God Doesn’t Need an Hour of Your Time

Sometimes I have the impression that some of God’s people think they’re doing something for him when they show up for church on Sunday, whether fulfilling an obligation or doing Him a favor. Other times I have the impression that some of God’s people think they have come for a purpose comparable to watching a football game. When the score becomes badly lopsided in the fourth quarter and the result seems certain, it’s fine to spend game time raiding the kitchen for chips or beer. What could you possibly miss?

It’s important for God’s people to realize that He doesn’t need anything from them. You do him no favors by showing up on Sunday, and you have no obligation to turn over 59 minutes, 59 seconds of your precious Sunday morning to Him. He can do just fine without that, thank you very much.

It’s also important to realize that when we come to church expecting to be entertained, diverted, or otherwise “pulled in” to Sunday worship, we’re badly missing the point and depriving ourselves of something much greater and (dare I say it?) far more important that football. You can’t measure eternal life by quarters, or slow it down with time-outs.

So if God doesn’t need you there, and you don’t go for the entertainment value, is there any reason to attend church on Sunday?

Yes. Yes, there is.

First, let me clarify: I’m not saying that God will only give eternal life to those who came to church faithfully on Sunday. A presumable case in point was the penitent thief on the cross. But understand this: God doesn’t give eternal life to people the way a state fair vendor hands over a corn dog.

Lutherans should already understand the term “means of grace” in a common way. These are means by which God imparts His spiritual gifts to us. They involve common, outward, earthly things; even apparently unspiritual things like water, human language, bread, and wine. Anyone not paying attention to what God has said about this stuff should yawn at this point. But those who care more about what He says than about their own ideas of worship should sit up and pay attention. Baptism, the gospel message, and the Lord’s Supper are not idly called means of grace. For us, they are nothing less than the keys to paradise. If someone gave you the keys to a Ferrari or an F22, would you dare to complain about how boring and ordinary they look, or how unlikely it seems that they would really work? Because of what God imparts through them, the means of grace are themselves the most precious thing we can hope to receive on Earth, ever.

That’s what the Sunday service is for. It’s where you get to receive from God such valuable treasure that you can’t even hope to appreciate it properly. The structure of the service, which we call the liturgy, developed organically over centuries of use by God’s people, to address the shifting conditions of the world with the unchanging gifts of God in the means of grace. Those gifts don’t change, because the needs of humanity don’t change. We remain lost sinners without them. We need Jesus. They provide Him to us in the most comprehensive summary form available, right in the Sunday divine service.

We don’t come to church to serve God. He comes to church to serve us, because that’s how sinners receive eternal life. That’s what we mean by the term “Divine Service.”

Special Challenges of the Church in the Present Day


What do you notice that’s different from present-day American religious conversation when reading Acts 17:16-20? It fairly jumps out at me that the people in Athens wanted to know what Paul had to say. They wanted to hear him. What passes for communication today is not the same. People may not mind if you post something near to your heart on Facebook or Twitter, or even if you try to tell them something that you think they need to hear for their eternal well-being. But will they listen? Will they read? Or will they scroll by in their hurry to find something that they really want to hear?

As it happens, the next verse in Acts explains why things worked out as they did in Athens. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” So Paul gave an impressive and impassioned sermon, and while some of the hearers believed and wanted to know more, many quickly concluded (wrongly) that they had heard enough to know that Paul was not worth any more of their time. Sound familiar?

I’d probably expect a similar reception in today’s university setting, which may be the closest thing we have to Mars Hill in Athens. But in the previous chapter, Paul had much better success in a town called Philippi. There he and his companions brought their message to a place they supposed to be a prayer gathering. Did they think the people there were praying to the living God? Probably not, because it was their first stop in Europe. If Philippi had a synagogue, they would have gone there. At least the synagogue worshippers had the scriptures, but those gathering for prayer in a pagan land would be praying to pagan gods. Or am I missing something? Yet that’s where Paul and company thought to begin speaking about the true God. In other words, they were directly contradicting and correcting their hearer’s deeply-held spiritual views.

And it worked, at least for Lydia and her household. The place they went was outside the city gate at the riverside. One of the things that made this a natural gathering spot would be the riverside itself. I recall somewhere a commentator saying that women would gather in such places to handle the laundry needs of their family. Maybe someone like Lydia would have a slave to do most of the work, but this is speculation. What we see is that it worked.

Is there such a place today? If Lutheran missionaries went to the “place of prayer” in our own American towns and began teaching things contrary to what the people thought was true, how would it go over? It seems that would-be missionaries are under pressure not to contradict what other people believe. Maybe you have felt that pressure yourself.

Or you might say that the present-day gathering place is online. It’s certain many people spend a lot of time there, grazing through a myriad posts but generally consuming nothing. That’s the problem. The message of the Gospel is something that must be presented and consumed. The chief activity with online message board or social media communication is not thoughtful reading, but scanning, scrolling, and maybe reacting emotionally to one or two things. It’s like having an open bag of potato chips on the kitchen counter. By the time dinner rolls around, the bag is somehow empty, and you’re not sure if you’re really hungry anyway.

In a world of incessant scrolling and intensely personalized consumption, how does the Church communicate the Gospel? Thankfully, there is still such a thing as friendship. The most powerful communication is between a Christian and his neighbor. Yet at some point we must cross the invisible line and say something that challenges our heathen neighbor to his toenails. It’s almost certain the Christian will be unfriended. What then?

Where Are the Men?

At Christian churches across the United States, it seems that there is a disproportionate number of men and women. I’m no advocate of affirmative action, but this long trend is disturbing. More recently, it struck me not as some failure on the part of the church, but as stations and posts that have been neglected, abandoned, or deserted.

Perhaps churches have a responsibility to serve men better than they have. But that’s not the whole story. The rest of the story, to borrow an appropriate phrase from Paul Harvey, is that Christian men have an equally great responsibility to man their stations. Not only do they have divinely-assigned tasks in the workforce, but also in the home and in the church. Those are the places where God has put them and given them a special, vital role. In some cases, men seem to be more interested in recreation than in any of these things, and in other cases, Christian men have forgotten one or more of these areas of responsibility.

Much has been said and written to criticize the biblically-defined roles of men and women under God’s moral law and the ordering of His Church. Much of this comes from the feminist tradition, especially since the sexual revolution. It seems less concerned about what’s good for men and women, and more concerned about erasing any notion that they are distinct from one another. Perhaps Christian men on the whole have bought into this. Whether or not they have, the fact remains that God has given them a distinct place in the Church, and in general they are going AWOL. Instead, churches are filled with women and children, with very few men. It’s little wonder that the children — especially boys — also drift away from the Church as they get older, since the men who ought to be guiding them are generally not there. It’s no wonder that some women would like to take the place given to men, when that place is mostly empty.

Take a lesson from Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire enjoyed centuries of peace and safety in an otherwise dangerous and hostile world because the Dunedain, the Rangers of the north, worked tirelessly and selflessly to protect its borders, while the men of Gondor stood bravely at their watch against the evil power growing in the east. If those men had not been so faithful and doughty, the Shire and much else that is good and fair would have perished long before the story began.

Or take a lesson from history. Time and time again, men both young and old answered the call from their comfortable homes to defend their loved ones against forces often greater in strength, and in circumstances both dark and grim. It was not a sense of ease or self-preservation that drew them, but love for their wives, their children, their neighbors, their homeland, and their way of life. Many even fought to preserve a place for their faith and the freedom to live by it all week long, raising their children and grandchildren to trust the Word of God. Some failed despite valiant effort, but knowing that the effort alone was worth the risk. Others succeeded, and many of us have enjoyed the benefits of their great efforts. Make no mistake: we are engaged in such a war. Though it may at times be less bloody, the stakes are higher and more lasting.

Or take a lesson from Holy Scripture. Ephesians 6:4: “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” And Luke 12:35-36: “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately.” In too many churches and Christian homes, the lamps are dim. If they burn still, then all too often it is to the credit of faithful women who have taken up the fight not only for themselves, but in place of their missing husbands and fathers.

We men should pray that God would forgive our disregard for things that are more important than our own comfort and recreation, and help us to once again assume our places as guards and sentinels on the walls of Zion. Will you be a man or a child? We need to lead our families to church weekly, and especially in the seasons when the Church celebrates the person and work of Christ. We need to lead our churches in keeping their priorities straight and advancing the mission with which the Church has been entrusted. None should be more eager for prayer and repentance, or better examples of the same. None should be better students of God’s Word, or more motivated teachers in word and deed.

May God forgive our faint hearts and supply what we lack, that His church, our families, and houses may be blessed. Christ is our example, and His mercy is our reason.

A Good Little Story

On Sunday afternoons we have a group that studies the Lutheran Confessions. We are Lutherans, and the Confessions define what that means. This Sunday I took a tangent in our conversation to express my deep appreciation for good stories, works of fiction. A good one makes you think and maybe even teaches you something in a way that’s memorable. I suppose that’s why some preachers tell lots of stories in the pulpit, but I think preaching the gospel is a different kind of thing from communicating with a story. The ambiance, scope and aim are different, though Jesus demonstrates a masterful use of stories to serve the purpose of preaching.

Anyway, here’s a very brief example of what I mean. This little story could be expanded and adjusted in many ways. As short as it is here, it borders on an allegory, but really most good stories also serve as allegories in some way, so I don’t mind.

There’s something everyone can learn here. I hope you enjoy it.

Margaret Sanger Opens First Birth Control Clinic in the US

A little bit of “today in history…” thanks to the Mid-Columbia Today radio show. Quoted from Wikipedia:

On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States.

Wikipedia emphasizes her compassion for women whose lives were dominated by the children they bore. She herself was one of eleven children. In 1912,

Margaret and William became immersed in the radical bohemian culture that was then flourishing in Greenwich Village. They became involved with local intellectuals, artists, socialists, and activists for political reform, including John Reed, Upton Sinclair, Mabel Dodge, and Emma Goldman. Starting in 1911, Sanger wrote a series of articles about sexual education entitled “What Every Mother Should Know” and “What Every Girl Should Know” for the socialist magazine New York Call.

Besides her mission of mercy toward overburdened mothers, Wikipedia also describes a deeper agenda, “Sanger believed that through selective abortions and birth control the white race could be purified and what she termed as the ‘undesireables’ could be controlled.” For example, “The mission of the clinic in Harlem was to control and help limit the African American population.”

Sanger founded the precursor to Planned Parenthood in 1921, and was eventually president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. From her own life, it’s clear that the “planning” advocated by Planned Parenthood is meant to be done partly by the parents, and partly by social engineers like Sanger. In that respect, she was a product of her time, when communism and eugenics were fashionable even in the United States. While not all advocates of abortion today would agree with Sanger’s deeper agenda, it’s likely that many do. The reason it’s not advocated so openly today is the intervening period of Hitler and the Third Reich, with their aggressive eugenics and racial purification programs. On that scale, the world recognized this agenda for the evil that it is. The evil becomes harder to recognize when seen in the idealistic agenda of a single person, or even a “family planning clinic,” but it’s really a difference in magnitude only, not a difference in kind.

Meanwhile, here is what our Large Catechism says under the heading of the Fourth Commandment:

In addition, it would be well to preach to the parents also, and such as bear their office, as to how they should deport themselves toward those who are committed to them for their government. For although this is not expressed in the Ten Commandments, it is nevertheless abundantly enjoined in many places in the Scripture. And God desires to have it embraced in this commandment when He speaks of father and mother. For He does not wish to have in this office and government knaves and tyrants; nor does He assign to them this honor, that is, power and authority to govern, that they should have themselves worshiped; but they should consider that they are under obligations of obedience to God; and that, first of all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge their office, not only to support and provide for the bodily necessities of their children, servants, subjects, etc., but, most of all, to train them to the honor and praise of God. Therefore do not think that this is left to your pleasure and arbitrary will, but that it is a strict command and injunction of God, to whom also you must give account for it.

But here again the sad plight arises that no one perceives or heeds this, and all live on as though God gave us children for our pleasure or amusement, and servants that we should employ them like a cow or ass, only for work, or as though we were only to gratify our wantonness with our subjects, ignoring them, as though it were no concern of ours what they learn or how they live; and no one is willing to see that this is the command of the Supreme Majesty, who will most strictly call us to account and punish us for it; nor that there is so great need to be so seriously concerned about the young. For if we wish to have excellent and apt persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world, and we must not think only how we may amass money and possessions for them. For God can indeed without us support and make them rich, as He daily does. But for this purpose He has given us children, and issued this command that we should train and govern them according to His will, else He would have no need of father and mother. Let every one know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God, and if they are talented, have them learn and study something, that they may be employed for whatever need there is [to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary].

And under The Fifth Commandment:

Therefore the entire sum of what it means not to kill is to be impressed most explicitly upon the simple-minded. In the first place, that we harm no one, first, with our hand or by deed. Then, that we do not employ our tongue to instigate or counsel thereto. Further, that we neither use nor assent to any kind of means or methods whereby any one may be injured. And finally, that the heart be not ill disposed toward any one, nor from anger and hatred wish him ill, so that body and soul may be innocent in regard to every one, but especially those who wish you evil or inflict such upon you. For to do evil to one who wishes and does you good is not human, but diabolical.

It should go without saying, but Luther would consider unborn human babies to be protected by this commandment just as much as any other human being. There can be do doubt about that.

Where is the other side of the boat?

It was clear to Jesus’ disciples where He meant them to cast their nets. All they had to do was step across the boat to reach the other side. It didn’t make any sense according to earthly reason that casting their nets there should produce a different result, but it was what Jesus told them to do. That was what made all the difference. You may agree that we should listen to what Jesus says now, regardless of earthly reason. But how do we find the other side of the boat? What would Jesus have us do?

Each disciple of Jesus must listen for himself to the words of Jesus, because He says many things. That’s another good reason for us to begin our Christian life anew each day with repentance, prayer, and meditation on His Word. We can’t distill what Jesus says into a 12-step program that will apply to everyone. Each of us finds himself in our own lives, in our own context, with our own challenges. The Word of God does not change, but its application can vary according to need and circumstances.

Still, here are some ideas for Christian individuals and churches. Let’s define three categories of activities in which we may spend our time. We’ll call them evangelism, outreach or advertising, and good works.

The one most talked about in the recent past is “evangelism.” We’ll define that as narrowly as possible: the communication of the Gospel message to another human being. It requires a medium, like the spoken word, the written word, or visual art. It may be possible to help communicate the Gospel using the medium of music or human actions. The Gospel is essentially a fact or proposition, so its full expression requires a medium that permits a high degree of articulation.

As communication, evangelism includes not only the expression of the Gospel, but also the reception of the message. That does not necessarily include a response of faith, but it does include understanding. It is not evangelism to speak the Gospel in English to people who only understand Spanish.

Jesus commanded evangelism to His apostles when He said (Mark 16:15 NKJV), “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” That command continues today for those whom Jesus has called into the same pastoral office, and its most pointed and literal fulfillment is found all over the world wherever the Church gathers for the divine service. Every Christian participates in this through our connections to the churches where the Gospel is preached and taught. There are other ways the Gospel is figuratively “preached,” but we’ll leave those for another time.

It’s important to realize that evangelism, as we define it here, is how God the Holy Spirit causes the Church to grow and thrive, as Lutherans confess in Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession:

1] That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.

4] They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works. (bookofconcord.org)

The second category has recently been called “outreach,” but we could also just as well call it “advertising.” This activity seeks to establish lines of communication between Christians and non-Christians, or between the Church and the world. It is not a communication of the Gospel, and so it does not have the power to save anyone from sin or death.

Advertising also involves communication, but as we define it narrowly, its purpose is different than evangelism. Advertising conducted by churches is really the same tool as used by businesses in the world. Businesses advertise to entice or attract the attention of others, with the aim of selling a product or service that the customer may not have been considering. By analogy, churches advertise to entice or attract the attention of others, in order to establish a line of communication that can be used for the Gospel.

It may sound inefficient to communicate an advertising message (conduct outreach) in order to later communicate the Gospel (evangelism). Why not just cut straight to evangelism, and bypass outreach? The reason is simple. The unbelieving world doesn’t like the Gospel. It finds the Gospel to be offensive, foolish, and ridiculous. Just read the first chapters of 1 Corinthians; Paul explains it there. Now, if churches want to communicate something to the unbelieving world, we have the same basic task before us as the secular businesses in our community. I’m fairly certain that people in marketing would discourage us from advertising a message aimed at recipients who will find that message to be offensive, foolish, and ridiculous. We could do it anyway, and rely upon the miraculous work of God to produce the results. We would even see some results, eventually. But if we want to open channels to communicate the Gospel, then we should probably distinguish between outreach and evangelism, between simple advertising and preaching the Gospel.

If businesses are trying to sell a product or services that their customers may not have been considering, churches have it even tougher. We are trying to communicate a message (the Gospel) that we know the recipients don’t want to hear! So it’s important that we open the conversation strategically with an outreach message that may gain the ear of the unbelieving world. Even while we communicate the Gospel in whatever ways we can, we should also conduct outreach by advertising.

This translates easily from churches to individual Christians. In fact, the importance of outreach is even clearer in the lives of Christians. We conduct outreach every time we speak to a non-Christian. The way we speak and act can either open or close lines of communication for the Gospel. We are living advertisements for our Lord’s Church. But then, we are also breathing examples of the Gospel.

That leads us to one of the most powerful media for both outreach and evangelism: the good works of Christians. James 2:18 applies (NKJV): “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” On that topic, I recommend you read this year’s convention essay from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s convention. Pastor Obenberger treats it much more completely than I could do here.

These are some general ideas about the other side of the boat. Jesus actually told His apostles to preach the Gospel, and He tells His whole Church to love one another and perform good works. Why not cast our nets there? But as I mentioned in the last blog post, we need to start much closer to home. We need to begin with our own spiritual problems before we can reach out to help our neighbor. Yes, Christians do have spiritual problems. We require daily repentance as we live in our Baptism, in the holy Name of our God and Savior. We to receive His Word and meditate upon it so that it becomes the fabric of our lives. That’s really where we begin to find the other side of the boat, and it prepares us to reach out in godly love, with genuine good works.

Is it beneficial to have the Lord’s Supper available every Sunday?

This question may sound like a no-brainer, yet many concientious Lutherans disagree. Of course, the answer is yes, as long as it is celebrated in a God-pleasing way. Apparently, I am not the only one who sees things this way, and now you can read more about it in a genuine book. See Cyberbrethren’s post about the news on Little Loci. Since I already have so many books on my “to read” list, how do I go about obtaining — and reading — this one? The perpetual problem.