Prof. John A. Moldstad
1971 Synod Convention Essay
“Man overboard! Man overboard!” What is your instant reaction as you stand there on the deck? “Grab a life preserver and throw it to him!” Right! The Bible pictures the world as a vast sea teeming with men, women and children who are “washed overboard” and heading for the depths of certain eternal destruction unless someone throws them the life preserver of the Gospel.
Our compliments to the president of our Synod for choosing as the theme for this convention the words of the psalmist: “I believed therefore have I spoken” (Psalm 116:10). Can you think of a more fitting theme for a church which has in its possession that one and only life preserver which can save this God-ignoring world of ours? As you look about you on all sides — in the daily newspaper, on television, as you spend just ten minutes browsing at the magazine section of your favorite supermarket (to say nothing of your neighborhood newstand!) — can you come to any other conclusion than this world is fast going to hell? In the presentation of this topic we propose that individuals, congregations and our Synod itself do some self-examining to see whether or not we who believe are really “speaking” to the needs of mankind in this late hour. Are we who are safe from all harm in the arms of Jesus acting in a responsible manner towards the hundreds of millions in this world who as yet have not even heard of Him? Moreover what are we saying to those who have heard of Him but to this day have rejected Him?
I. THE MOTIVATION FOR MISSION WORK
Although the assignment for this paper was to emphasize the practical evangelizing side of our Christianity, we must start with the fountain source of all true Christian mission work. That is stated simply in the first part of our convention theme: “I BELIEVED therefore have I spoken.”
Speaking to others about Jesus springs from believing. But since there will be more people believing among the goats on Judgment Day than among the sheep, it must be stated that this believing cannot be just any kind of faith. It must be the kind of faith that our Heavenly Father judges to be saving faith! This is a. belief in the Gospel as God has given it to us in the Bible. If the Apostle Peter was right in Acts 4:12, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” then it follows that men who want to be saved had better get the information as to who that name is and what that name has done for them in as exact a form and in as correct a manner as God has revealed it to them in His holy Word. If Jesus spoke the truth when He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6) then what eternal purpose can man have in making “any additions or corrections” to the work of the Holy Spirit, who moved the writers of the Bible to think, speak and write as He wanted them to do! A former president of our Synod said on more than one occasion: “False doctrine never builds faith. It always tears it down!” So another writer in our LUTHERAN SENTINEL some years ago likened false doctrine to mud mixed with cement. Instead of strengthening the concrete it weakens it and enough of it will destroy the concrete altogether. What arrogant people we creatures of clay contrive to be whenever we think we can improve upon God’s pure Gospel with a good dose of false doctrine! Thank God that our fathers were willing to sacrifice prestige, money, numbers, even close family ties, in order to avoid making that costly mistake. If there is anyone thing more than all others that they have left to us as a sacred legacy it is this: The pure Word of God from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21 must be kept pure at all cost just as God has given it to us.
However, if a person’s faith is merely this: “We have the pure Gospel in our church; we are against false doctrine,” that kind of faith is no more a saving faith than believing that God will reward us in heaven for our good works. It might be a lot closer to our liking to state our faith as: ‘I believe our church teaches the whole truth” but no one ever got to heaven by substituting that kind of faith for a true faith in the crucified and risen Christ! This matter of the right kind of faith needs clear emphasis today, for we are plagued with the sickness that has swept America from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, California: — that just as all steeples are pointed skyward (“They’re all working for the same thing you know”) so it doesn’t make any difference what your faith may be; what is important is that you do have some kind of faith. That is the sickness and your friends and neighbors have caught it just as mine have! It is hard to resist. It is so appealing. So American! In the opinion of this writer the lodge and especially the public school have done as much as any one church to spread the germs of this sickness. Many of our own members show symptoms of it. One observer of the current religious scene put it pretty well poetically:
“Protestant, Catholic, Moslem and Jew
Merge into one ecumenical goo.
When all of our leveling labor is done
No one will know Dr. Peale from a nun.”
Such being the spiritual climate of the day is it any wonder that the public shakes its head in amazement at anyone who holds: “There is only one land of faith that God will recognize on Judgment Day. All other faith, no matter how sincerely held by the individual, will lead to hell, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong!” That is regarded as a bigoted, conceited, arrogant, even loveless position by those who refuse to let the Bible speak clearly on this matter. But it is nevertheless as true a doctrine, of God’s Word as the very teaching that Jesus is the Son of God. Whenever the Bible answers the question: “What must I do to be saved?” the answer never comes out any different from Paul’s reply to the jailer at Philippi: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). Whenever this believing that brings salvation (and the lack of it which brings damnation — Mark 16:16) is defined in Scripture it is always the same: accepting the work of Christ in our behalf.
Today a man sits in Death Row in California convicted of master-minding the bizarre killing of a movie actress and several of her friends. The prison chaplain would stand dead center on Scripture if he would tell this miserable man: “Although your crime is indeed most heinous to both man and God and you deserve nothing but hell’s heat throughout eternity for it, nevertheless you stand before Almighty God in a state of complete forgiven innocence. This amazing fact comes about in this way: Jesus, the Son of God, took your place and completely atoned not only for these murders, but also for all of the other sins of your life. Cod loves you in spite of your life. God loves you in spite of your sin. God pleads with you to accept His kindness. There is nothing you can do or need to do in order to qualify for this gracious forgiveness from God. He has worked out your salvation Himself through Jesus. All He asks is that you accept His gift of forgiveness and eternal life in heaven.” The trained parish pastor, who has often had to deal with unrepenting, hardened scoffers at God’s grace and mercy, immediately recognizes that it would not be wise for the chaplain to speak this way to such a man until the prisoner repented of his sin and matched the question of the jailer at Philippi: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” Otherwise it could be a giving of that which is holy to the dogs and a casting of pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). But the point of this paragraph is: A wretched man such as this convicted murderer stands absolutely sinless under God’s great justifying declaration: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Why? Because the “blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Jesus in complete victory cried out on the cross: “It is finished.” Is there anyone who believes that He still had some work left to do? Row, then, do you explain the Easter story where the Heavenly Father gave His complete endorsement not only of this statement of Jesus but of His whole life and work by raising Him from the dead?
“I Believed, Therefore Have I spoken.” It is this believing in the message of the salvation worked for us by Christ, of the forgiveness of sins freely pronounced upon all men by a God who “was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” that is the fountain source for our “speaking.” Nor must the trumpet of our preaching give an uncertain sound to our own people on this matter, either. This is so vital to their eternal welfare! They must be brought to see most clearly that “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Too many of them, we fear, can full into a “ritualistic” faith. The “head knowledge” of what Jesus has done for them is there. They have listened to our sermons. They can correctly point out that His great work consisted of two parts: “His keeping God’s Law perfectly in our place and His suffering and death on the cross.” However, this knowledge can so easily remain in the head if one yields to the temptation to reduce Christianity to a mere following of ritual in his everyday life, and in particular in his life on Sundays.
Perhaps the chief sin of modern church goers is this “ritualistic” faith (going through the motions: Sunday School, confirmation class, Sunday services, contributing, attending communion, table prayers at home) and the consequent belief that as a good scout one has “done one’s duty to God” and will be rewarded with heaven when God closes the book on one’s life. This in no small way explains the lack of interest in doctrine on the part of so many regular church goers. Who needs much doctrine, when it is the performance of rites and rituals that really matters! If you had asked the Pharisee as he made his way out of the temple whether or not he were a child of God, you could be sure he would have been insulted at your question. Such an idea would be unthinkable for one who so religiously observed all the rituals of the temple. But Jesus said that the publican “went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). We certainly do not want to make light of Sunday School, confirmation classes, Sunday services and the rest. But an assumption by our people that heaven is theirs because they attend these faithfully is nothing else than sheer works righteousness. The Apostle Paul writes to people who are preparing for communion: “Let a man examine himself” first, thereby showing that it is definitely possible for a person to think he is a Christian, even want to go to communion (following the “rituals”) and still not be a Christian at all!
Returning from our momentary digression, we again emphasize the point of our convention theme: believing in the Christ of the Bible is the fountain source of our speaking to others of the Christ of the Bible. But, before taking as objective a look as we can at our “speaking”, let us first make the point that our speaking to others about the saving Christ comes not only from love to Almighty God, but also from a love for our fellow man who is headed for damnation without this precious Gospel.
Just as on board ship you do not run for the life preserver until it has been impressed on you that a man is overboard, so also a realization that your fellow man is heading for the eternal depths of hell without divine help must be more than a realization. It must be a conviction! The doctrine of eternal damnation in hell isn’t our motive for doing mission work. Our love for Jesus is! This teaching should be the alarm bell alerting us to the desperate plight of our un-Christian neighbor.
Who among us, driving late at night and seeing a house on fire, would not stop and run up the steps to warn the people in the house, even risking his own life to save them? And yet who would warn the same people about the fires of hell? The answer: the same person. ‘Why doesn’t he then? It would seem the only logical conclusion is that he doesn’t see the fires of hell as really threatening his un-Christian neighbor or stranger–only the heathen in far off lands who are out of sight and therefore pretty well out of mind. Our Christian knows from Scripture that unbelief ends in hell-fire, but he too often does not make the ready application. How often did not the disciples give evidence of knowing something that Jesus had told them, and yet at the same time clearly showing that they had not really grasped the meaning their Master had taught them!
II. THE CARRYING OUT OF MISSION WORK
What an honor and what a joy that Christ should choose us lowly, but redeemed sinners to bring this happy news of God’s great love for the world to our fellow man! It is an honor, for we have been entrusted with a responsibility that has not even been assigned to the angels. But it is also a matter of pure joy to be able to announce to anyone some wonderful news. Any pastor can tell you that it is not an easy matter to “break the news” of a sudden death to the immediate family. But what lawyer, for example, would feel any sorrow about announcing to a relative that he had just inherited a large fortune from a rich uncle? How often a parent has heard his little one say: “Let ME tell it!” when it comes to sharing good news, happy news, exciting news with his family.
In this connection we think of a statement in Herzberger’s “Family Altar”: “It is so sadly true what an agnostic said to his Christian friend: ‘If you church-people really took to heart this story of Christ’s love for sinners, the very ground would burn under your feet, and you wouldn’t rest until you had told it to every man alive.’” We might as well get right down to it: Has the very ground been burning under the feet of our Synod, our congregations, our individual Christian people in bringing this beautiful story of Christ’s love for sinners to this sin-sick world of ours? Let us take as objective a look as we can at our efforts.
A. The Past Twenty Years
It would not be an accurate statement of the facts to say that our Synod did little mission work during the past two decades. But it would be just as incorrect to state that it occupied our major efforts and time. During these last twenty years at least two most pressing problems received far greater attention: the Synodical Conference issue and the closing of Bethany Lutheran High School.
When your doctrine appears to be threatened an all-out effort must be made to preserve it. It is no wonder then that our efforts as a Synod during the fifties were directed so much toward purity of doctrine. Mission emphasis consequently lagged as did much of the other work of the Synod. When, for example, we recall pastoral conferences during those years, we remember very little discussion centered around our outreach in the local community, the nation and foreign lands. Instead the chief focus of our attention was on the preservation of the Gospel in its purity. Subsequent events in our former sister synod, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, have clearly shown that our concern for doctrinal purity was definitely warranted. We made few friends when we suspended fellowship with this synod which was once a former bastion of conservative Biblical teaching. We even lost members in our own midst, both pastors ,and congregations–some because we didn’t separate from “Missouri” soon enough, and others because in their opinion our action was premature. But any reader of the current religious scene in Lutheran circles knows that our Synod call well feel relieved that it is not involved in the gigantic struggle convulsing the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod at this writing.
Similarly, during the sixties much of our Synod’s attention and energy was directed towards the closing of Bethany Lutheran High School. The high school shared the campus with Bethany Lutheran College. Both institutions were hit with spiraling costs of education which confronted public, private and religious schools alike. Fears were expressed by many that if our synod would continue to maintain both the high school and the college, the financial burden might be too great and thereby cause us to lose both institutions. Finally, after many years of debate, the decision was made to close the high school in order to have resources to maintain the college.
Bethany Lutheran College, we need to be reminded, is unique in conservative Lutheran circles; it not only trains future church workers but also provides the first two years of college for students planning to enter secular professions or occupations. If we were only to train our church workers, as many other Lutheran synods do, then the educational costs would be no financial burden to our Synod. But who among us would want the Synod to give up this heritage of ours, left to us by our fathers who showed such great foresight in 1927 by purchasing Bethany and setting up a curriculum which was not restricted only to those who would some day be full time workers in our congregations? We feel it is necessary to mention the foregoing, for after our Synod’s formal educational program was cut back from six to two years (excluding the Seminary) it was quite easy to yield to the temptation to feel that we were and are lagging far behind many other synods in Christian education, whereas proportionately just the opposite is true. The tragedy, of course, is that we could not have found some way of keeping bath the college and the high school.
Statistics, and especially the interpretation thereof, can be misleading, even dangerous and in many cases can “be made to prove anything” as the saying goes. So it is with some hesitation that we look at the statistical record of our Synod for the twenty years since 1950. Certain figures worthy of note, however, should be brought to our attention. During this period the growth rate of our Synod was 3.5 percent per year, or 2.4 percent if we do not count congregations which have joined us from other synods. During this same time the Synod increased from 41 full-time parish pastors to 48 at the end of the period. Considering the fact that several congregations and pastors left our Synod, especially during the storms of the 1950’s, it might be said that this modest growth rate of 3.5 percent in membership and the net gain of seven pastors is quite encouraging. We do not propose to debate the matter. Both sides of an issue seem to win when it comes to interpreting statistics. But the fact itself stands: we gained in membership at a rate which is less than the birth rate of the average congregation and had an increase of only seven pastors in a twenty year period. This latter fact becomes the more sobering when it is recalled that one of the main arguments for beginning our own seminary in 1946 was that it would help assure us of a much better supply of ministers for our congregations and mission stations. There have been 44 graduates from our seminary during this 20 year period.
Additional statistics for this same period are; 1,963 adults were confirmed or an average of 98 per year. In the last seven years, however, we have confirmed less than one adult per year per congregation. A net gain of 1,289 was recorded by congregations receiving subsidy from our Mission Board. But during the same twenty years our Synod’s membership increased 2,234 through congregations which joined our Synod from other synods. A summary:
Baptized membership in 1950 — 9,783
Growth of self-supporting congregations since 1950 — 3,446
Increase in Synod membership from congregations which have joined us since 1950 — 2,234
Growth in mission congregations since 1950 — 1,289
Baptized membership in 1970 — 16,752
One very bright spot in recent years has been the opening of our own foreign mission. In 1968, the Jubilee Year of our reorganized Synod, work was begun in Lima, Peru, among the Gospel-starved nationals of this South American country. The rapid progress of the work in the barriadas, teeming with tens of thousands of people living in unbelievably squalid conditions, has gone far beyond even the most optimistic expectations of any of us. Whenever one is tempted to become discouraged over the seemingly slow rate of growth of our home mission program, a little happy reflection on our efforts in Lima, Peru, will certainly buoy the spirits and give cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving to Almighty God.
When one looks at the numerical growth of our Synod there are certain special items to consider. One is that 58 of the 89 congregations are either rural churches, or churches from towns with less than 4,000 populations. Only 14 of the 89 are from metropolitan areas of 75,000 or more. This heavy concentration of rural and small town churches cannot help but be reflected in the Synod’s slower rate of growth.
And yet percentage-wise our Synod has increased in numbers at the same rate of many larger Lutheran church bodies.
Furthermore, much of our “mission money” went to help small, loyal congregations in areas where the population was decreasing. If the fast growing suburbs of huge metropolitan areas are considered real mission areas, then a reclassification of many of our present “mission” stations should be made. Perhaps they should he called “supported congregations.” In mentioning this fact we in no way mean to degrade these loyal Synod congregations, or imply that the Synod has no obligation to render them assistance. It is, however, an important fact to consider when a study of our mission efforts and fruitful results is being made.
There is one other factor which in no small way affects the numerical growth of our Synod. Because we have less than one hundred congregations we are seldom able to transfer members from one Synod parish to another. It is said that 20 percent of American families move every year. In addition, most of our churches, as noted, are in rural areas where there usually is little employment to keep young people at home. Hence, there is an annual migration to the larger cities where most are lost to the membership rolls of our Synod, unless they should move to one of a dozen or so larger cities where we do have congregations.
Since statistics reflecting growth in outward membership can only be of doubtful significance even for a church body which is faithful in proclaiming the truth of God’s holy Word, we caution against unwarranted optimism or undue pessimism in our mission program. If passages such as “When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith on the earth” (Luke 18: 8) and “Many are called but few chosen” (Matt. 22: 14) mean, as one seminary professor used to put it, that “the closer we get to Judgment Day the less Christians there will be,” then even holding our own in membership could be considered a gain. In any case, since we cannot read hearts we have no accurate way of measuring the final results of our mission work. We can observe the outward signs–membership, new churches started, increased mission contributions, and the like; but from our standpoint success in doing mission work is only in carrying out Christ’s command: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). We cannot do more than proclaim the Word. God the Holy Spirit takes it from there.
B. The Next Twenty Years
Analyzing and interpreting the past is difficult for anyone; nor is there ever complete agreement among historians. When it comes to predicting and prescribing for the future, even the most clairvoyant have their problems. Consequently it is not easy to devise a set formula which will insure the success we all so earnestly desire for our mission program. The following paragraphs contain considerations which may in some measure aid us in our planning for the next few years, if indeed our patient and gracious God will grant this rebellious world that long a time yet in which to repent. The time is short. We who believe must indeed speak, and our speaking must be effective and reach as many as is humanly possible. We wish to make certain observations herewith regarding our Synod and also our individual congregations at home–observations which might help us improve our outreach among those who are still groping in the darkness of their sin while yet believing themselves the most enlightened people of any age.
MISSION PROGRAM. Without intending any criticism of present or former members of the Mission Board of our Synod, we categorically assert that men chosen to direct our Synod’s mission program must be highly qualified for this important work. We expect our college to be led by a president with special training in administration, the faculty members to have special qualifications in the courses which they teach and our seminary professors to be thoroughly trained not only in the Scriptures but also in the various subjects of their curriculum. Can we continue to choose at random those who shall direct our Synod’s whole program of mission outreach, without making provision for intensive, special, practical training to insure the necessary expertise for planning and administering this vital work of our church? Perhaps the time has now come for us to consider a special position of Administrator or Director of Missions. Why should missions be administered with less knowledge, training and experience than what we require for the administration of education? It certainly is just as important!
When we consider that we have just so many men and so much money to work with each year for spreading the Gospel in our mission program, it goes without saying that we will then want to establish new stations in areas of concentrated population in order to reach more people with the manpower and money at our disposal. Efficiency in carrying out our work may further indicate the curtailment or combination of some of our present work. If we expect our people to contribute hard-earned dollars for mission work, then we owe it to them to use this money as wisely and prudently as possible. In some instances, for example, this may mean that mission congregations which require large outlays of subsidy each year and give evidence of very slow growth might have to share a pastor with a neighboring congregation.
In the past, one of the factors which has hurt the work of our mission program is the matter of poor judgment in locating a new station. In several cases a new church has been started by an established congregation (or located at a particular site because someone gave a couple of lots to the mission) without any consultation with the Mission Board. Years later the Mission Board has to assume the direction and financial responsibility for the poorly planned and located mission without ever having had the chance to be involved in its planning. For this reason our Synod a few years ago resolved: “That congregations give thought to establishing daughter congregations or relocating when this appears advantageous, and be it further resolved that the Synod encourage that such planning in all phases be done in close consultation with the Mission Board” (Synod Report 1965 p. 48). For the sake of an efficient mission program it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that this resolution be followed to the letter by all of our congregations!
RECRUITMENT OF Ministerial CANDIDATES. The location of the mission church is of great importance. But of even more importance is its pastor, and that he be a qualified candidate for this work. Industry recruits top talent especially for management and sales positions. Is there any good reason why our Synod should not also recruit qualified candidates for the ministry? In the last paragraph of the report of the Board of Regents and the Dean of our Seminary to this convention we find this statement: “There is just one more thing we would ask of our people — continue to be on the lookout for gifted young men who might be persuaded to devote their lives to serving their Lord and their Church as pastors and missionaries. Encourage, and if necessary, assist them in attaining that goal. ‘The Lord has need of them.’” That is correct as far as it goes. But experience has shown that “everybody’s business becomes nobody’s business.” Unless this recruiting is given the impetus of real direction, it probably won’t be any more effective in the next twenty years than it has been in the past two decades.
It is the contention of this writer that too many young men who today would have been pastors have slipped through our midst; they had been blessed by the Lord with gifts and abilities which could have been put to most excellent use in the ministry. We should seek and demand for the ministry candidates as highly qualified as those we desire for the medical or legal professions. Unless a special, organized program of recruitment is established by the Synod under the direction of the president or one of the Synod’s boards, we fear that recruitment will amount to no more than it has in the past. Those of us who are closer to the pre-ministerial candidate program at Bethany Lutheran College, where most of our seminary candidates come from, are these days deeply concerned about there being an adequate supply to fill the current pulpits of our Synod in the future, to say nothing of having enough qualified young men to work in new mission stations. At this moment the picture is not a bright one!
FINANCIAL COMMITMENT. The Apostle Paul supported himself in past by working at a trade. We have been both interested and gratified to hear from current seminary students that they would be willing, if necessary, to support themselves by secular jobs in order to serve their Lord in the ministry. But can anyone in our Synod be so attached to his wallet that he would recommend this as the standard procedure for starting new mission stations? Apparently so, for a survey taken a few years ago showed the following: 39 percent of our members gave $1.00 a year or less to the Synod. In addition, well over 50 percent of our people gave less than a penny a day for all of the work which our Synod accomplishes, including missions, college, seminary, youth work, publications and works of charity. Thank God for those who faithfully show a real commitment to the work of the Synod. They look upon it as a matter of joy and not as a burden, either!
But is it out of order to raise the question: How can we permit the majority of our Synod people to get by with a penny-a-day support for the Synod without laying this heavily on their consciences? Can it actually be that we are afraid of losing members over an issue as vital as this? Wouldn’t that be pure cowardice on our part? The current budget requests for foreign and home missions brought before this convention will mean, if adopted, that each confirmed member of the Synod will be giving exactly 1.8 cents a day for this combined work We may rise to the defense of our people by saying that since the average size of our congregations is smaller than in most other synods, they therefore have a larger burden to carry in their home congregations. Nevertheless the figure is most striking: each member will, an the average, be spending less per day to spread the Gospel of Christ the King here in our missions in America and in Peru than the price of one king-size cigarette! Although many might not like to hear it, we believe there is evidence that much of this mediocre giving to missions stems from the fact that too many of our pastors are afraid to lay the matter of missions on the hearts of their people in such a way that a real commitment is called for!
On the bright side of the picture is the fact that in most of our congregations there are dedicated laymen who are giving of their means most liberally for the work of the Synod, giving far more than their “fair share”; interestingly enough they would tell you “But I should be doing more!” These are the people who are chiefly responsible for raising the average per communicant giving to the synod from $6.03 in 1950 to $28.46 in 1970. More laymen like this will definitely be needed to join the ranks if we are to open one new station each year. We claim over 16,000 baptized members in our churches. Shouldn’t a group of that size be able to open at least one new mission each year? Currently we are averaging one every two years. Our Board of Trustees is reminding this convention in its report that “Usually $80,000 to $120,000 are spent to establish each new mission.” The days of starting a successful mission in a store front or country school house are with us no more.
Instead of trimming our budget to get in line with the willingness of our people to support it, perhaps we should start at the other end: get our people willing to support the needs that are represented in the budget requests. We may even find that the penny-a-day giving on the part of half of our members stems not so much from a lack of willingness as it does from a lack of information and system of ingathering the offerings for the Synod treasury. Many congregations, whose mission-giving leaves much to be desired, are still using the same method of raising money for the Synod that they did when they were plowing with horses and driving Henry Ford’s prized Model T. Worst of all is that although we hear speeches year after year on this convention floor of how our Synod should help congregations obtain better information and improve the system of the ingathering of funds, we continue year after year to allow half of our membership to refrain from joining the rest of us in this glorious work of spreading the Good News to mankind.
When industry and business have a major problem they employ consultants and specialists to help them find a solution. We have a gigantic problem in getting the majority of our people to join with us in the work which we plan as we assemble here in this auditorium each June. Is it really true that there are no consultants who could be engaged to help us in our approach to these people? Apparently there are none, since our Synod has never thought it even worthwhile to look for any. Each year we complain that so many of our people give so little to the Synod. But each year our Synod neglects to take any major step to correct the problem.
INVITING BRETHREN. Before closing this section on what our Synod could do during the coming years to improve our outreach to the unchurched, we would like to make a frank observation which could and hopefully will affect the entire work of the Synod. Today church bodies are finding themselves in the same position as the farmer. Just as it is necessary to have larger farms to “make a go of it,” so it seems that it is becoming necessary to have a larger membership to carry on the work of a Synod properly. The rapidly rising costs of supporting a college and seminary, and establishing and maintaining new mission congregations, make it necessary for a synod to have resources readily available to work with. Our Synod should not only re-open its high school but also expand Bethany into a four year college, so vital for our young people today. We should be opening new missions at a much faster rate. It isn’t that we hear our members being against the expansion of our work into these areas; rather it is: “Our base is too small to do all of the things we would like to do.” It would seem then that the solution lies in broadening the base of our Synod. That opportunity might come more quickly than many of us have heretofore thought.
Today there are many of our true brethren in the “Big Three” Lutheran synods who feel disenfranchised, sojourners in their own country, out of place in their own church home. Many of these will be leaving their church bodies, a most traumatic experience as our fathers well knew when they “made the break” from their former brethren, often splitting families right down the middle! These pastors and congregations, whose doctrinal position lies on the old paths of conservative Lutheran theology just as does our own, will soon have the same experience that others have had. They too will find that to do the work of the church in the 1970’s you need to work together with other Christian congregations in education, home and foreign missions, etc. Perhaps a new synod will be formed, with which we could work cooperatively. Maybe not enough will leave their church bodies to make the establishing of another little synod feasible. In either case, shouldn’t our Synod take some kind of action either to offer membership to, or propose a close working relationship with these congregations? Their immediate needs will include a college and a seminary. In other words, they will need what we have to offer. In our opinion we also stand in need of their support as much as they need us!
A step in the direction of inviting sizable numbers of brethren from outside of our midst to join in the work of our Synod would probably mean that we would experience some changes. Additional professors at Bethany College and Seminary might be one of the changes. Some things might be done a little differently on the administrative and organizational level, for our backgrounds in these areas are not identical. Those who look upon our little Synod as a “closed corporation” of pastors and congregations with a common heritage (not as Norwegian today as some may suppose) might have to rearrange their thinking somewhat, in the event that an invitation from our Synod might be accepted by these afore-mentioned brethren.
We are not encouraging the practice of soliciting pastors and congregations who leave their own synods for just any kind of reason. We are speaking only of those who are our true brethren. But we are also making the point that in this day, when it takes so many resources to carry on the work of a synod, it just doesn’t seem wise to have many tiny synods which are doctrinally agreed trying to make a go of it alone for historical, sentimental, or worse yet, selfish or self-seeking reasons. The work of the church still centers around the Great Commission and not little empire-building! Does it really make good sense for our Synod, which over the years has established itself as a synod with stability in upholding conservative Lutheran doctrine and practice, and which has the educational facilities, a home and foreign mission program–we repeat, does it really make good sense for a synod such as ours–to miss this opportunity to publicly invite all those true brethren who find themselves unhappy in their present church body to join with us, thereby both strengthening themselves and us as well?
In considering our Synod’s outreach to this sin-infected world we suppose it is natural to think first of all of our mission program in starting and supporting new mission stations. However, in the past twenty years the numerical growth of our Synod has been almost three times as large in our self-supporting congregations as it was in our missions. Therefore it is in place to consider even a seventy-five year old rural congregation as being a vital part of our mission program. Let us then turn our attention for a few moments away from the Synod to the local congregation and its efforts to win the unconverted for Christ.
AN OBJECTIVE APPRAISAL OF LOCAL GROWTH EFFORTS. During the past several years the faculty and administration of Bethany Lutheran College have been engaged in an intensive self-study, examining our objectives as a Christian college and taking note of our strengths and weaknesses in carrying out these objectives. The Bethany staff is unanimous in its opinion that the study is most profitable. Our Synod also has recently begun a similar self-study of its objectives and the efficiency with which its boards and committees carry out these objectives. Similarly, we suggest that each of our congregations take an objective and systematic look at its own current efforts to reach the unchurched in the local community. The following are a few areas which might be explored with some profit.
Are the hands of the minister being tied with too many administrative, secretarial and possibly even janitorial duties? Most of our congregations are of a size where they feel that they cannot afford the expense necessary to employ additional help for the pastor. The result is, in most instances, that whether the pastor likes it or not, and whether or not he has ever had any training in these areas (and probably he hasn’t), he ends up being the chief administrator of the whole congregation in addition to serving as his own secretary. It can happen to the best of pastors. Even the apostles found themselves in this same situation, as we read in Acts 6:2ff “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” The suggestion was adopted and note the result as recorded in the seventh verse: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly.”
A pastor should be allowed a few evenings a week at home with his family. Is it good stewardship of his time; that the other four or five evenings of the week (which is the best and in many cases the only time he could make meaningful mission calls on unchurched families) be spent at various business meetings, society meetings, committee meetings, etc.? Why should the pastor be compelled by circumstances to spend several hours a week on the weekly bulletin, composing, cutting tile stencil, running the mimeograph, folding, and perhaps mailing them out to the members who will eventually discard them with yesterday’s newspaper? We know that some pastors will use all this administrative and secretarial work as the excuse for not doing more calling both on the members as well as the unchurched. But what then becomes of the pastor as a missionary? Successful door to-door salesmen know that you make more sales in direct proportion to the number of doorbells you ring. A pastor who says, “I can’t make calls,” either on his own members and/or, in particular, upon new prospects, in our opinion should either learn how to do it or seek to use his talents in another phase of church work where this weakness won’t hamper the cause of missions.
It would seem that the congregation would also profit greatly from an objective study of the way that the members themselves become involved in personal visits to the unchurched. How many are active in leading others to Christ by personal contact? Is there any system to tile visitation program of the church? Is there any direction to the program from the pastor and the deacons? If our congregations were to use only half of the system that Mr. Fuller did to sell his brushes, perhaps the growth of our congregations would not rest at a 2 percent or 3 percent rate per year.
Many congregations located in town and rural areas often make the least effort to search for the unchurched. Perhaps the thought, “Since we aren’t in a city we can’t expect to grow”, is a contributing factor. However 56 percent of our Synod’s small town and country churches are larger today than they were in 1950. In our country four out of every ten people do not belong to any church. It is hard to believe that this forty percent of the nations population is all concentrated in the metropolitan areas.
Since the church record book of the average congregation usually has more baptisms recorded for the year than funerals, while growth in the membership often does not even keep pace with this birth rate, it would seem that each congregation would do well to ask: What are we doing to retain the interest of our young people? Do we, for example, ever ask them to do anything at all for the church except to usher at the services? One of our pastors made a statement at our general pastoral conference a few years ago that seems to apply especially to our young people, although he was referring to all ages: “We preachers are constantly reminding and exhorting our people that they should work for the Lord, but we never give them anything to do. Maybe we pastors think that we can do whatever it is better than they, That mayor may not be the case. But even if it were true that the person could do the job only 80 percent or 90 percent as well as the pastor feels he can go it, isn’t it better that we ask him, thereby providing him the opportunity to serve his Lord with his talents, to say nothing of freeing the pastor to do work for which he has been specially trained?”
Sometimes we underestimate our young people and thereby completely discourage them. We recall a member of our Mission Board a few years ago telling us how surprised the board was at all the volunteers among the lay people, especially the young, who were interested in going to Peru. Within one half hour this winter two different girls at Bethany came into the office, each with the same question. Neither knew that the other was interested in this subject. “I would like to be a parish worker. Will there be any work for me in our Synod when I graduate?” How do you answer that question put to you by eager young women when you know of no congregation in the Synod with a full time parish worker?
As you examine the young people’s society of your congregation how do you rate its relevance for the 1970’s? Better yet, what answer would your young people themselves give? Do they feel that your youth program gives them a real sense of belonging so that they feel closer to their church, so important to that age group? Some pastors say, “I am no good with young people.” If your minister has excused himself from this work, which is admittedly very difficult work, what has your congregation done to compensate? We deplore the “generation gap” and yet often are guilty of widening it. To paraphrase an old saying: “The congregation which is not interested in really working with its young people need not worry about the future. It has no future!”
AN OBJECTIVE APPRAISAL OF THE CONGREGATION’S IMAGE. Drive down the main street in Mankato and notice the business places and restaurants. Now tour the alleys and view these same buildings from the opposite direction. The striking difference in appearance drives home the point that the image of the establishment is of great importance in the mind of the public and therefore to the business people. Although we do not usually think of our churches as places of business, yet in some aspects there is a striking similarity. We, too, have to be “public relations minded” or suffer the consequences. We may idealize and say that a person should judge a church by what it stands for and what it preaches and teaches, and not by its property, its members, its pastor, and its order of service. That is correct. Now, if you can just get the outsider to agree with you, a long stride has been made towards interesting him in your church!
In the meantime congregations do well to be concerned about their image to the community, for it is from this same community that they hope to win new souls for Christ. Poorly kept property for example can be almost as effective in driving away the prospect as can a membership which lives from Monday morning through Saturday night exactly the opposite of what it professes on Sunday morning during the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed.
Fortunately our Synod congregations have shown marked improvement over the past ten years in the care of their church property. But it is no secret that a new church building, or an extensive remodeling program, not only can help revitalize a static congregation’s interest in the whole program of the church, but also can help attract the new member as well.
Sometimes the secret to a congregations plunging membership list has been a relocation, moving from the country to town or moving to a fast growing neighborhood on a well-traveled street and where more property for expansion and off-street parking is available. From an idealistic standpoint one can admit it is a shame that it should take something as drastic as this to attract attention and to pep up the current members. But those congregations which have made this move rarely if ever regret it afterwards. St. Paul speaks of being “made all things to all men that I might by all means save some” (I Cor. 9:22). If a major change in the property helps to lead more souls to the Word of God, who is to say that the change was unjustified?
Another important factor contributing to the image of the congregation is the order of its Sunday morning service. The order of service, whether from the Lutheran Hymnary or from the Lutheran Hymnal can be a most beautiful setting for worship and meditation. This is herewith not a call for consigning either to the scrap heap. But a visit to many a Lutheran congregation can quickly demonstrate that the way the order of service is conducted by both pastor and congregation can also be a most uninviting experience to the visitor. Instead of feeling a comforting warmth as he sits there with book in hand trying to find the right page, his is an entirely different reaction. Hymns have been selected that the congregation can’t sing. The organist plays too slowly or uncertainly. The prayers are intoned monotonously by the pastor. The Scripture lessons are read without meaningful expression. Often the language in the collects, although most beautiful from both a doctrinal as well as linguistic standpoint, is not intelligible to much of the membership and probably not at all to the visitor. He hears the responses sung by the congregation, their recitation of the Creed, the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, and wonders if there is any conviction at all in the assembled flock. Many of the long time members of the congregation may be well satisfied with this type of service; but many visitors, including most young people with their built-in energy and enthusiasm, are not only unhappy with a church service conducted in this manner, but often become depressed and even angered by it. In short, a poorly conducted order of service can widen further the “generation gap” and often succeed in turning away from the church the very young people we so much wish to attract.
If we are going to have any liturgy at all, is there anyone who will deny that it should be done well? The packaging of the merchandise doesn’t change or affect the product for sale, but who will question its importance in attracting the customer? Instead of the attitude: “If they want to come to our church they will have to take us as we are!” it would seem that we should by to make our worship service both beautiful and inviting to the very people we wish to attract for Christ’s kingdom.
An objective appraisal of the congregation’s image will certainly have to include a long look at the Sunday sermon. The average attendance at our morning services is close to 40 percent. This is a happy increase over what it was in the fifties. This means, however, that on a given Sunday six out of every ten members of ours are elsewhere–not exactly a very striking testimonial to the congregation’s hunger for the Bread of Life. Without a doubt there is no one single factor to blame for this disturbing statistic. But certainly the sermon must be taken into consideration when looking for contributing causes.
We have known preachers who can speak interestingly, directly, convincingly, and sometimes very eloquently here on the convention floor. Their conversation can be most sparkling in their living room at home. But when Sunday morning comes around, the man in the pulpit often appears to be a total stranger. And this after a week’s preparation! We aren’t here stumping for the impromptu preaching of some of the Pentecostals, but we do wonder what there is about preparation that makes many an otherwise interesting man so dull for twenty minutes on the first day of the week. No implication is meant either that the criterion for judging a sermon should be in direct proportion to how interesting it is, (even though many shallow thinking church goers seem to hold to this view.) The content of the sermon is still of prime importance. Now, if we could just get that sixty percent to agree!
A complaint often heard, especially from young people, is that the sermons are not meaningful to their everyday living, being delivered in a style of language that today just seems out of date. There was a time when the sacred truths of God’s holy Word brought on vessels of gold and in chalices of silver language went over big with the congregation. But that was back in the days when the minister was practically the only one in the parish with an advanced formal education. Whatever he said, and especially if he could say it very well in “gold and silver” language, was accepted by the congregation because he said so and “he is the minister!” Today the climate even among our own people, to say nothing of the attitudes of the unchurched we wish to bring into, our congregations, is rapidly changing. Skeptics there have always been, but not in such numbers as are found in so many church audiences today. We, again, are not holding out for uncommonly common language from our pulpits. But we are raising the question whether the average sermon in our churches is really speaking to the needs of this semi-sophisticated population of Americans–and in a language that really communicates to them. Language may be so beautifully polished or formal, you know, that it can become partly or completely ineffective.
“I Believed, Therefore Have I Spoken”—if this motto, so aptly chosen for our convention, is to have any real significance for our Synod in the years ahead, it must be updated: “I Believe, Therefore Will I Speak.” Certainly we are not questioning our faith in the past. Our history, even in recent years, has not been one of the proverbial “bed of roses.” But at the same time, we feel that our speaking to the needs of sinful mankind, especially in our outreach, has not been given the top priority that the Great Commission of our Savior calls forth, As the future of all churches, including our own, does not appear on the bright side — if one is to believe those who make predictions on the subject — then our motto calls for more pastors with courage. They must boldly approach their congregations for all the work of our Synod, and especially for missions. They must not let an outspoken, critical member here or there scare them out! The cause is too great! The time is too short! Caution is usually a virtue. But it is possible to become so cautious that you become immobile!
We would like to think that our convention theme would reach the eyes and ears of more than just the delegates and pastors to this meeting. All of our members back home should seriously consider their own “speaking” to those who have not yet been brought to faith in Jesus. Each one should ask himself not only what he is currently doing for the cause of missions, but also how he can improve! It is high time that each one whose name is on the membership roll of one of our congregations wrestle with that statement skeptically put by the agnostic: “If you church-people really took to heart this story of Christ’s love for sinners, the very ground would burn under your feet, and you wouldn’t rest until you had told it to every man alive.”