ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD, GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
As we look down the road into the decade of the 1980’s it is well that we as a church body be increasingly aware of problems and challenges which lie ahead. What changes are taking place in our society in the area of values, family stability, morality, and attitudes? How do these changes impact upon the church? How shall the church cope with a society that is rapidly forsaking the patterns and standards of old? How do the changing economy, inflation, high interest rates, affect our work? How does the church reach out to the deeply troubled families and individuals who find themselves floating aimlessly about in a sea of uncertainty? The growing dependence upon the use of chemical substances all the way from alcohol to angel dust, the near 50% divorce rate, the growing disregard for the sanctity of life, all are matters that should make congregations, pastors, and church bodies pray earnestly for help in meeting the needs of blood bought souls. We have been warned that times like these would come. St. Paul gave a description of our age when he wrote to Timothy saying, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: … ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” II Tim. 3:1–7. Peter warns about it saying, “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts.” II Peter 3,3. And our Savior Himself said, “As it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.” Luke 17,26.
The Princeton Religion Research Center is it nondenominational research organization with headquarters in Princeton, NJ. It publishes; a monthly report known as Emerging Trends in which it provides information about the religious, behavioral and attitudinal opinions held by the American public based upon research done by the Gallup organization. Some of its findings are rather disturbing. Since 1958—a peak year for church attendance—the national rate of churchgoing has dropped nine percentage points, from 49% to 40% in 1980, although among protestants the drop has been from 44% to 39%. It does show, however, that a 33 year downtrend in church membership seems to have leveled out in 1980 with 68% reported to be church members in 1979 and 69% in 1980. This would indicate that there are at least 70 million people in the United States who are not members of any church. Another very disturbing question asked was this: “Do you believe you can be a faithful Christian and not participate in the life of the congregation?” It is a very serious matter when 73% answered “yes”. The emphasis upon individualism and “doing your own thing” has given people the idea that corporate worship, church fellowship, and the public preaching and teaching of the Word is not all that important. Another disturbing statistic brought to light by the Research Center is the abysmal lack of religious knowledge. The latest Gallup Youth Survey found that only 35% of teens nationwide could name five or more of the Commandments, and only three teens in 100 could name all ten, The teenagers did, however, consider the Commandments still relevant for today even if they didn’t know what they were. Seventy-nine percent of the youth surveyed considered the ancient decalog still meaningful.
What are the values held by the majority of Americans which so influences their lives and actions? Francis Shaeffer in his book How Should We Then Live? writes as follows: “As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence. Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city—to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed. Personal peace means wanting to have my personal life pattern undisturbed in my lifetime, regardless of what the result will be in the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity—a life made up of things, things, and more things—a success judged by an ever higher level of material abundance.” One cannot read these words without having the indictment of Christ ringing in his ears, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
One could go on indefinitely pointing out the ills of our society. The secular humanism, the philosophy of evolution, the failure of the public school system to teach basic fundamentals, the impact of violence and immorality portrayed on television, the economic necessity of having both parents work so that children are often left untended—yes, we have hardly scratched the surface when we begin to define the problems the church must face in the 1980’s. Perhaps the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire summarized it best when he said that the following five attributes marked Rome at its end: “First, a mounting love of show and luxury (that is, affluence); second, a widening gap between the very rich and the very poor; third, an obsession with sex; fourth, freakishness in the arts, masquerading as originality, and enthusiasms pretending to be creativity; fifth, an increased desire to live off the state.” It is quite easy to see that we are afflicted with the same ills that brought about the downfall of that once great empire.
Along with these ills in our society, also to be considered is the situation within the organized churches. Indifference to pure doctrine, the denial of the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures, and Gospel reductionism continue to be growing afflictions.
How then shall our Evangelical Lutheran Synod face the 1980’s? We need to be clear first of all as to what our mission is. It is not to change society or to bring about a transformation of the morals of our day. Our mission is the eternal salvation of blood bought souls.
We must then, be aware of what is the cause of the corruption that so permeates our culture. It is nothing new. In fact, the ills which we described are nothing new either. They have only assumed some different forms. The cause of man’s problem is sin. Man has inherited a sinful, corrupt nature ever since the fall of Adam and Eve and this corrupt nature manifests itself in all kinds of actual sins. The Augsburg Confession states it very plainly when it says, “It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.” AC II. The Holy Scriptures, of course, bear this out when they teach that, for example, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Gen. 8,21.
If we are to save fallen man, living in a confused and uncertain world, from tragedy here in this life and from eternal death we must also be sure of the cure for his condition, There is only one cure and that is the continual preaching and teaching of the LAW AND THE GOSPEL—the LAW to convince man of his sickness, of his great need, and the GOSPEL to bring man to the knowledge of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The blessed message of the Gospel is this, that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by His death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight.” AC IV.
As pastors, congregations, and as a Synod we need constantly to be asking ourselves, “Are we doing the very best we can to apply the Law and Gospel to the hearts of men?” Since the Word of God is the only means by which the Holy Spirit can “call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify” the hearts of men, we must diligently concern ourselves with preaching and teaching of the Word. Pastors need to be given time for study and research so that they can preach the saving Word in all of is richness and depth. The summer courses that our seminary offers are indeed fine opportunities for our clergy to enrich themselves. Congregations should do their best to help pastors attend such seminars and encourage them to do so. The hearers of the Word will be richly rewarded in the sermons of a minister who takes the time and opportunity for diligent study. Congregations might even consider making it possible for their pastor to take a longer summer course for advanced study. The pastor would return refreshed and invigorated for his most important task of preaching the Word. Summer vicars from our Seminary could possibly provide help for congregations whose pastors were given such opportunities. Proclaiming the Word Sunday after Sunday with freshness and originality, with depth and effectiveness is no easy task. An important agenda item for church councils and voters’ meetings might well be, “Are we helping our pastor by giving him the opportunity for personal study and research so that we in turn can be even more fully edified by his ministry?”
How shall our Synod cope with the 1980’s? Besides effective preaching we need to “search the Scriptures” as our Savior has commanded us. Surely every congregation has a Bible Class and the importance of such classes cannot be over emphasized. We, however, feel that our Synod could benefit enormously from a well planned and organized Synod-wide Bible Study Program. Now we know very well that each congregation can “do its own thing” and that there are probably many effective Bible Classes already in existence. We do not mean to interfere with any ongoing program. However, there is something to be said for a united effort. There is a motivation involved in an effort in which the whole Synod is taking part. We have reaped great blessings from the publication and study of the recent I Believe series. Since that fine work is now completed we would like to make another proposal. Let a special ad hoc committee be appointed to arrange for the writing and publishing of a Bible Study Program; .we suggest that the first booklets be a survey of the Old and New Testaments, with introductions to each book, selected readings, summaries, outlines, and discussion questions. These would be followed by more in depth studies of selected books and by studies of important doctrinal and practical subjects, including evangelism and stewardship. The booklets should be produced by our own scholars and attractively designed and printed. When the program was ready, hopefully in the Fall of 1982, an all out effort should be made in each congregation to recruit the fullest participation in the courses. We have in mind a recruitment effort on the scale of the Anniversary Thankoffering promotion for the enrollment of as many members as possible. The program could continue for several years and the booklets put together in a binder for permanency. We realize that there are various course outlines already on the market but none of them fills the need for such a Synod-wide promotion.
What could be better for the entire membership of our church body than a unified, well-organized Bible Study program? Is not the Word of God the only answer to man’s spiritual and moral problems in this decadent age? This is a project which we can afford to undertake even in this day of budgetary restrictions. Some outside funding may be available. The booklets would themselves be sold and thus the financial cost would be within our capabilities. Other church bodies are conducting similar programs with great success. We feel that the time is right and the “climate” is right for a good reception of an intensive Bible study in our Synod.
We would also like to ask the same special ad hoc committee to study the development of a Synod-wide Outreach and Evangelism program. In these inflationary times it is difficult for us to start very many congregations by the old process of buying land and building buildings. Such start up costs run well over $300,000 for each mission. We therefore need to develop alternate programs for soul winning and general parish growth. As a result new missions may develop in communities which are nearby present established congregations. Rented facilities, Holiday Inns, etc., may have to be used for awhile until we find the economy more in our favor. Special study should be given to a united effort to reach out to those 70 million or more people who have no church home and may not know their Savior. Special efforts could be made to reach the hispanic population and other minority groups.
In addition to such possible new approaches to our task we need also to be steadfastly committed to the carrying out of our present program. We have some thriving home missions which are experiencing real growth. Our foreign mission in Peru should be one of our top priorities. It represents our Synod’s outreach to people of another land and nation. They need the saving Gospel and it is our challenge to bring it to them.
At the same time as we are “lengthening the cords” we must also “strengthen the stakes”. As a synod we must continue to give our diligent support and offer up our earnest prayers for our Bethany Lutheran College. Difficult days are ahead for higher education. Nothing but our best efforts will be necessary for the continued growth and development of our school. Intensive recruitment efforts need to be carried out on a Synod-wide scale so that more ELS pupils may be enrolled. Pastor and members need to recognize that they are on the front lines in the recruitment process. Personally, my whole future life was in a large part determined because my pastor insisted that I attend Bethany Lutheran College. He knew the value of a Christian education. We also live in an age when people are recognizing the fine quality of education provided by private elementary schools. The times are right for a greater public acceptance of Christian Day Schools and where the possibilities exist diligent efforts should be made for the development of such schools.
All of the things which we have mentioned above are simply an effort to carry out the great commission of preaching and teaching the Gospel in as effective ways as possible. But all of our work in missions, education, Bible study, stewardship, etc., require SOLIDARITY AND UNITY. A healthy Synod-mindedness never works to the detriment of the local program. It rather enhances and broadens ,the perspective and spiritual growth of the local congregation. The congregations of our Synod rightly cherish their independence and autonomy. The advisory capacity of the Synod is an important factor in our constitution. But out of love for the Savior we have joined together to carry out His work. Together as a Synod we can operate a college and a seminary, we can send out home and foreign missionaries. we can admonish and encourage one another, we can enjoy a precious fellowship between members and congregations which brings strength and blessing. “Behold, how good and how pleasant is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”; Psalm 133,1, writes the Psalmist. The early Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2;42. The “prisoner of the Lord”, the Apostle Paul, beseeches us to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Eph. 4,3. Such unity, based upon agreement in doctrine and practice, is a real blessing to the church and we should promote it and uphold it in our Synod and in our congregations. If each congregation were to go its own way, if each pastor were to promote only the local work, would the cause of the Lord Jesus be furthered? Would the message of salvation be spread far and wide? Would future pastors and teachers be trained to minister to succeeding generations? Indeed not. We need our Synod and we need a firm commitment to its doctrine, practice, and work.
How shall the Evangelical Lutheran Synod cope with the problems and challenges which it faces in the 1980’s? By the faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in as effective and energetic ways as is humanly possible. Then we shall be able to say in the face of every difficulty, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
In Jesus Name, Amen.
George M. Orvick, president