Calling to a Culture or to a Relationship With Christ?

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Calling to a Culture or to a Relationship With Christ?

Martin Luther divided the work of the Holy Spirit into the four functions of calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying followers of Christ.  These next reflections address ministries of calling.

A calling to follow Christ seemed so simple at first. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the expected Lamb of God.  Two of John’s disciples turned to Jesus, who asked what they wanted.  To see where you are staying, they replied, curious about what differences he makes in life.  Jesus challenged them to come and see.  Andrew, Peter, then Phillip, and Nathanael responded. Thus began the momentum for calling others to follow Christ.

After Pentecost, the momentum of call and response brought moderate growth for the first three hundred years of the spread of Christianity. Then Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, and growth was explosive. Now there were social advantages to being a Christian. Calling became easier.

For most of Christian church history, there remained social advantages to being a follower of Christ.  Such were the pressures in the Reformation churches.  The ministry of calling stayed simple.  Christianity was something you were born into.  Almost all lived in villages and small towns, so there were social pressures to conform.  Among Christian immigrants to America, the ministry of calling remained simplified.  Previous immigrants met the new ones and gathered them into church communities that shared the same language.  The social pressures to conform were strong.

Calling into a Culture

In my home neighborhood in Cleveland, the story is told of how in the 1880s the pastor from the new Immanuel Lutheran and the priest of the new St. Michael Catholic would join together and knock on doors along newly developed streets, one on each side.  They asked whether each family was Lutheran or Catholic.  At the end of the street, they swapped names.  The challenge then was for each to gather those families into the appropriate flock.  Calling ministries could not get much simpler.

What made the process so easy is that these mostly German immigrants self-identified with their home culture, which typically was either Catholic or Lutheran.  The attraction was to rebuild the community they left behind.  For many, central to that old community was the church.  But the church they and their leaders had in mind was mostly the culture of values and behaviors they associated with the church.  A culture is the set of beliefs, values, and behaviors a community passes on to a new generation.  In traditional German church culture, the beliefs were left to the pastor to define and explain.  Members were taught the Catechism, which mostly passes on head knowledge without much provision for heart conviction.

Called Into a Personal Relationship with Christ

Church bodies that had their roots in European cultures never had to develop strong ministries of calling others to follow Christ.  We could rely on cultural pressures, which are now disappearing among young adults who are several generations removed from their grandparents’ immigrant roots.  We traditional churches now face the more difficult task of calling people not into a church culture but into a personal relationship with Christ.

There are several problems with church lived out as a social culture.  Basic is that this does not square well with the New Testament understanding of the church called together by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The second, more practical difficulty is what happens when that culture does not transfer to succeeding generations.  Then you are left with congregations of mostly older members that have diminished ability to attract and hold young families.

The issue is, which is more basic to being a Christ follower? Is it the distinct traditions of values and behaviors of a church culture? Or are the personal convictions of those called together to be a church more fundamental?  Reaching out to those already in the tradition is easier.  The job is much more demanding to call people into a relationship with Christ.  That’s Holy Spirit work.  Thus our human effort is done better when we recognize the Spirit’s ways and let his movement shape our ministries.

The Perils of Cultural Superiority

Lutheran church culture presents a special problem for ministering within the American culture.  We come with an air of superiority.  That’s a common trait among Germans.  It shows itself in an unwillingness to learn from the ministries of other churches or in a smug tendency to run down any ministries that other churches are doing.   We do so to our loss.

My consistent message over several decades is to visit churches that show evidence of effective ministry today.  Check them out.  See what you can learn.  Some pastors have done so.  Most have resisted.  For them, if something does not carry the label Lutheran, it does not merit discussion.

Formative for me was the seven years I spent as vice president and faculty member at Fuller Seminary, often considered the flagship of Evangelical seminaries.  I learned a lot and absorbed a taste for the pastoral ministry I had not had before.  One learning is that conservative Evangelicals find it hard to work with conservative Lutherans, who in their Germanic way want to take over and control whatever the project is.  During those years, mission-minded Lutherans expressed interest in what I was learning in that community, which I addressed in the book Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance.  But church officials marginalized what they regarded as insufficiently and indistinctively Lutheran.

Where is the Holy Spirit in Our Ministries of Calling?

Where was the Holy Spirit in these simplified calling ministries of Lutherans?  We confess that he was somewhere and somehow in the background, but we had little need to pin down just where and how.  Other branches of American Protestantism did develop maps.  Revivalists featured human decision as the key component and expected the Spirit to move through the pressure of an altar call to bring the desired results.  Pentecostals featured human emotions and relied on highly emotional experiences through which the Spirit was supposed to work.  But neither approach does justice to the key Reformation emphasis on God’s grace rather than human effort as the basis for our relationship with God.

The Apostle Paul remains the key guide.  As central as grace is to his theology, the Holy Spirit is even more central.   At least by the numbers, he referred to the Spirit twice as often as he did to grace.  For him, the Holy Spirit was basic to any ministry he was doing.  This Spirit influences the human spirit and changes hearts.  Look for him where motivations are changing.

Spirit-inspired church life is different from what happens in social organizations.  For several decades after World War II the Red Cross and fraternal associations were taken as a model for many Protestant churches trying to improve their ministries.  But the results were disappointing because those methods depend on just human energy.  The challenge for mainline traditional congregations is to learn how to unleash Spirit energy.

Martin Luther was an avid disciple of Paul. We can rediscover Lutheran strengths by developing Pauline ministries that are both grace-focused and Spirit-shaped.

Does the distinction between calling to a culture or to a relationship make sense to you? What happens when a church culture starts to fade away? Do you feel some church cultures have a superiority complex?

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