Monday, June 14, 2010

The Great Omission!

The following article was written by Dr. Roger Paavola, senior/administrative pastor at Heavenly Host Lutheran Church, Cookeville, Tenn., and Mid-South District second vice-president and secretary (Region 3). It was first published in the Mid-South insert to The Lutheran Witness. Reprinted with permission.

     There’s no other Bible passage more memorized than Christ’s last words to His disciples, those words we call the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). “…Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…” (KJV). They define the essence, purpose, and direction given by Christ to His Holy Church on earth. Yet, by and large, the Church has misunderstood, ignored, or discounted Christ’s words.
     It has become “The Great Omission.” First, the ultimate authority over all things was given to Christ, the resurrected and glorious Lord. His words shouldn’t be disregarded as an utterance of some idealistic footnote to His ministry. Rather, we should realize the total authority of heaven and earth is the underpinning for the validity of Christ intended for the Church to grow and become strong. Yet, these words have become grossly misunderstood because the English translation brings the casual reader to a wrong turn in its interpretation.
     Grammatically, the passage has only one imperative (command): “to make disciples.” All the other words—“go,” “baptizing,” and “teaching,” are participles that modify the passage’s only command “to make disciples.” A better Greek understanding says, “As you go from here, make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by teaching them to observe all the things in which I have instructed you.”
The purpose of the Great Commission is "to make disciples." That's a tall order; an order that can only be accomplished by Jesus' command through the means He offers.
     The recent history of the Christian Church on earth indicates that we're not doing very well at following Christ's instructions. The Pew Report of the last decade of the 20th century indicates that the Christian Church is not growing. In proportion to the American population, Christianity is shrinking.
     Recently, the Church Growth Movement (CGM) came to a shocking realization that the mega-churches that grew over the last generation merely shifted nominal church-goers from mainline denominations to "community, non-denominational" churches. In a 2007 article in REV magazine, Sally Morgenthaler states that the CGM has not grown the total number of Christians, but only changed their seats.
     That’s why we’re faced with a great Omission, and not the great Commission. In our own Synod, not unlike all other mainline denominations, we see an erosion of membership. Except for Roman Catholicism’s immigration boost, all mainline denominations lost total membership in the last three decades of the 20th century. That’s even more dramatic compared to America’s population growth. Since 2000, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod lost an increasingly alarming number of members—equal to the total membership of the Mid-South District each year!
     What has been omitted in the Great Omission that has passively allowed the Church to fail at the Great Commission? Morgenthaler’s article makes it apparent we’ve missed the particles of the Great Commission—means by which the Great Commission is accomplished. CGM had one great objective in mind: Getting more people into the Church. In itself, it’s a good motive, but incomplete. Getting more people in the seats omits the particles of the “what and how” Jesus commanded. He clarified HOW disciples are to be made—by baptizing and teaching them to observe all things He gave to the Church.

     Outreach (or evangelism) alone is not the answer! It’s only a first step of what Jesus gives. Outreach must include assimilation—making the unchurched person included in Church fellowship. Merely making a social relationship as the foundation of one’s membership in any congregation is a sociological illusion if the unchurched person doesn’t embrace a theological reason for belonging. Simply stated, that’s why Jesus said that making disciples (our Great Commission command) is accomplished by baptizing (entry into the family of God) and teaching (assimilating) all that Christ gave to His Bride, the Church. Not doing outreach and evangelism isn’t an option.
     Yet, evangelism cannot be a “bait-and-switch.” Getting people to be active and faithful members of the Holy Christian Church requires faithful pastors and teachers who touch the lives of the people “where they are” and make the Gospel pertinent to their spiritual and eternal needs. Changing lives and communities is an admirable objective, but pales in the light of the central doctrine of Christianity: Our justification before God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That requires an OAR—outreach, assimilation, and retention.
     If entertainment, social satisfaction, sensory excitement, or any other thing brought an unchurched person to our fellowship, the long-term result won't have any more effect than any other social service organization or entertainment venue. If the guitar band or the electric light show down the street are more exciting, our ability to retain membership will be in jeopardy.
     The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has not failed in outreach. We continue to receive new members. Similarly, assimilation isn't our weak underbelly. Retention of membership—building one's relationship with Christ—is where we've lost. How many churches could we build from our friends who left the Lutheran Church "out the back door"? Were they faithfully taught to be faithful?
     When the scriptural doctrines and Confessions of the Lutheran Church are dismissed as nothing better than any other denomination or "non-denominational congregation," we find the source of our Great Omission. Unlike any other church body, we embrace a treasury of God's grace and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. There's no greater message, and surely no other way by which a person is made a disciple. People may scoff at our corollary of the principle of the chief doctrine of the Church—that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, and not by works of ourselves—but it is the only sound doctrine by which disciples can be made.
     If our desire turns to look like, sound like, act like, and teach like all the others, what do we have left to offer? If we determine that those others are just as good, we may as well quit fooling ourselves, pack up our tents and go home. Yearning to replicate a mere numbers game turns us toward a covetous sin of chasing numbers at the expense of the means Christ offered—the only particles by which true and faithful disciples of Christ can be found, made, and treated.
     We have a mother lode in the Lutheran Confessions that made the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod the most vibrant and growing denomination in America. Borrowing from business parlance, that "market differentiation" is Christ's pure Gospel, faithfully taught and embraced by His people. Without paying attention to "all He has commanded us," our work to accomplish the work of His command will simply mean we truly have discovered our Great Omission.


Kari said...

I the great omission as the sad fact that as we lose Lutherans out the back door due to poor catechesis, they don't even realize what they are losing. Baptism of our babies is a crucial part in following Jesus great commission. The "new" churches mostly don't baptize babies, which is most likely why Christianity is declining in the USA. Sad. They have not followed Jesus command, as many of them don't teach well either. It's more a "believe anything you feel like" faith.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to compare the number of LCMS Lutherans quitting church versus the number of those that drift into a non-denominational church.

This article begs the question: Are the non-denominational churches keeping members? How does a doctrinally weak mega-church encourage loyalty of its members. How long does it take for many of those members to become disillusioned with the circus and leave.

Two words before it is too late: It's Time!

Robbie F. said...

I know the Sally Morgenthaler article cited in this article. The gist of it is that Morgenthaler, one of the instigators of the "worship evangelism" movement (i.e. if you change your worship style you'll reach the unchurched), re-examined her assumptions based on data about what had happened over the first 10-15 years of worship evangelism. In the end she had to courageously admit that while a few high-end congregations saw tremendous growth, for most churches W.E. didn't do the trick, it didn't slow the overall decline in church attendance, & most of the people it did reach WEREN'T the unchurched. Morgenthaler admitted that saying this was "career suicide," but her warning that contemporary worship isn't going to save your struggling parish continues to be ignored by those who are still looking for a quick fix for their numbers decline.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous--#2. I think the statistics show that the mega-churches have big attendance, but low membership--that is commitment. When the style/glitz of the church gets old, the attendees go someplace else. No doubt that many leave the mainlines for the WillowCreek model. Unfortunately, the Law-based approach of these churches has a negative effect--some, like Chris Rosebrough come to the Lutheran Church--many leave entirely. The decision theology aspect is dangerous. I heard a speaker on Issues (Episcopal Bishop) say, "Pelegiansim is the banana peel on the cliff of Unitarianism."


Anonymous said...

The non-denominational churches are stealing members from mainline churches? That is no surprise in the Midwest. The non-denominational church members in our town are quite aggressive, and becoming acquainted with neighbors who are members of mainline churches emboldens them to evangelize even more.

I once had a friend who left LCMS for the Reformed church because he thought that the theology between the Reformed and LCMS churches was pretty much the same. (LCMS seeker church or Reformed seeker church, so what was the difference?) Another friend left the LCMS and quit his traditional LCMS church out of apathy. This apathy began when he was a teenager.

How would the Church Growth Movement of the LCMS help either of these people?

Scott Diekmann said...


The LCMS CGM church would help either of the people you describe to differentiate based on the quality of the production. The music is better down the street, so they'll go there. Plus, all the churches down the street have already been "revitalized," and not all of our's have, although they're working on it.