Overcoming Church Cultural Barriers Today

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

Overcoming Church Cultural Barriers Today

The book Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend tells the story of Lutheran U.S. Army Chaplain Henry Gericke, who was assigned to minister to the Nazi war criminals at the 1945 Nuremberg trials.  He became respected and effective, at least as measured by bringing several to repentance.  He served his charges in many practical ways, including looking after their families.

Gerecke offered a simple explanation for his efforts on behalf of those he wanted to call back to faith.  They have to like you before they will listen to you. Theodore Roosevelt said much the same thing.  “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

What a simple mission strategy for presenting the Gospel. Meet those you want to reach where they are.  Respect them. Fill what needs of theirs you can. Help them understand God’s grace as you have experienced it. Participate in the Spirit’s work by reducing as many social barriers as possible.

The Biblical Strategy for Calling Others To Christ

Paul developed that basic strategy by explaining, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do this for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9: 22).  The new community of Christ-followers started out within the Jewish culture of laws and rituals.  Paul’s specialty was reaching out to “others” (Gentiles) by emphasizing what God does for them in his grace, not what they need to do for him.  Although he had freedom in Christ, he made himself a slave to others to meet them where they are.

We believe it is the Holy Spirit who does the work of softening individual hearts to turn them to Christ.  What we can learn from Paul is the importance of reducing barriers the Spirit has to work against to have individual breakthroughs. Call those cultural barriers. Paul faced two different cultures: the well-developed Jewish culture as well as also the separate culture of the customs and rituals for revering the pagan gods.

He advised, don’t get trapped in either one. Focus on calling unbelievers into a living relationship with the biblical God. At the Apostolic Convention that gave Paul his commission for the mission to Gentiles (Acts 15), Peter pronounced the verdict that we should not make it hard for those who are turning to God.  Consistent with apostolic teaching, keep the cultural barriers as low as possible to welcome into a fellowship of Christ those who are convicted to be followers of Christ’s way.

Confronting Church Culture Barriers Today

I grew up in a vibrant city-wide Lutheran community of tens of thousands. Church life was exciting, with big rallies that drew thousands and enough grade schools to have sports leagues. My congregation was one of four Lutherans churches in half a square mile. Then the neighborhood changed. Year by year the ethnic Germans moved out to the suburbs, and attendance declined until the church closed in 1976.  My pastor father diligently worked the neighborhood and had a breakthrough with a large family from West Virginia. But there was a cultural clash at church that stymied growth. Then came some Puerto Ricans and a new language barrier. The members of the old culture simply gave up on that location.

I carry with me a healthy respect for vibrant church cultures but also an awareness of the barriers they can present—a perspective not shared by many traditionalists who have not ventured beyond the home culture they call Lutheran. By personality, I am result oriented. I can’t help but assess a church organization by the results of its ministries. The results for so many Lutheran churches have not been good in the last forty years. There is nothing in sight that would turn around this accelerating decline—unless change happens. Change is not going to happen without first being critical of our shortcomings today.

Some perceive me and my writings as being too critical of current Lutheranism and therefore not coming from someone who is a good Lutheran. On the contrary, I consider myself highly loyal—loyal enough to want conservative Lutheran churches in America to get better at our basic mission. I am proud of our Lutheran theology, which through extra study and reading, I know very well. But I also recognize its blind spots.

Consider these three ways that Lutherans can improve our ministries of calling others to Christ.

Reduce Our Cultural Dysfunctions

I once did a workshop with pastors where I promoted shared prayer, with the suggestion they gather prayer groups at church in the evenings. One pastor objected that this would have the same people at church every evening. My response was that there is something wrong when organizational meetings take precedence over spiritual meetings.

We have high loyalty to the centrality of God’s Word. Yet the percentage involved in a formal study in most congregations is usually less than 10%.  A large Women’s Bible Fellowship meets regularly at a church near mine. About thirty of our women are involved and excited. God bless them and their ministry. But why can’t we do that? Is it because we have a mostly cultural faith rather than a personal conviction to become more like Christ?

In the 20th century, Lutheran worship services in most congregations got much more scripted and formal. In reaction, many congregations on their own initiative ventured into more informal contemporary worship that, well done, can draw more worshipers than the traditional service. Yet church officialdom takes no recognition of an obvious movement and provides nothing for congregations to get better at doing it. That’s a serious dysfunction church-wide.

Our heritage presents a sharp distinction between clergy, who do the ministry, and the laity, who support them.  Paul stressed that everyone is a minister.  Over the centuries, our culture has had a blind spot to a better and more biblical way of getting ministry done effectively by many rather than just a few.

Greater Emphasis on Spiritual Experiences

For historical reasons the sequence of Lutheran church life has been to start with children belonging to the church through infant baptism, then having them profess their faith at confirmation and maybe hope for a personal spiritual experience later. That’s not working well anymore. Witness the absence of young adults and families in so many congregations.

Churches doing well today usually emphasize the opposite sequence. First aim for personal, spiritual experiences. Then teach new believers the biblical faith they want to confess. Perhaps then they will be drawn into more active church life. There is no need, however, to choose one pattern over the other.  Both can work. But emphasizing personal spiritual experiences seems to be working better in today’s social culture.

Make Way for The Spirit

Our heritage is to see ministry as a human effort. We profess but don’t pay much attention to how ministry is really the work of the Spirit. That’s what Luther confessed. It is the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies God’s people. We can do a better job of developing our church ministries in ways that reduce barriers to how he works on people’s hearts.

How do you feel Paul reduced barriers when reaching out to others? What are some church cultural barriers you see today? And how can they be reduced or eliminated?

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