A few thoughts on Mission and Evangelism at St. John Lutheran Church, Frisco, TX – a new mission plant
I have been an LCMS pastor for more than a decade. I converted to Lutheranism in college from the ‘creeds’ of the Southern Baptist/non-denominational denominations. I grew-up going door-to-door doing Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion. I was raised in churches that practiced all of the cliché church growth dogma. The church where I was confirmed as a Lutheran in college was a ‘stuffy’ TLH p.15 congregation. I was converted by the pure teaching of the Gospel and right administration of the Sacraments that were given within the setting of the historic forms of the Church. No bright lights, no pop music, no bait and switch, and no guilt-driven-evangelism, “Now get out there and save people before they are set Ablaze! because everyone is a minister/missionary.” There was a calm trust in the means of grace and a proper understanding of the doctrines of election and vocation.
I recently took a Call to a small mission congregation. I have an M.Div. from CTSFW and have received no special church planting education. Unlike the established ‘maintenance ministry’ that I have known, I find myself wrestling with the temptation to try to “grow the church.” And, I’ll be honest, there is a desire to reach the lost, but also the seemingly cold reality of my daily bread tied to numbers for sustainability. This is a pressure that I have never known before; and I’d guess my brothers faithfully serving small or shrinking congregations are thinking, “Welcome to the club.” Yes, a small mission congregation and her pastor feels this pressure more so than large established ones. I believe even our Synod as whole feels this pressure as numbers have been declining for decades. See this recent LCMS report for their analysis for the reasons why. It is a longer read, but can be summed-up as, in my opinion, the birth-rate is down (though they are unwilling to condemn child prevention).
Yes, I agree that the primary place that fruitful multiplication happens is in the home. My wife delivered our fifth child in March of 2017; he was the first baptism at our mission congregation. God gives children as He wills in marriage and parents take the children to the font and pulpit (Matt. 28), while also teaching the faith in the home (Deut. 6). I also agree that a lower birthrate is the major reason our churches are smaller and it has little do with a change in zeal for reaching the lost. I am also clear that it is better for a father and mother to teach the faith at the dinner table and night instead of leaving the God-given vocation to peruse a self-chosen form of ‘evangelism’ by going to knock on doors like vacuum salesmen; again, this is simply the proper understanding of the doctrine of vocation.
I am also clear that within our God-given vocations we encounter our unbelieving neighbors (often extended family) and we are free to speak the Gospel and give a defense for the hope that we have to them privately and invite them to church to hear preaching and God’s Word. So, I, as the pastor, should encourage these Biblical models of ‘church growth.’ But, what about all of the man-made programs? Should they be categorically rejected? Is there a place for cold calls? How much time and effort should a local congregation and her pastor spend in acts of mercy in the community?
I have been meeting with church planters and trying to learn all that I can. Some of it is food for thought. Some of it sounds more Baptist than Lutheran. As a small mission congregation, we have no building or programs at this time. We rent a hotel conference room and offer the Divine Service, Bible studies, and Catechism classes. I will encourage my members in the Biblical models of evangelism mentioned above. But, what else should we be doing? We can’t compete with the programs of the non-denominational mega churches—nor should we. Unlike my brothers in dying rural areas, we are in a large and fast growing suburb of Dallas and the only liturgical and confessional LCMS congregation in our area.—we even have the word Lutheran in our church’s name. We just launched a new website and are trying to make it known that we exist in many and various ways—think advertising. We are friendly to visitors, and lovingly practice closed communion. We are getting involved in our city as best we can—food pantries and such. But, again, our presence is tiny compared to the big-box churches. Can we trust that Jesus’ words–that disciples are made by baptizing and teaching–will suffice? Can we calmly trust in vocational evangelism and the doctrine of election? Or, do we need to, “change or die?”
I know this is more of a ramble or stream of consciousness than an article, but why stop now? Here is my broader understanding of Missions and Evangelism as it is put into practice today. I am open to correction and encouragement.
If you study the book of Acts and the start of the New Testament Church, you can learn a lot about Missions and Evangelism. The word evangelism simply means the “good message.” Whenever the Good News (Gospel) is proclaimed that is evangelism. Every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. at St. John Lutheran Church, I, as a Called and Ordained servant of the Word, am evangelizing—that is I am publicly proclaiming the Good News. When a father and mother teach the Gospel to their children privately in the home, that is evangelism. When parents bring their babies to be baptized, that is evangelism—and the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. When you tell the Good News to a friend or coworker or invite them to come hear the Gospel preached at St. John Lutheran, Frisco, that is evangelism. Unlike Holy Communion, which is only for those who have been instructed in the faith, the preaching of the Gospel is for all to hear. Notice in Jesus’ ministry that He preached to great crowds and in the synagogues, but only invited his disciples to the Upper Room for the Sacrament of the Altar.
The word mission is the sending and taking the Good Message to new locations—Jesus traveled around preaching, chiefly in Jewish areas at established places of public worship (synagogues); after His resurrection and before His ascension He sent His disciples with authority to forgive sins, that is, the Good News to all nations, with the power and promise of Pentecost (Jn. 20, Matt. 28). You see what began at Pentecost beginning in Jerusalem continuing though the book of Acts and in the early church. The apostles were sent to the ends of the earth, they preached, local congregations were formed, and local pastors were appointed. The local pastors were to care for the sheep that the Holy Spirit entrusted to their care by faithfully preaching the Gospel — evangelism. They were to make disciples by baptizing and teaching all that the Lord commanded—evangelism. You see, evangelism—hearing the preaching and teaching of the Gospel– is just as much for the believer as it is for the unbeliever.
As you know, the Bible doesn’t teach once a believer always a believer. That means we don’t just move on to the next soul once someone is converted, that is, brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Gospel. ‘Evangelizing’ the wheat is just as important and ‘evangelizing’ the weeds of today. And the Gospel (evangelism) going out to all nations/the ends of the earth (missions) is still going on today and will until the Last Day—the gates of hell cannot prevail.
Our congregational history is a good example of what we find in the book of Acts. There was a lack of the pure Gospel being preached in Frisco, TX. To state is differently, there was a lack of Biblical evangelism (though not a lack of churches doing man-made programs and growing numerically). So, the Gospel went out from Judea to Plano, TX to Frisco, TX—missions. St. John mission was formed by other pastors and Christians going to Frisco to form a mission by proclaiming the Gospel—missions and evangelism. Once a congregation was established, a local pastor was then Called.
Now that we are a local congregation, like all other Lutheran congregations that were planted in different parishes, what is our role in missions and evangelism? Does our small size change what we are and do? What is the role of a local pastor and the members of a local congregation in regards to missions and evangelism inside and outside the local congregation? As I said, local pastors are Called by Christ via the sheep to shepherd His sheep. For example, I was Called by Jesus through the members of St. John to evangelize the members of St. John. Let’s call this “inside evangelism.” I am not the pastor of members of a different local congregation nor am I the pastor of the city of Frisco. I am the pastor to the sheep of St. John—to the congregation to which I am Called. From my ordination and installation vows, I am to preach and teach my members. I am to visit the sick and dying members. I am to encourage you to godly living, baptize your children, and pray for you. Most of my evangelism happens inside the Church, which is what I was Called to do. This doesn’t mean I don’t do anything outside the congregation nor does it mean my preaching isn’t forthose outside the congregation either. While it is my duty to only commune my sheep (And visitors within our Church fellowship in good standing with the consent of their pastor.)—closed communion–it is my duty to preach the Gospel on Sunday to all who will reverently hear—‘open preaching.’
Does this mean it isn’t important for the local pastor or local congregation to take this Gospel to the lost world, and that the Gospel is only for believers? By all means, no! All believers were first unbelievers. I don’t think you would find many Lutherans among us who would dispute that point. However, I think where there isn’t unity is in answering the “how”, “who”, and “when” of missions and evangelism. As to say, we all agree on the “why”. We know why there should be missions and evangelism—Christ commands it and there is a great need for it. But, how does this paly out in practice? And, what is the end goal of missions and evangelism?
Many churches make it their goal to add numbers and think that is evangelism. Nope. While it is true that the harvest (unbelievers) is plentiful and the workers (pastors) are few, this doesn’t mean numbers are our goal or ever commanded in Scripture. Churches that think numbers, not faithfulness to preaching the Gospel, makes for successful missions and evangelism spend most of their time trying to create ways to get numbers. Many think if they just come up with the right ‘special sauce’, then they will get numbers. Again, this isn’t our goal. Sure, you can add numbers in the pews with all sorts of your reason and strength, but Jesus never tells us to make that our goal. Additionally, just because you can fill the pews with ‘special sauce’ doesn’t mean one single soul was added to the Church, since this is the work of the Spirit ALONE. As our Lutheran Confessions state from Scripture, “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, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 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.” (Augsburg Confession V)
We must recognize that our sinful flesh wants to ignore the ALONE part. We think we can help the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. If we just get the right pastor, music, facility or programs—“If we build it, they will come.” We can’t grow the true Church—believers in Christ– nor is that what Jesus has commanded us to do. He doesn’t command us to be vacuum salesmen or to use the old “bait and switch” routine. His command is to preach the pure Gospel—make disciples by baptizing and teaching all that He commanded (Matt. 28). It is by the net of the Gospel alone that Jesus fishes for men. It is the proclamation of the pure Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments that makes a faithful pastor, congregation, and Synod. It is only the preaching of the Gospel that makes for successful missions and evangelism no matter the numerical results. Again, this is also the proper definition of missions and evangelism. Whenever and wherever the Gospel is preached purely— that is evangelism. And, it is through that means (means of Grace) that the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He pleases. Sometimes in some places, the Holy Spirit adds many converts to a congregation, and others times not. However, numbers in the Church are no indication of faithful evangelism or faith in Christ.
What then? Should we not tell people about Jesus or invite them to church since numbers aren’t our goal? No. Do we say, “We should all just be silent all week and show up for Divine Service on Sunday?” Members coming to Church often as they vowed in confirmation is fine for “inside evangelism”, but what about those outside the church? Do we not invite them, not advertise that our church exists, and hope unbelievers show up at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday? Of course, not.
So, what should we do? We should pray that the Lord sends workers into the field to sow His Seed. We should pray, at least daily, the best missions and evangelism prayer that Jesus teaches us—see Luther’s explanation to The Lord’s Prayer, especially, “Thy Kingdom come and Thy will be done.” As we are able, we should support the Gospel going to other geographical locations. When we can, we should support missions, planting other churches that will one day Call a local pastor, both here and abroad, just as we were started at St. John (Granted, arguably we are still in the early transition from a mission to a congregation, though formally we are the later). According to God’s will, those who are married should be fruitful and multiply and rear their children in the Church. We all should speak the Gospel in our God-given vocations as we have opportunity and invite others to come and hear Jesus though servants who preach and teach in His stead and by His command. We should enjoy Confession and Absolution when we fail in our vocations (See the rite for Individual Confession and Absolution in our hymnal p.292). We should use our reason and strength to advertise, but with a grain of salt. We should keep on repenting of our sins of trying to grow the Church and wanting earthly glory and praise. We should pray and ask the Lord to help our unbelief in His Word and Sacraments.
At St. John, may we continue to support true evangelism here and abroad, trusting that the Holy Spirit knows what He is doing when it comes to conversion. May we walk by faith and not by sight. And, by God’s grace, may we continue to call to repentance those in our Synod who have swallowed the lie of “evangelism of numbers” hook line and sinker.
“Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)
Rev. Clint Stark, Pastor
St. John LCMS of Frisco, TX (Written in the fall of 2017 A.D.)
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