October 21, 2014

On the Post-Evangelical Path

Out of the wilderness; onto a path — this is a summary of my spiritual/theological experience in 2011.

As Antonio Machado wrote, “The way is made by walking,” and I guess I’ve just kept walking through the wilderness long enough that eventually a path appeared. That path remains before me, its direction and character unknown. I am certain there will be twists and turns, unexpected conditions to navigate, places where the going gets hard and slow, and other spots where astonishing vistas may appear, inviting long contemplation and wonder.

I discovered that “I’m a Christian, and I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.”

That’s what I wrote on November 4 in a “Wilderness Update.” I followed with a series about how the Lutheran tradition has answered many of my concerns about the culture of revivalistic evangelicalism, in which I spent most of my ministry career.

I was happy to see that this series received some notice among the Lutherans themselves, as Gene Edward Veith blogged about the posts and invited discussion. Some Lutheran commenters were appalled that I chose to affiliate with the ELCA rather than one of the more conservative synods, and in fact, as on many blog comment threads, those with strong black and white views about such things dominated the conversation. You can read Veith’s perspectives and the comments here:

I especially appreciated this supportive word from Dr. Veith:

“Don’t get me wrong:  I’m as supportive of the LCMS and as critical of liberal theology as anyone can be.  But to say that Chaplain Mike, in joining the ELCA, is just joining mainline liberal Protestantism is manifestly not true.  What he is finding in his congregation that he is responding to so gladly is not leftwing politics or feminism or gay marriages.  Rather, as he says, he is finding the centrality of Christ, Law & Gospel, vocation, worship, the sacraments, and the other things he is discussing in his three posts.”

And he’s exactly right. The path I’ve started down puts Christ in the center of everything. It also understands the central importance of worship focused on Word and Table. Lutheranism has a strong emphasis on pastoral theology and the role of the ordained minister, as well as a wonderful perspective on the vocations God has given every believer as a priest of God. Luther, of course, is best known for his emphasis on God’s grace in Christ received by faith, and Lutherans make helpful distinctions between Law and Gospel in the Scriptures. I have especially come to appreciate and embrace the sacramental perspective that is at the heart of Lutheran spirituality. The Theology of the Cross is perhaps the Lutheran emphasis most needed in today’s American church, which is often triumphalistic, shallow, and immature.

Finally, everyone needs heroes to admire and emulate, and Martin Luther has long been one of mine. But since exploring and embracing the Lutheran way, I have come to appreciate him even more. Utterly human and remarkably flawed, he put his hope and trust in Christ alone, restored the Gospel to a corrupt church, revitalized congregations and the pastoral ministry, gave dignity to ordinary Christians, their marriages, their music, and their daily lives, and courageously spoke truth to power when necessary.

I’m still a post-evangelical, and the culture of evangelicalism remains of great interest to me. Many of my brothers and sisters continue to practice their faith in revivalistic evangelical churches. I continue to appreciate the good things I gained from my time in non-denominational churches, even though my tenure there ultimately led me to the wilderness.

Now a path has appeared, and I have begun to walk on it.

Comments

  1. I just want to say I really enjoyed this series and agree that the best thing that could happen to evangelicalism is greater understanding of the theology of the cross, as well as refocusing on the sacraments and the preached Word as the places in the church where God physically present, instead of going looking for God in political movements, half-baked apocolyptic fantasies, or charismatic acts that God never promised to every Christian, and which Paul cautioned against.

    • Also, the ELCA needs more confessional pastors to work against looking for God in liberal political movements and so-called social justice programs.

      • David Cornwell says:

        I don’t want to sound overly contentious here, but…

        I agree that looking for God in liberal political movements is the wrong place, just as it is in conservative political movements. However God does work in and through social justice movements. God will usher in the Kingdom through whatever means and we would do well not to discount that. Wilberforce, Newton, and others in the war against slavery are examples. This is a tricky business, I agree. But God will work, sometimes even through the ungodly. Praying “thy Kingdom come” doesn’t mean we until He ushers us into Heaven. His Kingdom is reality now, and will be made perfect when he re-appears.

        Christ can be left out of mainline denominations, just as He is left out of evangelical mega-churches. However it isn’t always so back and white.

        • David Cornwell says:

          “doesn’t mean we until He ushers us into Heaven.”

          should be: doesn’t mean we [wait] until He ushers us into Heaven.

      • Often (not always), Christ does take a backseat in liberal/politicized churches.

        I think because many liberal clergy have bought into the whole ‘tolerant’ thing, and they do not wish to offend anyone, so Christ isn’t mentioned as often. They are right, by the way, to realize that Christ is a polarizing figure.

        It is becoming more rare to see Jesus’ name mentioned in the ELCA’s magazine, ‘The Lutheran’…let alone the mention of sin and the need of a Savior.

        Personally, I believe the heart of the Christian faith IS JESUS. Yes we ought do good works for the neighbor, but that ought not be the primary mission ( for anyone is capable of that), but to announce the need of a Savior for the forgiveness of sins and to clearly identify that Savior as Jesus Christ…and He alone.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          “Often (not always), Christ does take a backseat in liberal/politicized churches”

          Just out of curiosity, what is your opinion of this statement:

          “Often (not always), Christ does take a backseat in conservative/politicized churches”?

          • I agree with that statement, also.

            On the left is a political, social gospel when boiled down ends up being law (what ‘we do’ based)…and on the right is a biblicist, often politicized, law (what ‘we do’ based) religion, also.

            The center, where Christ and His gospel…alone, are located, is the place to stay.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I find it interesting that the comments on the Veith threads sound so much like the flamewars on this blog, Heresy Hunters, denouncing the Other (LCMA vs LCMS) as Apostate and Heretic, and all.

    P.S. The reason so many Soviet-era Russians were hopeless alcoholics was that Vodka was the only escape from 24/7/365 Political Political Political Political Political. In this day where everyone obsesses about Obamessiah, Tea Party, Ron Paul, and Iowa Caucus, do we really need another venue where they’ll follow you into the toilet stall to lecture you endlessly about Politics Politics Politics? And why does that venue have to be the church?

    • Agreed HUG.

      The “us” vs “them” mentality pervades this blog at times, especially in a post like this. I guess the “us” vs “them” mentality is not limited to fundagelicalism but also Lutheranism as well. It’s the ELCA vs. Missouri Synod; etc.. Each has a corner on truth while the other faith is in heresy. Why do Christians have to reduce the gospel to nothing but flame wars and conflict? I’m not interested in Lutheranism per say, but maybe I have to accept this point that the “us” vs. “them” mentality is a part of Christianity WHEREVER it may be.

      I just don’t get it….

  3. As much as I just feel safer in the LCMS than the ELCA, I resonate with people like John Stott who encouraged evangelicals not to ditch the mainlines but stay in and work for change. One can only wonder how different the mainlines would be today if all the conservatives/evangelicals/confessionalists had never left, but fought to win over their more liberal colleagues, or at least present their views more winsomely. I can accept that issues of conscience keep CM from the LCMS, so I hope he is truly a good influence for confessional Lutheranism within the ELCA.

    It’s been quite a year going down the Wittenberg trail, especially surviving my first liturgical Christmas season. These articles have been helpful to me along the way. It’s good to know others share the struggle I went through so that I don’t feel like I’m taking crazy pills. And Luther is just relentlessly Christ-centered. It’s not about getting your theology perfect (good luck), but knowing where to go with our imperfection. Pointing people to Christ is important because it is the only place we can find true peace and healing. Ultimately, I think this is what most post-evangelicals are looking for.

    • Miguel ~ your statement about knowing where to go with our imperfection is breathtaking. Thank you.

  4. “So you visit the local Missouri Synod congregation. Isn’t it true that it is extremely likely that you will walk into a contemporary worship service with a pastor that is trying to out-evangelical the evangelicals? You will go into an LCMS congregation looking for Lutheranism, but it may well be that you won’t find it!” – Veith.

    Brutally honest, but this has been my experience. The local Lutheran congregation which best embodied the ideal found in Veith’s “Spirituality of the Cross” was ELCA, but I decided to take my family to an LCMS congregation instead – largely because of the social issues. This was a horrible mistake on my part. It isn’t just that they out-evangelical evangelicalism but also out-hubris the young, restless, and reformed. This is why I really struggled with “Issues, Etc”. I have little interest in finding a church that is more right than everybody else; I am more interested in discovering if the existence of the this gracious God, rumored by Luther to be closer to me than I am to myself, is really out there.

    • I know what you mean.

      That ‘they alone’ know the truth, really bugs me about a great many in that denomination.

      We believe that we do know the truth…but that others know it, too.

      • Everyone does it in their own way. If a church doesn’t, I guess they will be accused of universalism.

  5. I have also heard Lutheran pastors state that evangelical concepts like church growth, missionalism and purpose-driven-ness can be redeemed by Lutheran doctrine, without realizing that these teachings are poison to Lutheran doctrine once swallowed.

  6. Wonderful post Chaplain Mike. In my often painful, scarey yet freeing journey, the Lord brought 3 points of clarity for me. The biggest and most “centering” one was the Theology of the Cross which was introduced to me in the second that being “The Spirituality of The Cross” by Gene Veith. When I read that I wept as I knew that the Lord heard my inner desperation and also it removed the guilt about my questioning. Third was The Internet Monk. All 3 have been my oxygen, my lifeline throughout my journey. So as we step into the new year I want to say Thank You. To you for being honest, vulnerable and courageous in allowing us to journey with you. Second to Gene Veith for his life-saving book, and third to Martin Luther for whom I have always given thanks. The accomplishments you listed so beautifully made me want to stand up and applaud.

    Finally I thank my Lord Jesus Christ who absolutely refuses to allow one of His own to walk in anything but FREEDOM and, like a good mother bird, pushes His children out of the nest and says “FLY CHILD – I paid for you to soar and be FREE.”

  7. Chaplin Mike…do what makes you happy. Worship however you want. Live your life and enjoy it. Life is too short…. I’m happy for the decision you made and hope you find deep comfort in it.

  8. You probably won’t be a Lutheran very long. They’ll leave you holding the bag as they continue on the path of their own choosing, worshipping the idol of self-absorption and political correctness.

    • Love the consensus building Ken…. I guess you can worship at the idol of YEC, and prep for your pre-trib rapture. I know you most earnestly salivate and wait for the next natural disaster to happen so it can be attributed to “someone’s _______ (fill in the blank) sin. Oh…how blessed we are to have the “scorched earth” policy known as the “Christian” culture wars which produces unbelievers like me. .

      Keep it up!! As the Center for Inquiry needs you to keep up the good work so more atheists can be created.

    • Ken, you need to go back and read the posts linked in this article. My commitment is to a tradition that is centered in Christ. At times throughout history, any given expression of a tradition may find itself in either a weak or strong condition. I’m trying to take the long view and not make decisions on merely contemporary situations.

    • Ken,

      There are faithful congregations to be found in all branches of Lutheranism, just as there are unfaithful ones. Many in my own synod (LCMS) have abandoned the Scriptures and the Confessions, even though we have a reputation for being conservative. I also know of several ELCA congregations that are very faithful and confessional, despite the tendencies of their bishops and denominational officials.

      Give our gracious host some credit. He has found a faithful congregation and has decided to put down some roots. He has been around the block a few times and is aware of the issues. The Lutheran church can be a great place to make a home after a season of wandering, and I am glad CM has decided find rest here.