It has been an interesting couple of weeks since the efforts to contain the coronavirus began.
I have sat in on a conference call from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services on how faith-based organizations can love and serve their neighbors. I have been on a video conference hosted by the Billy Graham Send Institute to brainstorm ways to move forward with new missions in the U.S. and care for planters of new churches just trying to get started. I have participated in a discussion with other LCMS national mission leaders about how we can continue ministry even as we are social distancing.
One thing seems to be clear: There will be ongoing effects to the way we do missions in the near future.
The fear of world wars, global pandemics, economic depression … what does it all mean to the future of the mission of the church? I was recently reading “How to Reach the West Again” by Tim Keller of the organization City to City. The small book was about post-Christian-era missions.
And when you think about it, in a time of social media, vitriolic political divisions, pandemic isolationism, self-defined reality … it really is the perfect storm for end-times mission work. All of these things drive people inward on themselves and away from God and His truth. And instead of offering more influence and social capital, the Gospel promises a cross and self-denial which is the antithesis of modern society.
So what does it mean for the church now that it has lost its influence in a world that is skeptical of organized institutions that hold to an unwavering truth? Well, we can take heart, first and foremost, in that Jesus has long told us that the world would hate us, that it is our glory to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. It was never intended for us to be loved by the world or to not have a cross to carry.
And yet the mission goes on. But what will it look like as the landscape changes? When Keller wrote his book, he could not have foreseen the impact of something like the coronavirus epidemic — how so many people would see their foundation of sand crumbling under their feet, and how the pillars of government, medicine and science would all be shaken.
In other words, in the midst of suffering and death, people are forced to deal with their mortality, to seek an answer for why they suffer. So the opportunity to “reach the West again” may actually be catalyzed by recent events.
Keller writes of the lack of knowledge of anything sacred, and the shift to the digital age, having an impact on our witness. Oddly enough, most witness during social distancing has consisted of bringing the sacred into the virtual world, and prayerfully promoting unity in the midst of so much political division on social media. But as nice as it is to have a renewal of Christian witness on Facebook, we must plan now for how we will welcome the public back through our church doors for true communion.
To be ready for this new mission we will need to contend with four elements of a post-Christian worldview that Keller identifies:
- All values are relative;
- All relationships are transactional;
- All identities are fragile; and
- All (supposed) sources of fulfillment are disappointing.
To counter this culture, Keller speaks of four key elements: attention, attraction, demonstration and conviction.
We can explore these through a Lutheran lens:
Here Keller uses an apt description of how a worldview that is not biblical is like clothing that is too small. It is bound to pinch and eventually tear. And, to be sure, the fabric of our society is starting to tear. We hear stories from Italy of doctors who were ardent atheists, surrounded by death from COVID-19, listening to the witness of a dying priest and coming to faith. In other words, God is getting the attention of unbelievers through the unrest of the day.
As Lutherans we are not interested in a “bait and switch,” or accommodating the culture to draw others into the faith. And yet, we do understand that we will need to be winsome in our new mission work, as others are drawn into the life of the church. And as Keller points out, here is what Christians have in response to what the world offers:
- A meaning in life that suffering can’t take away, but can even deepen;
- A satisfaction that isn’t based on circumstances;
- A freedom that doesn’t reduce community and relationships to thin transactions;
- An identity that isn’t fragile or based on our performance or the exclusion of others;
- A way to both deal with guilt and forgive others without residual bitterness or shame;
- A basis for seeking justice that does not turn us into oppressors ourselves;
- A way to face not only the future, but death itself with poise and peace; and
- An explanation for the senses of transcendent beauty and love we often experience.
Again, we can offer new wineskins in place of the fabric of secular belief systems as they begin to tear.
Here Keller calls upon Christians to be bold confessors and defenders of the truth. He rightly exhorts us not to shy away from the unpopular doctrines of the church that are currently being vilified rather than seen as warning heralds from the watchmen. He goes on to state, “These issues must be faced with a combination of humility and clarity, and also with a gentle insistence that doubters recognize the assumptions and moral judgments on which their objections rest, which themselves are leaps of faith.”
This is where we as the Lutheran church will shine, given our true exposition of the Scriptures and right division of the Law and Gospel. Keller explains this as the bad news and good news: We cannot save or free ourselves, but Christ has done all that was necessary for our freedom and salvation. Again, the unbeliever must repent and be baptized to be saved, which includes tearing down all false idols. And once convicted, of course, we have the greatest of clarity in our catechesis and confession of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
What these four things mean is that we are in the world, but not of the world.
This is what Keller describes as a “Category-Defying Social Vision.” This is how we understand our baptismal and communal identity; i.e., how will they know us? The Christian church on earth is multi-ethnic and yet one human race. So, across any line that divides us in society, we have become one through baptism and communion.
Likewise, we care for the one another. Most especially, we are “highly committed to caring for the poor and marginalized.” There may never have been a better time in recent history for Christians to step out in mercy to provide human care. It would seem that those in the margins, and already among the working poor, will be affected most by the aftermath of this recent economic distress and shortage of basic needs.
As I read about demonstrating the Christian faith in Keller’s book, I could not help but think of Joseph the son of Jacob who was sold by his own brothers and forced into slavery in Egypt. It was a much-maligned Joseph who was betrayed, wrongly accused and left for dead right up until the famine was predicted in Egypt. And yet, when the time came, he opened the storehouses to assist even those who had abused him the most. What they meant for evil, God used for good.
We now live in what is described as a post-Christian era in which the church is looked at skeptically or even with animosity.
What good will come from the church when things are at their worst? What will our outreach, mercy and witness look like in a society that begins to see that what they trusted in is really just a foundation of sand?
The world is watching for the response from the same church which over the centuries has cared for orphans, widows, refugees, abandoned newborns, the unborn, lepers. This is the full understanding of being pro-life from conception to grave with a theology of the cross.
And yet for all of the good that we have done, the church has still become more and more vilified by secular opinion. Still, Keller says, believers break this norm by being non-retaliatory and marked by a commitment to forgiveness. We stand for our religious freedom, but not vengefully. As Keller says, “The Christian teaching on forgiveness and ‘turning the other cheek’ created a community of peace-making, reconciliation and bridge-building.”
And by building these bridges, we can confess how the biblical doctrines of sexuality and marriage and abortion that are counter-cultural are also fulfilling and hopeful. All of this will require strong catechesis for the lost.
Keller does say that Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms are a precious jewel, but insufficient; but he must not be including the latest version with explanations that deal with our modern-day context! But here are a few suggestions for other counter-cultural catechesis to consider:
- New tools of catechesis that are formed to present the basics of Christian truth as a direct contrast to the narratives of late modern culture (e.g., “You have heard it said — but I say unto you”);
- Worship that combines ancient patterns of liturgy with culturally contextualized forms;
- Use of the arts to convey the Christian story;
- Theological training of both ministers and lay leaders that equips them to carry out these kinds of formative practices; and
- A rediscovery of rich devotional practices that are nearly extinct because of the busyness of our schedules.
So we must find our place in the world, but God has sent us as alien residents. Here Keller points out our need to remain in the public square rather than doing the following:
- Being defensive against culture and seeking to dominate it;
- Seeking purity from culture and withdrawing from it entirely; or
- Compromising with culture and being assimilated by it.
Here I can’t but think of Israel in exile. God did not say “wait it out until I bring you back to the Promised Land.” God’s people were to be the best possible citizens as a witness to the faith.
Finally, Keller offers some things to be encouraged about in these dark and latter days.
He points to the rise of Global Christianity, which now sees the West as a mission field. And to the fact that so many people are now being converted to the faith as adults along with those who were born into Christian families. And to what he calls “The Culture-Formative Power of Cities” — as the city goes, so goes the culture. (And for us in the LCMS, the opportunities in cities abound.)
He points out that everything is unprecedented once. And, boy, is that true of what is happening in the time of the coronavirus. Keller uses the Reformation as an example: There had never been a Reformation until there was one. And now we are inheritors of the Reformation who will face these unprecedented times armed with the goods!
Lastly, Keller speaks of our current need for “collaborative independence.” That sure sounds like a Synod, defined by congregational polity, coming together to make disciples for life by listening and learning and then equipping and sending into God’s mission.
So if you made it this far into the blog, you must have an interest in what missions in these dark and latter days will look like. But you may also be skeptical of our ability to continue with new missions in such tumultuous times and even facing the end times as we see wars, famines, pestilence and natural disasters abound.
Only Christ knows the hour, but we would do well to remember what Martin Luther said when asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. He said he would plant an apple tree. So, I would ask, why not plant a new mission to those affected by the current crisis? The world now more than ever needs the Gospel and for Christians to plant the seeds.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Concordia Plan Services, Concordia Publishing House and other LCMS entities have compiled resources to assist congregations, schools, church workers and members during the coronavirus pandemic.