Monthly Archives: September 2016

No, this is not the typical anti-youth gathering blog post that we’ve become accustomed to throughout these past few years.  Nor is it a call for those who put together the LCMS National Youth Gathering to do something better, like say, have more cutting edge speakers.  No, not at all.  Rather this post is relevant to not just LCMS Lutherans but to all Christians in America.  I, as an LCMS pastor, am just using this particular event as a spring board to write about what many would consider to be a pervasive problem amongst the church in America: decline.

In the days during and after the LCMS Youth Gathering in New Orleans I kept on seeing and hearing a number that was indicative of where the church in America is heading: 22,000.  That is, 22,000 LCMS youth attended this past summer’s gathering.  Now, immediately, we think this is a good thing that this many youth gathered around a theme centered on “In Christ Alone” and it is! But (and this is a big BUT!) if you are familiar with previous gathering attendance numbers that number may have been a bit disturbing. When I first heard that number I thought to myself, “Isn’t that low in comparison to previous gatherings?”  For instance, I remembered that the gathering I went to in Atlanta in 1998 had somewhere around 30,000 kids in attendance and had as its cut off age those going into 10th grade (now the cut off age is 9th grade).  Also, I was pretty sure that the gathering in NOLA in 2001 had even more than that.

So I decided to look those numbers up and what I found was quite disconcerting.

The years 2001 and 2004 continued the rise in attendance with 2004 being the peak year with 35,000 in attendance.  After that attendance continued to drop with the exception of 2013 which had 25,000 in attendance which was 1,000 more than 2010’s 24,000.  Now we come to 2016 which had 22,000.  In other words, since 2004 the gathering has declined in attendance by about a third.  Now, to be fair, I’m sure some are thinking, “What about Higher Things?!” Well, even adding those numbers it still doesn’t look good.  For example, in 2011 The LCMS put out a press release about Higher Things (a more conservative gathering with an emphasis on traditional Lutheran worship) and  achieving record attendance that year.  The record attendance was 2,100.  Now, I am unaware of their more recent numbers but their website notes that they are only able to have 1,300 kids at each event they hold which means that at most they will have 3,900 each summer.  What’s more, there are some youth groups that go to both events so there is some double dipping and the age range for those who can attend is wider than the national gathering.

Ultimately, 22,000 is simply another reminder of what’s ahead.

I’m sure some may be expecting me to turn the corner at this point and start writing about what we should do to turn it around but that would be incredibly arrogant.  I say arrogant because, quite frankly, the LCMS National Youth Gathering is probably the best thing that we do as a church body in terms of quality, production, worship, preaching, teaching, engaging and encouraging our youth in their faith.  It’s a positive event and given our church body’s unhealthy love for controversy, fighting and backbiting this is a welcome reprieve if only for 5 days out of every three years.

Stanley Hauerwas once said something along the lines that the church in America dying is probably a good thing.  In my not so humble opinion, I think he’s onto something.  We Christians in the West have mostly enjoyed a place of privilege when it comes to our faith and our churches.  Only until recently has there been much resistance to our way of doing things (and even that’s debatable).  In other words, we were the legitimators of the status quo and the supposed binding force of our culture.  Even today those vestiges still carry over from an era moving farther and farther away in the rear view mirror when a stranger holds the door for me because I am wearing my clerical collar.  In other words, we’ve been in control a good long while and we’re just beginning to learn what it’s like to not be in control and we don’t know what to do with that.  And so that control manifests itself in a myriad of ways that aren’t necessarily bad but might reveal a deeper ailment of the church.

Many of the mainline churches, including the LCMS, began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  No one has been able to stem that decline.  All kinds of efforts, programs, gurus, charismatic preachers have been employed to stem this tide and yet it’s only gotten worse.  It seems as if there is a new celebrity pastor every few years that many latch onto for the key to making disciples and reaching the lost.  From Rick Warren to Bill Hybels to Rob Bell to Mark Driscoll to Tim Keller to Tullian Tchividjian (did I spell that right?) to <insert name here>.  Then there are the repristinators in Rome or in the LCMS that are convinced that if we go back to the old days we will be blessed with growth.  On the flipside are those who want to forego the past and take Paul’s words to be all things to all people to an almost ridiculous extreme that turns the gospel into nothing more than a consumer product.  Despite all of these efforts, despite all of these dollars, despite all of the workaholism under the guise of growing the Church the Eurocentric Church in the West is still dying.  What’s more, the youth leave to never to come back again.  This sure as heck ain’t your grandfather’s church nor is it your’s and nor is it mine.

And that’s what that 22,000 number is yelling at me.  In many regards the LCMS National Youth Gathering showcases the best of the best of the LCMS from preachers to teachers to musicians and yet here we are, continuing the downward trend.  Despite our best efforts we continue to decline.  That’s scary, isn’t it?  But that may be a good thing because it’s teaching us that we are not the ones who are in control.  We are so used to having the perspective of the powerful, of the privileged that we forget what it is to be truly helpless, what it is to truly rely upon God.  This is why Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor” or “Blessed are the meek” or “Do not be anxious” and rejects the patronage system of the ancient world.  Jesus taught continually that greatness comes not from going up but from going down, going in the opposite direction of where the world tells us to go.  Yet, we so easily think that by going up we will win more for Jesus, by doing things the right, perfect and best way it’ll bear forth fruit.  And yet despite our best efforts, decline continues.  That, my friends, should give us pause.

You know, we confess the Cross but do we understand that it was the Cross that was the most cursed and wretched place there was in the ancient world?  Do we understand that this is where Jesus goes and the direction to which he bids us to go as well?  Are we comfortable losing control the way that Jesus calls us to lose control?





charlotteThey say a picture is worth a thousand words.  This one definitely is and more.  What strikes me though is not the “Not In Service” on the bus behind the police nor even the intimating visual of a militarized police in the dark.  It’s that there are no distinguishable faces, no eyes to look into.  The police look almost robotic, like looking at Boba Fet clones in Star Wars.  It’s enigmatic of “the state’s” usurping of our humanity for a noble cause – serving and protecting.  Here, humanity is lost to riot gear and billy clubs, behind plastic masks, shin guards, knee pads and hard shell.  It prompts the inquisitive child within me to want to walk up to them and ask, “Who’s in there?”

Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook that said, “F— the police, but love the police officer.” I think this picture helps clarify that point. Before us is the police, void of humanity.  Also before us (more importantly), are police officers behind all that gear, who have families, hopes and fears, just like those on the other side of the one taking the picture.  In other words, behind all of that there is humanity.

The challenge for all in such a time as this is getting through the layers to our neighbor’s humanity (particularly for white middle class males such as myself).  It’s seeing through the illusions of the powers and the principalities that Paul spoke of and of the illusions of the world that John spoke of.


This past weekend I preached on The Parable of the Shrewd Manager from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 16:1-13).  After the service I had a few people tell me that they’ve always found this text to be rather challenging to understand.  In part, this is because it seems as if Jesus is encouraging dishonesty in this story.  Throughout the years I’ve had similar feelings and thoughts.  In fact, I remember doing a bible study on this very text as a vicar (intern) and still walking away perplexed.  The commentaries I went to were of no help, either. For me, The Parable of the Shrewd Manager had become one of those texts that we were not given to understand like Romans 9-11 or that part in Exodus 4 where the Lord seeks to put Moses to death.  It had been put there for a particular reason by God and I was to leave it alone and come back to it in the future for possible clarity via the Holy Spirit. Crazy, right?  But that’s also the line of reasoning that results from looking at the Scriptures as the inspired and inerrant Word of God.  It’s also the line of reasoning that we have coopted from the Greek philosophy of Stoicism in order to feel better about the seemingly mysterious aspects of a given text.

But what if the problem lies not with the text, per se? Rather, what if it lies with us and our own presuppositions?  What if Jesus is being rather clear and we just can’t attain such clarity because our minds and our vision is muddied by our own cultural baggage or presuppositions?  What if the answers really are right before us?  In these last few years as I’ve dug, studied, experienced, grown, regressed in my learning of the Scriptures I’ve become more and more convinced that our cultural presuppositions hold us back from a deeper understanding of Jesus and his words. An example that furthers my point is a sermon I heard a couple of years ago on one of the Lukan Beatitudes, “blessed are the poor”. The preacher claimed that the Lukan Jesus was speaking not of the economically poor but of the spiritually poor.  Knowing what I knew about the Gospel of Luke at the time I had to work really hard at not showing signs of discomfort as the preacher went on.  Frankly, that claim was incorrect, though, I suppose that could work with the Matthean beatitudes.  The Lukan Jesus says that the economically poor are blessed, that’s clear from the context.  We know that Luke was writing to a largely elite Gentile audience that had, or was being challenged, to leave behind their family for the sake of the Gospel.  In such a world leaving behind one’s family also meant leaving behind the status, wealth and honor of that family.  In turn, they had most likely been disowned by their families and became poor because they were following Jesus.  Thus, the Lukan Jesus lets these formerly wealthy followers of Jesus know that they are blessed as they learn to live a life on the margins after living a life in the center of Roman society.  Hence, the household division the Lukan Jesus speaks of as well as his teaching that unless one disowns their own family to follow him they cannot be his disciple.

My sense, though, is that we miss such meanings and understandings because we are not only working against our present cultural presuppositions but also the baggage of the presuppositions of various church fathers who were also divorced from the cultural context of Jesus.  As a result we have layers upon layers of cultural baggage to work through.  “Blessed are the poor” gets construed to be purely spiritual because the economic angle makes us uncomfortable given that many 21st century Americans and Westerners have it pretty good.  Not only that but we have been raised to believe that capitalism and making money are good things, so far as it is earned honestly.  We have theology that backs this up.  We have been taught that those of us who are wealthy have been blessed by God and are to use such gifts properly and for the kingdom.  We are to be “good stewards.”  Church history and tradition have taught that this is meet, right and salutary but church history and tradition is fraught with the very cultural baggage that we have as well.  A reading through the Patristics like Augustine reveals that for all his brilliance he was also limited in his understanding of Scripture.  He was quite good at proof-texting and using texts to support positions on Christian military involvement and Christian government involvement.  The little further back in church history we go we see church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian embracing the Roman patronage and hierarchical systems that Jesus taught and spoke against throughout the Gospels.  Let us also not forget the way that many of the early church fathers were completely divorced from Jewish understandings of God as well as life in Palestine during the time of Jesus which in turn affected how they read and interpreted the Scriptures.  Not only that but some such as Origen and Clement infused Greek Philosophy into their reading of the Scriptures.  Clement went so far as to claim that Plato was the Greeks’ Moses.  Do you see how such things over time can truly handicap us from understanding the Gospels in their entirety?  The scary part too is that it reveals that the church catholic isn’t always a failsafe.

Coming back to the Parable of the Shrewd Manager I’m struck by how challenging it was for me to understand.  What’s clear now is that it was in part because I wasn’t looking holistically at the text, that it was one part of a larger whole.  But it was also because I had been steeped (and still am) in Western notions of right and wrong.  The questions and thoughts that would pop up as I was reading this parable: How could Jesus be condoning such behavior?  Shrewdness in business practices?  The manager was already fired, what he did was entirely inappropriate and dishonest.  Wasn’t it totally self-seeking?  Yes to all of these, but I ended up making these the main thing when they really weren’t.  What I should have focused on was the amount of energy this manager expended in taking care of the people’s debt (a.k.a. unrighteous wealth) so that they would receive him into their homes.  He actually improved their lives by forgiving some of their debts which definitely brought him favor amongst the said people.  Smart, cunning, shrewd and intelligent.

Remember who Luke’s audience is and where they come from.

The parallel passage to this section of Luke is chapter 12 where Jesus tells his disciples to not be anxious, to rest in the assurance of God’s benevolence and love for them and for his creation.  With God at the center of being, seeking after unrighteous wealth seems pointless because security and preservation are bound up with Him.  Therefore, the shrewdness, the intelligence, that energy, should be used to furthering the kingdom, towards sowing seeds of justice and mercy.  Imagine what the world would look like if the energy channeled into unrighteous wealth was channeled into such things.  We get a glimpse of this in Acts wherein there was no one in need in the early Christian communities because they shared.

On an ending note, a few verses later Jesus condemns divorce which seems out of place according to the topic at hand.  Now this seems so because marriage according to our cultural understandings is about love but love had nothing to do with it (thanks Tina Turner!).  You see, in the ancient world marriage was about anything but that.  It was about building economic, social and political connections and clout.  Therefore, because the Torah allowed for divorce, it was often done for the purposes of climbing the social, economic and political ladder for one’s family.  This, of course, meant more wealth and more security.  Unfortunately, women ended up being tossed aside and used for such purposes.  Think about the intelligence and the shrewdness that went into such machinations.  Also, notice that such a statement is made by Jesus here for reasons much bigger than the very sanctity of marriage as we so easily assume in the West, particularly in our context today.  Notice how our cultural presuppositions and understandings inhibit us from really understanding the force of the text.

There’s much more to unpack with this parable and much that I left unsaid so if you’re interested in learning more these books below are incredibly pertinent:

“Father, Into Your Hands”: The Way of Jesus According to the Gospel of Luke-Acts by Luke Kammrath

The Way According to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts by Paul Borgman

Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd-5th Centuries by Wes Howard-Brook