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Evangelical Preaching

by Michael Rogness (Professor of Homiletics, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

November 15, 2004


photo of Michael RognessOn Wednesday, September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists seized School No. 1 in Beslan, southern Russia, holding 1200 people inside hostage. Two days later, on Friday, Russian troops stormed the school. At one count, more than 400 hostages, almost all children, were killed, dozens still missing, probably dead in the rubble, 332 wounded, all 26 terrorists and 10 Russian soldiers dead.

One of the pictures featured around the world was the hand of a wounded girl, and in the palm inside the curled fingers was a small cross. Fourteen-year-old Viktoria Ktsoyeva had held that cross in her hand all that time in the school as a tiny sign of hope that she would survive. She was bloodied and wounded, hospitalized for more than two weeks in a Moscow hospital. She survived, but will carry a piece of shrapnel in her brain for the rest of her life. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Friday, 9-17-04, A12)

What’s the point here? It is that when strength and hope are needed, it is the cross that we cling to. The picture of the cross in that girl’s hand is a picture of evangelism, the message that we bring to a world which so desperately needs it.

  1. What? (What’s the message? What’s the context of evangelism in our century and society?)
  2. Where and How? (Where and how do we make disciples? Where and how is evangelism “done” today?)
    • In worship
    • In congregation life
    • In the vocations of all Christians

First the urgency of the issue. It’s common knowledge that so-called “main-line” churches (basically those denominations coming out of the Reformation) are declining in membership. Even worse, all denominations in the Christian church in historical homes of Europe seem to be in decline. In terms of church participation Europe has become secularized. Practicing Christians are in the minority.

The encouraging stories are being written and told in what used to be missionary areas of the world, particularly Africa and Asia, where Christianity has been growing steadily, if not spectacularly in the last decades.

I. What’s the message?

When David Tiede became president of Luther Seminary, a person wrote him, “Quit preparing graduates for a church that no longer exists.”

A Methodist church leader echoed that idea, “We’re preparing excellent pastors for the 1950s, and when the 1950s return, we’ll be good and ready!” I wonder if we Lutherans aren’t preparing fine pastors for the 16th century.

What’s our message? What’s the gospel today? In the sixteenth century the burden was guilt. God was a fierce judge, and Jesus wasn’t portrayed any more sympathetically. (No wonder that devotion to Mary developed and flourished in those pre-Reformation centuries. Mothers tend to be caring and tender, a refuge when fathers are stern.) The gospel message, articulated so forcefully and eloquently by Luther and the other reformers, was the gospel of grace, the forgiveness of sins. That’s the heart of our Lutheran tradition, the central issue running through all our confessional writings.

In a society where the central religious problem was guilt, the gospel was forgiveness. The polarity of law and gospel was seen most clearly in the category of sin and forgiveness.

The problem of sin and guilt of course is still is the condition of humankind. It was in biblical times, was in the age of the Reformation, was now, and always will be. But our age is not the 16th century. The situation is more complex. The message of law and gospel, sin and forgiveness, must be articulated in the context of today.

I am fond of citing a sentence of the German theologian Wilhelm Dilthey, who died early in the last century, but who saw clearly that our age was different than the 16th century. He said, “How can we proclaim Luther’s solution to people who don’t have Luther’s problem?”

People in the 16th century were acutely aware of God and heavily burdened by a God who judges and condemns. We live in a century were people live with hardly a thought about God, where God has been removed from the natural and secular world. The cover of last month’s ELCA magazine The Lutheran depicted a TV screen, and on the screen was a “no parking sign” superimposed over the word GOD. The caption read “Prime-time tune out - A culture of disbelief?” Some of the quotes from that issue were:

Although Americans say they cherish freedom of religion, recent American popular culture, law and politics have tended to demean, distrust, trivialize and ignore religious devotion. . .If so, American Christians face a major challenge: How do we nurture the light of faith and share it in a culture that tends to trivialize faith or consider it irrational? . . . (p. 9)

. . .Negative references to the clergy, for instance, proved nearly four times more common than positive references. . .Depictions of lay believers turned out to be even more overwhelmingly unsympathetic. . . (p. 10)

These zingers stem from an anti-religious bigotry that is an entrenched aspect of the Hollywood world view that often turns up on TV talk show chatter. . .It’s hard to imagine another significant group in our population being insulted on television so casually and thoughtlessly. . . (p. 11)

(And if you wonder why religion so often appears unattractive to the secular world, turn to page 53 of that same issue of The Lutheran and read how the Lutherans here and abroad are divided into Lutheran church bodies that won’t even commune with each other!)

Last summer the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a box labeled “Famous Atheists Speak Out,” with the subhead line: “A sampling of quotes from notable people who have expressed an adherence to atheism at some time in their lives.” (June 21, 2004, page B3) Listen to some of them:

  • --- Charles Schulz (St. Paul native, of Peanuts cartoon fame): “The term that best describes me now is ‘secular fundamentalist.’”
  • --- Actress Jodie Foster: “. . .there is no direct evidence, so how could you ask me to believe in God when there’s absolutely no evidence that I can see?” (There is a huge irony here. In the movie “Contact,” a film based on a novel by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, himself an outspoken agnostic, she plays an astronomer who goes on a space trip and comes back a believer. Get the tape if you haven’t seen it. At the end of the movie she testifies at a Congressional hearing and gives the best definition of faith I’ve every heard in the secular media.)
  • --- Public radio host Ira Glass: “I just find I don’t believe in God. It just doesn’t seem to be true, and no amount of thinking about it seems to make it true.”
  • --- Pro golfer from Annika Sorenstam (from Sweden, so she’s probably listed as a Lutheran and hasn’t darkened the doors of a church for years, if ever): “I believe in the good message that you can find in religion. But whether there is some ruler up there, above the clouds, I doubt.

These are all voices from today. You want to hear more? Go to www.celebatheists.com, where somebody has collected atheistic-sounding quotes from celebrities.

Evangelism in the 16th century was the proclamation of grace and salvation in Jesus’ name to a people who were burdened by sin and God’s condemnation and frightened about their eternal destiny. There are still people like that today, and that message is as true as ever. However evangelism today must be the proclamation that there is indeed a God, that we humans have messed things up without God and very much need God. We speak to a generation badly scarred by the evil in this world, often blaming God for it, yet hungry for something eternal and true to hang on to.

How do we reach these people? The revivalist approach is to recreate the 16th century within modern people, that is, portray the punishments of sin so graphically that the trembling sinners grasp on to the gospel. Yesterday Kelly Fryer referred to that method as “beating them up.”

The better approach---which has always been more effective in evangelism---is simply to listen to people. Whatever burdens them, whatever keeps them from becoming what God wants them to be, whatever blights their lives---that’s the form of the law they suffer from. Then we articulate the gospel to those needs. In many cases the task of the evangelist-preacher will be to identify and articulate the nature of these burdens, even when the listeners themselves haven’t understood them.

Jesus spoke in different ways to different people. We can do the same. Remember Godspell, the folksy musical dramatization of Jesus’ life? After returning home to the waiting arms of his father, the prodigal son sings “We Beseech Thee.” The chorus names problems we humans face, and the son answers how Jesus meets these situations:

Sick! -We come to Thee for cure,
Guilty! - We seek Thy mercy sure,
Evil! - We long to be made pure,
Blind! - We pray that we may see,
Bound! - We pray to be made free,
Strained! - We pray for sanctity,
We beseech Thee, hear us!...

One of the most helpful books I use in teaching at the seminary is Herman Stuempfle’s now classic Preaching Law and Gospel. It was written in the 1970s and, I’m happy to say, reprinted and still available. Read the book to get the whole message, but, to summarize, Dr. Stuempfle argues that we should think of the law as a “mirror of existence,” for example, “unreality, hollowness, or emptiness. . .a description of the actualities of our existence in the world.” (p. 24) The good news of the gospel is then a response to those forms of law. To those suffering from alienation we proclaim reconciliation; to those burdened by anxiety we proclaim certitude, to those in despair we proclaim hope, and to those for whom the transience of life produces meaninglessness we proclaim homecoming, that is, our belonging to a kingdom greater than earth’s. With the congregation in mind a good preacher identifies the conditions of the people in the pews and proclaims God’s response and actions to those situations.

How do we “preach evangelism”? By identifying and addressing the real situation of our people and bringing the gospel to them.

II. Where and How?

A. In worship

In this second section, “Where and How,” I put “worship” first with some hesitancy, because the people we need to reach aren’t generally in church on Sunday morning. However, we do need to start there, because if the Sunday morning service is not keyed to evangelism, probably nothing else in the church schedule will be either. It’s not realistic to say, “Sunday worship is for long-term members who know the liturgy and hymnbook inside and out, but the rest of our church activities will be for people who are not active members or who have never been members of a church, or for non-Christians.”

We do have seekers, marginal church members, non-church members and probably non-Christians in our pews on Sunday mornings---many probably related to others in the congregation---so let’s think about worship first. I believe, and have often said, that the problem for many people is that much of Lutheran worship is boring. We are living in an age of expanding worship variety. I am not going to veer off into the debate over contemporary versus traditional worship because I don’t think that’s the real issue.

I believe every congregation needs to figure out what their best kind of worship will be for their people and the people they want to reach. The answers won’t be the same from parish to parish. For some the material coming from central church offices will be suitable. Other parishes will look elsewhere. There is no prescribed, “proper,” and “correct” worship out there. There are historically and theologically proven components of worship, and I as a pastor would be respectful of those, but each parish must consider its worship life.

In 1977, when the LBW was being introduced to congregations, someone asked about the small red-print worship rubrics in the LBW, wondering what is the difference between a “may” rubric and a “shall” rubric. My answer was that there is no such thing as a “must” or “shall” rubric in Lutheran worship. The crucial question concerning worship is not, “How are we supposed to worship?” but, “Does this rite/gesture/practice/order express, awaken and nurture faith among these people?”

I give you an example of where we sometimes miss the mark. Turn to Psalm 13 in your pew Bible. It’s a “lament psalm,” articulating exactly what so many people today feel in their hearts. Why doesn’t God listen to me? Has God forgotten me? How long will I feel this pain in my soul? How long will people gloat over my problems? Verses 3 and 4 are my prayer to God out of these questions. Verses 5 and 6 expresses faith and confidence that God loves us and deals bountifully with us.

It’s a perfect psalm for our age, speaking about the absence we often feel from God, the suffering we experience in our own lives and the pain we sometimes feel from other people. We pray to God about all that, then turn in faith that God will indeed answer.

When does this psalm occur in our worship? Never. It’s not even included in page 220 of the Lutheran Book of Worship. Apparently some committee thought we should not read lament psalms in worship and deleted 28 of them. Every congregation needs to ask, “Who attends worship here, and to whom are we reaching out?” “Will this worship service communicate and arouse faith for them?”

I understand that Word Alone is working to recommend a worship service based on the great hymns of the church. I have great hopes for this effort! My own opinion is that we don’t sing enough hymns in church and even when we do, we neglect the time-proven great hymns which have nurtured and sustained generations of the faithful. I for one hope the church passes this heritage down to my grandchildren.

B. In congregational life

In his book It’s a Different World church-planner Lyle Schaller wrote that people today are more interested “in the experience of God than the promises of God.” That’s a sentence that should scare the socks off Lutherans, because we have all our eggs in the promise basket. But the sentence is true. If people do not experience some sense of God’s presence in congregational life and some meaningful way to serve God in their congregations, they will most assuredly drift away.

It is no wonder that Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven” books are so popular. People want to experience meaning and direction in their lives and in their churches.

Look at your congregation. If a person comes looking for meaning, for an encounter with God, for a community of brothers and sisters in faith, will he or she find it there? In our mobile and fragmented society, people are hungry for community, for a sense of belonging, and for the “community of saints” that we confess in our creed.

“Hospitality” has been a prominent goal of congregation life among our churches. We don’t do well at it. I go to a lot of churches on Sunday mornings, often to lead adult forums. I often attend the first service, then stand in the narthex with coffee in hand, wondering what will happen. Usually nothing does. I am obviously a newcomer, but rarely will somebody engage me in conversation. What an awful experience that must be for strangers and potential new members!

Evangelism in congregational life included hospitality, but it is much more than that. It is faith nurturing faith, and we don’t do any better at that than we do at hospitality.

To come to the point quickly: Lutheran worship and Lutheran congregational life affords little opportunity for people to speak about their own faith and to witness to others how God has affected their lives. We think “testimonials” during worship would be too Pentecostal. Congregational members listen to the pastor from the pulpit, but they rarely hear faith stories from other members. We don’t know how to do that.

If evangelism is people witnessing about God’s work and their faith to other people, we don’t even have the spigot turned on within congregations, to say nothing of outside congregations to the larger world!

I belong to St. Anthony Lutheran Church next to the seminary. Some of my most memorable experiences there have been the men’s breakfasts we’ve had on the four Saturdays in Advent. Each time a man in the congregation tells his faith story. The first one I remember is Paul Holmer, who had recently retired from Yale University. One might have expected a highly intellectual talk from somebody with the title “Professor of Philosophical Theology” at Yale, but he told how as a boy and as a student people of deep faith guided him through the typical questioning and doubting of faith. At his funeral earlier this year, a friend told how a skeptical, cynical student at Yale had asked Prof. Holmer, “How can an intelligent person like you believe all this stuff.” This vastly trained theologian’s answer was simple: “Because my mother told me.” How’s that for effective evangelism?

On another Saturday morning a biological researcher told how he had struggled with dyslexia and how people in his congregation had helped him. He ended up with a PhD, but he said that he never would have made it without the nurture from his congregation.

In normal congregational life I never would have heard that story of faith, or any of the others. But those breakfast meetings became for me and for all of us there, a way of reinforcing our own faith by listening to the stories of others.

When I was in Duluth we worked out a Thanksgiving service where the pastor didn’t preach, but three or four people from the congregation put something on the altar symbolizing what they were thankful for. The stories were so moving I still remember many of them over twenty years later. A junior high school boy put a diaper on the altar, explaining that after four boys his family was thankful for the birth of their sister. A woman put an empty bandage box on the altar, thankful to God that her recovery from cancer surgery was now complete. One year a football coach had a tremendous season, winning the conference championship. He told me how he and the team had prayed before every game, asking God to help them play their best and how thankful he was for a great season. I asked if he would be willing to put a football on the altar at Thanksgiving and tell the congregation. He thought I was putting him on, and I didn’t know if he would do it until I saw him walk into church on Thanksgiving morning with a brown grocery bag. I asked if there was a football in there, and he said yes, and he told his story at the service.

When do we “evangelize” each other like that? When do we “experience” God’s presence among us by sharing and hearing these stories? We need to make those times.

C. In the vocations of all Christians

During the cold war years our seminary had a sister relationship with the independent Lutheran seminary in Leipzig, East Germany. In 1991, just two years after the Berlin Wall had come down, I was invited to teach a seminar for part of the fall semester. I talked about some of the problems we have as preachers in the USA---people needing to work on Sunday mornings, crowded Sunday church schedules, weekend traveling, the fact that people accustomed to TV get easily bored when we read our sermons, etc.---really pretty small potatoes considering the problems these Christians had been facing for the last 45 years.

One of the students said to me, “You haven’t even the basic problem we face in preaching.” I asked, “What’s that.” He answered, “Hardly anybody in church on Sunday morning.” He explained that his older brother was a pastor, and when he started in his parish he spent a lot of time preparing sermons. He soon discovered that his Sunday morning attendance was, as he said, “20 or 30 elderly ladies,” only a tiny percentage of the community. The people he wanted to reach weren’t in church on Sunday morning at all. His question was: In a country which so desperately needed the Gospel after 45 years of Communism, how could he reach the people?

When it comes to “evangelical preaching,” is that not also our situation? As I said before, the Sunday morning service is a primary place of evangelism, because seekers do come on occasion. But the vast majority of nonbelievers are somewhere else when we preach on Sunday morning.

How do we reach them? The answer is simple: It’s the calling for all Christians.

Evangelism will never be effective if it’s only the pastor’s calling. Yesterday Kelly Fryer quoted Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote to a moribund Danish church, “To be a Christian means to be a missionary.” That is just as true for us today. The success of the Mormon church is not due to its mish-mash of strange theology. Mormon success is based on thousands of its young men giving two years of their lives to spread all over the world two-by-two in mission work. Can you imagine the explosion that would happen in our church if our youth did the same?

When I was pastor in Duluth we adapted the “Evangelism Explosion” program to our congregation. We went out in groups of three once a week and called on people who had visited our church or who lived near our church. We went out cold turkey, no advanced warning, against most of the standard advice about home calling. People expected me as the pastor to do this, but the real impact were made by our lay people. One of our most effective evangelists was a UMD professor. Part of the program was to invite people to church, not to come by themselves, but the caller to bring them. During the weeks of the program he and his wife brought many guests to our church.

One of the callers I remember the best was a woman who didn’t want to join our group because, as she said, “I’ve never done anything like this before, and I would be scared to death to ring doorbells like that.” But she did. The sincerity of her conversation and obvious depth of her faith was a powerful testimony not only to those she called on but to the rest of our group as well.

Our congregations are full of people whose life and faith can be a witness of faith to others, both inside and outside the church. Who says Lutherans won’t talk about their faith? Might it not be more true that we’ve never given them the chance and the challenge?

The title for this hour is “Evangelical Preaching.” I’ve strayed beyond the borders of that topic, because evangelical preaching does not exist by itself. Preaching is evangelism, but it is part of the whole fabric of a congregation-- -preaching, worship, how people in the parish live with each other, and eventually how they live as Christians in this wider world. We have tended to be insular in our church life, concentrating on our own interior parish life, nurturing the faithful. That day is past. Our context today is forcing us to become what the Lord of the church always intended to be---a church in evangelism, mission and outreach!