Repenting of the Sins of Our Nation: Part I — Accepting the Call

Editor’s Note: Pr. Craig Moorman is a board member of Lutheran CORE as well as a mission developer and pastor of River’s Edge Ministries (NALC-LCMC) in Mt. Airy, Maryland. This is the first in a series of articles entitled Repenting of the Sins of Our Nation. Future articles will focus on Proclaiming the Word and Stewarding the Awakening.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ —

Over the course of the past few months, I have gained a much greater appreciation for the Book of Daniel and the message of hope that it brings to the Church for the living of these historically challenging days. But on a more personal note, on this particular day as I move into my 66th year of living, I’d like to make a b-day wish in the form of a prayerful declaration: I want to be like Daniel when I grow up! Here I am, nearly 35 years into my call, and only now am I beginning to understand the extent of what it means — and what it might mean — to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  

In Daniel 9:3-19, we hear this well-seasoned prophet pleading and imploring Almighty God to show mercy to His people, the Israelites. He begins, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking Him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, ‘O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keepest covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments and ordinances; we have not listened to Thy servants …” (vv. 3, 4) Yes, I want to be more like Daniel with whatever time the Lord allows me in this precious gift of living. I want to turn and set my face continually to the Lord God. I want to seek Him earnestly, even ‘wearing’ sackcloth and ashes (in a non-Pharisaic sort-of-way) … and empty myself of self, in all humility at the footstool of His mercy seat. At this stage in my life, I desire to go deeper in my confession and repent, not on behalf of ‘their’ sins, but repent on behalf of our sins … my sins!

Throughout his seventy years in exile, Daniel remained a pliable vessel of God and continually sought out the Lord’s mercy and steadfast love on behalf of his people Israel. Again, only now am I more fully embracing this essential ‘detail’ of my call, truly bearing the priestly role. I guess some of us are just a bit more stubborn and slower in understanding what it really means to serve in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

I’m also reminded of a letter written by one of the Apostolic Fathers, (Bishop) Ignatius of Antioch, who was eventually condemned and sent to Rome to be killed by ‘the beasts’ in the amphitheater @108 A.D. While journeying to this final resting place, Ignatius wrote letters to various churches in Asia Minor, including these words to the Church in Rome:

I am writing to all the Churches, and I give injunctions to all men, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if you do not hinder it. I beseech you, be not ‘an unseasonable kindness’ to me. Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb, and leave no trace of my body, that when I fall asleep I be not burdensome to any. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not even see my body. Beseech Christ on my behalf, that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments. (Ignatius to the Romans, IV. 1, 2)

Bp. Ignatius of Antioch

Fascinating. I first read these words 37 years ago and am still challenged to the very core of my being, and wondering if I could ever present that ‘core of my being’ to the Lord in such a way? (cf. Romans 12:1) Ignatius continues in his words about what it means to follow Jesus Christ and be obedient in that calling, “Grant me this favour. I know what is expedient for me; now I am beginning to be a disciple.” (V. 3a)

Ignatius’ words are full of so much grace. Only “beginning to be a disciple” … This profoundly humble statement encourages me to remember, first and foremost, that as one called into ministry, I am to remain teachable and malleable. So, in light of the lives of Daniel and Ignatius — and all of the saints that have gone before us — it is with great humility that I begin this three-part article, Repenting of the Sins of the Nation. In Part I — “Accepting the Call”, you’ll quickly recognize that it’s a personal grappling — an open confession — with how I am trying to navigate through the turbulent waters of these desperate times. No doubt, this is a journey we are all needing to face, and necessarily needing to face … together. In fully accepting my call, I realize that these times require me to engage both pastorally and prophetically.

Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, IV. 1, 2

There is something insidious permeating every nook and cranny of every segment of our present-day society. Have you felt it too? I believe it started with the mid-1960’s countercultural movement and it has evolved immensely over the past two decades. Some citizens of this country and much of the Western world have been more purposefully redefining new ways of living out truth, justice, compassion, love, etc., according to their own morality and rooted deeply in secular humanism, Marxism, utopistic pursuits, etc. Let’s, then, call this redefinition, a transformative awakening.

Herein, we quickly discover that these redefined core values for living clash painfully with more traditional systems of authority-governance, orthodox Judeo-Christian values, long-established interpretations of our history and the American Dream, etc. I believe the buildup of tension we are presently experiencing equates to a significant season of great shaking, shifting, and sifting in our nation and our churches. We reluctantly find ourselves at a most critical crossroads, a place of tension — this transformative awakening — where revolutionary choices will be made, new leadership will arise, causes will be defined, and life wholly changed. But we’ve been here before, this place of choosing (potentially) between life and death.

In Joshua 24, history records that Joshua “ … gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.” (v. 1) Then he continued speaking to the People of Israel, helping God’s People to remember who they were; and, thus, re-enter into a covenantal agreement with the Lord on that day: “Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (vv. 14, 15)

Of course, this has been the story of God’s People, our story, from the beginning of time — facing many a crossroads and needing to choose between that which is life-giving or life-stealing! Darkness and Light stand juxtaposed — hoping to either take captive or captivate the souls of those most vulnerable or receptive. One entity, darkness, will coerce itself into/upon that life (*nephesh, נֶ֫פֶשׁ‎ nép̄eš = soul) and, ultimately, steal away that life (John 10:10a); and, the other, Light, will graciously extend an invitation to that life to receive the fullness of Life (John 10:10b). (*It’s interesting to note that this Hebrew word, nephesh, when combined with another Hebrew word, rûach-רוּחַ‎, meaning “spirit”, connotes a part of humanity that has no physical form, like one’s mind, will or seat of emotions, intellect, personality, etc.)

At this monumental historic crossroads, who or what will win the day and take captive or captivate the life, the corporate soul — minds, wills, intellects, and personalities — of our nation? It seems clear that this transformative awakening will, I believe, produce either death or life in our nation, depending on how it unfolds. There is much conversation these days about the woke culture, a slang term that is finding its way into the mainstream vernacular. This word, added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in September of 2017, states: “If you frequent social media, you may well have seen posts or tweets about current events that are tagged #staywoke … awake is often rendered as woke, as in, “I was sleeping, but now I’m woke … ‘Woke’ is increasingly used as a byword for social awareness … Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better. But stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Unfortunately, the word woke became enmeshed with the Black Lives Matter organization and other radical, leftist organizations (i.e., Antifa, etc.) and is now being exploited to bring societal change through radical and often violent means. Its agenda is not life-giving, and its understanding of resolving injustice and racial tension is polar-opposite from that of a traditional, orthodox theology/ideology, where genuine reconciliation can be found. An even greater concern is that this form of bringing about a transformative awakening has infiltrated every segment of our society, including the government on all levels.

Our nation does not need a transformative awakening that is bent on dismantling and even destroying all that has existed for 245 years; it needs, instead, one that transforms the hearts and minds of her citizens with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through another Great Awakening. In fact, we need another awakening that would dwarf our country’s first two Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries. And with any Great Awakening, there should be a deliberate and long season of listening to the heart of God through passionate, intercessory prayer on behalf of the nation.

Again, I’m hearkening back to Daniel’s approach in continually (throughout the entire twelve chapters of the Book of Daniel) resolving (1:8) to confess and repent, seek out His mercies, pray, and give praise to the Lord for His sovereign goodness. Only then will we able to faithfully and effectively call the nation to repentance and graciously challenge her citizenry, beginning with us/me, to turn back to God, specifically in Jesus Christ. But, will I be part of it? Will we, as Lutherans, be part of it?

In Part II — “Speaking the Word”, I’ll be addressing how we are witnessing the rise and intensification of darkness; but I will also lift up the eschatological reality that during this same season of dread (cf. Matthew 24), the brightness of the Light will shine brighter through the grace of the Holy Spirit. So, we must hold on to such a Hope. In the meantime, and in the midst of it all, should we not be carefully weighing the cost and calling of entering into this reality? Everything is on the line. Again, what or who will take captive or captivate the soul of this nation, at this hour? If the Church remains oblivious of such a ‘harvest’ (cf. Matthew 9:35-38), then surely the devil and his minions will expediently pounce upon these ‘little ones’ and drag them into the pit of despair and darkness. Or we could rise to the occasion and be the Church — here and now, for such a time as this — and reap a harvest of souls who could be ushered into the transformative awakening of a life claimed by Jesus Christ! Amen?

Our nation does not need a transformative awakening that is bent on dismantling and even destroying all that has existed for 245 years; it needs, instead, one that transforms the hearts and minds of her citizens with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through another Great Awakening.

This is what I’ve been intensely struggling with, especially these past few months. In a nutshell, here’s my angst and concern in the form of a question: “Will I or will I not find the courage to accept the call to step into this place of mess, that chaotic void, and engage those who are desperately seeking truth, justice, compassion, love, etc. and point back to the cross, etc.” At the same time, I find myself crying out, “Lord, show me how to lead at this hour … beginning with my own family!” A simple question and plea, but wow, so difficult and complex at the same time. As leaders in the Church, we should be thriving now; but, to the contrary, it seems that many of us have been struggling and agonizing over how we should respond to this day and age. It is time, Brothers and Sisters, to reclaim who we are as “the children of the Kingdom of Light” (cf. 1 John 1:5-2:6 and Ephesians 5:8), and to remember that we have already been given all that we need to fully accept our call … and enter into the arena. (cf. Ephesians 6:10-20)

No doubt, many of you are familiar with one of the most widely quoted speeches of Theodore Roosevelt’s career; here’s an excerpt from that speech given on April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Only by God’s grace will we be able to enter the arena of our culture. But enter we can and must. Certainly, there will be Jonah moments … fleeing from the Lord … experiencing mighty tempests … being tossed out of the boat … being swallowed by a whale … anger and regrets … but, in the end, I encourage us to assume the posture of another prophet, Daniel, and remain resolved and humble before the Lord (Daniel 1:8). Until next time, stay the course …

In Christ’s love,

K. Craig Moorman

March 2021 Newsletter

Embracing the Challenges and Opportunities of Worship in the Digital Age

Editor’s note: Congregations using music, videos, and other items downloaded from the internet should check on whether they have copyright permission for streaming them over the internet as part of worship services. CCLI and similar licenses often do not grant such permission. Read carefully in the documentation of your license to learn what you do and do not have permission to stream outside the building, or seek legal advice.

I know: The above title is too long.  But let’s not quibble.  This is too important an issue.  And many of you reading this can do something to address this ministry challenge; hopefully sooner rather than later.

Fundamentally, this is about what is passing for streamed worship services during this pandemic, and how we can do so much better.  Because here is the brutal truth: Worship life post-COVID will not be returning to the “normal” we remember before the year 2020.  Why?  Post-pandemic, in-person worship attendance will, for most congregations, be at least 25% to 40% below what they had in 2019.  Too bleak?  Well, as the saying goes, “Just wait.”  Most congregations — especially those that just launched their online, streamed worship services in 2020 — will find that many of their members have grown too comfortable with the ease and comfort of in-home worship.  And for those members who have largely avoided in-person worship since early 2020, it’s almost like they’ve left their congregational community for a one-year (or longer) deployment.  As a result, many of them will find it’s easier to stay away than it is to return to in-person congregational life and worship.

So what can be done about this?  The biggest initial challenge will be to focus on the mission opportunity that is before us.  Because improving the quality of your online worship ministry can not only retain members; it can reach new people with the Gospel.  However, before going over practical ways to improve your online worship ministry, one caveat: It will take a very intentional and on-going effort to motivate online worshipers to grow in their faith.  More on that later.

Now for practical suggestions for improving the quality of your online, streamed worship services.

Online Worship Music

The first step is to recognize the obvious: That the online worship experience is very different than pre-COVID, in-person worship.  I have watched online services from scores of different Lutheran churches over the last year.  Some have been inspiring; most have been disappointing.  My biggest disappointment has been online worship music; especially in the case of small and mid-sized congregations.  Disappointing in what way?  The lack of quality music.  This has been true in respect to both congregational hymns/songs, and performed music such as anthems and solo performances.

Part of the problem here is that with online worship I find myself becoming even more of a music critic.  With in-person worship not so much; partly because in the case of hymns and songs I am participating.  With “couch potato” worship I tend to be a passive member of an audience of one.  So if I notice the worship vocal team is struggling, or an instrument is slightly out of tune, the music becomes an unfortunate distraction.  This critical appraisal also applies to solos; whether vocal or instrumental.

The solution?  Only select the songs and hymns that can be done well.  Remember that, in the case of online worship, this is essentially a performance for your online audience.  So it needs to not only be easy enough for your musicians to do well; it also needs to be of high enough quality — both musically and lyrically — to do at all.  For some smaller congregations with a limited number of talented musicians and vocalists available, this might mean less worship music than you offer at your in-person service.  So in this case, “less is more.”

However, if you can access Christian music available from the internet for your online service, do so.  This can be an invaluable and inspirational resource.  If your congregation has the necessary technological capability to access online music videos, contact me.  I have specific videos I can recommend.

Worship Liturgies for Online Worship

Move toward a “service of the Word” more than a full musical liturgy.  Again, this is because your online worshipers are unlikely to participate in sung responses.  The one exception to this principle might be if your liturgist has a solo-quality voice.  In that case hearing the chanter sing both call and response portions of the liturgy might still be meaningful to your online worshipers.  However, the overall principle is this: Online worshipers are more likely to participate in spoken liturgical responses than those that are sung.

Sermon Message

I have found sermons, by in large, to be effective and meaningful online.  Suffice it to say that the great majority of recommendations for what constitutes quality preaching in person also apply to online messages.  My one suggestion would be this: For pastors who have the time and energy, you might want to do a video sermon that is specifically crafted for an online audience.  Especially post-COVID, the majority of your online worshipers will be very different than most of your in-person attenders.  And the biggest difference will be the contrast between those with an unchurched vs. churched background.  As an added bonus give different messages for your in-person and online service. You can encourage members to participate in both services on a weekly basis.

Communion Practice

It depends.  If your congregation is more high-church you might want to offer consecrated elements to be picked up at church in advance.  Perhaps you can even offer to deliver the elements to the homes of some members.  If your congregation is more low-church, then invite online worshipers to have the elements ready at home so they can participate during that part of the service.

Online Worship and Technology

One final and obvious challenge in regards to providing meaningful online worship is the matter of the technology involved.  There is no way to address this with detailed, specific recommendations due to the unique challenges faced by each congregation.  But one important and more general recommendation: Whether it be your video streaming or sound system, only offer what you can do well.  In other words, don’t let your creativity in worship planning get ahead of what your “systems” and tech volunteers can handle without major glitches or disruptions to the “flow” of your service.

None of the above recommendations address the significant and often overwhelming challenge of actually discipling online worshipers.  I will address that in the May issue of this newsletter.  (This article is already long enough.)  My next article will cover, in some detail, the following strategies for discipling online worshipers:

1. in-home, “micro” worship gatherings

2. small group Bible studies

3. one-to-one coaching ministries; online, by phone, or in-person

4. organizing discipleship/accountability triads

5. pastoral care and discipleship

Pastor Don Brandt

Director, Congregations in Transition ministry