Message to Teaching Theologians


by Bishop Stephen S. Talmage, Grand Canyon Synod-ELCA
Presented at the Convocation of Teaching Theologians 2010

What does it mean to be the church? The ELCA and ELCIC in the 21st Century

In preparing for this convocation and the question of “What does it mean to be the church, with a particular focus on the ELCA and ELCIC in the mid-21st Century I came up with five marks or characteristics that I believe are essential regardless of the structure of the institution or organization.

The church needs to remain Confessional
Edmund Schlink wrote: “A Confession is the comprehensive exposition of the total Scripture.  For a Confession teaches “what a Christian must know for his/her salvation.”  It teaches the Gospel…not the doctrine of the individual but of the church, a protection from or defense against heresy.

Laurence L. White stated: “The Lutheran Church is, by its very nature, a confessional church – a church that exists for one reason and one reason only, for the sake of the faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Lutheranism has never defined itself in terms of polity, piety, or popularity.  Lutheranism is not a matter of institutional loyalty or denominational affiliation.

As a parish pastor for twenty-five years I continue to deeply appreciate the importance of helping those in a congregation wrestle with the questions surrounding:

Who God is, Who We Are and Whose We Are? I continue to struggle with the ongoing paradox within our church that claims we are saved/justified and put right with God through God’s saving action in Christ, but then we practice our faith as so often experienced in local congregations as if God is simply an observer, and it is all the activity we plan, we create, we seek to accomplish that justifies us before God.  As a confessional church we need to continue to affirm and emphasize the gift God has given all creation in and through Christ and be watchful of all efforts that seek to challenge the core of what we have come to understand as the Gospel.  In light of the context of religious pluralism and the state of flux within mainline denominations we may need to mine even better the wisdom and insights of leaders who dared to and continue to trust their very lives on that which we claim to confess.

The Church needs to remain Sacramental
In The Book of Concord we find these words, “The church is not merely an association of outward ties and rites like other civic governments, however, but it is mainly an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts.  To make it recognizable, this association has outward marks, the pure teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the Gospel of Christ.” (BOC, Art VII 5)

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace-of the Gospel, of God’s coming to us with the saving love and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.  We administer them in Obedience to Christ.  They provide us with a connection to the historic church, past, present, and future.

Among the spiritually hungry and seeking there is a deep desire to experience the holy presence of God-ideally this happens in our engagement in worship, but it is the sacraments that truly connect us with God condescending Godself to our level through earthly elements and grace-filled promises.  There is great comfort and assurance found in the simple act of being sealed by the promise of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  There is great relief and encouragement that comes when in the context of Christian community one hears the words not just for herself or himself the body and blood of Christ given for you, but understanding that you moves from the beginning of time to the end of time for all.

In the quest for meaning and purpose baptism provides one with a call or vocation that life is to be continually lived in the assurance of God’s unconditional love promised in Christ and a call to love one’s neighbor as one has been loved.  In the Lord’s Supper, one is freely invited to a table that is meant to be welcoming, inclusive, with a meal that nurtures, sustains, and fuels one’s faith and one’s community for the sake of service to a world that is often hostile, exclusive, and whose quest for more often results in violence.

The Church needs to remain Catechetical
From Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism:

“The deplorable conditions which I recently encountered when I was a visitor constrained me to prepare this brief and simple catechism or statement of Christian teaching.  Good God, what wretchedness I beheld!  The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching.  Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.  How will you bishops answer for it before Christ that you have shamefully neglected the people and paid no attention to all the duties of your office?”

Some would say our context may not be that much different than Luther’s in his call for teaching the faith.

Daniel Aleshire-Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools shared in a recent address to Presidents and leaders of theological education:

“A challenge facing those of us who teach, lead, and seek to release leaders for the sake of mission in the world is how much cultural change has taken place since when many of us first began to prepare for leadership in the church.  The challenge for today is to be able to equip leaders/teachers in light of a multi-faith context, to be able to minister in a culture where the fastest growing religious preference is “none”.

For an ever-expanding percentage of the population the Christian story will be a revelation, not a recitation.  Pastors will need to relate the Christian faith to people who have little religious interest or no religious commitment.

Leaders will have to be equipped to lead in a “religiously neutral culture”, that is more complex, more demanding.  Michael Lindsay used the analogy of equipping folks used to shopping at Sears to shopping on EBay.  There is an ongoing resistance to standardization as opposed to diversity of product. “

My experience in parish ministry in the West the past 25 years is filled with countless stories of baptized Lutherans who have ventured west and who simply wanted to transfer their membership.  But when these 40 to 75 year-old Lutherans were asked when was the last time you seriously looked at what you believed as a Christian the typical response was “when I was confirmed”.  The combination of Lutherans who viewed confirmation as graduation from the Christian faith-formation and non-Lutherans and non-Christians making their way into the local faith community affirms the need for adult catechism.

I affirm the example of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA-(Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us) whose leaders insist upon an extended time of Christian formation, which they call the WAY, before baptism or joining the church.  Willing to accept people as spiritual wanderers believing the Holy Spirit can change them into Spiritual pilgrims by taking them on a year of worship, study, theological reflection, prayer and service, before joining the congregation.

The ELCA’s emphasis on the Book of Faith-Life Long learning -Spiritual Formation are all vital for the church in the mid-21st Century.  Our teaching theologians need to continue to develop Faith-Stage bible studies, training and equipping of leaders to use a variety of learning methods-iPods, chat rooms, interactive learning experiences, Web-based learning, podcasts, Netflix, Webcams-Skype, CD’s, DVD’s.  Whatever it takes, the faith will continue to need to be taught.

The Church needs to remain Diaconal
The biblical witness affirms a community of faith which has an outward focus:

Micah 6

Matthew 25

Acts 2-4, 6

Romans 12

1 Corinthians 12

The priesthood of all believers or the equipping the children of God to use the gifts God has first given affirms the primary ministry of God’s people takes place within the home, the neighborhood, and the workplace.  A diaconal church focuses outside the walls of the congregation rather than inside activity, providing clear opportunity to affirm the call or vocation that comes to all who are baptized.

People today are not joiners in the sense of making long-term commitments. The one who may be open to become a committed disciple of Christ is waiting to see if the members of the community actually practice what they confess to believe.  As the old chorus sings-“They will know we are Christians by our love.  The book, Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons provided unprecedented research on the views of 16-29 year olds inside and outside the church.  Their sample came primarily from inside and outside Evangelical churches.  They identified a list of characteristics both those outside and inside the church are experiencing as a way to address the absence of this age group in our churches-“Hypocrisy, Judgementalism, and Homophobia” are leading the list.  One outsider stated, “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care.  Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear mongering that has lost its own heart.”

Social justice flows out of a passion and desire to love one’s neighbor as oneself and to see Christ in the other.  An asset we bring to the table is the historic work of Lutheran Social Services.  As I have engaged in consultations with congregations in the process of leaving the ELCA I have developed a little spiel on Reasons to stay in the ELCA-included in this is our cooperative work through Lutheran Social Services, the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, LIRS and Lutheran Disaster Response.  Many were amazed to hear the statistic that one out of every 50 Americans has been provided some form of social service from LSS and as Lutherans we are the largest provider of social services next to the Federal government.  Our willingness to be a public voice, a Christian voice in the public square on behalf of those who have no voice affirms a church that is diaconal in nature.

The Church needs to become Missional
As a missional church I mean the church will intentionally pursue God’s mission for God’s glory among all peoples by following God’s patterns for the sake expanding the reign of God.

Marks of a missional church will include (Tim Keller)

The Scriptures provide a historic witness to the experience of the church as missional:

Genesis 12: 1-3-Blessed to be a blessing

Matt 22- Great Commandment

Matt 28- Great Commission

Acts 1:8, Acts 2, 8, 9, 10, 17-Global Inclusive Vision

Whatever shape the church takes I believe these five marks or characteristics will be essential.