Monday, June 29, 2009

Baseball Buzzkill

I face the same issue every July - the Baseball Blues. It's not because my favorite team (the Chicago Cubs) perpetually stink. It's not because I think baseball is boring, or even because of all the cheating that goes on in the game. What it boils down to is:

I don't understand it.

I comprehend the rules of the game. I know how to keep score on an overpriced ballpark program. Ground rule doubles, double steals, and unassisted double plays are all within my wheelhouse. I can even articulate the infield fly rule if need be.

It's all the other junk I don't understand.


  • If a batter admires a home run longer than a pitcher feels is appropriate, the pitcher is within his rights to throw his next pitch at the batter.
  • When turning a 6-4-3 double play (outs at 2nd & 1st base), the second baseman doesn't have to touch the base to get the runner out. He just has to be close enough to the bag. However, if the first baseman's foot leaves the base, the runner is safe.
  • It's permissible to eat food in the dugout and chew tobacco on the field of play and still be called an athlete
  • A baserunner can be called out for running too far outside the base paths, but is allowed to plow over a catcher in an attempt to pry the ball from the catcher's glove at home base.
  • Only 4 major league baseball players have a college degree.

And, finally, my biggest frustration with the game of baseball.

These are the dimensions of all 30 major league baseball fields. Notice how no two are alike? The distance a ball must travel to be a home run varies from park to park, as well as in different points of the stadium. There are also varying heights of the outfield walls in each place. Many are 8 feet tall...others, like Wrigley Field, are 11.5 feet...and the famous Green Monster in left field of Boston's Fenway Park is 37'2".

How does any of that make sense?

The area of competition in almost every other sport is a uniform size. Football, soccer, basketball, hockey, swimming, track & field, volleyball. All of the athletes in these sports can hone their skill on one locale and know their abilities will translate to all other arenas. The exceptions include tennis (clay / grass / concrete surfaces, but the same court dimensions), auto racing (which isn't really a sport), and golf (unlike any other major sport in that there is no expectation of uniformity between courses...and it's not played in a stadium).

I can't really enjoy following baseball for the same reason I can't really enjoy following gymnastics: too many subjective variables. That said, I'll probably still get pumped up for the pennant chases in August and September and stay up late to watch the World Series in October...but I won't be as excited as when basketball and football make their triumphant return!

(For more on this, watch the scene in Hoosiers where the team enters the enormous Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Noticing the small-town team was intimidated, Coach Dale asks his players to measure the height of the hoop and the length of a free throw. "I believe you'll find the exact same measurements in the gym back in Hickory." Of course they is a normal game!)

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Great Commission

I'm a huge fan of the new Lutheran Study Bible that Augsburg Fortress released in April. I heard of this concept about a year ago when I was asked to review a few manuscripts from the study notes. I was excited about the vision cast for this Bible, as well as the fact that it includes a stylish baby-blue book cover.

I've had several conversations with friends (both the local and on-line variety) about the study notes pertaining to the Great Commission. Some have been merely curious about the treatment of the text, others have been more animated in their disagreement. Here's the more "controversial" portion of what appears in the Great Commission notes:

Jesus now sends the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples. Most people who are helped by Jesus and believe in him never become disciples. Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him. Disciples are students, called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom.

Wanting to know more about this interpretation of the final words of Jesus, I decided to go to the source. Dr. Duane A. Priebe is the Knutson Professor of Systematic Theology and Senior Faculty Fellow at Wartburg Theological Seminary. His areas of expertise include systematic theology, Christology and atonement, creation and eschatology, Biblical theology, and Christian theology in a religiously plural world. Dr. Priebe contributed the study notes to the Gospel of Matthew portion of the Lutheran Study Bible.

Here was my note to Dr. Priebe:

Dr. Priebe,

I want to thank you for your excellent contributions to the Lutheran Study Bible. I have been doing some teaching on the gospel of Matthew these past few weeks, and have found the comments and notes you provided to be most insightful.

Last night our adult Bible Study engaged in a robust discussion regarding congregational implications of the Great Commission. One of our group members had concerns with two of the notes from the Lutheran Study Bible.

"Jesus now send the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples."

"Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or ever know about him"

The questions asked by the group had to do with "Why aren't we called to make disciples of everyone?" and "Does everyone get into heaven, regardless of who they believe in?" Our conversation then went to discussing conversations of antinomianism, Universalism, and Lutheran hermeneutics...topics that are a bit above my pay grade. :-)

I told the group that I would take these questions directly to the source, in the hopes that we can all be enlightened. I'm wondering if, in the midst of your busy schedule, you'd be willing to expand a bit on the two statements from the Lutheran Study Bible on the topics of discipleship / evangelism / salvation. I know the members of our group would be most appreciative.

Here's Dr. Priebe's thorough response:

Thank you for your questions. They are important ones to think about. I will begin with the second.

There are two passages in Matthew that speak of salvation without saying anything about believing in Jesus or knowing him. The first is the Beatitudes in 5:3-10. Lutherans believe that God’s word creates what it declares. In the Beatitudes, Jesus includes into the salvation of God’s rule the spiritually poor, those mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Jesus creates salvation for these people – and his death and resurrection establish this as true. None of the Beatitudes restrict this to those who believe in Jesus, nor is it necessary for them to know that this is true for it to be true. God’s word creates truth. Only the final Beatitude that speaks of persecution for the sake of Jesus’ name is addressed (“you”) to the disciples.

The second is the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It speaks of the judgment of all the nations. Matthew uses language in a way that had become typical of Judaism, for whom the term “nations” referred to the nations who were not God’s people. In Matthew, the little ones who belong to Jesus are people who believe in him (see a similar point in Matt 10:40-41). This is why they are surprised – Christians would not be. This, of course, does not exclude the claim of this passage on us as Christians to see Christ present in those who are suffering in this world.

The notes in the study Bible do not speak of those who reject Christ. But that is a scary business for me. In the Sermon on the Mount, it is people who claim Jesus as Lord, who have preached and done powerful things in his name to whom he says, “I never knew you” (7:21-23). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, those are people who claim the name of Jesus, but do not live in the reality created by the Beatitudes, they justify having enemies and try to ground it in God, they pursue a righteousness of their own that can be seen (the word translated “piety” in 6:1 is the Greek word for “righteousness”) rather than God’s righteousness (6:1-34 – where the either-or that runs through the chapter applies to this contrast) and encourage people to have a righteousness that can be seen, and they pass judgment on others and encourage people to do the same, all the while claiming to represent Christ. When I think about that, I can only begin with myself.

Saul, the Pharisee, of course, did reject Christ and was persecuting Christians out of zeal for God. Yet Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and made him an apostle. Paul speaks of God’s love for us while we were ungodly, sinners, and enemies in Christ’s death (Rom 5:6-11), and he speaks of Jesus’ death as creating justification and life for all, getting as many as Adam got (5:15-21; 1 Cor 15:22 – in Paul’s day, “many” was not used in contrast to “all,” it was used in contrast to “one,” as Paul does). In Paul’s discussion of the Jews in Rom 9-11, Paul ends by saying that God’s promise to Israel cannot be revoked (or God would not be faithful, and we also could not trust God), and while they are now enemies of God, “all Israel will be saved” Rom 11:25-32).

The most expansive picture of the scope of salvation in the NT is an early hymn about Christ in Colossians 1:15-20. There everything created through and for Christ, including the cosmic, demonic powers, the thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, which were defeated in his death on the cross (2:10) are reconciled to God through his blood on the cross.

So where does faith fit into all this? For Paul as well as for Luther, faith is not something I do now to get something different that is salvation. Faith is participation now in salvation. In John 5:24, the transition from unbelief to faith is the transition from death to eternal life. Faith, as life-orienting trust in God’s promise in Jesus Christ, is the goal in our lives of everything God has done for us. We are not saved apart from faith, for living in faith from the power of God’s grace, Gods love for sinners and the unworthy in Jesus Christ, is the communion with God for which we were created and is participation already in salvation. The deepest promise of salvation in the Old Testament is, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” In Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, he asks, “What does it mean to have a God?” He answers that your god (small g) is whatever to turn to in every need and what you trust for meaning, life, and security is your god. Faith and God belong together. Sin is fundamentally idolatry, in which we seek life from created things rather than God. So people do not yet participate in salvation apart from faith. But for us who believe, we always have faith in constant struggle with unbelief and idolatry.

None of this has said anything about God’s wrath and judgment – which we cannot deny. As sinners, who seek life from created things, and thus live in fear and destructive ways to protect ourselves, we are all under God’s wrath and judgment. According to the NT, one of the ways we live under God’s judgment is when we pass judgment on others – which is always on people for whom Christ died. Whenever we do so, we make something in ourselves the basis of our salvation, and we assume, like Adam and Eve wanted – that we can be like God, defining the boundary between good and evil. In the Bible, that is the most fundamental form of idolatry.

Christians have never assumed that only those who know and believe in Jesus in this life will participate in salvation in the next. On the most obvious level, that would exclude everyone in the Old Testament. They went out into the world, not to expand the domain of God’s love, but with the message of God’s love for a lost and dy8ing world in Jesus Christ, which is already the truth of the world.

What do we really believe when we believe in Jesus Christ? We believe that Jesus alone is the ground and source of salvation – not anything else, including works, the church, our being Christian, faith. Jesus Christ is God’s love not just for some (as strict Calvinists think), but for the world. So those of us who believe in Jesus Christ are claimed to see and think of everyone in the world, and to relate to them, as people for whom Jesus died – which is the most important thing about them. Luther, in his 1535 commentary on Galatians 3:13, says that since Jesus has taken all our sins into himself, if we see anyone in terms of their sins, we deny the deity of God, for we think their sins are more powerful than God’s love in Christ. In his bookThe Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on “judge not,” argues that the difference between a disciple and an unbeliever is that the disciple sees everyone, including the unbeliever, at the foot of the cross, which the unbeliever sees no one, including themselves there.

What God does with anyone, is, of course, God’s business, not mine. But if I believe in the power of God’s forgiving love in the cross of Jesus Christ, I cannot restrict it in any way or exclude anyone from that love on any kind of basis without condemning myself. That is what Jesus says.

Then, with regard to making disciples: A further question is what it means to make disciples of all nations (to follow the traditional translation). The term "disciple(s)" occurs 250 times in the NT, but only in the Gospels and Acts. That means that in the first century, "disciple" was not a term for what we would call a "Christian" or a person who believes in Jesus. It is used that way in certain layers of Acts, although even there, in Acts 16:1, Timothy is a disciple, while his mother is a believer.

In the Greek philosophical schools or later in Rabbinic Judaism beginning shortly before the time of Jesus, a "disciple" is a pupil of a teacher - the two terms go together. In Matthew, those who believe in Jesus and are benefited by him, experiencing the transforming power of the kingdom - or even the crowds that follow him - do not become disciples - even when they may want to do so. What is distinctive about being a disciple in the Gospels is that they do not decide to become disciples, Jesus calls them to be disciples - and in that sense "makes" them disciples, although that language is not used. Second, being a disciple entails not only a pupil-teacher relationship, as it does in the philosophical schools or in the Rabbinic tradition, but it also entails an attachment to the person Jesus Christ.

In this kind of framework, the commission to "make disciples of all nations" would not mean to make all the people of these nations "disciples," not the same as the Spirit bringing them to faith through the gospel, but that through them there would be people among all the nations whom Jesus calls to be disciples. That is, people who would also have a pupil-teacher relationship with Jesus, and the personal attachment to him that characterizes the disciples. In the philosophical and Rabbinic schools, pupils themselves become teachers with disciples. In this case the disciples do not become teachers with pupils - Jesus alone remains the teacher with disciples who both learn from him and bear witness to God's rule being established in and through Jesus' activity - especially his death and resurrection.

The imagery of disciples as a particular set of people - not all who have faith in Jesus or are benefited by him - is reflected in the imagery of being salt and light for the world (Matt 5:13-16) or a little leaven leavening the whole lump (13:33). It also corresponds on a wider level to the mission of the twelve in Matt 10. Jesus' command in Matt 28:19-20 also corresponds to the structure of the teacher-disciple relationship or the philosophical or rabbinic schools. They make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all of Jesus' commands - not their own commands or interpretations.

The disciples are not as such the ones who benefit from Jesus' activity - although they are not excluded from the promises - they do participate in all the rotten stuff in Matt 10. Their place in the Beatitudes in Matt 5:3-12 is that they are persecuted - although that is also coupled with the promise of reward. Jesus does not call disciples for their own benefit - he calls them for the sake of the world and its benefit as witnesses to Jesus Christ and as messengers of the salvation and rule of God, which God accomplishes through Jesus Christ, including incarnation, death, and resurrection. This is reflected in an interesting way in Matthew and the other Gospels. While others who turn to Jesus and are commended for their faith, the disciples always struggle to believe and to understand what Jesus is doing - even after his death and resurrection.

The idea that a small number of people who are called by Jesus and who bear witness to him fill the world with the light of the gospel and with his presence is reflected in a different way when Athanasius in the early 4th century speaks of the entire world being filled with the light of the Gospel and Jesus' transforming power. The Christian missionaries in China in the 7th and 8th century say the same thing about the light of the gospel filling the entire kingdom. In neither case are Christians anything but a small minority. But what they refer to is that there are Christians who bear witness to Jesus Christ scattered throughout the Empires, and through their witness all things are being transformed.

I hope this helps,

Yours in Christ,

Duane A. Priebe

Let the conversation continue!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Coach Ed Thomas

I didn't know Ed Thomas. I only knew of him.

He had been the head football coach at Aplington-Parkersburg for my entire lifetime. I remember watching his teams roll over all comers at the state finals in the UNI Dome when I was a kid. My high school youth minister was from Parkersburg and had worked with the football team as a trainer. She spoke highly of him. I heard friends from college speak in reverential tones about "Coach", almost always talking more about Ed Thomas the man than Ed Thomas the football guru.

He was shot in the head today in the A-P high school weight room in the presence of 30 students by a person who was recently denied an assistant coaching position. This tragedy was "close to home" in the sense that Parkersburg is a few minutes from where I grew up...but it's not like I knew the guy.

I didn't know Ed Thomas, but, in a sense, I knew him through the impact he made in the lives of people he encountered.

Perhaps this is why I'm so overcome with sadness today as the news of his murder came through my Twitter feed. All that I had heard and read about Ed Thomas made me proud to be an Iowan. In the same way, the person that took his life made me sad and ashamed. It appears that the murderer had some personal demons in his life. I will pray for him and his family just as fervently as I do for the Thomas family and the community of Parkersburg.

The Des Moines Register has become the hub for all reaction related to the Thomas killing. KCCI has a good recap of Coach Thomas' life, including his impact on Parkersburg after the hurricane destroyed 1/3 of the town, the school, and the football field.

The stories will continue to roll in. I will read them with interest and weep with those who are grieving. "God comforts us in our sorrows so that we can comfort others in their sorrows"...this is what the funeral liturgy tells us.

I only hope God can provide enough comfort for a community that has endured its share of heartache in the past year.



Here's a great E:60 piece done last year about Coach Thomas and the 2008 Falcon football team.

A Happier Person

My beloved wife of eight years (our anniversary is today) passed along a quote to me a few weeks ago. This quote has become increasingly relevant for me in the midst of congregational life.

"If you want to be a happier person, it's critical to remember two things. First, certainly not all, but most people really are doing the best that they can. Really, they are. The second thing to remember is that almost everything is more difficult and complicated than it looks."
~ Richard Carlson, PhD

Jay Bakker once said that churches are hospitals for broken souls...the only difference is that, in the church, there are no doctors; only patients. I agree. Sometimes people (clergy and staff included) bring their baggage to church and function below prime capacity. In moments when I vilify and demonize people who mistreat me, I am reminded that they are almost always trying their best...even if I think they can do better.

God's grace is sufficient for them...and for me, too.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Christian worship is a hard thing to understand, and an even harder thing to lead. It's amazing, really. Think about another time in your life when you regularly gather with people you rarely see, listen to stories, sing songs, snack on a wheat cracker and grape juice, and attempt to communicate with a deity that you can't see or hear. It's a construct that is unlike any other aspect of our life...and over 1 billion people do this every week all around the world.


This past weekend our old-ALC, German Lutheran congregation tried something new – contemporary worship. The term “contemporary” is a bit pejorative in the sense that every time people gather for worship it is, in essence, contemporary. Worship is a unique expression that relies on God's Spirit to move through those who have gathered at a specific time and place. Even if a few friends and I sing some plainchant Kyrie from the 9th century, it’s still contemporary. Henceforth, if I refer to contemporary worship I am using it merely as a brand name…like “praise service” or “seeker worship” are similar (but distinctly different) brand names of worship.

But I digress.

After a few intense months of a mini “worship war”, our church agreed to try our hand at contemporary worship at all three weekend worship services once a month this summer. Basically, this was the way our worship committee could balance the polarities of “we need to offer a more contemporary service to reach the unchurched in our community” and those on the other side proclaiming “if you change the way we do worship, I'm leaving and taking my checkbook with me.”

It was quite a risk.

* * *

I’m not a big contemporary worship guy. Unlike most of my colleagues, when I want to listen to Christian music, I rely on Mozart or Bach…not Third Day or David Crowder. Some people hum tunes from Christian radio…I tap my toes to the liturgy or chorales from the 16th century. The short wispy hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention whenever a church does communion before the creed or a pastor preaches on something other than the gospel text from the Revised Common Lectionary. So when I was asked to sing and play guitar at our church’s first contemporary worship service, I panicked. I literally broke out in a sweat and paced around the room for a few minutes.

I’ve never been more conflicted.

In the past five years, our congregation has doubled it’s programming for youth and families, and subsequently seen over 50% of our young families leave the church. The reasons for this trend are the subject of another blog post (or maybe not). The emergence of a contemporary worship movement at our stoic congregation might be the thing we need to make an impact on the community and bring young families to the church. It could also lead to our own version of the Great Schism. Furthermore, from a church politics standpoint, I felt I was in a no-win situation. I would be a fool to reject a passionate group of people who were using worship as a vehicle to bring young families to our congregation. At the same time, worship leadership is not in my job description. I don’t personally tend to connect with churches that offer that particular style of worship.

So I took the plunge.

And lived to tell about it.

I overheard a wide spectrum of opinions shared by people after the services. None were surprising. I tended to resonate with folks who said, "I don't know that I'd attend a service like that again, but I think we need to offer it every week." If a change in worship format is linked to outreach, I'm all in. I am the anomaly in the sense that most people my age see traditional, liturgical worship and are reminded of the forced boredom they endured as a child...and they want no part of it. This is more than a fad; it's a trend. I don't think that offering contemporary worship at our church will make most of our current members happier, but it might be an entry point for people in the community who are unaffiliated with a church. As one of my friends said, "If I want that kind of worship, I'll go to a different church."

Duly noted.

*** Epilogue ***

Nearly 36 hours after our contemporary worship weekend, I am haunted by an image that just might change my perspective on this whole topic. For the first time, I saw my six-year old daughter fully participating in a worship service. She didn't have to know how to read music, juggle a bulletin and a hymnal, or understand the convoluted numbering system in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. The only thing young Anna had to do was look up toward the cross and see the words to the songs, prayers, scripture, and statements of faith. She was engaged. She made connections. She was participating in corporate worship. She was a part of the body of Christ in a new and special way. It wasn't because her parents were telling her what to wasn't because her dad works for a was because, for the first time, she was in a worship service that stripped away the barriers to her participation. What more could a parent want for their child?

Knowing what this weekend's worship did for Anna doesn't eliminate some of my misgivings about contemporary worship...but it does give me a different lens through which I view the conversation.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, June 19, 2009

VBS as Evangelism

This post appears on the Center for Renewal blog...

Vacation Bible School...Day Camp...Summer Church School...

No matter the name, it's likely your church does some form of extended Christian education for children for a week or two in the summer months. For many churches VBS serves two purposes -- (1) A summer highlight while the church takes a break from Sunday School, and (2) a community outreach program (a.k.a. "cheap daycare"). A church can use the VBS machine for evangelism purposes, if they go about it the right way.

Here are my 5 suggestions for using VBS as an evangelism tool:

Declare the two purposes equally important. If your VBS is really just an extension of Sunday School - or, even worse, an end of the year celebration - the visitors will feel awkward and excluded. In the same way, if your VBS abandons your congregational identity for the sake of the visitor, the children who attend will have a disjointed experience from all their other church involvement. VBS is a both-and situation.

Get the word out. This requires creativity that goes beyond a newsletter announcements or a colorful sign in the church yard. It also means doing quality communication with a specific group. If you invite the whole town, you've cast your net too wide. Pick a demographic that makes sense and is attainable, and figure out how to connect with that population. Have senior high youth distribute information / registration forms on a Sunday afternoon. Allow on-line registration through your church's website. Offer a financial discount to non-members. Post registration information in local shops and businesses. Even bulk mailings to a specific zip code can work (if you have the money).

Have an Open House / Kick Off. Invite children, parents, older siblings, and neighbors to the church the night before VBS. Introduce the pastors and VBS volunteers. Sing some of the songs you're planning to teach during the week. Talk about the theme of the week and highlight a few things going on in the life of the congregation. Serve a free meal and allow casual fellowship opportunities for visitors to interact with church members. (This is also a great way to talk about the logistics of your VBS week, in case people don't read the communiques you've been sending.)

Communicate during the week. Post pictures of VBS on your website (only if parents have given permission). Send email updates, Twitter posts, or text messages to parents that share highlights of the day. This will help them engage their children when talking about VBS themes, songs, and activities. It also opens the door for visitors to ask additional questions about your church.

Follow up in the weeks to come. Do another "y'all come" event a few weeks after VBS. Use a video projector to show a movie on the church wall...have an outdoor worship service...hold a Family Game Night...decorate a float in the 4th of July parade. Invite everyone who participated in VBS to attend. If you're not up for another big event, consider sending a photo CD of all the pictures you took during the week. Inform visiting households of your Sunday School ministry or other children / youth / family events. Give them information; not expectations.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Solving Seminary

I am not a seminary student. I have friends entering seminary...currently in seminary...and long since completed seminary. I have poked and prodded around Lutheran seminaries literally since birth. I recall thinking in my early teen years that I would eventually spent significant time at a seminary. As I've gotten older, I'm finding it to be less of a viable option for me.


I think education is important. I think it's important for would-be-pastors to be part of a thorough vetting process prior to ordination. I value the holistic learning that comes from living in community. I just don't think the way we're doing seminary makes any sense in the 21st century.

In addition to an ongoing wrestling with an internal sense of call to ordained ministry, I have five major issues with the current ordination-track seminary system:

  1. All of the required education happens before a person ever becomes a pastor. This is mind-boggling to me. The way we Lutherans do it, a pastor has three years of course work and one year of internship before they are ordained into word & sacrament ministry. Once they have their Masters of Divinity, we impose no additional educational requirements. Has a pastor learned everything they ever needed to know from seminary? How does a seminary education in the 1960s serve, equip, and empower an aging pastor in 2010?
  2. A Masters in Divinity is equated with pastoral preparedness. From what I understand, a Masters degree is an educational acknowledgment - a piece of paper which certifies that a person passed the course work required by academia. A Masters degree means a person is, for lack of a better term, book-smart. I've never seen a letter of call or a pastor's job description that lists "book-smarts" as one of the requirements. Of course, theological training is essential for any pastor...but why a Master's level? Why not a Bachelors...or a Doctorate, for that matter? Receiving a degree doesn't ensure a person has gifts for ministry; nor does the absence of a degree mean a person is void of those gifts.
  3. Potential pastors are learning from scholars, not fellow pastors. Why does a seminarian spend three years in a community that doesn't resemble congregational community? Why are students only spending 15 months (CPE + internship) in the field of ministry and 3 years taking tests, writing papers, and learning from people that haven't served a congregation as pastor for years (if ever)?
  4. A Bachelor's degree is a formality that is void of value. If I would have attended a Lutheran college, double-majored in Religion and Church History, and went on to seminary to be an ordination-track M-Div you know how much of an advantage I would have over someone who majored in basket weaving? None! At best, I might be able to test out of my Greek requirement, but I wouldn't spend less time in seminary or have a smaller tuition bill when it's all said and done. The current system invalidates a Bachelor's field of study and boils it down to nothing more than a generic prerequisite.
  5. Move, Move, Move, Move, Move, Move. I've said it before in this space, but I really think this is a big, BIG problem. A pastor-in-training moves to seminary...moves to do 3 months CPE...moves back to seminary...moves to internship...moves back to seminary...moves to their first call. 6 moves in 4 years. Why does it work this way? I'd love an explanation. Please enlighten me! What is gained by intentionally creating such an unsettling four years? What if someone is a second-career person with a spouse and children? Does the spouse's vocational identity not matter? Do the kids need to sacrifice "normalcy" because their parent feels called to be a pastor? What about the primary call to be a parent and spouse? Luther was big on the "domestic call" stuff, so why doesn't our Lutheran educational model reflect that?

As with any human institution, there are some other flaws and inconsistencies with the current seminary model. The aforementioned five items are what I consider to be the biggies.

So how do we fix it? If I may be so bold, here is one idea of how to change the ordination / seminary landscape:

  1. Bachelors of Divinity. This would be offered exclusively at a seminary for anyone that is at least 18-years old. A student could transfer some applicable credits from another non-seminary institution, but would still need to complete a significant amount of 300 and 400 level classes through an accredited, ELCA seminary. A highly-motivated person could complete this degree in three years...most would take four.
  2. Three-year residency / apprenticeship. This would include one year of internship upon completion of the Bachelor's degree. The candidate would then be ordained and called to the same congregation for an additional two years. During these two years of ordained ministry, the candidate would participate in required "First Call Theological Training", which is reflected in the current practice. Above all, residency provides stability for the congregation, supervising pastor, and the resident pastor.
  3. Ongoing, required, masters-level continuing education. A pastor would need to be working toward a Masters of Divinity during their first 10 years of ordination. This ensures that a pastor continues learning new things about ministry - different preaching techniques, how to evaluate cultural trends, changing worship styles, youth ministry models, counseling refreshers, etc. It also requires congregations to regularly provide for a pastor's continuing education and sabbatical...and requires the pastor to use that time and money in an intentional way (not just to buy books that collect dust or skip out on seminars and workshops at conferences).
  4. A similar pursuit of a Doctorate by the 25th ordination anniversary. Why not? Don't we want pastors who continue to evolve as leaders? I would think that the best time for a pastor to take seminary courses is while they're serving a congregation. The pastor can make a contextual application of what they've learned. The local church has fresh, new, relevant ideas being brought in from time to time. The pastor gets to work toward a degree that the congregation pays for. What's not to like?

I think this model could work for all concerned parties.

Seminaries would have many more outlets for education because EVERY pastor would be required to take classes through the seminary throughout their ministry, not just at the beginning.

Candidates don't have to move around as much. They would spend equal time - 3 years - learning in seminary classrooms and in a residency congregation.

Congregations would have pastors who are regularly improving themselves and, by extension, the churches they are serving.

Bishops would not have to deal with pastors who refuse to take continuing education and, therefore, find their skills eroding. If a pastor doesn't have a Masters in 10 years or a Doctorate in 25, they're off the roster.

I know it seems a tad naive, but I really think this could work. Of course, nothing will change until a core group of people within the seminary sub-culture considers this to be a viable option. The whole church will also have to embrace the notion that some of the most valuable educational training for pastors happens through experiences that can't be graded by a professor.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Doug Pagitt - A Christianity Worth Believing

Doug Pagitt and Erik Johnson are spreading the Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive and Well faith in the Viking Theater at Grand View University in Des Moines, IA on Friday, June 26 at 7:00 p.m. This "Live Occurrence" is part one-man show (though there are two of them), part revival, part book reading, part hootenanny, and part communal gathering. The 2-hour event include readings from the book, "A Christianity Worth Believing", music - original and covers, video, spoken-word poetry, impassioned invitations to be part of the common good. Live Occurrences are specially formulated for the Left-out, Left-behind and Let-down, and will be suitable for one and all regardless of background.

There no cost for this event. You will have an opportunity purchase the book. If you live in the Des Moines area, I encourage you to come to this Live Occurrence and bring a friend or two!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Revolution and Evolution of Twitter

Just read a fascinating Time article about "How Twitter Will Change the World".

Money Quote:
Last month an anticommunist uprising in Moldova was organized via Twitter. Twitter has become so widely used among political activists in China that the government recently blocked access to it, in an attempt to censor discussion of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A service called SickCity scans the Twitter feeds from multiple urban areas, tracking references to flu and fever. Celebrity Twitterers like Kutcher have directed their vast followings toward charitable causes (in Kutcher's case, the Malaria No More organization).

My use of Twitter has morphed from a fun little application that channels my self-indulgence to serving as my main source of information for life and ministry. I never thought it would be such an essential resource.

Do you use Twitter? Why or why not?

The Life Span of a Christian

I had a conversation the other day with a friend from church. "Jeff" is in his late-40s and has been an active member of the church for a very long time. I could tell something was troubling Jeff, so I asked him to share.

"Where are all the young people?"

I asked him to say more.

"It makes me sad that there aren't more youth and young adults in worship. I look around and all I see are people my age or parents with small children. Where are the kids in their teens and 20's?"

As we continued to talk, my friend shared the story of his faith journey. It was not unlike most others I had heard. He was reluctantly taken to church as a child, drifted away after confirmation, worshiped on Christmas Eve as a young adult to make his mom happy, got married, had a kid, and got reconnected after his child's baptism. It was a that moment that the light bulb went off.

Jeff came to the astonishing conclusion that he was no different than the very people he was chastising for being MIA.

We continued talking about how important it is for the church to continue reaching out to youth and young adults. We covered the main buzz words like "creativity", "innovation", "renewal" and "emerging". We knew that, just because many young Lutherans drift away after confirmation and (hopefully) return in adulthood doesn't mean that's a good thing. We just didn't have any ideas of what that kind of ministry looks like.

* * *

Later that night, I couldn't sleep. I thought about my conversation with Jeff...contemplated my own journey...and considered the stories of two Biblical big shots.

Moses -- he lived the life of an Egyptian prince, fled to the desert, farmed for a while, got married, and eventually came back to lead God's people to freedom. Moses was well into adulthood when he claimed his identity as a child of God, after having nothing to do with Yahweh up until then.

Jesus -- we know a lot about his birth and a "Home Alone"-style fiasco in the temple when he was 12...and then...nothing until he's about 30-years old. He grew in "wisdom and understanding", but what does that mean? He made nice shelving units in his dad's carpentry shop? He did miracles and signs and wonders around the neighborhood? What happened in his formative years? When Jesus finally appeared on the scene as an adult, had 3 good years of ministry, and then died.

There are many other examples of faithful God-followers that started young and continued throughout their lives (Jeremiah, Samuel, David, etc.). However, in light of the inverse bell curve of Christian involvement in many churches, I began to wonder:

What is the life-span of a Christian?

Are we wired to be people that are constantly growing in faith until the day we die?

Is it acceptable to ride the waves of doubt and certainty throughout our lives?

Does everyone have their time in the desert, a la Moses?

Does a person who remains active in a church during their young adult years become disconnected in their 40s & 50s, when other people their age become reinvested in their faith community?

Are churches needlessly banging their heads against a wall while trying to figure out what to do with the 13 - 30 crowd?

Should we invest our denominational efforts in creating para-church entities that take the place of a congregational focus? (A.k.a. create a theologically-sound alternative to Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ.)

* * *

My tendency is to say that the church, which is the body of Christ, must remain central in the ministry that it does with people of all ages and stages in the journey. I'd like to think that we can be all things to all people. I subscribe to the theory that most churches have become (for lack of a better word) LAZY when it comes to engaging youth and young adults in meaningful ways...and there are lots of people / organizations that will gladly fill the void.

The big question, of course, is "how do we do this?" How does an established, mainline, intergenerational congregation go about nurturing faith among those in their teens and 20s?

Please provide the correct answer below. Thanks...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

You Go Girl!

Dwight mentioned this video in the comments section of the Confused post. I thought it was worth embedding here:

I have gotten to know Tammy through synod coordinator work for the 2006 & 2009 ELCA Youth Gatherings. We usually sit together in the back of the room at the "naughty table" during meetings. I love her passion, fire, and attitude about Youth & Family Ministry. Here's hoping that her address to the NC synod assembly inspires other leaders like her!

Saturday, June 6, 2009


My name is Erik, and I'm a Church Nerd.

My addiction?

Finding out what happens at ELCA synod assemblies.

Facebook status updates, Twitter hashtags, and blogs only make it easier for me to troll around and find out what's going on around the denomination...which, of course, feeds the need for more official (and, more importantly, UNofficial) information of what's going on.

It seems that every assembly is having lengthy discussions about the sexuality resolutions that are being voted on at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in August. Synods aren't just taking about the resolutions...they're discussing 50% + 1 vs. 2/3 majority...they're voting on whether or not to affirm the resolutions...they're going into "committee of the whole" discussions that lead to additional resolutions and more voting. Suffice it to say, thus far, synod assemblies have once again been defined by sexuality debates.

I just have one question: WHY?

To my knowledge, there is no authority in what the synods are voting on at this point. Even if all 65 synods voted in favor of or against the resolutions, it wouldn't really matter. At this stage of the game, the only votes of significance are those cast at the Churchwide Assembly. Synod delegates to the Assembly are not required to vote on behalf of their synodical what's the point of voting as a synod if the delegates are going to vote their conscience in August?

Synod assemblies are intended to be a celebration of the past year's ministry and a look ahead to the coming year. It's a time to worship, pray, discuss, and join in fellowship. It's a time to bring people together to talk about mutual ministry and share successes and failures within congregations. Therefore, why make another year of synodical work boil down to an argument about whether or not openly gay pastors can serve churches, or if the church should be allowed to bless the unions of same-sex couples? Haven't we been down this road a time or two?

Perhaps I'm just tired of so much time, money, energy, and PR being poured into this conversation. Maybe I just think we need to focus more resources on feeding hungry people, working for immigration reform, giving better support to rostered and non-rostered leaders, and figuring out why our church has been shrinking for most of my lifetime. Sexuality (and, by extension, the church's view thereof) is important...but shouldn't dominate.

And yet, for another year, the 65 synods of our beloved ELCA will be mired in a debate that cannot be won...about a topic that most people cannot a church body that has given the decision-making authority to a group of 1,000 people that won't gather for another 2 months.

Friday, June 5, 2009


It's time to start blogging again. My head is filling up with lots of idea and I feel the need to release them from captivity. This may or may not impact you, the faithful koinonia reader, but I thought I'd at least make it known that I want to start writing on this site a little more.

Not only do I have the desire to get back at it, but I have more time to invest in the blog...mainly because my all of my other outside writing projects have been put on pause.

Here are some things I hope to cover in the weeks ahead:

  • Pastor Search. Our congregation is starting to interview senior pastor candidates. The thoughts I share will be more about process than people.
  • Luthermergent. I'm getting excited about some upcoming "emergent" events, as well as some changes to the site.
  • Family Time. My church schedule shifts in the summer, so I am home in the mornings. It will be fun create an A.M. routine with the kiddos.
  • Youth Ministry Planning. Sharing thoughts on the process of putting together events for the school year.
  • VBS. We're doing Bible School in a different way this year.
  • Doug Pagitt Live Occurrence. We're hosting one at the end of the month. I'm enthused.
  • Sexuality Stuff. Lots of interesting things going on in the church on this topic. I'm conflicted...sort of. Will share more observations.
There might be a few other things, but those are a few topics that are ruminating in my brain for the time being.

Stay tuned for details...