The last year has taken me in many interesting directions. I’ve spoken with bishops and pastors from many denominations. I’ve talked with Raymond Bonwell, an economist and Presbyterian pastor, who’s lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, about time management, the challenges of ministry, and the laser-type of focus that pastors and church leaders must maintain in order to help congregations fulfill their mission. I’ve spent time with Eric Law, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, learning about six “Holy Currencies” that congregations need to consistently exchange in order to remain both missional and sustainable. I’ve talked with many people, who belong to the congregation that I serve, about our ministry in the 21st Century in Conversation Circles; and I’ve had the chance to talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has discovered refreshing ways to reach people, who weren’t being touched by traditional ministries of the Church, through radical authenticity and embrace. And in the midst of all that activity, I’ve learned many lessons about life and faith.
But there’s something else….
The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary recently sponsored a “Being Church” conference that attracted Church leaders from across the nation and invited them to join in lively conversations about ministry. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared the story of her life; and then, she talked with us about why she’s a Christian. She spoke about God’s embrace and love for people that we often don’t understand. She talked with us about finding God’s presence in the midst of ordinary people and about watching the Spirit move in people’s lives. She spoke about the radical implications of “justification by grace through faith”—something quite familiar to me as a Lutheran. And then, Nadia Bolz-Weber invited us to gather in small groups to simply listen to each and to share ideas.
The small group that I attended was very diverse. We crossed our denominational lines, moved past racial barriers, embraced people of all ages, and intentionally tried to be as inclusive as possible. We talked about many of the things Nadia Bolz-Weber had lifted before us during her presentation. And then, a woman in our group surprised me when she said, “I found the ways that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way.” I smiled….
We live in an age where churches are trying all sorts of things to make themselves more attractive to new members. The pastor of a church in my community recently removed all of the crosses from the walls in the building—because “The cross is offensive to people in modern times.” I’ve seen many churches strip denominational affiliations from the name of their congregation and become a “Bible” church. I’ve seen other churches transform worship into a weekly self-help seminar designed to help ordinary people become both happy and successful in life. We want to find an easy fix. We want to believe that if we just change the style of our music—or the name on the front of our building—or, perhaps, get rid of our denominational affiliation altogether—people are going to flood through our opened doors and we’ll be happy again. We’ll even have to start setting-up chairs in the aisles, so that people have a place to sit.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was reminded, once again, that the Lutheran congregation that I serve has a precious gift to share with the Church, and with the world, as I listened to the words of a woman in our small group at the “Being Church” conference. “I found the way that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way,” she said. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s radical love and embrace is a gift to the Church. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s power to forgive and to embrace people that we find hard to accept and understand is a precious “gift” that Lutherans have to share in a time when that message is not always clear. I don’t need to challenge the congregation that I serve to give-up its rich Lutheran heritage in order to help the Church to move into the future. I don’t need to listen to the voices of those who think that the Church needs to become “more generic” in order to appeal to the next generation. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t change. We may need to find new ways to talk with people about God’s message of radical love and embrace, and we may need to embrace new ways of doing ministry in a changing world, but we don’t need to abandon “who we are” and become “what we are not” in order to become more appealing to the next generation.
I’ve been encouraged as I’ve spoken with other people about the future of the Church. We’re moving through quickly changing times—and that can be scary. But the Spirit’s alive and moving in our midst. It’s exciting to watch people, who don’t even know each other, talk about the evolving ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ in similar ways. This is a time when prayer is absolutely crucial. This is a time when we need to listen to each other, when we need to build each other up, and when we need to speak with each other in helpful and respectful ways. But this is also a time when I need to remember, and when I must continue to remind the people that I serve, that the Church of Jesus Christ needs the precious “gift” that faithful Lutherans bring to the table when we bear witness to God’s continuing love, forgiveness and embrace in our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.