The Goals We Set

Yesterday I gathered with a group of fellow clergy members from our local area.  The group included clergy from at least three different Lutheran denominations.  While I knew most of the people there it was my first time with this particular group, a group that has met for years to communicate and work together for the greater good of our local area.

The group is apparently at a transition point, with some of the retired clergy in the area who were active for years taking more of a back seat role to the clergy who are actively serving in parishes right now.  So the majority of the meeting was dedicated to what the group could focus on and when to meet.  

When to meet – what day, what time, and how frequently – was frankly the largest part of the meeting.  There didn’t seem to be a day or time of the week that was very conducive to everyone’s schedule.  I suggested that making time to meet would remain a problem until the members of the group agreed upon a reason for gathering together that was sufficiently compelling for each of us to clear a spot on our schedule each month to attend.  

It wasn’t that we didn’t have things we wanted to talk about.  There was considerable sharing about how this congregation and that congregation were part of a food pantry system, assembling, organizing, packaging, and delivering food to the needy in the area.  I’ve seen a bit of the operation in action and it is truly impressive.  Having lived for a few years in a desperately poor neighborhood in St. Louis, I’m well aware of how important such programs are to those who are in need.

Others shared about a program to fund a shower trailer that could be moved from location to location and provide showers to the homeless.  There was discussion about who had purchased the shower trailer and who was providing insurance for it through their non-profit status and who was working out the logistics of how to keep people clean and safe.  

Another shared about her work with the homeless in the area, interfacing directly and relationally with them, and her work with immigrants and the various training programs available or required in order to provide services to these people to help them sign up for various types of relief programs.  

There were plenty of good things going on through various Lutheran congregations in the area.  But there was one thing we didn’t talk about, and it struck me as rather odd.  Not once did anyone suggest that we should strategize how to better share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our community.

Not once.

On one level, this is understandable.  After all, we represented at least three different expressions of Lutheranism in America.  Ironically, none of the three are in altar/pulpit fellowship with one another (which means that we aren’t supposed to take Holy Communion with one another and we aren’t supposed to fill in for one another leading worship in each other’s churches).  There are sound doctrinal and theological reasons why this is the case, as depressing as it looks on paper.  So having been trained in our respective Lutheran denominations to be wary of collaborating inappropriately with other Lutherans, it might be excused that we shy away from anything concerning the Gospel and focus exclusively on social programming.

On another level, this is no excuse.

There are a lot of ways that we ought to be able to share the Gospel in our community that don’t involve joint worship and endangering our ordination vows through inappropriate joint worship.  For the topic of evangelism not to even come up is egregious, no matter how we try to justify it.  

Another explanation might be that for some of the folks there, feeding the poor and providing showers to the homeless have become synonymous with the Gospel.  I won’t venture to assert that this is their understanding.  But it could be.  But a Muslim can feed the hungry.  An atheist can provide a clean shower for someone.  And in both cases they should!  But neither one would be sharing the Gospel in doing so.  

The Gospel remains the distinguishing factor of the Christian faith.  It is unique and exclusive.  If we do not preach it, nobody else will.  We may do many, many good things, and we may do them well, but if we fail to preach the Gospel, both to our own people as well as to those outside our Christian communities, we have failed as the body of Christ.  And if all we do is preach the Gospel, and our efforts to do other things are failures at one level or another, I believe that we are closer to being faithful as the body of Christ.  

But that quite likely might require a resetting (or a reboot, to use contemporary cinema lingo) of the Church’s collective approach.  

School started today for most of the primary & secondary schools in our area.  There were tons of cars loaded with kids to drop off at school for a new year of education.  An e-mail when I got to work warned me of the danger Californian’s face because of a measure sitting on the Governor’s desk for his signature that would make kindergarten mandatory for everyone.  Nobody would have the option to skip it and just start their kids in first grade.  Justification for the measure is that our kids are struggling in academics and need an extra year of teaching to prep them for first grade.

I thought about the heavy emphasis we place on education for our kids.  Education meaning the collection of various pieces of information that are deemed important and worth remembering.  I thought about how much we emphasize math and science and reading and writing and history and music and art.  I thought about how little we talk about who we hope our children will be, and how often we talk about what we hope they might be.  We talk less about creating happy kids, or kind kids, or kids who share, or kids who are willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  We talk more about getting into the right schools, the best programs, the top-paying careers.  

Is it any wonder youth struggle?  That drugs and alcohol and mindless sex become so appealing given the other pressures and expectations placed upon them?  If our goals are always what, and not who, who can be happy?  Yay for the happy few who make the cut and succeed at the what, but for all those who don’t, if they haven’t been taught who they are and why they should be happy with that, what a crushing way to limp through life!

Churches may not be so very different.  We are so focused on the what – how many butts are in the pews?  What is the per-unit giving level of the congregation?  Can we put together a reasonable budget this year?  Can we pay the light bill next month? – that we forget by and large about the who.  

But the Church is fundamentally a who organization.  We can do most anything we like, we can determine any number of whats to dabble with.  But the Church is defined by the who, the Who being Jesus Christ.  The Church is defined by faith and hope in him as the Son of God who came into our world to suffer and die because of our inability to live.  If this isn’t the message that the Church keeps first and foremost, it doesn’t matter how many people we feed or how many people we provide showers to.  Nobody else will do this, the Church’s core duty, if the Church herself fails to do it.

Which means we ought to be talking about it.  A lot.  All the time.  Within our own congregational settings and as pastors and lay people out and about in the world.  Even if we don’t agree about everything.  





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