Thou Shalt Not Cheat Prospective Lutherans
by Richard H. Foege
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from LF Spring 2013
It was out of simple curiosity that I attended the classes. They were three one-hour sessions offered to non-Lutheran adults desiring church membership at the congregation that was my home church during my senior year of seminary. The classes weren’t taught by either of the pastors but by a young parish worker. The first week’s topic was baptism, the second week’s was communion, and the final week was stewardship. By the end of the second week, I had concluded that the teacher may not have been listening very carefully during her confirmation class days when the sacraments were being taught. The third lesson was centered on an encouragement to tithe and also included an introduction to the congregation’s annual budget.
The four other class members were received into membership the following Sunday, together with a number of other persons joining by transfer of membership. Although the four had been baptized earlier in life, they weren’t received into membership through the rite of confirmation. However, from that point on, they were counted as confirmed members of the congregation.
As I pondered the experience, I came to the conclusion that those four individuals had been cheated. The assumption had apparently been made that they already had a basic understanding of the Christian faith, so only a few Lutheran details needed to be introduced. They were also cheated out of a meaningful avenue for entrance into membership in the Lutheran church.
My own first experience as a parish pastor was as a missionary in Japan. Charged to establish a mission congregation, I soon discovered that all of the early prospects for church membership were individuals wanting to learn English. They included university students, high school teachers, an engineering professor, and factory workers. They were offered, in addition to English classes, the opportunity to learn about the Christian faith in Japanese. The classes centered on Luther’s Small Catechism and Bible History by Michael Reu, translated into Japanese. Since they had little or no understanding of the Christian faith, this instruction was really beginning at square one.
Following several months of classes, each student was invited to be baptized. Initially only one accepted the invitation. Over the next two years, however, several others requested baptism. The last class member requested to be baptized three years later by my successor, after I had already left Japan.
In 1969, upon returning to the United States, I accepted the call to serve a congregation in Washington, one of the least churched states in America. An overwhelming portion of the state’s population, about 65% at present, claims no affiliation with any religious organization. Since I was intent on attracting non-members, I focused on establishing an educational program to introduce adults to the Christian faith as it is understood by Lutherans.
A friend had once jokingly advised me never to assume anything but a 5% mortgage. Following that wise principle, I decided not to assume that class participants had a basic understanding of the Christian faith. The course would begin at square one, just as in Japan. During my first month in the parish I discovered that some youth in confirmation class—who had grown up in the Lutheran church—didn’t know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. Later I was to discover that a number of adults didn’t know the difference, either.
Inspiration and guidance in establishing a course of instruction came from recollections of my father’s experiences when he, also a pastor, was developing a mission congregation. He had used a catechetical booklet for adults entitled God Answers from His Word, self-published by a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod pastor, no longer in print. Although I disagreed with some of the content—especially on the doctrine of the word and the practice of communion—those differences could be explained during class sessions. Through the years I searched for a better text to use with the classes but unfortunately never found one. In order to provide some understanding of the biblical narrative, I also gave weekly reading assignments. This included highlights in the Old Testament followed by the reading of Luke’s Gospel and Acts.
Initially the classes were unimaginatively advertised as Adult Instruction. Later, at the urging of a friend, they became known as What Lutherans Believe. The course guidelines established in 1969 remained basically unaltered until my retirement in 2009. They were as follows.
• It was never assumed that those entering the classes would, at their conclusion, automatically decide to become members of the church. Therefore, the course was not referred to as “membership classes.” Participants were encouraged to delay any decision relative to church membership until they had completed the course. A commitment to membership would occur only after discovering the content and beliefs of Lutheranism.
• The course of instruction was a two-hour session each week for ten weeks. Each two-hour session would include a ten-minute break.
• Classes were not scheduled only after an adequate number of students had been recruited. Rather, the classes were scheduled, advertised, and then taught, no matter how many persons were in attendance. The result was that the smallest class had only three persons and the largest had forty-seven. Most classes had twelve to fifteen.
• The goal was to offer the course five times each year, choosing varied evenings. Sunday evenings proved to be the most popular time, so the course was offered at that time twice a year. Every two years the course was offered during daytime hours.
• Invitations to the classes emphasized that participants would never be put on the spot with questions, although participants were urged to interrupt at any time to ask any questions that they might have. It was also clearly stated that they would never be asked to read aloud in class or take tests.
• Members of the congregation were always informed of upcoming classes and their presence was invited.
• Students were never charged any fees for the classes or materials.
• Fresh coffee and tea were offered at every class.
• The final class in each series was a viewing of the old Luther movie, with popcorn and soft drinks being served.
• If a participant missed a class, she was informed of the date and time when that particular session was next being offered so she could do a make-up. Normally participants were encouraged to attend at least eight of the ten classes.
At the conclusion of each series, I met individually with each participant to offer to him the opportunity to ask any questions he might have and to issue him an invitation to become a member (together with children, if any).
The Sunday worship services at which participants became members were always special and memorable events. On one Sunday, it included the baptism of eight infants and toddlers, eight older children, and eight adults. On another occasion, sixteen adults were received through the rite of confirmation. There were some years when the number of adult confirmands was greater than that of the teenagers from the congregation’s confirmation classes. Adults were received by baptism if they had never been baptized or had been baptized in a sect or cult of Christianity (this latter group most often involved Mormons). Those persons who had already been baptized were received through the rite of confirmation. Those who had already been confirmed in another denomination were given the choice of being received either through the rite of confirmation, which is a repeatable act, or through a reaffirmation of faith.
It would be my guess that at least 90% of those individuals who completed the course of instruction made the decision to become members of the congregation. For those who chose not to join, the door was left open with the invitation to continue to worship and participate in other adult classes offered in the congregation. One such person continued to be faithfully active in the worship and education life of the congregation and after thirteen years finally asked to be baptized.
During the last four years of my parish ministry, I followed the suggestion of a fellow pastor in urging congregational members to invite family members and friends who had no church home to join with them in attending What Lutherans Believe. This provided a means by which members could review that which they had learned in confirmation instruction in years past and also afforded an important opportunity for them to evangelize others.
In my final year, I sent a personal letter to fifty congregational members, asking them to consider inviting someone to attend the classes with them. Sixteen people accepted the challenge. One was a gentleman in his mid-seventies. He invited his golfing buddy. They came to every class and also sat together in the front pew in worship every Sunday. His friend was received into membership through the rite of confirmation, which was a moving experience for them both. The lifelong member of the congregation was astonished by the realization that this was the first time he had ever invited someone to church. He was even more amazed that it worked. A woman in the congregation brought her recently retired husband to the classes. On the Sunday morning he was baptized, I witnessed from him tears of joy such as I had never seen before nor ever since. I wish I had urged members to try out this evangelism tool forty years earlier!
Many years back, a Lutheran church leader urged pastors not to require any classes for confirmed Lutherans who were seeking to transfer their membership into a congregation. His argument was that pastors needed to trust each other’s ministry and should therefore honor the instruction that people had received in other congregations. That made sense to me, and although I did invite confirmed Lutherans who requested that their membership be transferred into our congregation to attend What Lutherans Believe, it was never required of them.
Admittedly, there were times that I regretted not making it a requirement. For example, a young couple began visiting our congregation and very soon indicated their desire to join. When I visited with them, they said that they’d been confirmed members of a Lutheran church near their former home. The husband was the son of a Lutheran pastor and had been confirmed as a teenager. The wife had grown up Roman Catholic and all of her education, kindergarten through college, had been in Catholic schools. When I finally asked how she’d entered the Lutheran church, I was amazed to learn that she had received no instruction at all prior to becoming a Lutheran. She said that she and her husband had a twenty-minute visit with the pastor, during which time he informed her that being a confirmed Catholic was good enough for him. He also informed them that they would be received into membership the following Sunday. That woman was cheated! I was glad that she graciously accepted the invitation to attend What Lutherans Believe the next time it was offered by the congregation.
When I first shared my intentions regarding instruction for non-Lutheran adults, some of my colleagues warned me that people wouldn’t tolerate sitting through that many hours of classes. After teaching more than two thousand students in these courses, I’m convinced they were wrong. I honestly believe that people aren’t looking for shortcuts to church membership. They aren’t offended when we let them know that we have some reasonable standards and expectations related to their entrance into the fellowship of the congregation. They need to be impressed that the church’s message of salvation is so important that it is a high priority for us to share it with them. They also need to know that they are so important as individuals that we are willing to invest ourselves in helping them to know the hope that Jesus offers for both this life and the next. When the church has high expectations, people seem to be willing to rise to the occasion.
At least two weeks prior to the start of a new series of classes, the church sent out a letter to all potential participants. Personalized letters were sent to those non-Lutherans who were recently married or were planning to be married at the church. Included in our premarital preparation was the request that any non-Lutherans desiring to be married in the church make the commitment to attend What Lutherans Believe either before or after the wedding. Only twice in all those years did we experience a failure on the part of a couple to keep that commitment. Couples were clearly informed that they did not have to join the church upon completion of the series, although they would be invited to do so. They were also told that since they were interested enough to have our congregation be involved in their wedding, we were interested enough in them to want to share what we were about. The vast majority of them joined the congregation. It was always amazing to discover what a strong evangelism tool weddings can be.
General invitations were also sent to people that had attended worship services; spouses of members; young people who were baptized members of the congregation but had not received confirmation instruction as teenagers; families that had been ministered to upon the death of a loved one; and persons suggested by congregational members. The mailing list always included more than two hundred names.
Some people remained on the mailing list for many years. The husband of a congregational member finally came to the classes after receiving invitations for fourteen years. Following his baptism, he became a very active member of the congregation, and he often joked about finally taking the classes just to save the congregation from any more postal costs. On his deathbed, he expressed gratitude for what he had received through the classes.
If we as Lutherans are serious about evangelical outreach, then we must realize that this is something more than a numbers game. If we are intent on introducing others to Jesus, we must be intent on not cheating them. We must be willing to invest ourselves in sharing in detail the story that Christ has revealed to us and wishes to reveal to them, too.
Richard H. Foege † served as a missionary in Japan from 1964 to 1969) and then as Pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Tacoma, Washington, until his retirement in 2006. He died in 2015.
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