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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Evangelism basics

Starting with tip from a cat

My college-age son, Lukas, recently rescued an emaciated and homeless cat wobbling through a dark parking lot near Spartanburg, S.C. The poor thing hardly had enough energy to purr. “I couldn’t leave her, Dad, she was almost dead. Would you have left her?” he asked.

An inner voice said, “Well, yes, I would’ve,” having read just that week where a cat’s upkeep for a lifespan came to several thousand dollars.

Lukas stood there in the doorway that night with his cat. My wife melted at the scene. And I was sunk with no real vote. Lukas decided to call her Raney after a character in a Clyde Edgerton novel.

As I could have predicted, Raney soon belonged to my wife and me, as our compassionate and literature-loving son was immersed in academic pursuits where felines are forbidden. I really thought we were through with pets and their accompanying expense, so I resentfully tried to keep my distance.

Raney was undeterred and wormed her way into my heart. Even now, when I enter the shower, she hops between liner and curtain, fearless around water as she perches on the porcelain, waiting for me to emerge. Raney even jumped in with me once, which was interesting. 

You might be familiar with a lower spine stretch known as “the horse.” On all fours, one stretches opposite extremities (an arm and a leg) in different directions in a position that resembles a superhero takeoff. Raney has taken to mimic me in this stretch, her back leg stretching when mine extends. I’ve never seen a cat behave this way. I think we could both make it on the Late Show with David Letterman as a team. She’s a constant companion whenever I’m home, almost like a faithful dog.

She’s grateful, I suspect. Grateful to have been found and given a home. 

Making disciples

I’ve been a pastor for almost 30 years, entering now into the home stretch and newly pondering the practical gist of Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28: to go and make disciples.

“Disciples are made, not born” said the wise Christian author Tertullian many centuries ago. And if he’s right about such a seemingly simple declaration, then a rather complex follow-up question always tags along: “Well, how are disciples made?”

The author of 2 Peter asks a related question: “What sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God ...?” (3:11-12).

There will always be a profound interplay (and palpable tension) between justification and sanctification in any congregation that takes discipleship and Jesus’ Great Commission seriously. Our cat Raney exhibits specific (albeit feline) characteristics of gratitude, affection, loyalty and even mimicry as a result of getting found when she was once lost. Should congregations require these traits as a litmus test of authentic discipleship? Or, minimally, expect them?

I’ve served in Lutheran congregations for my entire pastoral career and have noticed that even using the word “expectations” in conjunction with welcoming new members is a difficult conversation for many church council leaders who are wary of legalism and works righteousness. Lutherans don’t like hoop-jumping, even for a good cause.

As a much younger pastor, I visited the still-famous Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., a couple of times. I’ll always cherish those days in the city, observing how the congregation was structured and marveling over the various ministries that comprised a full block.

Part of the immersion experience included a visit to the church’s retreat center in nearby Maryland where participants spent time with founding pastor Gordon Cosby, now deceased. Cosby was an amazing servant of Christ. We young pastors asked him many questions, several a version of this one: “How in the world did this church happen?”

Cosby always referenced the power of the Spirit. But he also was adamant about giving the Spirit room to work in our lives to shape and change and convert.

All members of the church were expected to sign an annual membership covenant that read, in part: “I commit my life and destiny to Jesus Christ, regardless of the expenditure of time or money.”

I recall Cosby saying something like: “Without a covenant with the Holy Spirit, it is highly doubtful that we’ll give the Spirit room to work and room to change us. Our members talk quite openly each year about the radical expectations of the covenant before choosing to sign it. Sometimes it’s a sign of spiritual health in a person if they choose not to sign the covenant.” 

Growth and change

“What kind of people shall we become?” A process of growth and change, assuming ongoing conversion, is difficult to initiate in congregational life and still avoid all hints of legalism.

I recall ELCA theologian Martin E. Marty saying somewhere that living the tension between justification and sanctification is a lot like life on a tightrope. It’s a balancing act between two pitfalls: works righteousness on one side and cheap grace on the other. 

I can’t recall a time in the gospels where Jesus pushes a person toward conversion. “If any want to become my followers …,” he says in Mark 8:34. There can be no coercion here. Anything that smacks of arm-twisting is inauthentic.

But in the same verse he’s very clear about what life as a disciple looks like: “… let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In my experience congregations can be coercive without much content (legalism) or inclusive with little cost involved (cheap grace). Marty says the right place is on the tightrope, feeling the tension of both pitfalls and regularly conversing honestly about discipleship and how disciples are made among the group of believers with whom I commune and serve and live.

I’ve always been fascinated that the book of Acts holds together the conversion of thousands in Jerusalem (2:41) and the conversion of only two by name in Athens (17:34). Different contexts and vastly different results — an important truth for a pastor called to a variety of places in a 30-year ministry. 

“How are disciples made?” is one of the most important questions pastors and congregational leaders might return to again and again. Following are three considerations that attempt to answer this question in any context.

Three considerations

First, given the fact that disciples will certainly live, act, and believe in wondrous variety and diversity, even within the same congregation it behooves leaders to ponder and name specific characteristics exhibited in a person who has been found by Jesus. In conjunction with that, leaders begin to shape an educational curriculum and other experiences that might engender these qualities in a convert over time within the powerful and cyclical structure of the church year. 

I recall a young man whom I’ll call Mark. He came to our congregation as an unbaptized 30-year-old, curious about our “catechumenal process,” an ancient way of welcoming new disciples that has its origins in the early church and now finds slow recovery in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches. It’s a protracted conversion process where participants meet weekly for roughly eight months with a skilled catechist who guides participants through four stages and various public worship rites, culminating with baptism at the Easter Vigil.

Mark was an exceptionally bright thinker. He asked excellent questions and wrote a stunning spiritual autobiography that the group talked about at length.

Toward the end of the second stage of the process, just before the beginning of Lent, Mark informed the group he was leaving. He had decided against baptism. Mark took time to explain his reasoning, but true to the nature of the group, no one tried to talk him out of his decision.

We all agreed to pray for a week. When Mark returned the following Wednesday with the same decision, the group gathered around him, shared a powerful blessing, made sure he knew he was still welcome at worship, and watched him walk out the door into the night. It was an incredibly tough thing to watch. I’ve not seen Mark since that night but have heard he’s doing OK in his chosen life.

It’s critical in a new era of evangelism for church leaders to clearly describe what it means to follow Jesus. Describing such a life for a potential convert requires plenty of time — time for the convert to understand what she is getting into even if that means running the risk that this inquirer may ultimately reject what we’ve so painstakingly described.

One of the truest lines in author C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is: “God cannot ravish. He can only woo.” I’m convinced that the process described with Mark, however painful, is ultimately more faithful than an “express conversion” where church members quickly vanish soon after an indiscriminate baptism or a hastily planned “New Member Sunday.” (Confession: I’ve participated pastorally in both and either feels less faithful to me than watching someone like Mark walk out the door.) There has been no opportunity offered for a potential convert to count the cost of following Jesus.

Self-examination

Second, it’s important for church leaders to regularly examine their own theological convictions, name their doubts aloud with a trusted friend, and confess their ongoing struggles in following Jesus. Again, the church year is incredibly helpful here, rubbing my nose in central theological tenets on a regular basis. 

When she was a little, I bought my daughter Marta a genuine ant farm from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We prepared the farm exactly according to directions and waited in great expectation for the wiggly insects to arrive in the mail. We fed them on schedule. Lifted the lid and gave them water at precise intervals. Watched as they built intricate tunnels.

Slowly, in spite of our doting efforts, the ants began to die. We watched helplessly as our little friends croaked one by one. It even became rather gruesome as the living ants began to eat their fallen comrades. The Donner Party in miniature.

It was one thing for my daughter to watch and interpret all this. But my theological angle on the whole scene quickly conjured God’s vantage point on the world. One who provided food and water and community, over the millennia “lifting the lid” so to speak on an imperfect world.


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