I find a lot in this that is really helpful, and a lot that I think is not so helpful (kind of a both/and thing for me). I’ll start with the good news.
I think this statement is quite accurate: “The Lutheran Confessions were not written to define how to reach the lost. They were written to defend the new Evangelical faith against a Roman Christianity which was organizing to resist the Reformation.” To try to get them to do something they were not meant to do is not helpful. Do they lay out a theology that can include mission? Certainly. Was that what they were trying to do–not really. So asking them questions about how to do something that wasn’t really the concern of the era doesn’t help much. No matter how hard I search, Deuteronomy just does not help me set the clock on my microwave. But I do think Luther et al were interested in the question “How do we turn ‘Christians’ into disciples?” which I think may be the question to get at first before we focus too hard on the “now go and make more disciples.”
I like your description of the three eras of Lutheran mission in America. I’ve thought about this before in the following pattern of missional purpose:
Phase 1: Find all the Lutherans
Phase 2: Make more Lutherans
Phase 3: Where are all the Lutherans? (Go back to phase 1)
This has been the functional Lutheran missiology in America for several hundred years, and actually, its worked well enough for us. But its just plain not working anymore. It worked in an era where people stayed close to home, had strong family and ethnic ties, and lived in a culture that assumed church participation for all (upstanding) citizens. That’s a world we don’t live in anymore. And so we’ve dropped the ball on mission and pretended that this will keep working. Let’s face it Lutherans, I know we think the young people we confirmed will be coming back once they have kids, the reality is that many of them have grandkids now, and at some point we need to figure out what we are going to do now.
So now on to the parts I don’t agree so much with:
While Lutherans may not have a functional eschatology that fits into current evangelical/pentecostal frameworks I find it hard to support the claim that we have no eschatology at all. Are we thinking all the time about being raptured up in the air? Hardly. But there is much more to eschatology that that. I’m a fan of a Pannenberg style proleptic understanding of eschatology–which I think makes the kind of sense to the people you are wanting to proclaim the gospel to. God created the end first, and draws us towards that ultimate fulfillment. Jesus is the presence of that future reality in our midst, and the cross becomes the “hinge point” moment where this is realized fully for all time. The whole world has already been reconciled to God (proleptically) in Jesus. It’s just taking the whole world a while to realize that and live accordingly. I, for one, am trying to live that all out now because it works better than not. So I follow Jesus. Its not that “accepting Jesus” gets me a “get out of jail free” card or extra points towards that prize (or that the trapdoor opens at the pearly gates if I haven’t done it in time) its just that the Jesus revealed something true about the universe–that it has been reconciled to God already. So why aren’t we living accordingly? And living in this reality, following Jesus, is not only good for me, its good for my neighbor whom I am now free to serve because I know how this movie turns out. Doesn’t get much more Lutheran than that.
I think Luther wasn’t so worried about the end times because either a) we are in them now or b) they we are not and they’ll come later. And really, what difference would it make. Plant your tree, live your life, love your neighbor. I tend to think Luther’s Antichrist stuff about the pope was more for dramatic effect (he was already under threat penalty of death by the pope, so he might as well go for broke). And I think he got kind of pissed off.
I’m also not taken with your claim that the answer is to become more like the Pentecostals. Not that I think that’s wrong–its certainly a fine way to live out one’s Christian faith–but I don’t think it will really become the driving force of Lutheran ways of doing things. Neither will an emphasis on conversion-decision, which is really based in a modern notion of faith coming through intellectual assent. The basic understanding of a conversion-decision assumes that if one just laid out the truth claim in the right way (“four spiritual laws”, the “bridge”, or more blatant attempts to literally “scare the Hell out of people”) that rational people would go “Oh, I get it. Yes of course. Jesus. Why didn’t I see it before?”
The trouble is that many people today say “Yes, I get Jesus. You Christians, though. Not so much.” In the modern world people were looking for the most right truth claim they could find (or institution holding such a truth claim) to stake their life on. Post modern people really aren’t looking to buy into the big plan. We’ve seen GM go down the tubes with our grandparents pension plans. And so too the church, leaving our grandparents (and us) to spiritually fend for ourselves.
I’ll also agree with your claim that we Lutherans don’t have an articulated theology of mission (we haven’t really done our good homework on this one, yet) but that doesn’t imply that it is impossible. I think there is a real possibility for a very Lutheran (very confessional Lutheran) theology of mission that is richer than anything we could copy off of Melanchthon’s test while the teacher wasn’t looking.
Lutheran missiology starts, where everything else does, in Baptism. God’s redeeming action and ever-present promise given to and for us even though we don’t deserve it and had nothing to do with getting it. That promise manifests itself throughout our lives in vocation–and in particular a call to love one’s neighbor in the real world. Baptismal vocation lived out fully (for example, as Jesus did) is contagious and transformative. It’s the kind of counter cultural love that makes people stop and say “Whatever those crazy Christians have got, I need that for my life too.” We’ve (Christians in general I think) have done a really poor job of living in such a way that our lives proclaim the Good News of Jesus and so we’ve had to resort to turning evangelism into tricks and gimmicks, strong arm techniques, or just plain not caring about our neighbor and ignoring the call to “make disciples”.
A gospel shaped life lived together in community that organically draws others in is how the Christian movement began (I don’t remember any stories of Jesus asking “Have you accepted me as your personal Lord and Savior?”) It’s how it spread throughout the world and (even in a nominally Christian culture) I think its how Christians actually found themselves as followers of Jesus. We Lutherans actually have plenty of theology to make this work, we’ve just done a poor job of talking about it, and an even worse job of putting it into practice.
But I think you are right that younger people today are hungry for just the kind of faith conversation Lutheran ways of talking about God lead to. Luther lived in “in between” times just as we did–and though the authors of the confessions and those that followed the first wave of the Reformation would eventually use them to draw distinctions rather than connections–the original impulse of the Lutheran movement was to help the Church move into a new era together. And that’s a threshold we are standing on once again. I think the Lutheran church could lead the way in this new Reformation.
Will it happen through Pentecostal leaning Lutherans? Perhaps, but that’s not where I’m putting my chips. But I do think it will happen through Lutherans who reclaim the real power of the Spirit that calls us into the world that God loves. And I’m with Chris who commented above. Here we are, forgiven sinners blessed with a theology of abundant grace. We are sitting on a whole pile of what the struggling people in our neighborhoods are dying to get a hold of. And we’re refusing to share it. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger?” When indeed.