Note from CM: It is October 2017, and many of our posts this month will be about the Reformation. This year marks 500 years since Luther’s 95 Theses, and we will do our best to look at the subsequent world-changing events and movements from as many perspectives as possible.
We begin with my own personal journey. This week, I will re-post about why I am now a Christian who practices my faith in the Lutheran tradition.
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How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (1)
I have come to peace with my place in the tradition of the Church. My new personal statement of identity is:
“I am a Christian, and I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.”
I am the first to admit that I have a long way to go in understanding all that this means, but in a few posts over the next couple of days I want to highlight distinctive Lutheran teachings that, in my view, answer many concerns about the revivalistic evangelicalism I have left behind.
Before I do, let me first reiterate in this first post what I mean when I say I’m a “post-evangelical,” and that I no longer see myself as being within the church system known broadly as “American evangelicalism.” We speak a lot around here about being in the “post-evangelical wilderness,” but perhaps some of you are new and are wondering what we mean by that.
When I speak of “American evangelicalism,” I am describing those churches, many of which are non-denominational, whose theology and practice has its roots in the revivalist awakenings of the 1800’s. Many pinpoint Charles Finney (1792-1875) as the “Father of Modern Revivalism.” Finney, a Presbyterian, introduced “new measures” into church meetings, emphasized conversion and spiritual enthusiasm, as well as social and missional activism. His emphasis on revival paved the way for the later mass revival preaching of D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.
At this same period of time, in frontier areas like Kentucky and Tennessee, the Second Great Awakening was spreading like wildfire through “camp meetings” characterized by passionate evangelistic preaching and emotional calls for public acceptance of salvation. One significant new practice in these revivals was the “altar call,” during which sinners came forward to receive salvation (Finney had adopted a Methodist practice called “the anxious bench”).
The churches that were formed out of these awakenings developed a revivalistic style of “worship.” When they gathered, services were no longer patterned after the traditional liturgy of Word and Table, but instead followed a threefold model of Preparation/Preaching/Invitation. The “song service” was designed to warm the hearts of the people. The preaching was emotionally charged and intended to bring people to a crisis of decision. The invitation gave them the chance to make whatever spiritual decision the Lord was convicting them to make.
The Southern Baptist church tradition to which Michael Spencer belonged and in which I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager has been famously devoted to practicing church this way.
When I went to Bible college, I was introduced to a variation of the revivalist tradition that emphasized doctrine and teaching rather than evangelism (Robert Webber writes about this as well.) This part of the tradition developed through the doctrinal battles between fundamentalists and modernists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading many conservatives to separate from mainline Protestantism into independent churches and splinter denominations. At the same time, the development of dispensational theology and the popular appeal of tools like the Scofield Study Bible led to an emphasis on Bible study. For a time, there was a significant split between “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism,” as the latter sought to be less separatistic and more involved in mainline churches, academies of higher learning, and secular culture. The difference remains, but further developments we’ll address in a moment have lessened the distinctions.
In the “Bible teaching” churches, the same revivalistic patterns characterized the “worship” service, but the emphasis was different. The churches held up before us as examples in those days were not the ones that had emotionally persuasive evangelists in the pulpit, but Bible teachers who could “rightly divide the Word of Truth.” Expository preaching and teaching was the job of the pastor and the purpose for gathering as a church was for the edification of the saints, not primarily the conversion of sinners. The latter was to be done through personal evangelism and special evangelistic meetings and programs. I recall when some of us used overhead projectors and put detailed inserts in the bulletin on which people could take notes and learn their Bibles through the teaching. John MacArthur has been a consistent example of this “pastor-teacher” approach (though with a distinctly net-reformed emphasis), as have been those who have graduated from such schools as Dallas Theological Seminary.
Then, in the 1970’s, a movement that began to combine various revivalistic traditional emphases morphed into a powerful new force in American Christian culture — the Church Growth movement. Donald McGavran’s book Understanding Church Growth and the founding of The Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission are commonly viewed as foundational to this movement.
As I experienced and observed the development of the church growth philosophy, it combined
(1) an emphasis on the Great Commission as the raison d’etre for the church’s existence in the world,
(2) an emphasis on teaching — however, it was teaching that moved away from doctrine and toward practical emphases such as “equipping the saints” for service by helping them find and use their spiritual gifts,
(3) a cultural emphasis on “relevance” that depended on sociological research to understand and reach one’s “target audience,”
(4) a corporate model taken from the American entrepreneurial tradition of charismatic leadership, pragmatic decision-making, and a programmatic approach to reaching people and building churches that would grow numerically.
At the same time the church growth movement was gaining ground, parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ were going strong, the “charismatic movement” was growing and infiltrating a broad range of Christian groups, breaking down distinctions and leading to a more experiential and less doctrinaire approach to faith, and an American evangelical subculture was expanding exponentially through contemporary Christian music (CCM) and the Christian book and media market. In addition, Christians were becoming more involved in the public sphere and politics through the “Christian Right” and the “culture wars.”
The 1970’s proved to be pivotal. “Evangelicalism” came of age and became a vocal, visible force in American culture. What we have seen in the years since — the seeker movement, megachurches, the purpose-driven church movement, etc., as well as, I might add, various post-evangelical movements — has been primarily further development of and response to the many developments that brought evangelicalism new public visibility during that decade.
In broad terms, this is the American evangelicalism that I have known. This is also the evangelicalism that Michael Spencer wrote about in his famous articles, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” In May 2010, after Michael’s sad passing, I wrote a series of posts called, “My Issues with Evangelicalism.” In those pieces, I identified three main areas of disillusionment with the culture of American evangelicalism: (1) Worship, (2) Pastoral Ministry, (3) Missional living.
Let me say, by way of concluding this overview, that I have been thrilled with what I have learned and experienced in the Lutheran tradition with regard to these three areas.
- The Word and Table liturgy of the Lutheran church, rooted in the historic tradition of the church rather than the revivalist movement, restores the priority of worship in the local congregation.
- Pastors are not CEO’s or program directors in the Lutheran church as they have become in much of evangelicalism. Rather, they represent Christ in distributing the means of grace through Word and Sacrament. Preaching is embedded in the liturgy so that worship does not revolve around the charisma of the preacher, but the Word Himself who meets us in the gathering of his people. Pastoral care and catechizing the congregation are essential components of his or her work.
- The doctrine of vocation is one of the gifts the Lutheran tradition has given to the larger Church. Luther, himself a monk, came to appreciate the priesthood of all believers and the integrity of every calling, “sacred” or “secular,” as a means of showing Christ’s love to the world.
This is just a start in showing how the Lutheran tradition has answered some of my concerns with the system of evangelicalism dominant in America today.