Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
Directory   Search  

Talking About Mission

Dear Reader:

This is the final version of the presentation I have made at each of the 2002 conventions of the five synods of this church. It has gone through a few variations and editions, but the main thesis has remained the same. Not included are ad libs and parenthetical remarks that varied from setting to setting.

National Bishop Raymond Schultz


Greetings from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

This church is made up of five synods,
each of which share in the task
of representing the national church on their territory.

Thank you for your partnership in the ministry of this church.

I have chosen not to use my time on the floor to make a shareholder report.

That report has been distributed in your Bulletin of Reports.

That is the story of the past.

I want to talk to you about the future.

John Kennedy said:
Our task is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.

Dr. Reginald Bibby published a new book earlier this year,
in which he tells us the latest trends in attitudes
of Canadian people who are interested in religion.

It may not seem to us that very many people are interested in religion,
but Bibby is convinced the opposite is true.

While the congregational memberships of Lutherans in Canada
only total about 280,000 baptised,
the recent Canadian census reports that 2%, or 600,000
report themselves to be adherents of our denomination.

We can deal with that information in two ways:
we can be cynical and ask where they are when we need them;
or we can be caring and ask how we might be where they are
when they need us.

The first response is an institutional one, the second is a missional one.

And that's what I want to talk about—God's mission for us
and our continuing attempts to institutionalize or domesticate God.

Because Canada is a cultural mosaic
there is little pressure on Canadians
to give up their identity in order to blend in.

Therefore, even when Lutherans leave the Lutheran church,
there is little or no incentive to become something else.

In fact, converting people from one religion to another
is frowned upon by most Canadians
and is sometimes seen almost as a racist act.

We pride ourselves on being tolerant and inclusive.

That's the good news.vThe bad news is that people have left the church
because it has not helped them with their most urgent spiritual needs.

People are interested in religion, but not in the church.

We are a church with 16th century answers
to 21st century questions.

The unchurched are asking questions
about meaning, self and freedom.

We are not addressing the same needs.

Miserable Cold

A man went to see his doctor because he was suffering from a miserable cold. His doctor prescribed some pills, but they didn't help.

On his next visit the doctor gave him a shot, but that didn't do any good.

On his third visit the doctor told the man to go home and take a hot bath. As soon as he was finished bathing he was to throw open all the windows and stand in the draft.

"But doc," protested the patient, "if I do that, I'll get pneumonia."

"I know," said his physician, "But I know how to cure pneumonia."

And yet, Bibby thinks that the Spirit is talking to those folks,
perhaps doing an end run around the church.

He can find no other reason to explain
why there remains such a lively interest in spirituality
in the Canadian population.

Perhaps the Spirit is doing the end run
in order to challenge the church
to listen to the questions it is being asked to address.

I have to admit that Bibby's hunch makes me uneasy.

It sounds chaotic to me.

Who knows what heresy may arise out of such entrepreneurial religion?

We already know, for example,
that less than half the Lutheran population
understands or agrees that we are saved by grace alone.

I know people who have put together a do-it-yourself religion
that grates on my theologically trained ears
like heavy metal music on the fillings in my teeth.

We have spent two millennia,
on top of Israel's history,
discerning the Spirit and getting our doctrines in a row.

We Lutherans pride ourselves on having it right.

But a perfect diamond is cold comfort
when what you really need is some warm milk before going to bed.

I have a theory about how God sets up missions for the church.

It has to do with chaos.

To organizers and institution-builders, chaos is a bad thing.

Chaos is the reverse of construction and organization.

But in the hands of a creative imagination
chaos allows for new things to be created.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void... Genesis 1:1 (NRSV)

The earth started out as chaos.

For most of my life I have understood that passage to mean
that chaos was an enemy God had to conquer.

So did Israel.
"…darkness covered the face of the deep,"

Water and formlessness go together in that story.

Water is an ancient symbol of chaos,
a place where humans cannot breathe
and where there is great danger.

God is the saviour
because God can conquer even the sea!

Chaos is something from which we must be saved
or so those disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee thought.

It never occurred to them to embrace it
and call out to it to fill them as it filled Jesus
with the power of the utterly free and uncontrollable Spirit.

Now that I'm getting closer to the time
when my own molecules are going to be deconstructed.
I wonder who or how I will be after that.

I am going to be returned to chaos.

This organized if somewhat overweight body
is going to become a formless void,
or at least a disorganized distribution of my micro components.

We speak of that event with considerable horror
and makers of horror movies
make liberal use of partially decomposed bodies
as their stock in trade.

We are afraid of our body getting, in any way, decomposed.

Scattering and chaos are not good.

Death is the enemy of God,
so we speak of God having conquered death.

God regathered the quarks and quanta
and put someone back together again.

But Jesus was never the same again.
He could walk through doors and
and he had a disconcerting habit of disappearing
just when someone finally figured out who he was.

God didn't put him back together exactly as he was before.

God did a new thing.

Chaos was not God's enemy!

Chaos was God's lump of clay!

God's palette of paints!

God's orchestra of sounds.

The way I read the gospels,
Jesus was seen as the maker of chaos.

He was a threat to the institution
and he captured the hearts of those
who no longer frequented their childhood synagogue.

He forgave the sins of the unforgivable
and he had table fellowship with the unclean.

The religious establishment
could not control what he had started.

The way I view the Reformation,

Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon and the others
also were makers of chaos.

They ordained without papal permission
and led people into membership in an independent church.

They allowed the uneducated to interpret Scripture
and showed no respect to those in monasteries.

We celebrate these as great events of history,
the way the Americans celebrate the revolution against England.

But Americans do everything they can to prevent any further revolution
and we do everything we can
to prevent the church from being divided again.

In fact, we Lutherans have been obsessed with merger,
having expended 100 years of energy
in bringing together our various fragments.

The last thing I want to hear from a sociolologist
is that God is by-passing the church
to do something new out there
where there is no regulation.

And yet…

I have this nagging feeling that Bibby is onto something.

The CBC did a series a couple of years ago
on Ivan Illych's work, which they entitled
The Corruption of the Church.

Illych's theory was that the early church
was a voluntary gathering of Spirit-filled people,
each in direct communion with the Holy One.

When they came together,
each kissed every other one on the mouth, saying,
"The Spirit in me greets the Spirit in you."

The binding principle was the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit.

Then Constantine got hold of the church
and it became the state religion of the Roman Empire.

People were made to join whether they were filled by the Spirit or not.

The church met in Roman business palaces
and began to run on a contractual basis
just like every other Roman business.

The kiss on the mouth was no longer shared
and eventually degenerated into the perfunctory practice
we now call the "exchange of peace."

The church became an institution,
and, as an institution,
became preoccupied with institutional issues like
organization, credentialing, and dispute resolution.

Remember Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night?

His faith community had come to the point
where he no longer experienced the presence of God in it.

There was nothing bad about it.

Jesus came out of that community,
but it was not a community
that could declare forgiveness to the wilfull
nor commune with a leper.

It was a place where Nicodemus knew he belonged,
but not a Syro-Phoenician woman with a sick daughter.

It was a place where Nicodemus could study Torah 10 hours a day,
but a Samaritan woman at a well needed to talk theology too.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus,
it was night, not only in the geological sense;
his soul was in its dark night too.

Jesus frightened him with his talk about the Spirit blowing where it wills,
but he saw in Jesus an encounter with God
that had all the life and engagement Nicodemus' did not.

Nicodemus' religion was so thoroughly constructed,
so completely finished,
so devoid of rough edges and dangling strings,
that there was no place for the new to occur.

There was room for intellectual speculation, but not renewal.

Actually, Jesus didn't create chaos;
he went where chaos was and made something out of it.

Once you were not a people, now you are God's people. 1 Peter 2:10

Jesus went out there to the edge of the universe,
where God is not yet regulated
and can still move about freely.

Unlike human military leaders,
God does not dictate strategic orders to the soldiers
from behind the safety of the front lines.

If God plays any role, it is that of scout.

It is God, not Moses, who has gone to Egypt
and heard the plaintive cries of the people.

God always stays on the leading edge where the chaos is,
playing with the pieces until a coherent pattern emerges.

There is a leadership game
in which people are given envelopes with puzzle pieces in them.

They are told that by sharing their pieces,
they will be able to construct a perfect square for each player.

Some people don't share.

They sit with their incomplete model
expecting others to come to them.

It is possible for one person to complete a square using the wrong pieces.

If that person then sits pat,
it becomes impossible for others to complete theirs.

The only successful method
is when the pieces are scattered on the table
and moved around until the players see the shape emerge.

Out of chaos emerges something new.

Our church emerged out of chaos.

Luther was declared an outlaw
and the German princes threatened Rome with mutiny.

The Peasant Revolt turned into an ugly affair.

The Reformers didn't want that.

They put together a Confession of Faith
using it to show how catholic they really were.

But it was too late.

The pieces had been stirred up
and like it or not,
they had a new thing on their hands.

So what do you think God is leading us into?

Is Reginald Bibby right
that God is out there at the edge,
messing around with lapsed Lutherans,
egging them on to ask questions
for which we haven't devised answers?

What if we don't go there?

Well, that's my mission reflection.

Mission and leadership is what I want to talk to this church about.

But there are different ways of defining mission in this church.

When we talk about Canadian Mission
we often mean starting new congregations
to become self-funding supporting units of the church.

That is mission and it reaches out to the unchurched,
but that kind of mission still has an investment component to it.

We expect it to give us something back.

We raise sheep to harvest wool.

The kind of mission Jesus taught to his disciples
was that of losing one's life for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus is the good shepherd who follows the sheep into dangerous places
putting himself at risk so that the sheep may be safe.

Our mission is to give our life for the sake of the world.

We love to say that about Jesus,
he gave his life for the sake of the world,
but we are as unsettled as the first apostles when he says,
"That goes for you too."

The church is most alive when it is giving itself away.

My passionate hope
is that this church may move into the maturity
of being a community for others.

I would use the metaphor of "homesteader"
to describe our formational history.

We have been a church based on immigration
trying to make ourselves a home in a foreign land.

We have built our "homesteads" on the foundations
of our ethnic and theological culture.

I am grateful that we hear less Ole and Lena and German jokes
than we once did,
although there still are parts of our church in which it feels like
we are joining the Sons of Norway or the Edelweiss Club at prayer.

We have been building a church
that feels like a comfortable home for us
and will support us in our need for identity.

We have built it as a church for us.

Can we now hear Christ's declaration
that life is gained by giving it away and become a church for others?

Can we use our homesteads as resources
to fund, house, shelter or give refuge to people
who live out there at the edge where things are chaotic?

So I want you to think about these things.

Is God doing an end run around us?

Have we become so detached from the people around us
that we're irrelevant?

That we have nothing we are willing to give them?

Is Bibby romanticizing those lapsed Lutherans
or is there life out there on the edges?

If we asked the people outside the edges what they want from us,
what do you think they would say?

What they told Bibby
is that they will turn to the church for rites of passage.

Is that all there is?

If there is to be more,
if we are to enter into the lives of outsiders in a new way,
how will we do that?

Do we have the right kind of leadership to take us there?

What kind is that?

My training and formation does not equip me
to be a leader for this new future.

We need to be about the business of discerning in our young people
the gifts that the church will need.

I personally think we should be looking at 10-year-olds.

If I'm right about chaos,
just where in our world should we be embracing it?

Are we prepared to pay the price?

God continues to go ahead of us
to new, uncontrolled and unexpected places anyway.

to the Bishop's page

In full communion with The Anglican Church of Canada
© Copyright 2007 Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada