—by Michael Schuermann
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, has said on more than one occasion that a pastor "wear out his shoes" as he lives among the people that, and the community in which, God has called him to serve. Harrison's point is this: the chief task of the man who answers God's call to the Office of the Holy Ministry is to be with his people, serving them with God's means of grace. Hospital room, living room, kitchen table, diner counter, backyard, front yard, workplace, narthex, chancel, study—all of these and more are the places where the ministry of the gospel is carried out by the man whom God has called to teach his word and administer his sacraments. The pastor should be wherever his people are to be found. If they have gone missing, it is his calling from the Lord to go and seek them out.
Likewise, those places mentioned above are where God's people are found, living with one another and amongst the lost at the same time. Here the Lord provides ample opportunity for loving the neighbor in a myriad of ways, opportunity to do the good works he has prepared beforehand for his people; it's also where he gives repeatedly the opportunity "to give an answer for the hope that is in you.”
The missional movement currently making its way through the speaker circuit of Christianity (and further down into the trenches) has correctly identified the above as a significant aspect missing from the late-20th-century Church Growth Movement (CGM). (Though, due to the often non-Lutheran confession of the faith of the missional talking heads, it lacks a Lutheran sacramental emphasis.) CGM approached the question of "how do we do church?" with an institutional mindset. While putting it this way is somewhat crass, the best way to understand CGM is to recognize that what the church had to offer (gospel, comfort, fellowship, etc.) was considered a product that needed to be "sold.” Thus, most modern marketing techniques were considered fair game to be utilized in order to attract people to the church, where they would be convinced that what the church had to offer was what they needed. The CGM gurus lectured on the necessity of using business techniques—often practical and structural theories and techniques straight out of late-20th-century corporate America. (For a thorough Lutheran evaluation of CGM, read Rev. Rodney Zwonitzer's Testing the Claims of Church Growth.)
The missional movement has grown up within the early 21st century American churches, primarily as a reaction to CGM. As CGM congregations became larger, they became impersonal. Those advocating a missional approach to "doing church" saw this as harmful. I would agree with this assessment. The church is foremost a personal, even intimate, meeting of pastor and people in order that the means of grace would be given out, faith would be strengthened by the work of the Holy Spirit in those means, and there have an opportunity to serve one another in love.
But the missional movement remains enraptured with structure and technique. Instead of drawing on the corporate structure mentality of the late 20th century, however, they draw on the start-up culture mentality of the early 21st. Many of the main tenets of CGM are still present: pastor as leader and equipper; the laity as missionaries/ministry-doers; the assembly as the place where people are prepared for sharing Christ throughout the week; and small groups as the source of fellowship. (We can't go in-depth on missional vs. CGM theory here. See this article "What Makes a Church Missional?" from Christianity Today.)
I've had some experience interacting with, and listening to, advocates of the missional movement within the Lutheran Church while serving as a vicar and pastor in Texas for a bit over three years. This was the dominant philosophy of "doing church" being put forth while I was there, so due to professional interest (and having an excellent public library, borrowing privileges at the SMU library, and the headquarters of Half Price Books about 2 miles from my congregation), I took up some study of the theology of the missional movement. The movement spans multiple confessions of the faith, so there's much that conflicts greatly with the Scriptural theology confessed by the Lutheran Church. Nevertheless I found some insightful evaluations of problems within American Christianity. Overall, though, it focused either on practical techniques that looked more-or-less similar to those found in CGM, or it philosophically discussed the church in language that found little connection with historic Christianity and therefore was difficult to understand what the movement's gurus were advocating.
With this background, we arrive at one of the major missional movement organizations operating within the congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod: the Katy, TX based FiveTwo network. Over the last few days, FiveTwo has hosted their annual wikiconference, which gathers people from all over the country to come and learn from a bevy of featured speakers.
Many of these missional conferences feature a heavy presence on social networks, particularly Twitter. Throughout the days of the conference, hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets were posted with the tag #wiki14. Many of them evidenced the lack of clear language, or the sometimes confused use of familiar theological terms, that seems to be a hallmark of the missional movement. Others aimed to make this year's list of the top pithy, proverbial theological tweets. Others were, frankly, just false theology (though, to be fair, 144 characters can easily skew the meaning of something if not carefully written). Some examples:
Entire posts could be written for each of these tweets, engaging them, critiquing them, searching the Scriptures to discover whether we should heed these words or reject them.
My greatest concern at the moment regarding FiveTwo and other church-planting networks within the LCMS is that their use of theological language is confusing and not in line with the use of that language in Lutheran theology, or more general Christian theology for that matter. They advocate a purposeful expansion of the meanings of certain key theological terms. Words are repurposed and seem to mean something quite different than they have in the past. Or perhaps not. It is unclear.
As a case in point, examine FiveTwo's repeated use of the term sacramental entrepreneur. The term sacrament has some varied meaning depending on which confession of Christianity you look to. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sacrament as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." Lutherans define them this way: "rites that have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added" (Apology XIII, 3).
FiveTwo advocates for an expansion of the meaning of sacrament beyond its traditional understanding when they define sacramental entrepreneur. As FiveTwo explains, sacramental entrepreneurs are "Men and women who have a deep love for the mysterious work of Jesus in the sacraments AND realize that because He’s really present in them, they are the presence of Jesus—his sacraments—in their communities."
First, the use of the term entrepreneur joins FiveTwo to the missional movements' reappropriation of start-up culture philosophy and technique within the church. This seems to be a mere relabeling of the previous way of doing business.
More importantly, notice that the sacraments—or at least being sacramental, which is, I suppose, having the qualities of a sacrament—is expanded beyond baptism, the Lord's Supper, and possibly the absolution, to include in some way every believer. But Scripture and the confession of the Lutheran Church, not to mention historic Christian theology, don't use the term this way.
It seems that FiveTwo uses sacramental more along the lines of the Roman Catholic understanding than Lutheran by declaring Christians themselves to be signs and dispensers of Christ's gracious presence in people's lives. This is not unlike the idea of a ministry of presence, but expanded by the idea of "everyone a minister.” This expansion, and misuse, of the term sacramental is not helpful. However, it's not clear that this is even what FiveTwo means; again, note the danger of reappropriating for your own expanded use theological terminology that already had a clear definition in place.
This raises the question of where does this idea of every person being a sacramental presence of Jesus come from? The Rev. Bill Woolsey, the founding leader of FiveTwo, has multiple videos that go in-depth on this concept. Still it remains unclear why it's appropriate to coin new terms that seem to find no root in the two thousand-year old history and tradition of the teaching within the Christian church.
It is troubling to see FiveTwo use terms that the church—of which they are a part—might have trouble understanding. Are they better terms than what has come before? Who knows? It seems best for FiveTwo to be explicitly clear in laying out their case for altering some of the fundamental terminology of the faith for their own purposes.
At the same time, nowhere in the Scriptures or Lutheran Confessions are Christians deemed to be sacramental or in any sense the presence of Christ's grace in the lives of other people. Luther expounded on the Christian being a "mask of God" for his neighbors, but that was strictly in regard to the carrying out of the various offices in which a man might find himself. Even if one of those offices was the Office of the Holy Ministry, that man would only find himself to be the one who delivers the word and sacraments to the Lord's people. He himself is not a means of grace; neither are Christians in general. (See Augsburg Confession V; Smalcald Articles, Third Part, Article IV.)
To be in Synod means to walk with one another. Would Bill Woolsey or another representative of FiveTwo please take the time to explain the need for reappropriating, or even redefining, commonly held theological language? How does this help the unity of the church? How does this help the people?
It seems we would do well to heed Luther's advice that people be taught the faith in a common language that is not changed but instead remains consistent, so that no one is needlessly scandalized and so that we can understand one another. Many theological terms have been worked out over decades and even centuries of difficult discussion and study. Are we doing the same "working out,” for the sake of the Gospel?
The Rev. Michael Schuermann (email@example.com) is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sherman, IL.
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