Thursday, September 24, 2009

Belief vs. Belonging

So there is a lot going on in my head these days and it isn’t really fully formed yet but since this blog exists to share those thoughts with you, I’m going to go ahead and do a brain dump here so I can get some extra space between my ears to think about other things.

I was reading another blog by Trevin Wax that I read regularly. Check it out at:

I’m thinking about how and why we do church and I’m thinking about the collision between two predominate and colliding philosophies: believing and belonging.

Belonging has to do with community and is therefore very people focused. We want people to feel connected to our church body. We talk a lot about our “church family.” It’s important that people feel welcomed, safe, and comfortable when we are together. These are all really good points. We wouldn’t want to attend a church where we felt constantly threatened. We wouldn’t want to attend a church where we didn’t think that somebody cared about us.

The downside to emphasizing belonging is that you probably don’t emphasize teaching what Jesus wants you to believe because it will make people uncomfortable. I know that sounds weird to some of you but it’s true: Jesus makes people uncomfortable. Many times, Jesus himself destroys community. He himself admits it: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law - a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. (Mt 10:35-36)

So that leads us to believing. More than anything else, Jesus taught about himself and who he was. He said we must believe in him. He said we had to leave family and friends and preconceptions and possessions for him. In other words, our relationship with Jesus is predicated upon belief. Shouldn’t the reason we do church, stay church together, bring people into the church, everything we do as a church, be because we want ourselves and other people to know Jesus and grow in their belief in him? (In other words, shouldn’t our beliefs be the reason we gather, the reason we do mission?) Shouldn’t our association with a church be determined by whether or not we believe the same things about Jesus?

I was reading about a division in one of America’s premier churches, Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Florida. They have a new senior pastor after 50 years of following their founding pastor. Read about it at this link:

The long time members were upset with the new members and the new pastor because they didn’t “pay their dues.” They just walked in a took possession of something other people had built. The ones complaining have put tradition, belonging, membership, history, above what they as an evangelical church are supposed to believe: that everyone needs to come and meet Jesus and believe in him.
Check out the senior pastor’s op ed piece in a local paper to apologize for the bad witness all this was creating:,0,6104431.story

I think this conflict between believing and belonging is played out everyday in many churches. I think pastors wimp out because they don’t want to deliver a message that people don’t want to hear. They don’t want to tell their churches what to believe because that will somehow violate community. What that means is that their churches are built on a foundation of belonging and not believing. Keeping people happy and together is more important than teaching them what they need to believe. It means that whenever some big issue that God has something to say about comes roaring in from the world, these churches are silent.

I think what this means overall is that instead of influencing and changing the world for Christ, many churches allow themselves to be changed by the agenda of the world. They bow to a membership that demands: “You must change what you believe in order to accommodate me and make me feel like I belong.”

Does the church of Jesus Christ exist to make people feel good or to tell them the truth about Jesus, themselves, life and eternity?

Jesus himself has been the one who always issued the invitation:  come to me and be changed.  We teach what it is that has been handed down for centuries by the saints who have gone before us - we call it the apostolic teaching.  The church has been the place that changes the world and its beliefs.  Where the church has been changed by the beliefs of the world and has changed to accommodate the world, reformation and revival breaks out, led by the Holy Spirit, to take the church back to the Bible and the apostolic teaching.  I believe very strongly that the result of the ELCA churchwide assembly will be reformation and revival in the Lutheran church.  I doubt the ELCA will survive as an institution, but Biblically faithful Lutheranism will thrive and grow and perhaps even fully take root in the soil of America.  

Here’s what we don’t want to happen: we don’t want our desire for community to trump doctrine (what we believe). Why? Because community that isn’t built on true doctrine won’t survive anyway. But community that is built upon a shared belief system will flourish and thrive. Look at China, Vietnam and North Korea where the church is exploding. Those Christians are brought together by shared beliefs and truly enjoy a type of community that is an authentic community of those who could be arrested, tortured or killed at any moment. It’s biblical community. They come from different social and economic positions, different backgrounds, different politics, but the thing that makes them a community together is what they believe about Jesus.

I guess I’m saying that believing (what we believe) must form our community and not vice versa. A community that has no doctrine or determines doctrine by consensus of the community is really nothing more than a mob.

Where do we get this “doctrine” in which we are to believe? The Bible. That’s where we learn about Jesus, life, ourselves and eternity.

So what does this mean for us and the way we do evangelism and welcome guests? It means that we proclaim what it is that we believe and teach and it means that we’re certain that when people join our church they understand and recognize that these beliefs are not negotiable, even if they bring discomfort. It means that we must make sure that our desire to create community never trumps our desire to share what we believe with others. What we believe (about Jesus) has to be what holds us together. Not our fear of people leaving.

The ELCA made a decision to elevate making a segment of it’s community feel comfortable over and above what it professed to believe (biblical doctrine). A community that violates it’s own doctrine is no community at all and will factionalize over every issue imaginable. Without belief being the reason for community, community is never sustainable.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Confusion Between Love and Hate

Jesus says: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19 NASB

This is what I wonder: if the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t being persecuted, called names, tortured, driven underground, hunted, put to death, short of funds, etc., is the Church being the Church? If Jesus warns us that the world will hate us because it hated him, should we even desire a relationship with society in which the Church is encouraged, respected, revered, etc.?

Sometimes those of us in church work wonder aloud if it wasn’t a terrible thing that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity not only legal, but the state religion of the Roman Empire. Oh, I don’t doubt that God can work good in just about any situation men muck up, but it does make you wonder if the Church (at least in some parts of the world) hasn’t lost her edge and grown soft and complacent.

Now this softness is definitely not found in areas of the world where the Church is hunted down and persecuted. Places like Vietnam and North Korea and China and Saudi Arabia see enormous growth and incredible miracles. Without the support of the world, the Church flourishes because it cannot help but to rely solely on the power of Christ.

I see a real change in the way that the Church has engaged society in North America over the years. The Church was a huge leader in drawing together 13 very different Colonies and giving them a sense of shared identity and a common view of liberty. The Church was the leader in the movement to abolish slavery. The Church was the leader in the prohibition movement (OK, maybe that didn’t go so well, but hey, we were definitely pushing society). The Church was the leader in the Civil Rights movement. When the lack of available health care was an issue during the last century, the Church led the way in establishing hospitals and clinics to provide needed medical services. The Church cared for immigrants and widows and orphans before the social welfare net even existed. For nearly 300 years the Church has led the way in teaching people how to read (so they can read the Scriptures - the original Sunday School). I saw a glimmer of leadership from the Church after 9/11, during the invasion of Afghanistan, when hundreds of Christian workers arrived to help the new government and establish schools, radio stations, women’s centers and help to write a new constitution which includes freedom of religion. But those were mostly ‘undercover’ operatives from non-denominational fellowships that were ready to go and minister to the people who lived in darkness. Conversely, when the Iron Curtain came down and many countries became open again to receive the Gospel afresh, most of the historic denominations in the US were unprepared for the event and had no plans or people in place and ready to go. Cuba could open any day, and yet, I very much doubt whether any of our Mainline Protestant Churches are ready to go with Spanish speaking evangelists and mission workers.

Lately, all I see from the Church in North America is a kind of whiney complacency. I think this is especially true in Mainline Protestantism. Gone are the days of standing boldly against a sinful society in need of the redemption of Christ. Gone are the days of the talk of sin and how society is going astray. Gone are the days of a radical dependance upon the grace of God in Christ. Instead of initiating bold new initiatives to advance the Gospel, the Church has settled for following along with the rest of society. Instead of opening hospitals and clinics, some denominations hire lobbyists in the vain hope that Congressmen will be impressed by their denomination’s declining membership statistics. Instead of taking a stand against society, conversely, some expressions of the Church have taken a stand against the Bible’s view of marriage and have joined society in advancing alternate views of marriage between a man and woman. Instead of seeking ways to evangelize new arrivals to our shores, these denominations seek ways to nullify their historic beliefs in a vain attempt at accommodation. In many churches, care of the earth and recycling are considered of much greater value than making disciples of Jesus.

In a phrase: instead of the Church remaking society in the image of God, the Church has given in to the remaking of the image of God by society.

What should be done? It’s time to get back to our first love, as Revelation has it. It’s time to get back to a passionate love for Jesus Christ. A love that will spur us on to share him with our neighbors, our society and our world. It’s time to get back to being disciples. Oh, by the way, that means that the world will hate you. Are you ready for that? You might just find it’s worth it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Meditation on the Future of Zion Lutheran Church

I have recently shared with you a lot of my thoughts as to why the ELCA vote to nullify the Word of God at the recent Churchwide Assembly is wrong and cannot be support by the Bible, by the Lutheran Confessions, the historic teaching of Christianity for the last 2,000 years, nor the context of first century Judaism, in which Jesus lived and ministered. Now I simply want to do this: I want to paint you a picture of what the ministry of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church would look like if the congregation decides to sever ties with the ELCA.

First, a pre-supposition: since Zion is already a member of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC - I am going to presuppose that we will continue in our relationship with this denomination/organization. In other words, I’m going to assume that we will not have to shop for another Lutheran body outside of the LCMC. You may recall that we joined the LCMC in 2007 in order to be able to call Pastor Chris Magnell, a member of LCMC and not the ELCA, as our associate pastor.

That being said, this is what I see as our future: freedom and joy. Allow me to elaborate:

Zion will have the freedom to believe. Throughout it’s 150 year history, Zion has been characterized by a high view of Scripture. A century ago, Zion left another Lutheran denomination (which doesn’t exist anymore) over a dispute regarding whether or not the theological concept of millennialism was biblically faithful or not. Zion felt strongly that it was not and separated itself, joining another denomination which eventually became the ALC (American Lutheran Church which merged with others to form the ELCA). In other words, we believe that the Bible is the word of God and that the Lutheran Confessions are an accurate interpretation of that word. This means that the Bible is to be the standard by which we measure our lives and faith. The ELCA does not share our high view of Scripture. In Synod gatherings and pastor’s meetings, in the books and curriculums put forth by the denominational publishing house, in The Lutheran magazine itself, the ELCA continues to broadcast that it’s beliefs that place human reason and experience above the word of God and demand that the word of God be subject to human wisdom. Increasingly this has led to “agenda politics” culminating in the passing of that latest social statement and it’s resulting ministry changes. Without the ELCA, Zion will be free to continue its time tested beliefs in the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions without interference from its own denomination.

Imagine what it will be like never again to have to apologize because one’s own denomination has made a decision that our church doesn’t agree with and wound up on the front page of the local paper. Imagine what life will be like without the endless march of ELCA social statements telling us what we are supposed to believe about everything. Imagine what it will be like not to have one’s own denomination publish a document like the “Use of the Means of Grace” which dictates how often we have to have communion in order to be Lutheran, and which liturgies and resources we have to use and the words we have to say.... Imagine what it will be like not to ever have to worry about our denomination making an agreement with another denomination which violates our own Lutheran teachings and requires our pastors to be ordained a certain way by certain people in order to legitimize their ministry like the ELCA did to us in the agreement with THE Episcopal Church in “Called to Common Mission.”

Zion will have the freedom to choose it’s own pastors for the future. One of the best benefits in being something besides ELCA is that Zion will be able to choose it’s own pastors based on what those pastors believe about the word of God and the Lutheran Confessions and about whether or not they practice that teaching in their own life. I know that some of you will argue that Zion has chosen it’s own pastors and that I am an example of that and so is Pastor Chris. But I want to tell you that the days of that kind of freedom are coming to an end. We have enjoyed a period of time of liberty lately because many of the ELCA’s own bishops (including our former bishop) were in violation of ELCA standards for ministry because they refused to bring disciplinary action against pastors who performed same sex blessings or who were actively engaged in lifestyles contrary to Scripture. But those days are quickly ending and I believe there will be more emphasis placed upon local Synod involvement in the call process (which the rules call for already) and that churches will be compelled to choose between candidates supplied by the local bishop who may very well wish to remake a congregation in a different image using a pastor whose beliefs are contrary to that congregations culture. We already see this kind of “top down” management in many Synods.

Zion will have the freedom to participate in ministry projects of our choosing with other congregations. I know one objection I’ve heard to leaving the ELCA has been that we lose the opportunity to participate in all those wonderful missions the ELCA does. But, rest assured, in LCMC, there is a lot going on already. Mission is done not at the national level, but at the local congregational level. In other words, we can work with any congregation, LCMC or otherwise in any mission project we choose, locally, nationally, or globally. Zion’s current relationship with Redeemer Lutheran Church (a member of the AALC - American Assoc of Lutheran Churches) required the approval of our former bishop. Now we won’t need permission to engage in mission with any congregation of our choosing, whether Lutheran or not. There will be no need for complicated ecumenical statements or verdicts or the reading of speeches. We can simply do mission with whom we choose to do mission.

In Des Moines already there are two other LCMC churches. Ephphata Deaf Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church of the Cross. Both have opportunities for us to engage in mission. We simply need to take the time to fellowship with them, learn what they are doing, and join in. I forecast that there will be at least two other formerly ELCA congregations joining LCMC in Des Moines. They also have opportunities to do mission and so do we. There are a total of 16 LCMC congregations already in Iowa.

Some of you might be concerned about our relationship with the ELCT (the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania) and our sister congregations in the Pare Diocese. Believe me when I say that the ELCT will be in sympathy with our decision to move form the ELCA as the ELCT bishops are already on record before the vote as condemning this action as unbiblical. The ELCT may very well end its relationship with the ELCA.
Check out further mission opportunities at LCC - .

Zion will have the opportunity to join in joyous fellowship with other congregations. One thing about ELCA gatherings: they aren’t joyous. Did you know that we don’t order any materials from our own ELCA publishing house, Augsburg Fortress? Why not? Well, they don’t print the kind of things we think are appropriate for our people to read. They offer a mere human view of the Scriptures. Another interesting fact about Zion: we haven’t attended an ELCA youth event for a decade. Why? We don’t think it’s good for our youth to be exposed to what the ELCA is exposing them too. In the LCMC our youth will have the opportunity to be with other believers and learn things that will strengthen their faith and spur them on to live lives as witnesses for Jesus Christ.

Each year, the LCMC has a National Gathering. Pastor Chris tells me that they are really wonderful, edifying events. I will confess to you that in some 14 years as an ELCA pastor, I have never been edified by our Synod or ELCA events. I have been called names for quoting Scripture, told that my congregation was unfaithful and that I stood in the way of progress. I’m looking forward this October to seeing if Chris is right. I think he is. Turns out I know so many of the pastors in LCMC already. They are extraordinary men and women with amazing gifts who used to be in the ELCA but whose congregations simply couldn’t abide being told that what they believed about the Bible was uninformed and not in keeping with the times.

You should know that LCMC also has a district structure. That means that congregations group together by shared emphases or passions. We are free to join as many “districts” as we want. We currently belong to the ERD - the Evangelical and Renewal District, which Pastor Chris helped to found. There are fellowship and mission opportunities also available through districts. Further, if more churches in Des Moines join LCMC, as I believe they will, we have the opportunity to form our own local district. But none of this is mandatory, which means that it is pure joy.

Will things be different if we vote to leave the ELCA? Yes. But I wonder if they won’t be better, more joyous, and if we won’t be more eager to serve together.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. God bless you. PJ