clear “next steps” in the program from there, and we desperately want a program. If we say “we are called to be a smaller church” than that gives us something to do. That means we have to close more churches, etc… It makes us feel better because there is something to DO.

However, perhaps all this emphasis on program and and what we do has led us to forget a lot of the basics. Admitting that we are, first and foremost, Jesus’ church is admitting that what we do is secondary to who we belong to. This is not to say that we can just ignore our call to action. However, asking this question at all tells me that perhaps we need to take a step back and really look to basics. Another way to put this: we wont be able to accomplish meaningful action if we don’t know who we are.

Admitting that we belong to someone also takes a lot of the power out of our hands. It means that it isn’t really about our programs or even our own capabilities. Instead, if we truly admit that we are Christ’s church, it will mean that we are the people who admit that we are powerless on our own. That is our real problem with simply admitting that we are Jesus’ Church.

I will admit that the person who answered the question that way is a person who isn’t just a part of at my church, but attends many other congregations during the week. Perhaps this person has a broader vision than I do.

3. How do we become an inclusive, diverse church that is inspiring and relevant in different communities?

OK… well first I have to get my problem with the word “relevant” out of the way. We as a church need to stop using that word.

Nike seeks to be relevant

The local news channel seeks to be relevant.

The cubs are relevant in my life because they are finally winning.

Facebook, Twitter, instagram, etc… (even blogging) are all attempts by people to say “I’m relevant.” Our culture is filled with the noise of that single minded quest for relevance.

Getting back to our previous answer, if the church is truly “Jesus’ Church” than on our own we are not relevant. You can’t speak of the “church’s relevance” at all. All we as a church can speak of is the fact of God’s work in the world through Jesus as revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Another way to put all this is that our relevance is not from ourselves. The church might not be relevant, but Jesus is. On our own our local congregations aren’t relevant, but the need for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is.

With that little rant out of the way if the true thrust of this discussion is “how do we become more diverse” than that is a noble goal. Quite frankly though, it is a goal that we have failed at. We are a denomination that is 97% white.[3] I don’t really have any radical proposals, but here are my thoughts:

A) Actually engage different kinds of communities: part of being a more diverse church is simply being in diverse areas.

Let us just admit it: most ELCA congregations are in white, suburban areas. In Youngstown there is only one other ELCA church inside the city limits. You can’t be diverse if you aren’t where the people are. Beyond physical location, you can’t be diverse if you don’t actually engage other communities. We do a really bad job at this on a local level. That needs to change.

B) Understand that it will not be easy

This is perhaps my biggest gripe with much of the discussion around diversity: no body seems to be talking about how difficult it is. My congregation is, on a good Sunday, 70% white and 30% African American representing many different economic strata. By all standards we are a diverse church and there is one thing I can confidently tell you: it is hard.

It’s hard because you have two different cultures that are in constant discussion and learning.

It’s hard because you have to make sure that no one side starts saying “my way or the highway.”

It’s hard because there are simply practical matters that require a lot of understanding. Do we say “amen!” during the sermon? Are people supposed to clap after the choir sings? These simple practical matters are, for good or ill, what makes up significant portions of my day.

Don’t get me wrong: all that work is worth it. It is truly God’s work and it is often a great joy of my day, but I frequently hear people talk about diversity like it is something that can suddenly and quickly be achieved.

If we read the book of Acts we can see that diversity was an issue that goes back all the way to the early church. The biggest discussion then was Gentile vs Jew. Can Gentiles become a part of the community. If we include Paul’s letters in this than we can confidently say that the community of faith struggled with diversity through almost the entire New Testament. If we think it will take any less than that amount of work than we are fooling ourselves.

Well… we are almost at three thousand words and only through question 3 so this seems like a good place to take a break. Next week we will answer the rest of the questions. What do you think so far? How do you answer these questions? I would love to see you answers below.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I should probably apologize for the fact that recently my posts have been more “inside baseball” posts about the ELCA than they usually are. Trust me, we shall return to viewing the big picture through the inner-city
  2. here is an example of this logic at work. http://mediamatters.org/research/2005/09/13/religious-conservatives-claim-katrina-was-gods/133804
  3. source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_in_America#Demographics

Leave a Reply