There’s an old, overshared joke that floats around many denominational circles. The version we know goes like this: how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? The answer: none. Lutherans don’t change.
The joke continues to be repeated–and not just between Lutherans–because there’s truth to it. Organizations, once they’ve reached some semblance of stability, fall into patterns of torpor, of doing the same old thing because the same old thing is familiar and safe. And familiar and safe, at least in churches, is often good. Small-o orthodox Christians understand this when they hold to particular doctrines and confessions. They are interested in time-tested truths, not the latest, flashiest fads. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, of which our congregation is a part, is one of several Christian denominations in the world that cherishes the truth and would rather–to continue the joke–sit in what the world sees as the dark than change a bulb just for the sake of getting a new one.
On the other hand, churches need to be alert to and aware of their own proclivities to coast into meaninglessness and idolatry. In general, American Christians today care far more about culture relevance and material success than they do about truly practicing and living what they purportedly confess. My family and I struggle with this, probably like most of you do. Physical and financial comfort and popularity are idols, idols that ironically stagnate individuals, families, and subsequently churches that otherwise never seem to stop changing.
The truth is that what church bodies and congregations and people confess is truly no laughing matter. Yet in our increasingly fragmented, secular culture, our confessions become even more important, not only to us and our children but to the world. What do we as Lutherans believe? And how, therefore, do we live? The answers to these questions are intertwined and vital for us to contemplate.
I’ve mentioned Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option here before, and that’s for good reason. The book’s genesis sprang from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre posited that we need someone like Saint Benedict of Nursia to help us relearn how to keep and cultivate community as our culture falls into decadence. As Benedict witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire and its ensuing chaos and darkness, he left the city and formed a community dedicated to prayer and sustaining Christianity. Benedict’s Rule, and the community he founded, preserved Christianity throughout the Dark Ages and has influenced Western Civilization ever since. (If you’re unfamiliar with The Benedict Option, you can read more about Dreher’s thesis and the book in this FAQ, this interview, and at Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.)
Dreher makes the case that we, like Benedict, need to nourish ourselves and our churches through worship and teaching, immersing ourselves in history with discipline and community. Ultimately, we must remember, over and over again, what we have and then cultivate it within our distinctive Christian cultures.
The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage. ‘By this will all men know that you are my disciples,’ the Lord said in the Gospel of John, and if we stand a chance today, we do only because of His love lived out through us–to our brothers and sisters in Christ and then out to the world.
But you cannot give what you do not possess.
~ The Benedict Option (101-2)
So what do we need to be the church? There’s a lot Lutherans have to contribute to this idea.
First of all, we know we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to Him (see the Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed). This means that our theology automatically precludes us from thinking we’ve got any personal merit or worthiness that contributes to our salvation, so we usually don’t confuse our justification with our sanctification. In other words, how we live–what Dreher would call being the church–after receiving Christ’s mercy doesn’t become a measure of whether or not we’ve been declared righteous. Christ has already done that. It’s finished. We might take this for granted and be lazy–which is a common criticism of Lutherans, and for fair reason, I think–but that’s not a fault of our theology; that’s the fault of our sinful natures (see the beginning of this paragraph).
Second, Lutherans cherish an awesome doctrine of vocation that helps us understand and order the roles God has given us. Luther called them “masks of God,” and with our masks, each one of us has particular and special ways and relationships to serve our neighbors. We don’t subscribe to monasticism, as I mentioned here, precisely because we recognize how God works in all of us, and not just those in professional church work. We can respect and learn from monastics, but our concerns will have more to do with rightly identifying and prioritizing the familial, friend, and professional vocations we already have.
Third, Lutherans have long practiced a historic liturgy that includes phenomenal hymnody. We are sacramental Christians without sacramental confusion (see the first point). The traditional worship practices of our churches deliberately teach our faith and repeat what we need to hear in beautiful, reverent ways. They’re clearly counter-cultural. These are all assets to us as we live in a memory-loss, entertainment-driven culture.
I could add more gifts of Lutheranism, but those will suffice for now. With these basics in mind, I hope we can talk here at A Good Wilderness about what we as Lutherans believe and specifically how our particular confession directs and shapes our lives.
This week, I’ll be explaining more about the sections appearing on A Good Wilderness that will structure our discussions. I am hopeful, and excited, about sharing together how we can live the faith we have received in Christ, both encouraging and sustaining each other and serving as witnesses to the world. We know we have darkness, but we place our hope in the Light that never fails.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
~ John 8:12