Managing Sinner/Saints in Today's Congregations

James Bachman
Tuesday, July 1st 2008
Jul/Aug 2008

My current pastor demonstrates energy and skill as he works to build a viable congregation in Southern California-and as a Lutheran pastor and professor, I assist him in his ministry; but neither of us foresaw in 1972 (the year of my ordination) the challenges we both face today. The Lutheran theological categories of law and gospel, sinner and saint, and God's two ways of ruling provide tools that help me discern the meaning of the last fifty years of rapid change in Lutheran congregational life in North America; and fellow believers in other Reformation communities have encountered similar changes and are likely to use similar categories.

Here is the first of two hard truths that I have fought against for most of my years: By itself, sound theology fails to provide a platform upon which a human congregation can be built.

In the past fifty years, sound, confessional Lutheran theology has lost most of its distinctive cultural and social practices. As Alban Institute President James Wind "crunches the numbers" in the "massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008" put out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (see conversation.aspx?id=5818), he discerns the painful reality we are all experiencing:

Once upon a time religious leaders represented very distinct religious communities that were clearly differentiated from the ones down the street or across town. Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of "nothing in particular" find something in particular to build a life upon.

Unfortunately, Wind does not comment on why and how the clear differentiation of communities has disappeared. My thesis, however, is that clear differentiation has disappeared not first because sound theology has become muddled. No, clear differentiation first disappears because North America erases distinctive cultural and social practices.

A second hard truth follows on the first: Distinctive cultural and social practices accomplish necessary tasks that sound theology cannot accomplish by itself. This truth is hard and difficult to see because, whereas sound theology proclaims the gospel of justification by grace through faith that makes us saints, cultural and social practices operate in the realm of law and what Lutherans call God's left-hand rule-God's law dominated remedy for managing sinners.

A comparison of yesterday and today in Lutheran congregations will illustrate these hard truths.

Yesterday's Stable Social Context for Congregational Life

Fifty years ago, northern European music, education, and other social and cultural practices still strongly shaped North American Lutheran congregations. Lutherans confess that Christ reaches us through the Holy Spirit's gifts of God's Word and sacraments, not necessarily through Bach, bowling, beer, Walther League, Dart Ball, lime Jello, or the seventeenth-century authorized English translation of Holy Scripture. But, humanly speaking, well-defined social and cultural practices organize sinners and help construct a visible platform for gospel proclamation. Loss of distinctive practices threatens congregations with James Wind's "sea of religious vagueness" and with the loss of a visible platform for gospel proclamation.

Over half a century ago, Lutherans tended to use common liturgies, sing common songs (in harmony), teach and shape children in common ways, share common meals and menus, use common worship times, and so forth. Because people were not especially mobile, grandmothers and grandfathers led multigenerational communities; their hands directly shaped the next generations and passed on the social and cultural inheritance, which held sway far beyond the doors of the sanctuary.

Everybody knew the right age for First Communion and Confirmation. Catechetical practice was well defined and uniform. Everybody knew on which hymnal page the Sunday liturgy would begin. Lutherans could be reasonably confident that, should they come upon a Lutheran congregation in a distant state, they would see the same hymnals, vestments, art, and architecture, and would encounter roughly the same practices they had experienced back home.

Practices and rules for courting, marriage and parenting, roles for men and women, expectations of schools and colleges, ethical standards for fair business practice-all these and more were well and uniformly defined in the Lutheran communities. Congregational leaders could expect extensive continuity between the congregation that had shaped them and any congregation they would be called to serve.

While we may celebrate the elimination of old practices that seem now excessively restrictive, if we don't create a new set of distinctive practices, Lutherans will disappear from the North American scene.

Today's Chaotic and Unstable Social Milieu

North American culture has succeeded in erasing most of Lutheranism's distinctive immigrant social and cultural practices. Mobile and new congregants may know little or nothing about J. S. Bach and sixteenth-century chorales. We no longer have a common educational and catechetical practice for children. A common commitment to the Lutheran Women's Missionary League or the Lutheran Laymen's League no longer glues us together. Pastors and other ministers no longer have common background experiences that establish common bonds and provide common reference points.

Beyond the doors of the sanctuary, practices and rules for courting, marriage and parenting, roles for men and women, expectations of schools and colleges, ethical standards for fair business practice-all these and more are no longer passed on with confidence.

Lutheran congregations have lost what I call the hidden hand of ethnic social solidarity that helped us shape and manage congregational community in the past. The old hidden hands of grandparents and others no longer pass on the cultural heritage.

Although James Wind calls this a "sea of religious vagueness," the phrase itself is too ambiguous. Yes, some religious traditions have gone vague in their fundamental theology, but even those traditions that have maintained well-defined theological formulations have been mostly unable to hold the line against the erasing of distinctive social and cultural practices from the past. Thus we have a clue to what we need for the future: we need to maintain our commitment to sound theology, but we also need to respond to the disappearance of the supporting social and cultural practices of the past.

Doomed Responses

A doomed response would be to try to recreate the old immigrant social and cultural dynamics. Our former ethnic social solidarity is gone for good, and the loss is both liberating and troubling. We also cannot pride ourselves that orthodox preaching of the gospel inevitably builds a viable human community. We, like the original apostles, have discovered that orthodox preaching does not necessarily build a community. They often began their preaching in communities that already had a structure; namely, the Jewish synagogue and the Roman household. Sometimes a human community would grow up that could pay the preacher's expenses, and sometimes St. Paul had to ply his tent-making trade (Acts 18:3, 20:34, 1 Thess. 2:9).

The human success of some heterodox and non-Christian religious communities forces recognition that, humanly speaking, the local congregation does not get its human strength from orthodox gospel proclamation.

The Ways Forward

Congregational members are still sinners as well as saints, so congregational life will be marked by the law dynamics that characterize the old sinful order. Lutherans say the old is governed by God's law under his left-hand rule, but we haven't always noticed that the local congregation has many left-hand rule dynamics. The essential is to preach Christ. The necessary is to manage sinner/saints so that stable contexts emerge, in the midst of which we can preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. But what tools can and should we use? Today, Lutherans in North America have a chaos of old and new social and cultural practices vying to provide platforms for the Lutheran gospel proclamation. Congregations throughout the continent are fragmented on the question of which social and cultural practices to use to build congregational life.

Music and liturgy are obvious examples of our fragmentation. Note that the question to ask is not simply whether this piece of music and text is orthodox and in harmony with the Scriptures. Humanly speaking, music and ritual are strong expressions of culture and are tools for managing sinner/saints. So, we must also ask both locally and globally whether our choices regarding music and liturgy are building strong communities; and we should further ask whether our choices have any hope of uniting communities across town, across the state, and across the continent.

The challenge of choosing among a variety of good and creative options creates plenty of contention and division among Lutheran congregations today. If we want any semblance of visible unity among our congregations, we will need to solve this problem. Otherwise we'll be identified with a confusing potpourri of options that will leave North American Lutheranism with little that is distinctive, and we'll drown in Wind's "sea of religious vagueness."

What's a Pastor or a Church Leader to Do?

Lutheran pastors are usually drawn to their vocations for the sake of the essential tasks of Word and sacrament ministry, and not because they want to undertake the law-oriented tasks that are necessary for managing sinner/saints. But our current social and cultural setting is so chaotic and unstable that the human side of congregational life won't flourish without careful attention to these necessary tasks. The result is that congregations are increasingly leaning on pastors to provide the left-hand rule leadership needs to keep the community going.

Concrete Recommendations

First, we must put a correct theological interpretation upon the proliferation of organizations that teach church leadership and "church growth" techniques. Many Lutherans mistakenly reject the teaching of leadership techniques because they sense that leadership skills are law-oriented and do not plainly proclaim the gospel. Others accept the necessity of learning the techniques, but mistakenly defend the techniques as part of the gospel. Sound Lutheran theology recognizes that sinner/saints continue to need the law even while their true lives are hidden with Christ in God. The appearance of law-oriented leadership in the congregation can be affirmed in its necessity even while the pastor leads us to see the "End of the Law" in Christ. We need to recognize that church growth has much more to do with the necessary law-oriented tasks of congregational management than with the essential ministry of Word and sacrament.

Effective congregational management will not just magically happen. We must have intentional preparation of pastors and ministers for their new tasks, and we must demand that seminaries find ways of addressing this need. The hidden hands of grandmothers and grandfathers must somehow be replaced. Congregations now look to their pastors and leaders to lend these hands.

Second, we must recognize that distinctive social and cultural practices can be chosen, modeled, and taught by congregational leaders. We are too shallow in our talk about appropriating practices from the surrounding, increasingly pagan culture. Yes, if something good is widely acknowledged and practiced in the general culture, we may be able to appropriate it. But in our current environment, the general culture has little of value to give us and is in desperate need of receiving from us the riches that two millennia of Christian communal life have bequeathed to us.

When congregational leaders love their people and their people trust them, much can be done through modeling and teaching. I am speaking here not about the absolutely essential proclamation of God's Word; rather, I am speaking about choosing, modeling, and teaching distinctive practices that provide a solid platform for the proclamation of the gospel.

Leaders must study, learn, choose, and teach rich liturgical, catechetical, literary, musical, artistic, and ethical practices that are worthy platforms for the gospel proclamation. Use the law to tell indifferent and lazy sinners that, in the presence of God's gracious service of us, we owe the rich response that we see in the Psalms, in the church's history of public prayer, in the astonishing variety and abundance of first-rate music composed to the glory of God, and in the endeavor to lead holy lives. How pitiful to take a vapid product of debased culture, couple it with bad religious poetry and call it relevant worship that speaks to the people. How cowardly never to take on hard questions concerning practices and rules for courting, marriage, and parenting, roles for men and women, expectations of schools and colleges, ethical standards for fair business practice, and more.

Third, we must accept the fact that the personal charisma of the pastor and other ministers has become central to the human success of a congregation. Reformation communities see the perils in this contemporary reality. We know, with John the Baptizer, that Christ must increase and we must decrease (John 3:30). But now that the old hidden social and cultural hands have little independent power to shape and manage congregational life, the leaders must have and develop the personal power to draw people in, inspire them, and enlist them to build the human community. Seminaries and other leadership mentors must both help congregational leaders develop their gifts and instruct them in ways of deploying gifts while keeping the focus on Christ.

Finally, we must learn to manage the rich range of cultural choices available to help us build a contemporary congregation. For example, modern Lutheran hymnals are chock-full of diverse, high-quality choices for liturgy, hymnody, prayer, and catechesis. A selection must inevitably be made.

We will not want to return to the completely uniform practices in worship that were the order of the day fifty years ago, but we do need to create some unity within our diversity. For Lutherans, our modern hymnals may do just this. We can witness to our unity by committing to have a common hymnal in the pews of congregations throughout North America; and we can witness to our diversity by the fact that each congregation can and will use the common hymnal in flexibly diverse ways.

We must also not lose sight of the power of symbolic gestures. We may think it easier and more efficient to use PowerPoint or disposable service folders and never to put a hymnal in the pews, but this is shortsighted. A PowerPoint slide will never project the reality of distinctive Lutheran practice as effectively as a tangible book in the pews or on the chairs; and when leadership changes, even if the new leader uses the resources in ways markedly different from the previous leader, the people still have a visible marker of continuity when both the old leader and the new draw from the same hymnal.

The presence of a widely accepted hymnal also helps work against the cult of personality that can come with our reliance upon the charisma of the leaders. People (and their leaders!) can learn that the pastor and other leaders do not magically create the chief services out of their own personal power and that color, art, and pastoral demeanor in the sanctuary are not prideful local creations. For the sake of a common witness to Christ, leaders must discipline themselves within the boundaries of a rich and widely accepted set of resources.

My current pastor has not had much experience with the distinctively Lutheran social and cultural practices that supported my early life and ministry; but he loves Jesus and he loves his people, and I admire his ability to juggle sinner/saints in his ministry. I pray and dare to hope that his work and our congregation's practices will help create a distinctive social and cultural platform for gospel proclamation throughout North American Lutheranism.

Tuesday, July 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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