Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lutherans Are Lazy

There is a salutary aspect to Lutheran laziness I condone and celebrate. It can be summarized in the simple bon mot:

The Lutheran form of sanctification is a nap.

This is most certainly true. Emphasized here is a) sanctification is something done to us, not something we accomplish, and b) holiness, at least in part, is marked by rest, peace, stillness, quiet.

But this is not what I mean when I say that Lutherans are lazy.

Being Busy is a Form of Laziness

What I mean, to be precise, is that when Lutherans hit an impasse, begin to struggle, find themselves in decline, for the most part they simply expend more and greater energy on the very things that weren't working in the first place.

In this sense, being busy is a form of laziness. Churches not reaching new people in a city just start a church in that same city, and in a form pretty much similar to, and reaching the same kind of people as, the churches that already exist, perhaps with a hipster twist.

By and large, Lutherans invest their energy (if they invest any energy at all) in reaching people groups within our own cultural orbit. It requires people to come to us, and to be pretty much in the same economic, cultural, and language class as ourselves. We reach people who already self-identify as Lutheran, or at least liberal Protestant or liturgical or denominational, etc. And we expect people to come to us.

And we invest lots and lots and lots and lots of energy trying to reach this increasingly diminishing and shrinking group, and we wonder why we are not growing as a church (and yes, I know someone is going to post a comment on this thread that we are shrinking because we are liberal or apostate or whatever--so just in advance, I think you're wrong. We're shrinking because we are lazy).

It's too hard

What we don't do (because it is hard, and remember, we are lazy) is reach people at considerable cultural distance from ourselves (I've linked here to a 19 minute lecture by Alan Hirsch that is worth watching, unless you are too lazy. He points out that 90% of church ministries are designed to reach at best about 35% of the U.S. population. 65% of people in our country are simply not even a "target"for our church's ministries. Hirsch says this is a strategic problem. I say it is proof of our laziness).

We rarely cross language barriers or deep cultural barriers. We seldom try to reach the very rich, or the very poor. We are concerned that sharing the gospel with those of another religious tradition might be colonialist or something.

Heck, we won't even move to places where there are very few Lutherans.

Want proof? Just drive south from my home (Fayetteville, Arkansas) to Texarkana. Once you are south of Fort Smith, try to find an ELCA congregation. Try to find an ELCA congregation in Texarkana, a rather large city. Or, drive West across Oklahoma, then west across Kansas. Try to find Lutheran communities in those places.

Search on the ELCA web site for churches in Mississippi or Louisiana.

Better yet, try to find a Lutheran pastor or missionary with intentions to go to these places, either as a tent-maker or with mission support. Or, come ask my congregation how hard it was to find a Lutheran pastor willing to move to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Then go ask the synod staff in Minneapolis, Minnesota whether they have any problems finding Lutheran pastors or missionaries willing to re-locate to the Twin Cities to work in a church.

Better still, try to find a Lutheran circuit rider who is going to go out and visit many different communities like these and try to establish new worshipping communities. Find people willing to immerse themselves in other cultures, learn other languages, move their families into significantly different economic neighborhoods and cultures.

So what to do?

Yes, we do have many ethnic ministry tables, and we are finding some small ways to reach new peoples and cultures. And we have some shining stars in our church who have, often at significant personal cost, moved to the margins and the fringes and immersed themselves in new cultures and places.

But mostly we don't, and we have a glut of clergy living in culturally Lutheran centers while my synod (Arkansas-Oklahoma, not Lutheran central), for example, currently has 15 of 53 congregations without a pastor.

Mostly we are engaging in organizational insanity, "trying to achieve significantly different results by doing exactly the same thing better." It's not even clear that most of us, or most of our communities, are doing exactly the same thing better. Perhaps we are, in some places. But what we are not doing is trying to achieve significantly different results by doing different, radically different, things.

And when people read this, even when I read what I have just written, when I start imaging "radically different," I'm still too lazy to imagine truly radically different things. Mostly I'll just tweak it in order to accommodate my own culture, with a little zest thrown in.

We try to resolve the problems of the church with the same kinds of thinking that caused the problems in the first place. Often we get very, very good at this. And certainly there is always need to bring the gospel even to those who are culturally close to us.

But this is still laziness. And it lacks true courage.

So what then should we do? (Acts 2:37)

1. Move. More of us, more leaders, such as pastors and missionaries, need to move. For some, this will mean moving geographically, to new places with unreached people groups. Texarkana would be a good start. For others, this will mean getting out of the office, and out of the culture in which you currently reside, to be with people right in your own town (perhaps even right across the street) that are culturally distant from you.

2. Do less. This is counter-intuitive, if your goal is to be less lazy, but actually in order to go and do more mission, you're going to need to do less of the crazy stuff, trying to achieve significantly different results by doing exactly the same thing better. So stop it. Open up some space to actually do different things.

3. Take a vow of poverty. More of us are going to need to figure out how to sacrifice our comfort and safety, life in the geographical places and cultures where we currently live, and among the economic waters we currently swim in, to actually be where those at cultural distance from us actually live. Perhaps you will need to divest yourself of your own language in order to speak the language of someone else. That's a radical kind of poverty, and we need more of it.

4. Which brings me back to--move. We aren't going to have a movement without moving. And we can no longer say, "Somebody else can do this. I'm quite happy here in Lutheran heartland." This is a big country, with increasing numbers of people who are honestly not hearing the gospel. This is a call. And it is going to require legitimate, hard, and sustained work. From me. From you.


  1. 1. is laziness the same as sloth?

    2. I agree with you, even though I live in Minneapolis, one of the places that Lutherans are lazy enough to want to live in. But you live in Fayetteville, which means you perhaps are one of the few Lutherans who are not lazy. Good for you.

  2. No, I'm probably still lazy, because I pastor one of the largest Lutheran communities in the state. True courage would be to move to Texarkana and start a brand new community. :)

  3. Dear Clint,

    Right on, bro! You're making some important points that impinge on the olde myth of the "Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism," ideas long since turned inside out and back wards by non-lazy and/or non-Lutheran pundits from Thor Veblen to Bob Herhold to Gilles DeLeuze to Robert Reich to Paul Tillich. Lutherans, like rabbis, can teach the world that just to BE is a Blessing, Pax, Dave Bühler

  4. Move -- or in some cases (like inner ring suburban Detroit) be stubborn, work your but off, and STAY.

  5. Tim, I definitely agree that sometimes staying is in the same spirit as my encouragement to move. And Dave, help me understand a bit more the connection between my post and the folks you are mentioning like Thor Veblen and DeLeuze. Thanks!

  6. I agree, Clint - for me here in Rockford, Il, we have many Lutheran churches, but few who are reaching the diverse population on the west side of our city. The place we need to move is literally across the street from our church building - the mission field is all around us.

  7. Anne Andert is doing some good work right up the road from you, Eric. Do you know her? In Janesville?

  8. Who wants to move and expose their children to sub-standard housing, schools and lifestyles? Do you seriously want your children to live around people who get pregnant when teenagers or who can't read at 15?
    So long as most Mainline Protestant pastors are married with families, very few people will want to risk contact with the "unreached"; touching them is often dangerous.

  9. Distantly related, just saw this:

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. via Lutheran Satire:

  10. fyi -- we have a pretty good Lutheran presence in Japan, and I'll tell you right now, there are very few Lutherans there.