Evangelical Hope Against Cultural Anxiety
by Matthew O. Staneck
from LF Summer 2018
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
The seductive siren’s call of societal decline is a preoccupation of conservative Americans, and so it is also a preoccupation of conservative American Lutherans. While the verse from Jeremiah above has been misapplied countless times to more trivial matters—and matters having nothing to do with the verse’s context at all—it is pertinent in an article that hopes to give hope from within Babylon. American Lutheran church bodies are in decline, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is no stranger to this phenomenon. As of this issue’s publication, we are just a year away from the results of another election for synod president, and just over a year away from another synod convention. No matter who you may support as synod president, the question at this point should be: what will be the hope-filled vision for the future of the LCMS?
There is no shortage of recommendations for helping Lutherans reverse their decline. I wonder if simply letting them breathe more freely wouldn’t be a good start. Inside the LCMS some suggestions have been in place for several years, but the results are not there—in fact, the very opposite of the desired results have come about. Idiosyncratic reasons have been given for this—not worthy of comment in these pages—but the synod administration’s report points to traditional demographic changes, chiefly that traditional LCMS families are not having enough children, as the correlative cause for the church body’s decline.
Demographic decline certainly makes sense, but the suggestions at the end of this study curiously focus their attention on reversing the decline of traditional demographics, while paying little attention to casting a vision for the synod’s future that would include groups not of the traditional demographic. The study unintentionally reads as though the true path to faithfulness in these precarious times is to do the same things we have always done (presumably, have more babies). The result is a kind of bunker mentality focused on preparing for the inevitable worst. Instead of being inspired by hope for the synod’s future, there is anxiety about the supposed possibility that soon there will not even be a recognizable society in the future—let alone a recognizable church. Maybe letting this thing breathe a little more would be helpful after all.
There are legitimate concerns about the future for orthodox Christians in America. I am not under any delusions about the existence of people who want to limit the free exercise of religion. However, we help nothing by leading with anxiety. The hope of the gospel already secures our future. Being realistic about temporal decline does not have to lead to amnesia about our eschatological hope. The gospel of Jesus breathes into his people new life, and renewed life. What is the cause for fear? After all, by confessional subscription we are rightly called members of the evangelical Lutheran church. There is no reason for a bunker mentality—or for a mentality that leans toward bunkering—among members of the evangelical Lutheran church.
Lutherans of all synods worry that there won’t be a Lutheran church for their future and their childrens’ future. The worries may manifest themselves in different ways, but they spring from the same root. For more traditional Lutherans, coping with our rapidly changing nation sends a shock to the system. The United States of America no longer embraces traditional norms, which makes catechizing very difficult. A hopeful future can come off as naive or ignorant, but you do not have to be in denial about current demographic changes in order to embrace a hope for the future. We were not promised an American society that would be the same yesterday, today, and forever. We were simply promised a Lord Jesus the same yesterday, today, and forever. Instead of an approach to ministry driven by anxiety for survival, we are invited to a ministry driven by hope. The Lord Jesus and his gospel are our hope for a present and future, and that is what should drive our ministry.
Recently I was struck by this line in an article: “Gospel-centered Christians read the Scriptures ‘in the light of Christ.’” The writer went on to explain that everything that gospel-centered Christians read is filtered through Christ, best illustrated in Luke 24 when Jesus tells the disciples that the law and prophets all refer to him. That line struck a chord relating to the perceived crisis facing Lutherans. Evangelical, which is to say gospel-centered, Lutherans are to read the Scriptures, the church, and the world “in the light of Christ.” While this does not eliminate outside threats in a strange society, it does inform and inspire Christians to engage the Scriptures, the church, and the world through gospel-centered hope.
The hope-filled future for the Lutheran church rests on the reality that Lutherans are evangelically-led and evangelically-centered. This view of the Lutheran church is hopeful in its liberating message. Not only that, it is confessional. As Arthur Carl Piepkorn argues, the Lutheran church is nothing if it isn’t confessional:
Lutheranism is not a particular way of organizing the church. World Lutheranism includes every conceivable form of church government—episcopal, consistorial, presbyterial, congregational. In fact, under certain circumstances it would be possible to be under the papacy and still be Lutheran. Nor is Lutheranism a particular way of organizing theology. Lutherans do not hold doctrines peculiar to themselves; they claim that their doctrines are those of the Sacred Scriptures taught and confessed by the catholic church of the past. Lutheranism is rather a confessional position. To be Lutheran means to stand for a certain point of view or attitude concerning the central teaching of the church. To be Lutheran means to elevate the Gospel, the good news of God’s great work of rescuing men from death for life, accomplished by the atoning work of Jesus Christ and imparted through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The confessional position of the evangelical Lutheran church is to elevate the evangel. It means to be led by and centered on the gospel. To be Lutheran means to breathe freely the “great work of rescuing [humanity] from death for life.”
This is what I mean by a ministry driven by hope. The hope for a church having trouble breathing is the gospel of rescuing humanity from death for life. Society is dying by its own mess of choices (just like every human society has died and is dying of its own choices!). American Lutherans do themselves no favors by trying to engage society according to the rules society sets down. Lutheran ministry driven by hope engages the world by offering an alternative vision that inspires hope for a future. But this hope for the future is not only about securing our own eternal welfare. It’s also about seeking the welfare of the places where we serve.
Lutheran liturgies are especially well equipped to offer this alternative vision. For starters, a congregation can confess its sins without self-defense or spin-doctoring and then unapologetically proclaim the forgiveness of sins—even if the surrounding culture is decadent. Or a Palm Sunday procession may traverse city sidewalks; an Easter Vigil may begin in a public park. This alternative liturgical vision is seen in the community publicly blessing the bounteous gifts received at the harvest and pastors personally mentoring children and adults toward a public confession of faith. It is a locally cultivated Vacation Bible School that speaks to the tender hearts of children the gospel message of Jesus and his life-giving rescue from death for life. And to lead the way and form the leaders, evangelical Lutheran education looks and acts Lutheran by embracing students from both traditional and non-traditional demographics in hopes of piquing their curiosity through a bold confession of Jesus Christ.
That’s not all! We become the alternative vision of Jesus in American society when our congregations aren’t afraid to show up in court to advocate for the immigrants in our midst or advocate for the protections of all lives in the public square. We are the laity who embrace vocation as an instrument for delivering the rescuing hope of Christ in the midst of a hopeless world in countless ways whose faith motivation is often subtle or hidden. We are the parish that feeds the homeless without judging them for being homeless, that bands together to help the poor find adequate housing without grumbling about their need to work harder. We are a people who rally behind those who suffer racial injustice. We are this—we are called to be this—and so much more.
This vision is necessarily grassroots and organic, for that is where ministry is best carried out. So how might a church body driven by hope lead well in this cultural milieu? If the whole people of God are truly the lifeblood of our ministry, then our ministry at all levels would reflect grassroots efforts. An evangelical Lutheran church body would take its place in the public square, witnessing to these grassroots efforts on behalf of the vulnerable. It would willingly absorb the blows it receives while engaging the public square without bemoaning its persecution as such a terrible shock, or worse, trying to gain political power in order to shut our despisers down. Such a church body driven by hope would actually believe itself to be the church—the very members of Christ on earth, with its “headquarters” everywhere the people are gathered in his name. With such ecclesial security, the evangelical Lutheran church body can proactively promote hope among its members and within the larger society.
Evangelical Lutherans can look like all of this and more, comforted by Jesus’ words, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow” (Matthew 6:28). Evangelical Lutherans lead by preparing to live in the future. Evangelical Lutherans are given a foretaste of that future life as often as they eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. Fortification by the Lord’s body and blood is not just for the deathbed. It is also and especially for walking from the altar into the world. It is especially for rescuing from death for life. Despite the sometimes alarming look of present-day society and ministry’s inevitable ups and downs, ours is a great time to be about the Lord’s work! For all times are God’s times, all work is His work, and whatever the future looks like, it is also His.
This hope for the future is grounded in prophetic words. The prophetic word of the Lutheran church to the world is spoken securely from a hope in the future, grounded confessionally in the gospel. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it:
The Church’s word to the world can be no other than God’s word to the world. This word is Jesus Christ and salvation in His name. It is in Jesus Christ that God’s relation to the world is defined. We know of no relation of God to the world other than through Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper relation of the Church to the world cannot be deduced from natural law or rational law or from universal human rights, but only from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
An evangelical Lutheran church does not have to find its voice because it doesn’t speak any words apart from the Word. The church has tried to master society and inevitably it has fallen out of favor in some way or another—or betrayed itself in the process. It is a breath of fresh air to know that the church does not have to busy itself with the passing panicked concerns of society. Evangelical Lutherans speak the only Word possible to the world—Jesus Christ himself, the Word that breathes freely.
On the same day of our Lord’s resurrection, he breathed on his disciples. That breath of new life was given for the purpose of freeing people from their worry over the future. What more does an evangelical Lutheran church need than the risen Lord’s own breath of life? The evangelical Lutheran church is evangelical because it rightly claims Jesus as its Lord. The Jesus who is Lord of the evangelical Lutheran church is even the Lord of this strange society of ours. Some want to wait out the current cultural storm in hopes of things leveling out so that a recognizable future may re-emerge. But we Lutherans don’t need to do that. We run headlong into society with the elevated evangel that rescues humanity from death for life.
And why do we Lutherans do this? Because, as people of the Word, Lutherans believe in the Lord, Who promises His people a hope and a future.
1. The special issue of Journal of Lutheran Mission including three essays on this subject is available online at <https://issuu.com/thelcms/docs/lcms-jlm-no9-2016-special-edition?e=5289338/42023681> (this and subsequent website accessed April 15, 2018). The essays deal with a major demographic study commissioned by the LCMS that was released in December 2016.
2. Timothy Saleska, “The Gospel-Centered Christian” (February 9, 2018), online at <https://concordiatheology.org/2018/02/the-gospel-centered-christian/>.
3. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, vol. 2, ed. Philip J. Secker (Mansfield: cec, 2007), 195.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World (New York: Touchstone, 1955), 352.