October 22, 2020

Reformation 500: How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (1)

Note from CM: It is October 2017, and many of our posts this month will be about the Reformation. This year marks 500 years since Luther’s 95 Theses, and we will do our best to look at the subsequent world-changing events and movements from as many perspectives as possible.

We begin with my own personal journey. This week, I will re-post about why I am now a Christian who practices my faith in the Lutheran tradition.

• • •

Reformation 500
How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (1)

I have come to peace with my place in the tradition of the Church. My new personal statement of identity is:

“I am a Christian, and I practice my faith in the Lutheran tradition.”

I am the first to admit that I have a long way to go in understanding all that this means, but in a few posts over the next couple of days I want to highlight distinctive Lutheran teachings that, in my view, answer many concerns about the revivalistic evangelicalism I have left behind.

Before I do, let me first reiterate in this first post what I mean when I say I’m a “post-evangelical,” and that I no longer see myself as being within the church system known broadly as “American evangelicalism.” We speak a lot around here about being in the “post-evangelical wilderness,” but perhaps some of you are new and are wondering what we mean by that.

When I speak of “American evangelicalism,” I am describing those churches, many of which are non-denominational, whose theology and practice has its roots in the revivalist awakenings of the 1800’s. Many pinpoint Charles Finney (1792-1875) as the “Father of Modern Revivalism.” Finney, a Presbyterian, introduced “new measures” into church meetings, emphasized conversion and spiritual enthusiasm, as well as social and missional activism. His emphasis on revival paved the way for the later mass revival preaching of D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

At this same period of time, in frontier areas like Kentucky and Tennessee, the Second Great Awakening was spreading like wildfire through “camp meetings” characterized by passionate evangelistic preaching and emotional calls for public acceptance of salvation. One significant new practice in these revivals was the “altar call,” during which sinners came forward to receive salvation (Finney had adopted a Methodist practice called “the anxious bench”).

The churches that were formed out of these awakenings developed a revivalistic style of “worship.” When they gathered, services were no longer patterned after the traditional liturgy of Word and Table, but instead followed a threefold model of Preparation/Preaching/Invitation. The “song service” was designed to warm the hearts of the people. The preaching was emotionally charged and intended to bring people to a crisis of decision. The invitation gave them the chance to make whatever spiritual decision the Lord was convicting them to make.

The Southern Baptist church tradition to which Michael Spencer belonged and in which I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager has been famously devoted to practicing church this way.

When I went to Bible college, I was introduced to a variation of the revivalist tradition that emphasized doctrine and teaching rather than evangelism (Robert Webber writes about this as well.) This part of the tradition developed through the doctrinal battles between fundamentalists and modernists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading many conservatives to separate from mainline Protestantism into independent churches and splinter denominations. At the same time, the development of dispensational theology and the popular appeal of tools like the Scofield Study Bible led to an emphasis on Bible study. For a time, there was a significant split between “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism,” as the latter sought to be less separatistic and more involved in mainline churches, academies of higher learning, and secular culture. The difference remains, but further developments we’ll address in a moment have lessened the distinctions.

In the “Bible teaching” churches, the same revivalistic patterns characterized the “worship” service, but the emphasis was different. The churches held up before us as examples in those days were not the ones that had emotionally persuasive evangelists in the pulpit, but Bible teachers who could “rightly divide the Word of Truth.” Expository preaching and teaching was the job of the pastor and the purpose for gathering as a church was for the edification of the saints, not primarily the conversion of sinners. The latter was to be done through personal evangelism and special evangelistic meetings and programs. I recall when some of us used overhead projectors and put detailed inserts in the bulletin on which people could take notes and learn their Bibles through the teaching. John MacArthur has been a consistent example of this “pastor-teacher” approach (though with a distinctly net-reformed emphasis), as have been those who have graduated from such schools as Dallas Theological Seminary.

Then, in the 1970’s, a movement that began to combine various revivalistic traditional emphases morphed into a powerful new force in American Christian culture — the Church Growth movement. Donald McGavran’s book Understanding Church Growth and the founding of The Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission are commonly viewed as foundational to this movement.

As I experienced and observed the development of the church growth philosophy, it combined

(1) an emphasis on the Great Commission as the raison d’etre for the church’s existence in the world,

(2) an emphasis on teaching — however, it was teaching that moved away from doctrine and toward practical emphases such as “equipping the saints” for service by helping them find and use their spiritual gifts,

(3) a cultural emphasis on “relevance” that depended on sociological research to understand and reach one’s “target audience,”

(4) a corporate model taken from the American entrepreneurial tradition of charismatic leadership, pragmatic decision-making, and a programmatic approach to reaching people and building churches that would grow numerically.

At the same time the church growth movement was gaining ground, parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ were going strong, the “charismatic movement” was growing and infiltrating a broad range of Christian groups, breaking down distinctions and leading to a more experiential and less doctrinaire approach to faith, and an American evangelical subculture was expanding exponentially through contemporary Christian music (CCM) and the Christian book and media market. In addition, Christians were becoming more involved in the public sphere and politics through the “Christian Right” and the “culture wars.”

The 1970’s proved to be pivotal. “Evangelicalism” came of age and became a vocal, visible force in American culture. What we have seen in the years since — the seeker movement, megachurches, the purpose-driven church movement, etc., as well as, I might add, various post-evangelical movements — has been primarily further development of and response to the many developments that brought evangelicalism new public visibility during that decade.

In broad terms, this is the American evangelicalism that I have known. This is also the evangelicalism that Michael Spencer wrote about in his famous articles, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” In May 2010, after Michael’s sad passing, I wrote a series of posts called, “My Issues with Evangelicalism.” In those pieces, I identified three main areas of disillusionment with the culture of American evangelicalism: (1) Worship, (2) Pastoral Ministry, (3) Missional living.

Let me say, by way of concluding this overview, that I have been thrilled with what I have learned and experienced in the Lutheran tradition with regard to these three areas.

  • The Word and Table liturgy of the Lutheran church, rooted in the historic tradition of the church rather than the revivalist movement, restores the priority of worship in the local congregation.
  • Pastors are not CEO’s or program directors in the Lutheran church as they have become in much of evangelicalism. Rather, they represent Christ in distributing the means of grace through Word and Sacrament. Preaching is embedded in the liturgy so that worship does not revolve around the charisma of the preacher, but the Word Himself who meets us in the gathering of his people. Pastoral care and catechizing the congregation are essential components of his or her work.
  • The doctrine of vocation is one of the gifts the Lutheran tradition has given to the larger Church. Luther, himself a monk, came to appreciate the priesthood of all believers and the integrity of every calling, “sacred” or “secular,” as a means of showing Christ’s love to the world.

This is just a start in showing how the Lutheran tradition has answered some of my concerns with the system of evangelicalism dominant in America today.


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    Hi Chaplain Mike,

    I look forward to this month’s entries from you.

    The Reformation is being celebrated in my Church extravagantly this month and I look to you for further explanation of Luther’s theses and how it applies to the current day.
    At my Church, much joy, music and song and good preaching. (Did I mention celebratory dinners? I know this is a sideline but it binds the faithful together.)

    I have the feeling the Church needs to compile a new set of theses and challenge the splintering of the Christian Congregations World wide. Fragmentation of the faith is not going to enhance the reflection of the Christian faith to those out there who might be seekers.
    Too many ‘We are right’ ,- ‘You are not’, denominations springing up.

    I can only speak for Australia but even in my home town we have far too many say ‘We are right’.
    We need show unity if the Christian faith is to emerge at the end of this Century intact.

    May God be our helper.


  2. Susan Dumbrell says

    Las Vegas,
    as little as they are, my prayers are with the loved ones in Las Vegas.
    How can we equate the glory of God in these terrible events.
    My heart aches.
    Trump is busy, sleeping. URGH
    Prayers for all involved. I pray God will be with all those involved.
    May His mercy comfort them,
    I can only send my prayers.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Better sleeping than on Twitter.
      Especially since what happened in Vegas while horrible doesn’t sound like a Presidential thing. These days we seem to appeal to the President on everything, like he’s going to fly out in-person and give us a magical mommy kiss that fixes everything. We’re expecting too much. (Especially a problem when you have a Prez who runs the office according to his business corporate culture — a one-man show with everyone else supporting cast around The Great One.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And now, 10-12 hours in, we’re starting to see the usual suspects surface. Activists first (“50+ people dead, 400 wounded? What An Opportunity to Advance MY Agenda!”). I’m wondering when all the Conspiracy Theories will start making the rounds of the Web.

      Just from the audio of the shooting, it sounded like a machine gun — full-auto at a cyclic rate of about 600 rounds a minute (what you’d expect from about .30 caliber; the larger the caliber/round, the slower the rate of fire), firing continuously for 40-50 rounds (four to five seconds) between what were probably reload pauses.

    • I’m reading stories about people who helped others escape and survive; some of them gave up their own lives to do so. It’s the only thing that gives me hope in the face of such meaningless evil.

      There are more things to admire in men than to despise… — Albert Camus

  3. senecagriggs says

    C.M., in your Lutheran denomination, are pastors assigned/recommended by the denomination or are they individually called by the local church?

    • Churches call their own pastors.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        What is the pastor supply like these days? Are there enough to ‘go around’?

        I’ve heard talk of a resurgence in seminaries, both Catholic and in some Protestant denominations.

        • The ELCA, in my view, is facing a life-threatening shortage of pastors.

          • My background is with the LCMS and their issue seems to be a shortage of churches and a shortage of pastors who are, for lack of a better term, normal people. In my limited view of their churches (not involved much any more but family members are) they are having trouble finding men to enter the seminaries who don’t have all sorts of psychological issues. Ultra conservative political views seems to be a requirement. I know it is driving people away because I know some of them.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > The invitation gave them the chance to make whatever spiritual decision the
    > Lord was convicting them to make.

    It is fascinating, to me anyway, that this arose against a nearly untainted Christian back-drop. However defacto that Christianity may have been it is easy to suspect that the impulse was for differentiation as much as anything else; the tenants of the Church Growth Movement, but in the context of frontier America.

    Some may fear the entanglement of Religion and Politics; but the entanglement with Marketing is the greater threat to both.

    > the purpose-driven church movement, …

    I was there. I read the books. I went to the meetings.
    I never understood what it was about.
    It rested on a solid foundation of “Duh. You aren’t saying anything even remotely novel” and from there built a tower up into “Huh? What? #vague”.
    I never managed to find the ‘take away’ of what all those words was meant to be; it seemed to prescribe exactly what everyone was already doing, kinda, maybe.
    All those awards and accolades . . . #baffling.
    Still bugs me to this day, all those otherwise clearly intelligent people, seemingly so impressed by *that*.

  5. Considering the Protestant tradition, there are three aspects that are foundational to Luther’s contemporary relevance. First, to be realistic. Would it be sophistry to deny that there is much nobility and moral beauty in human life everywhere. Luther did not deny it. But the incontrovertible point is that even this human goodness is tainted. It is far less disinterested, wholehearted, deep-rooted and stable than good and educated people suppose. Moderns became affronted by terminology of original sin and total corruption, yet have nevertheless to rediscover the reality for which such terms stood. Secondly, to be existential. Perhaps Pascal’s Memorial best describes this aspect of Luther’s relevance. The Encyclopedia Britannica referred to it as some lines of incoherent and strongly mystical devotion. Really? It could serve as commentary on Luther’s attitude to the whole Bible as “the crib wherein Christ is laid”. Thirdly, Luther abounds in paradox. He is too close to Semitic genius to endure a strictly systematic theology( even if some successors reach it, alas). I’ll mention five aspects that need parallel takes. Law and gospel, justification by faith, assurance of believers(doubt), “Gabe” and “Aufgabe”(gift and task), and the calling and the church. Each deserves more of Luther’s take. Please take my two cents as from a contemporary Methodist who was catechized Lutheran.

    • It’s Luther’s love and embrace of paradox that makes him an important theologian to me, despite his many social and religious flaws. I like Barth for the same reason, though I see far fewer social and religious flaws in him than in Luther.

  6. Interesting your take on history of evangelism. The more interesting and recent event is the explosion of “empowerment” churches that preach that if you have positive thoughts you will have a successful life. Osteen may be the most well known, but the next generation have taken it to a whole new level. All new mega-churches in my area are based on this.

    • Which puts the megachurch movement a solid 15 years behind the wider culture. As usual. :-/

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …“empowerment” churches that preach that if you have positive thoughts you will have a successful life.

      Just the 21st Century version of “Power of Positive Thinking” on steroids.

    • The last gasp of the Boomer church generation. I don’t see a lot of Millennials embracing this trend unless they’ve been conditioned to.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Yep. That kind of thinking will always have a following; but I do not see it holding much influence longer term.

  7. Ronald Avra says

    Thanks for the synopsis. I find it baffling that many Christians that I encounter are so willing to aggressively assert a singular correctness for their faith practice when a brief overview as this clearly reveals the waves of change that pass through popular American Christian culture.

  8. Burro [Mule] says

    This post touches on one of my deepest inquietudes. At one time in my life, your description of frontier revivalism I would have called Christianity, because it fit my experience so well. I went from having little or no interest in the Bible to a consuming interest in it in just under a week. Revivalistic Protestantism gave me the vocabulary for what happened to me; ‘born again’, ‘giving your heart to Jesus’, ‘personal Lord and Saviour’, etc.’ It never dawned on me that the staid, undemonstrative church of my parents and grandparents (the RCA) was in the same line of business.

    Now I can kind of see it as Christianity 1.0 vs Christianity 2.0. My thoroughly revivalistic wife is always asking me about certain figures in European history ‘Were they Christians or not?’ I keep trying to explain Christianity 1.0 to her – before about 1800, you were baptized into a particular Church and grew up as a believer. How fervent or how ‘good’ a Christian you were depended on yourself. Some, like Saint Francis, Johann Sebastian Bach, or St Seraphim of Sarov, were very good Christians indeed. Others, like Louis XIV, Bismarck, or Modest Mussorgsky, maybe not so good.

    The problem is that Christianity 1.0 doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe what happened to my wife and I . Orthodoxy in particular seems almost embarrassed to talk about conversions, preferring to deal with things sacramentally. Actually, I am coming to prefer this as well, although I don’t know why. My wife says it’s because it gets me off the hook from having to pester people about making a ‘decision’ for Christ, and at times I agree with her. I never liked that part of Christianity 2.0.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      That is a legitimate criticism.

      I wonder if Christianity 1.0 *DID* have vocabulary for that, but it is now lost in time; having faded away in what was, for appearances anyway, a pervasively “Christian” culture. Not that it much matters, now is now.

      Pervasive literacy has certainly changed our vocabulary and interactions as well.

    • Can we have Christianity 1.2? Like let’s revert back a version but put in some quality of life upgrades. Maybe even 1.2.1.

      2.0 was a misstep. Maybe 3.0 will be better.

      Eventually tho we’ll get to Christianity X.14.3.5 and life will have no meaning.

    • Mule,

      would the Orthodox vocabulary around “enlightenment” work? Though I can’t quickly find an exact definition (if there is one), the way the word is used in liturgical prayer and other places leads me to understand it as a deep inner move (possibly in a moment but also as the result of a process over longer time), focused on Christ, ignited by the Holy Spirit and propelled by some sort of experience of God’s love, that arouses desire toward greater union with Christ.

      This could occur before baptism, even though the words describing the newly baptized’s condition are “justified, illumined, sanctified, washed”. From everything I have read, it is a part or effect of the Sacraments, but it also describes experiences people have had that are not connected to a specific sacrament, or what happens when people hear about Jesus and want to come into the Church. Try it on and see how it fits.


    • I am a practicing Anglican.

      Repentance is part of our eucharistic liturgy. All that needs to happen is the priest teaches into what this really means. A few sessions on ‘how do we work this out’.

      I come from a revivalistic background. We did NOT have anything like weekly repentance. In most liturgical traditions it is there, but often not explained.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My wife says it’s because it gets me off the hook from having to pester people about making a ‘decision’ for Christ…

      Two words: WRETCHED URGENCY:

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The “song service” was designed to warm the hearts of the people. The preaching was emotionally charged and intended to bring people to a crisis of decision. The invitation gave them the chance to make whatever spiritual decision the Lord was convicting them to make.

    Which by the 1970s had become:

    “The Song Service” had less emphasis than the other two; since then, it’s been retitled “Worship Experience” and emphasized more with slicker and slicker production values.

    “Emotionally Charged Preaching” of Fear and Guilt to “Scare ‘Em Into the Kingdom”. Anything to get them down that aisle, including lurid descriptions of Nuclear War (as Prophesied by Hal Lindsay) and/or other global disaster. Get them terrified.

    “Whatever Spiritual Decision had become “The Sinner’s Prayer” and nothing else.

    The Southern Baptist church tradition to which Michael Spencer belonged and in which I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager has been famously devoted to practicing church this way.

    Which then must have diffused into all the Non-Denoms and independent Fellowships(TM). Because during my time in-country I experienced NOTHING else. Four Spiritual Laws, Romans Road, Jack Chick, High-Pressure Sinner’s Prayer, “How Many have YOU Led to Christ Today?” (Tsk, Tsk…)

    “Non-Denominational — you know, Baptist with the labels painted over?”

    • “Emotionally Charged Preaching” is another good thing to add to my list of replies when people ask “So what are you looking for in a church?” As in I’d look for a church that does not have that.

      “But Christianity isn’t a buffet.”

      Bull crap. It totally is.

      • Always has been. It’s just that throughout most of history, a few were making selections from the buffet for all the others; not so much now.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A lot of “Emotionally Charged Preaching” strikes me as all-surface, with little or no depth beneath.

  10. Steve Newell says

    I grew up in SBC churches but now I am a member of a Lutheran (LCMS) church.

    One of the biggest differences I first noted is that all of the SBC churches I was a member of had no concept of Church History while many LCMS churches have chained themselves to history, which is both good and bad.

    Growing up, I never heard the Lord’s Prayer prayed during worship, we did not recite any of the creeds (I didn’t even know what the creeds where), the Lord’s Supper was once a quarter on the last Sunday Night of the quarter, and we never had more than one bible reading as part of worship. Also, there were many theological questions that the SBC did not provide a good understanding of why they believed what they believes; for example why is infant baptism not scriptural but an age of accountability is or what to do with the passages about how baptism saves us.

    I now have a appreciate for these aspects of the Church that the American brand of Christianity has chosen to discard.

  11. In a lecture or two that I heard in years past, N.T. Wright draws parallels between the general development of Evangelicalism and the philosophical trends in Europe, on which I here elaborate:

    The Enlightenment was characterized by a rationalism that wanted to define and systematize knowledge, and later on, reduce them to their simplest parts. The idea of the Encyclopedia was born at this time. Luther “reduced” a lot of previous doctrine, and sacraments, to what he considered essential; Word and Table. Calvin wrote “The Institutes” – very systematized. In this Classical era (generally well into the 1700s), only what was recorded in writing – in the wake of the printing press generating a sea of documents – was to be believed. In Protestant thought, rationalism and factuality reigned: doctrine was emphasized, and the facts in which one could believe – of course, logically traceable to written evidence (Scripture). Balance was the ideal. At the other end of the pendulum swing, the idea that there is no God was first floated.

    Philosophers/Literaries of Note: Locke, Voltaire, Russeau, Spinoza, Kant, A. Smith, J. Austen.
    Composers: Bach & other Baroque masters (who could be very emotional, but working within strict compositional rules), moving neatly toward Mozart & Classicists; rise of the sonata-allegro form.

    Then came the Romantic movement (mostly 1800s), where only what happened **inside** a person had any meaning. The truth of one’s emotions and inner life was the ideal. Mythos – as opposed to bare fact – was highlighted.

    Philosophers/Literaries: Goethe, Coleridge, Kirkegaard, ETA Hoffman, the Shelleys, Dickens.
    Composers: Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner.

    When we get to the 20th century, philosophy told us that only an existential act was meaningful – didn’t matter what made us do it, it was the act itself. Add in the despair of WWI. Rules got us into these messes! Emphasis again on reductionism, sometimes on the transcendental.

    Philosophers/Literaries: Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus.
    Composers: R. Strauss, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich.

    Now to the aggregation of these movements into American Evangelicalism and its understanding of how to get right with God:
    Reduce Doctrine & Teaching to the bare minimum requirements for “becoming a Christian”, facts based on written evidence – Enlightenment;
    employ Second Great awakening revivalism -Romantic (“song service” turns people toward their feelings and the sermons trade on charged emotions, stressing the meaningfulness of interiority and rejection of anything external such as Law);
    urge people toward “making a decision” – an Existential act (which results in transcendence of a sort) – and in Pentecostal circles the Holy Spirit bringing an existential experience of God that transcends Rules.

    Makes sense to me. And it also accounts for the rise of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.


    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Hmmm. I believed in that narrative for a long time, or something like it.

      I now believe that, primarily, all those Teachers and Ideologues were chasing the breeze, not creating it.

      This arc can be principally explained in Economic terms – most especially beginning with The Reformation: with the rise of mercantilism, and the subsequent rise of finance, creating a literate class of growing power that chaffed against the onerous church-state hegemony of the day [its heavy taxation and rigid territorialism]. The birth of the proto-proto-middle-class.

      And down through history the song remains the same: Philosophers and Theologians mostly spinning new webs devised to stroke the economic and technological sentiments/anxieties of their day. Followers mostly, more codifying the mood of an age than drafting it.

      • I agree. Intellectuals (including theologians and philosophers) don’t have nearly the causative effect on society and history that they as a class like to think. But they are good at convincing their own class, and others, that they have that effect, and at making a living as academics and consultant-experts on the basis of that spurious claim.

      • I think it can be all of a piece. Certainly uneducated folks were more interested in the economic practicalities than the philosophy, but I think it all intertwined, one thing feeding on the other, back and forth. And a very strong expression of it was the rise of revivalism, leading to the most common understanding of “how one gets right with God” in non-sacramental Protestantism.


    • Interesting take on things, Dana.

      Several weeks ago, I watched the PBS documentary on Luther. It struck me that the selling of Indulgences that so irritated Luther was really the first iteration of the Christian marketing that is so prevalent now. Buy this “Jesus Junk” and you’ll get something! Blessings, spiritual comfort, joy, faith strengthening, whatever, much like the Indulgences brought you or your loved ones a shorter stay in Purgatory. In the end, what it’s all about is making money for someone off of others’ spiritual needs and seeking.
      I often wonder what Luther would think of the great Ark Adventure in Kentucky…

      • “I often wonder what Luther would think of the great Ark Adventure in Kentucky…”

        I imagine his response would be very NSFW… :lol

      • That Other Jean says

        I suspect there would be a huge ink splat somewhere near the door of the Ark. Too bad he missed again.