If Not CRT, Then What?

Here’s a true story, related to me by someone who witnessed it.  A small church, considering departure from the ELCA, solicited questions from the congregation.  One question surprised people, but it was, apparently, asked in earnest: If we leave the ELCA, will we go back to being a church that bans people of color?

Wait—what?  “Go back”?  “Ban”?  Some questions require their own hour to answer.  Did the questioner believe that her congregation had once banned persons of color?  Why?  Also, had the questioner never heard that the ELCA is “the whitest denomination in America,” as one of its own pastors has called it (not that other Lutherans are far behind)?  What string of pastors had neglected to teach, not only Lutheran failures in racial reconciliation, but also the Lutheran church’s rich contribution to civil rights, refugee resettlement, and the fair treatment of all people in congregation, school, and institutions of care? 

I don’t know how the congregation’s leaders ultimately addressed that question, but it proves that the question of race is on people’s mind.  Lutherans want to know where it resides in their faith and church’s life.

You know this.  You can’t breathe in America and not know it.  It has dominated the news, and one particular development has especially captured recent attention: critical race theory (CRT).  In general, conservatives have balked at CRT, criticizing instances of “CRT training” that seem to demean and unfairly condemn people of European descent.  States have begun passing resolutions banning its use in government and public education.

That criticism has echoed in the church’s halls as confessing Lutherans of various stripes point out where CRT differs from the Gospel’s more liberating message of “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Yet a question lingers: if not CRT, then what?

How shall denominations, congregations, and believers critique the biases that linger within their own hearts and minds?  Are there aspects of Lutheran church culture that have made it one of the whitest denominations in America, and how might the Gospel overcome that culture?

Real Forgiveness for Real Sins

I don’t pretend to have hard and fast answers.  But as I’ve reflected on the question—and if you haven’t reflected on the question, it’s time to start, for the sake of the church you love—a few thoughts have struck me as worth sharing.  You probably already know them, but it doesn’t hurt to see them in print.  As St. Paul told the Philippians: repetition doesn’t hurt the author, and it’s good for everyone else (Philippians 3:1). 

It would all seem to start with real forgiveness for real sins.  It’s one thing to say, “We don’t rely on CRT; we preach the Gospel” (and that statement is fair and true enough), but it’s another thing so to preach that Gospel that it forgives a real sin brought to light.  Where have you, your congregation, and your denomination been blind to persons of color?  How have you or your church harmed them or rebuffed them, even if unintentionally? 

These questions are safe for you to ask (that is, they may hurt, but they are ultimately secure and good), because you know the One in whose presence you ask them: Jesus, who has carried the sins of the world.  You may let them have their way with you, critiquing, judging, and enlightening you, because you know that the more real the sin is, the more real the forgiveness that comes in Jesus’ name.  So let the sins take shape, in even startling contour, and then let the grace of Christ clothe them in a brilliant mercy that overcomes them.

The church has its own language for this kind of preaching, distinct from the vocabulary of secular justice warriors.  The Bible may not speak of racism and inequality or inequity, but it does speak of old-fashioned, rotten things like enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, pride, divisions, envy, greed, and the like.  How do these works of the flesh, unearthed for us by the Spirit, illumine our problems with race, and what is Christ’s forgiving word for them? 

Preach it, and expect that preaching to change things, including you.

“You Do Not Have Because You Do Not Ask”

St. James has his moments. The second verse of his fourth chapter might be one of the better ones: have you tried asking?  Once God has spoken to us in our sin, we speak to Him by His generous grace. Only by His Word do we have words to speak, and when His Word calls out our sins and tells us, “These sins are forgiven; there is a limit to their power; you need not live under their bondage,” then we know what to ask.  Ask Him for what He desires; ask Him for the sin to be overcome and healed; ask for your soul, your congregation, and your church to welcome the people of every nation.

There’s really not too much more to say about this call to prayer, I don’t think, except do it.  Pray daily for the Gospel that we preach and the doctrine we confess to be the means by which the Lord draws all nations to Himself.  Maybe you pray from a place where God’s answer to that prayer won’t change how your congregation or life looks very much—congregations reflect their neighborhoods, after all, and so not every congregation has to be a microcosm of “The Church,” somehow ideally diverse, and thinking that it does actually denies the catholic nature of Christ’s body—but you’re not praying for only parochial concerns.  You’re praying for the whole Church, and for the Fisherman’s net to be cast across the world.

Pray, and say the amen in the confidence of God’s faithfulness. 

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

This last suggestion (I know: there are lots more things to be said; what we have here is just a smattering) runs afoul of certain strands of church critique.  I call it (fairly, I think) the anti-institutional critique, which insists that buildings and polity and such things are irrelevant to faithfulness in mission, if not harmful to it.  To be sure, the faithfulness of a church is never measured by its stuff.  But stuff is no more irrelevant to the conduct of the ministry than our bodies are. 

What checks the sins of enmity, pride, greed, and rivalry more than for those with the most to take a weekly pilgrimage to gather with those who have the least?

God will raise our bodies, and so He calls us to steward this flesh in a certain way.  So also will He liberate creation from its bondage to decay, and so we steward creation in a certain way.  In particular, the Lutheran church should probably start paying more attention to where it lays its foundations, as in, its literal foundations. 

The church has always needed buildings for its mission.  The fact that the church first met in homes wasn’t a rejection of public buildings as much as it was the commandeering of private buildings for public use.  Throughout the church’s history, wherever missionaries spread the Gospel, they quickly built a shelter for its public proclamation, and they chose the placement of those shelters wisely.  It was an incarnational move, seeking to proclaim by the place wherein the Body gathers who and what the Body is. 

How our churches continue this ethic today may be key to understanding our problem with race.  That is, looking at our buildings and where we put them may be one way both to identify our real racial sin and to welcome God’s gracious balm for it.  For how we build has everything to do with how we use our money and why, and those economics may be the deeper root of Lutheran racial woes.

A case in point (another true story, and one repeated other places): a church in a mid-sized city had a beautiful neo-Gothic church in a busy, even crowded downtown.  Because that downtown had grown so busy, and so few of the people at the church lived there any longer, they decided to sell that building in favor of building a new house of worship far on the city’s margins, surrounded by a lush, green campus—it’s fair to say, not too different from a country club.  I knew this church a few years ago and just recently drove through its city.  I decided to check on it, and what did I find?

I found the downtown church, still a bit crumbly but nevertheless standing and beautiful,  purchased by another congregation with a more evangelical thrust and looking very well visited by a variety of people. As for the new Lutheran church—well, I almost didn’t find it.  Surrounded by beautiful green trees and a busy, suburban commercial center, it was easy to miss.  It would take effort, in fact, to find.  It would also require a car to attend, and it would take some personal courage, I imagine, to drive up to such a very nice church with anything less than a very nice car.

So in the city where this church stands, where white people comprise the Very Nice Car classes and blacks and Latinos fill cheaper housing downtown near the bus lines, which of these churches will have a better start to overcoming racial barriers?  In order to overcome such barriers, the church must be present as its Lord is present—and how present is a church hidden behind well-manicured trees?

I’m not saying, “Build it, and they will come.”  We’ve seen that approach fail so many times.  There’s no gimmick here, and the soul-work of preaching and prayer is more than everything else.  I’m also not suggesting that persons of color are always poor or whites always rich.  But I am saying, as many others have said, that racial divisions may find their deeper roots in class divisions, and the Lutheran church’s recent architectural history may illustrate the truth of it (as does the fact that that our churches appear to lack poor and working class whites as much as they lack persons of color!).  The church must be present to those whom it seeks.  It must bring the font and Bible and altar to them, clothed in their own neighborhood. 

Taking up that calling will mean that those already in the church may have to dedicate their resources and wealth for local ministries and houses of worship either not in service of themselves or at a distance from their own homes, requiring them who are more equipped to travel to do so.  Why not?  What checks the sins of enmity, pride, greed, and rivalry more than for those with the most to take up a weekly pilgrimage to gather with those who have the least?  Wouldn’t such a pilgrimage confess, “These sins are forgiven, and therefore, they no longer set the limits and conduct of our devotion”?

Yes, I know that persons of color are guilty of their own sins of enmity, pride, greed, and the like.  I also know that they aren’t the ones most likely reading this article, and I know it because most of you are Lutherans, and Lutherans are one of the whitest Christian traditions in America.  It needs some new and more Biblical attention.  CRT is not the way, and so what is?  Preaching, praying, and showing up to be present, all of it concrete and real and down-to-earth, seems to be the way I know, the way that I’ve been given to confess.  What are some other parts of that way?  I imagine you know, or that God will show it to you if you ask.

Where Will Our Future Pastors Come From?

Last May I had the privilege of attending the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. It was a splendid event. I was deeply moved by how much my class had become a real spiritual leadership powerhouse in the Christian community. I felt honored and privileged to have been a part of it. From college I went to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. After graduating from Fuller, I served my internship under Luther Seminary in the congregation where I had been working as youth director during my final year at Fuller. After serving my internship, I was a graduate student at Luther for one year in order to fulfill ordination requirements of the former ALC (American Lutheran Church).

Raised in a Christian Home

While attending the celebration event at Wheaton I thought of how privileged I was to have grown up in the church and been raised in a Christian home (my father was a pastor), to have been a leader in our high school church youth group, to have gone to summer Bible camp, to have attended a Christian college and sung in a Christian college choir, and to have attended seminary. The program at Wheaton on Saturday evening included singing a number of favorite Christian hymns. One of them was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The person who was leading the singing introduced that selection by saying, “I’ll bet that song means far, far more to us now than it did fifty years ago.”

Of Great Concern to Lutheran CORE

All during my growing up years I experienced God’s faithfulness and His guiding me to become a pastor. And yet I realize that many of the Lutheran ministries that used to engage young people with a high view of the authority of the Bible and the challenge to consider a career in Christian ministry no longer exist or no longer function in that way. Because of that reality the following are among Lutheran CORE’s greatest concerns –

How can we help raise up a whole new generation of Lutheran pastors who will be Biblical and confessional in their theology and who will be committed to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples for Jesus Christ?

What can we do to reach young people for Jesus? How can we present the Gospel of Jesus to them in a clear, compelling, and engaging way? How can we help them feel and be connected to the church?

Opportunity to Act

Lutheran CORE is very grateful for the opportunity to do something about these concerns through sponsoring a week of NEXUS for high schoolers at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Originally funded by a substantial Lilly Endowment Grant, NEXUS is designed to give high school students a chance to engage in the study of the Bible and Lutheran theology, be involved in service, and discern whether God has gifted them and is calling them to full-time Christian ministry and/or leadership in the church. In the past three years, over one hundred high schoolers have gone through NEXUS. Grand View has found that after a week of NEXUS, students grow significantly in their understanding of Scripture, Lutheran theology, faith practices, and the doctrine of vocation. In addition, many college-aged mentors who have participated in the program have gone on to seminary and/or full-time church work.

There is no charge for high schoolers to attend NEXUS, and Grand View wants to keep it that way. The original grant from Lilly Endowment will have been spent by the end of this coming summer, so Grand View has approached Lutheran CORE and other ministries about sponsoring a week of NEXUS.

The cost to host one week of NEXUS for twenty-four high school students, which includes college-aged mentors, teachers, activities, room and board, and materials, is $30,000. Lutheran CORE has committed half of the amount for one week – $15,000. The funds from Lutheran CORE will be matched by Lilly Endowment to cover a full week’s cost of $30,000.

Because the original grant from Lilly Endowment will cover the costs for the two weeks of NEXUS during the summer of 2020, the funds from Lutheran CORE will be used for a week during the summer of 2021. However, we do not want to wait until next year to be involved. I plan to attend at least a significant part of the week of NEXUS this year that will be sponsored by the NALC (North American Lutheran Church) – July 12-17 – to further observe the program and to get to know, listen to, learn from, and share with the young people who are there about such things as these –

What are they thinking about, running into, and dealing with in their lives?
What are the questions that they are asking and facing?
What hopes do they have for the church and for their own lives?
What is stirring them?

Sharing in that interaction and experiencing a week of NEXUS will help us know how best to put a “Lutheran CORE imprint” upon a week of NEXUS in 2021.

Funding Our NEXUS Commitment

.thermometer_svg{} .therm_target{font-size: 16px; text-anchor: middle; font-weight: bold;} .therm_raised{font-size: 16px; font-weight: bold;} .therm_percent{ text-anchor: middle; font-weight: bold;} .therm_subTarget{font-size: 14px; } .therm_legend{font-size: 12px; } .therm_majorTick{stroke-width: 2.5px; stroke: #000;} .therm_minorTick{stroke-width: 2.5px; stroke: #000;} .therm_border{stroke-width: 1.5px; stroke: #000; fill: transparent;} .therm_subTargetArrow{stroke: #8a8a8a; stroke-width: 0.2px; fill: #8a8a8a;} .therm_raisedLevel{stroke-width: 1px; stroke: #000;} .therm_subRaisedLevel{stroke-width: 1px; stroke: #000;} .therm_arrow{stroke: #000; stroke-width: 0.2px; fill: #000;} .therm_subTargetLevel{stroke-width: 2.5px; stroke: #8a8a8a;}

Created using the Donation Thermometer plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/donation-thermometer/.$15,000Raised $925 towards the $15,000 target.$925Raised $925 towards the $15,000 target.6%

We are very grateful to all those who have already given – over and above their current giving to Lutheran CORE – to help fund the commitment that we have made to provide $15,000 for one week of high school NEXUS. To see how much has been contributed  for NEXUS 2021 so far, click here. We will continue to update you on our progress via social media and via CORE’s regular communications.

If you have not already given, we urge you to join with those who have. You may donate online, or you may use the response form that you will find here. Please remember to designate NEXUS on the memo line on your check. We are very grateful for the faithful generosity of our friends, which will enable us to help support this fine ministry, in addition to all of the other ways in which we seek to be a Voice for Biblical Truth and a Network for Confessing Lutherans.