Reformation Sunday 2010, for the first time in 30 years, I worshiped outside the Lutheran tribe, at City Church Eastside, a church plant nearby. I sold my business in 1999 and walked away from success, seeking significance, and trying to live out an emerging sense of calling in my life. I had gone through a process of discerning my gifts, and out of my giftedness, finding some clarity about my calling to help equip young leaders for the Kingdom. For ten years, I have given my life to this calling, working to equip leaders who can create authentic discipleship communities within the Lutheran church. It did not take long to realize my own church was not ready to accept the gift I was offering. Now I find myself wandering away from the whole Lutheran tri
When my church didn't encourage the use of my gifts, I began to work with Al Sagar, who had been asked by our Lutheran (ELCA) Southeastern Synod to create a leadership academy. With no funding or real support from the Synod, we created the Academy for Transformational Leadership. Within three years we had discovered that only 10-15% of our pastors had any sense of call to discipleship and mission. In 2005, Al and I began to work together to create the Transforming Leaders Initiative (TLi). Our goal was to gather high-potential young leaders from across the ELCA and accompany them through a three-year learning journey, networking them together with others feeling the call to mission and fostering the leadership skills necessary to bring deep change to our stuck and broken churches.
This summer, after working for five years to create this initiative, suffering multiple setbacks and betrayals, and spending months in deep discernment and prayer, I felt God leading me into a time of pruning. Since then, I have exited the project, opening the door to the post-denominational phase of my life. I'm an entrepreneur. From the beginning, I told the board that my role was to help create the TLi, and not to operate it. We reached that stage with our launch a year ago.
Those of you who have followed TransformingChurch.com for some time know that I came to the Lutheran Church through adult baptism. Since I did not grow up in the church, the denomination’s hold on me has always been tenuous. Seeing the work I have done with the Synod, and later across the ELCA, people have said to me, “You must really love the Lutheran Church.” I would respond that I felt called by God to be part of movement; multiplying disciples and churches, equipping and mentoring leaders. I did this within the ELCA because it was the path of least resistance, my contacts and network were here. It was a pragmatic decision, not an emotional one.
Don’t get me wrong, I still consider myself a Lutheran. But, I am a Reformation Lutheran. I relate to Luther as someone who spoke to the deep dysfunction of the church, and used a prophetic voice to call the church back to its Biblical roots. The twin blessings of Salvation by Grace through Faith and the Priesthood of all Believers are as profoundly important today as they were 500 years ago. My first church had a poster on the wall, Semper Reformandi, always Reforming. I just wish I had seen it in practice.
How Did I Get to This Point?
I chased a skirt into the Lutheran church. My wife, Genie, was a lifelong Lutheran. We were married in her home church. After our kids were born, we started going to church. I was drawn to a charismatic Lutheran pastor, Vernon Luckey. He saw God at work in the world all around him. His authenticity attracted me, and I came to be baptized by Vernon in 1980. For 20 years, I wondered what was wrong with me, since my Lutheran friends did not seem to have the same passion for my unchurched friends.
By the late 1990s, our church, Apostles Lutheran, had been stuck on a plateau for over a decade. Expenses kept rising, but attendance did not. Our Bishop cast a vision of the Southeastern Synod as the Great Commission Synod. I bought into this vision, and assumed that they meant it. We had been ignoring conflict in the church and among the staff for years. I stepped into leadership and began to cast a vision for transforming Apostles into a Great Commission church. Sadly, I found that there were no resources at the Synod level to put legs under the vision, and that no one, including the Bishop’s Assistant for Transformation, had a clue where to start and how to proceed.
The Leverage Is Leadership
So, without guidance, I waded into the simmering conflict and before I was done, it had split the church. I was not willing to acknowledge that people were free to say no to the Great Commission, and I left tremendous pain in my wake. The new pastor at Apostles had been a Catholic priest in a previous life, and he believed the pastor should make all the decisions. Within a couple of years of his arrival, the dis-empowered leaders at Apostles began to leave. I stuck around, and when it became clear that my gifts were not encouraged or utilized at Apostles, I worked with Al to create a leadership academy in the Synod. I realized that the leverage was leadership, and that without strong, effective leaders, there would be no turnaround of the stuck churches I witnessed in this work.
Overworked and Ineffective Synod and Churchwide Staff Teams
When I was at ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2005, we voted on a budget that was the same as the budget the year the ELCA was created in 1988. I’m not even talking inflation-adjusted dollars. I realized the institution had basically been in retrenchment since the merger, constantly trying to do more (or even the same) with less. By the early 2000s, many churchwide and Synod positions were so broadly defined, and so under-resourced, that keeping enough focus on any of the important goals became nearly impossible.
The sad thing is most lay people actually expect something from their Synods. Rather than being pro-active, I see Bishops more as fire-fighters, putting out one fire after another. With the great reductions in staff and budgets coming in the wake of the sexuality decision a year ago, every job has expanded to a scope and scale that does not allow enough focus to do much with excellence. The result is that often you will get words of support from Synod or Churchwide, but very little translates into behaviors of support.
Busyness of Our Pastors
Having spent my career in the world of business, I have gotten to see many truly effective leaders in action. The ones I admire maintain some reserve capacity beyond the demands of work and family to take on significant commitments in church and community. I’ve seen very busy leaders say yes to major charitable efforts, and then make time to do what they have committed to do.
I have seen almost no reserve capacity among the successful pastors around the ELCA. The energy they put into their parish does not leave room to take on a significant commitment beyond it. I found that out when trying to bring a guiding coalition together to launch the TLi. The result is that I find it very difficult for church leaders to live into the commandment, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” I got many yes’s that turned out to have no commitment of time or energy behind them.
The Fallacy of the Priesthood of All Believers
Early in my travels throughout the ELCA trying to raise up this TLi vision, I heard the Priesthood of All Believers called the unfinished business of the Reformation. I’m not sure where I heard this, so I can’t attribute the quote, but have found it to be true. The idea that I could be called by God to equip pastors for leadership raised the eyebrows of my ordained brothers and sisters across the church. The idea that one could be called to something other than the ordained ministry and seminary seems to be lost among our pastors.
To test this notion, one of the things I do as I travel the church is to ask how pastors help their laity find their gifts and passions, and the calling nested within. With very rare exceptions, all I find is time and talent processes which are primarily focused on getting us to serve the needs of the church. Some are preaching the idea of vocation, where our calling is to use our gifts out in the world, but most are stuck filling jobs in the church.
Spirituality of Place vs. Spirituality of Journey
Robert Wuthnow wrote a book called After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. In it, he points out that since the time of Moses, the church has swung like a pendulum between a spirituality of place and a spirituality of journey. When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they spent 40 years in spirituality of journey. When they built the temple, God was in the house, and a shift to spirituality of place occurred. Cathedral building throughout history has been a reflection of spirituality of place, and it continues today.
Wuthnow points out that for the past 50 years, the American church has been in an era of spirituality of place. The challenge is that the post-modern generations see spirituality as a journey. I think God planted me as a journey person a generation early so I could be a scout in this new terrain. I have been a real outlier in Lutheran circles.
Willow Creek has pioneered research into the effectiveness of churches in equipping people as disciples in the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey. The survey measures three things and creates a composite score that blends all the individual results into an overall score. They measure the Spiritual Beliefs, the Spiritual Practices, and the Spiritual Behaviors of people in the four stages of spiritual maturity they discovered in their research. The survey has helped numerous congregations map a clear path to spiritual maturity.
When I look at the demographics of congregations I have visited around the ELCA, our inability to atttract young people is obvious. When you layer in the consistent results of Natural Church Development Surveys across the ELCA, we find that time and time again, Passionate Spirituality is the lowest score of the eight characteristics of health. We tend to be older, with longer tenure in church. Yet this has not resulted in more spiritual maturity. Based on my observations, we are failing to effectively disciple our people.
The Reveal research discovered that the beginning point to spiritual growth is the belief in Salvation by Grace through Faith. Sounds very Lutheran, doesn’t it? They found that as long as we believe we can do it on our own, we can not grow spiritually. The key to growth is to understand that we are totally dependent on Jesus, and we can never get there by our own power.
Churches Full of Elder Brothers
For 30 years, I have attended worship “religiously” and listened to 10 pastors preach in my home church. In all that time, I have never heard a Lutheran pastor unpack the sin of the Elder Brother in the parable of the Prodigal. Then, I joined a spiritual formation group with five other men from City Church. We started a Bible study of Galatians written by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Keller started this church in 1989, and they now draw 6,000 people to worship every week. They have been planting churches for many years, and Keller is revered as the father of church-planting in the Presbyterian tribe.
Here is a brief take on Tim Keller’s view of this parable. He unpacks in in a wonderful way in his book, The Prodigal God. Keller says:
The religious and moral elder brothers were shocked by Jesus’ ministry. The prevailing trend and pattern in Jesus’ ministry was to attract the very people who most hated and despised religion! Moral people were put off by Jesus, but those socially and morally out of the mainstream were strongly attracted to him. It is always the “younger brother” who connects with Jesus and the “elder brother” who does not.
The point? When the message of the gospel is clear, moral people tend to dislike it, while irreligious people are intrigued and attracted. The way to know that you are communicating and living the same gospel message as Jesus is that “younger brothers” are more attracted to you than elder brothers. This is a very searching test, because almost always, our churches are not like that. The kinds of people that were attracted to Jesus are not attracted to us. We only attract conservative, buttoned-down, moral people. The licentious, the “liberated,” the broken, the people out of the mainstream very much despise us. That can only mean one thing. We may think we understand the gospel of Jesus, but we don’t. If we don’t see the same effect Jesus saw, then we lack the same message Jesus had. If our churches aren’t filled with younger brothers, then we must be more like the elder brother than we’d like to think.
Here is the shocking heart of the parable. Jesus shows us a father with two sons, and actually both are equally alienated from his heart. One has expressed alienation by running far away, but the elder brother is just as angry and just as much a stranger to the father.
But notice — what is keeping the elder brother out? Why does he stay out when the younger brother goes in? He tells us: It is because all these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed… (v.29). It is not his badness keeping him out, but his “goodness.” It is not his sins that are keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father so much as his “righteousness.” As one writer put it, “The main thing between you and God is not your sins, but your damnable good works.”
My point here is that our churches are full of elder brothers who are not being challenged for looking through the moral lens, and not seeing and embracing the Gospel Jesus gave us. Keller says it this way:
The difference between a religious person and a true Christian is that the religious person obeys God to get control over God, and to get things from God, but the Christian obeys just to get God. Religious persons obey to get leverage over God, to control him, to put him in a position where they think he owes them. Therefore, despite their moral and religious fastidiousness, they are actually attempting to be their own saviors.
This may help to explain why we see so many Lutherans who seem to think that by coming to church regularly, giving the Lutheran tithe (2.5%), and being an usher is all that’s required to be a good Lutheran. The contradiction smacks of works righteousness in the church of salvation by grace alone.
A Failure of Discipleship
Research shows that there is no real culture of discipleship in the Lutheran church. One of the questions I have asked in sitting with pastors across the ELCA the last two years is, “By what means do you disciple people here? What is the pathway to spiritual maturity in your church?”
Mostly I get blank stares. I led a retreat for the Mission Developers of an entire Synod. I asked them to break up into triads and answer these questions. When I brought them back together, it became clear there was not a coherent strategy in the room for forming disciples. For the last two years, I have been unable to get the leadership of my own church, Redeemer Lutheran, to wrestle with this question. We have quit letting the main thing be the main thing.
For the most part, our Lutheran pastors are not gifted as leaders able to draw others into a deep spiritual journey. Very few of our church councils are selected using any criteria to identify spiritual leaders. Many bow up at the expectation that council members model a commitment to spiritual maturity to their flock.