Monday, March 14, 2005

Lutherans without "Purpose"...

Several articles appeared in the February '05 issue of the ELCA's The Lutheran magazine concerning Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life (click the link to see the article index). While I don't believe for a minute that Br'er Warren is the 14th apostle or anything, I do believe that there are definitely broad concepts in his book that can enrich faith practices across denominations. I've actually read the P-D-L, and was curious what the official voice of the ELCA had to say about it. So I started reading, and was brought short by the very first paragraph of the lead article, The man with the 'Purpose':
In 1980, Rick Warren started his church with a time-tested formula used by thousands of up-and-coming Baptist pastors. He moved to a Sunbelt city, started a Bible study in his condo and taught aimless baby boomer suburbanites how to connect with God — simple seeker-sensitive stuff, the sort of message that has built prosperous congregations for ambitious ministers nationwide.
Now that really irked me. Maybe it's just the large-ish chip I have on my shoulder about my denomination in general, but the tone of this article sounded really condescending.

Call me crazy (won't be the first time) but the idea of a pastor starting a Bible-study in his condo (be it Sunbelt, Snowbelt or Rustbelt) and teaching aimless people how to connect with God sounds like the kind of pastor I'd like to shepherd my church. It also sounds an awful lot like the church of Acts 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42,46-67, NRSV)
Or am I missing something?

I hate to point it out, but reaching out to non-believers or nominal believers, and sharing the word of God with them, doesn't just build "prosperous congregations for ambitious ministers nationwide." It builds something called the Kingdom of God, in obedience to the gentle suggestion of a Galilean to his unordained flock of fledgling evangelists:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV)
Any of this ringin' a bell with you Lutherans? Any of you want to check out the Scriptura that you're so Sola about, and tell me I'm wrong?

Now, the rest of the article does quite fairly point out some of the book's (and the author's) flaws. I always thought that the whole "40 days of purpose" was kind of a stampede through a lot of territory, and I agree that there is a bit of an "infomercial" quality to it. And yes, I don't have much use for Br'er Warren's view on Biblical infallibility, or the Southern Baptists' views on women (especially in ministry) and other issues of fundamental Christianity. As I said, I'm not advocating joining Saddleback Church, nor becoming Rick-Warren clones.

But as usual, the Lutherans have missed several key points:

- Most of the ELCA churches that I have encountered have no real heart for reaching out to "aimless" people of any kind. (Now, admittedly, there are some - but they are few and far between, in my experience.) A careful reading of Matthew 28 shows that it does not say, "Fling open the doors of your church, and if anyone wanders in, make sure they get a good, solid liturgy and the eucharistic elements, properly consecrated." It does, however, say "GO" - as in "get off your lutefisk-laden behinds and go find the ones who are LOST!" Sadly, however, in most congregations with which I've been connected, fully 90% of their new-member intake is from other Lutheran congregations (as opposed to the unchurched or nominally-churched) - adding new definition to the term "vampire evangelism"...

- Literally millions of people in hundreds of churches across the US found there to be enough value to commit to the "40 Days of Purpose" as congregations. Are we going to deride the transforming power of the Holy Spirit because (once again) the idea was "not invented here" (meaning in "our camp")?

- A disastrously-telling set of images come from the study guide that The Lutheran published to go along with this article. One can only wonder: what the heck were they thinking when they wrote these questions?
Which is a better goal for churches: to be faithful or successful? When do you have to choose? Can you have one without the other? Why can’t you have both? Is it better to be successful even if it means being less faithful to your tradition?
These questions are completely ludicrous, especially when asked by the folks whose founder was forever immortalized as the "both...and" guy (Martin Luther's "both saint and sinner" concept).

The big question they won't ask, I think, is this: "To what are we being faithful? To the core of the Gospel - two Great Commandments (love God, love one another) and one Great Commission (Go, make disciples...)? Or are we being faithful only to the tradition - the hymnal, the liturgy, and the cultural icons like pipe organs, lutefisk and potlucks?"

Could converting 16,000 "aimless suburbanites" into disciples, and retaining them through the use of "seeker-sensitive" church services really be considered "not being faithful"? Are we Lutherans really so afraid of the sin of pride that "successful" is considered the antithesis of (or at least the other end of the continuum from) "faithful"? Is it more virtuous, or more faithful, to have 40 saints gathered in a sanctuary that seats 800, performing a perfectly executed eucharistic liturgy?

Can we learn from Rick Warren's hugely successful publishing adventure without actually having to become "nouveau Baptists?" Can we utilize the tools of the P-D-L without buying into every concept being presented? Can we, as a denomination, and as the church universal, stop and recognize that if twenty million people bought the book, that there might be 20 million people around us who are not finding the answers to fundamental faith questions like "What on Earth am I here for?" within our walls and our liturgies? Can we at least buy into Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (which all ELCA churches are required to incorporate into their constitutions) and agree: "Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike"? (It's tragic that another NIH (not invented here) idea, the Alpha program, often gets blown this same kind of smoke...)

Then comes the coup de grace:
How is your church doing? Are your finances stable? Is membership growing bit by bit? Or are things in decline? How about churches in your area? Are programs needed to energize church life? Is Purpose-Driven good for that reason?
How very tragic, eh? Sounds like we've bought right in to the message of the world, doesn't it?: Should the first question about the health of a church really be, "Are your finances stable?" What does that say about the focus of the denomination, and the need for disciple-building in our congregations?

Again: Rick Warren is no saint. But neither is he the devil...nor is he someone worthy of receiving playground-quality deriding. I give thanks for bold Lutheran pastors like Eric Burtness, the pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Beaverton, Ore. (who is featured in a second article about their use of the "40 days of Purpose"), as well as women and men of vision across dozens of denominational boundaries who have used this to great effect. They speak for the hope that "dinosaur heart transplants" are just some of the miracles that are happening when committed disciples try to tell "the old old story" using new words, new images, new songs and new settings. For them, and for the renewing and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I give thanks today.

(It'll be interesting to see if any Lutherans actually bother to comment...)


Ed said...

You hit the nail on the head, brother....

While the article isn't too bad, I do agree that there is a bit of a skeptable undertone in the article. This is especially true in the opening paragraph and the paragraph explaining that says essentially "well... he and his staff are Baptist, so you need to take everything they say with a gain of salt." This probably put up the flag as much as the opening paragraph. Obviously the writer hasn't actually read the book, because I didn't notice any demonitational specific stuff in there. It's sad to see the Lutheran (which is given the status of the "voice" of the Lutheran church leadership) playing the denominiational card. Comments like this that only divide the church more than it already is.

New Life said...

I have a friend who went to school with Rick Warren, he told me that RW was doing things back then that were way off the map as far as the SBC is concerned. While Orange County is more conservative and ripe for a place like Saddleback (in the 80's) Warren did it. We don't read about ECUSA or ELCA in church headlines.

Most denominations sat on the sidelines while Warren was attempting to be innovative and reach folks. Those in the mainline who point fingers at Warren, are ENVIOUS. Most of what I hear is nothing more than ARROGANCE laced with envy. Besides, they all secretly read his book.

I often say that the mainlines are like an NFL team going 2-14. They are on the bottom of the rankings. They suck as a team. Yet, some how, they find the place to criticize the team who wants to win the Super Bowl. What??? We need Bill Parcells to come in and kick our ass and FIRE those who no longer want to win and don't want to participate in practice.

My theology is progressive and I disagree with alot of RW's theology and simply do not feel fed by his teaching but at least as a Christian he is attempting to change the world by LIVING OUT his particular brand of Jesus. As far as reaching folks at a level 1 or 2 consciousness, he has done a great job at introducing people to the Christian faith. I wish we were willing to risk "blushing for Jesus" with the same level of committemnt as he, but many don't-- many blush when they say Jesus. I am not so sure I can say that for my mainline denomination.

Great post!

the bloke said...

Hey Steve,

I agree with the other commenters. You have put it very well. Although I live in OC and only abt 20 minutes from Saddleback, I don't go there, and in fact do not like it whenever I have been. But, I believe RW has done a fantastic job of putting the Word of God, aleit packaged, interpreted and commented, etc, but still - its the message of the Word that He is putting out there in the mainstream.

I don't know what it is with some Christians. They would get excited when some Christian guy write a novel or produce a film that has an undertone of the gospel message and proudly "own" him or her as one of their own (as in, "He is a Christian! Isn't it wonderful that he is so successful, etc?"). Or they will go around saying things like, "[insert great writer/teacher/person of antiquity] would have followed Christ if he had lived in the right place and time", etc.

Yet, when one of our own (as in a fellow brother and sister in Christ) is actually overtly doing the work of the gospel directly in the marketplace (such as Bill Hybels, RW, even Billy Graham), we scream that they have not done it quite the right way.

No wonder the Lord gave us a New Commandment. I often wonder why He did that. He already told us that the Greatest two commandments were to LOVE. LOVE GOD and NEIGHBOR. Why is it that the NEW commandment for those who are supposed to be most intimate with Him is only as simple as LOVE ONE ANOTHER? Doesn't the TWO greatest commandments already cover that? No, because it is "easier" for us to say we love the "vile sinners", but oh so much harder to love our own brothers and sisters.