Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Open Letter to the Gulf Coast Synod Assembly Planning Team

Greetings in the name of Christ,

To begin, I would like to thank you for your diligence and hard work in putting together this year's Synod Assembly.  I know these events are fraught with all sorts of frustrations.  I nearly lost several hand fulls of hair in simply helping to plan the main worship service at one of these things!  Therefore, this letter is not intended to add to your misery even though it is highly possible it will. 

My office manager received by mail a letter regarding the upcoming Synod Assembly and its focus on evangelism.  Pastor Pedro concluded with these words, "Evangelism is a topic that might be uncomfortable or be fraught with misconceptions.  We hope that you will use the enclosed bulletin insert to encourage your congregation to rethink evangelism and to encourage their participation in this year's Synod Assembly."

I had to chuckle a little bit after reading Pastor Pedro's assertion's about evangelism being fraught with misconceptions and then read the flyer which stated, "Evangelism can take many forms including social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

I chuckled, and then I mourned.  I chuckled because ten, five, even a year and a half ago, I would have unhesitatingly published this flyer in the church bulletin.  I would have encouraged these exact words!  But I mourned because I have changed, and as I read there was an obvious, at least to me, misconception. It has to do with, in my understanding, the nature of evangelism and the nature of the gospel.

First, evangelism.  Most of us are familiar with the Greek root of the word.  "Evangelion" is literally translated "good news."  Evangelism is the spreading of the good news.  Of course, we must ask then, "What is the good news?"  For those of us who are Christians, this means, "What is the Gospel?"

That final question seems to be a bit tricky these days.  I asked a pastor at the Theological Conference in New Braunfels how may different definitions of the Gospel we would get if we polled all the pastors in attendance, and she replied, "At least 200."

This poses a bit of a problem for if evangelism is the spread of the Gospel, and we have 200+ definitions of the Gospel, just what are we trying to spread? 

That's just the first problem.  The second problem I can see, comes from semantics.  I think we can all agree that the root definition of Gospel is "good news."  What do you do with news?  Can you "live" news? 

As Lutherans, in theory, our shared identity revolves around the fact that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death that we deserved to reconcile us unto God while we were still sinners.  This is the Gospel of which St. Paul says, "There is no other Gospel!"  How do you convey this without using words?

You simply cannot tell others what Jesus has accomplished for them by means of social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Proclaiming the Gospel requires, well, proclamation.  We must declare what Jesus has done.  If we are not focusing on the cross, then we are not doing evangelism.  If we are not talking about God's action and are focused on our own actions (social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement), we are not doing evangelism.  We are not telling good news.  We are not getting people to Jesus. 

It is my contention that in these days, we in the church spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to fall in love with us.  We want people to fall in love with our congregations and join.  We want to reverse the trend of membership decline by emphasizing our actions and our concern for the poor and oppressed and marginalized.  While these things aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, they are misguided.  We need to lead people to fall in love with Jesus; not our church; not our congregations; not ourselves.  Anything that does not get to Jesus; anything that does not lead people to the cross; is not evangelism.

And as a result of people falling in love with Jesus?  Well, there will be social justice.  There will be radical hospitality.  There will be community involvement.  These are fruits of evangelism.  They are not evangelism themselves.

I really and truly do not expect anyone to agree with the points in this letter.  I realize that I am very much on the fringes when it comes to serving the ELCA in theology and in practice.  Yet, I love this church for Jesus died for this church.  I love her even when I vehemently disagree with her, and I willingly serve within her bounds though she and I are often at odds.  I want the decline to cease just as much as I know you do.  And I am absolutely convinced and clear that unless we put Jesus front and center of our evangelism and proclamation; unless we work to proclaim Jesus and His actions, the decline will continue.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kevin Haug
Pastor, St. John Lutheran Church
Cat Spring, TX


Unknown said...

Hi Ho Silver AWAY!

Protecting His Congregation, and anyone else who will listen from the excesses and heresies of Liberal Lutheranism! :-)

Kevin Haug said...

LOL, Carl.

But in all seriousness, since 1987, the ELCA has embraced liberal Lutheranism, and what have been the results?

Unknown said...

Well Kevin,
I am put in mind of a reggae song I heard once, (which might have been either quoting, or at least paraphrasing a slightly older text
"How shall we sing our God's Song in a Strange Land?"

Convince me that the heresies and apostasy of the ELCA is in any fundamental way different or more destructive of the BODY OF CHRIST, than any previous heresies that have plagued the Body of Christ over the past Millennia. Is it up to Kevin to stem the tide?

One of my own personal observations and curiosities, (maybe it is the Germanic roots of Lutheranism,) but it does occur to me that our ilk, with a pint of ale or two tend to get our "Luther up", and debate with great passion theological minutia that others, outside of our little sphere tend to look at us and wonder what the real issue is.

It puts me in mind of the pissing contests some young people have after chugging a couple of quarts of beer.

As though different groups of Lutherans have for some reason select the fire Ant hills on which we choose to take our stand (we Can Do no other).. There are other Larger Hills out there some Lutherans will never see.

My hope and trust, Rev, is that The Holy Spirit would lead and guide The Body of Christ, whether that is with a still small voice or by a Nose ring when it goes astray.


Kevin Haug said...


If you notice, a very great deal of our proverbial passing contests have to do with legalism--what parts of the Law are most important to follow. In the great sexuality and economic debates which plague our churches, we focus on the commands. The Gospel has gotten lost.

This is not my contention alone. I was introduced to Timothy Keller and others in this vein of thought, and I realized in my own preaching and teaching and then in the education that I had received that the Gospel--as I defined it in this post--has become a peripheral aside in most denominations. It must be front and center.

Until our preaching, teaching, and actions center on this fundamental, not just of Lutheranism, but Christianity, then the rapid decline of Christianity and it polarization centered in matters sexual and social justice will continue. Of this, I am most certainly convinced.

Joel Schwartz said...

Pastor, I agree with you completely that if we do not point to Christ, we are not really Christian. However, I don't think it's an either/or proposition. I know you are familiar with the description of the nascent Christian church at the time of the apostles in Acts--that the shared everything they had and profoundly impacted the heathen world around them with their acts of unconditional love. These acts of "radical hospitality" and "social justice" were essential in the growth and even the survival of the Church. While the powerful message of the sacrifice of Jesus in central to evangelism, to the unbelieving world, actions sometimes speak louder than words.

Kevin Haug said...

I won't deny such a thing, Joel. ( Thanks for commenting, btw.) However, an "unbelieving world" looks at the church, filled with hypocrites, ripe with division, and with massive overhead compared to other service organizations and says, "Why waste my time and money with an institution that is so inefficient and strife torn? Why participate and give when more of my dollars and time can be actually used to help the poor in a local food pantry?" Our mission is to make disciples. That was the final instruction given to us. Disciples are only made when the Holy Spirit brings faith into being. That only occurs through the proclamation of the Word. "Faith comes by hearing." As I pointed out, social justice, compassion, and radical hospitality follow the Gospel. They do not precede it.

Joel Schwartz said...

Great point. Why would people look at the local food pantry and see it as a much more effective way of helping the poor than a church? I think we have strayed far from our calling if we stand for anything other than unconditional love--which is the message of grace, the message of the Gospel.