by Brent Kuhlman
A few years ago at a district convention we were given the typical harangue about how the membership of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) continues to hemorrhage. Then came the typical canard. The speaker snapped his fingers over a period of time and informed us how many people had died and gone to hell during his little object lesson. This happens in sermons, Bible studies, and various other speaking engagements throughout North American Lutheranism. And it’s been going on for quite some time.
Richard John Neuhaus in his Death On A Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross recalls a Lutheran mission festival he experienced as a young boy in Canada:
For such a special occasion, a guest preacher was required, and this year he came all the way from “the States,” which meant two hundred miles away in upstate New York. This preacher had a most dramatic flair in making the case for the urgency of world missions. Well into a sermon that lasted an hour or more (which was not unusual for something so auspicious as the annual mission festival), the preacher suddenly stopped. For a full minute there was complete silence as he looked intently at his wristwatch. Then he tossed his head, threw out his arm and, pointing directly at me in the third row, announced, “In the last one minute, thirty-seven thousand lost souls have gone to eternal damnation without a saving knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” It was, I believe, the first theological crisis of my life. This seven-year-old boy was electrified. I immediately put my mind to work figuring out how many minutes we had been sitting there while thirty-seven thousand people per minute were going to hell.
Recently I was “blessed” to hear a special Lenten “Ablaze” sermon in which the preacher contended that every sixty seconds, eighty-three people die who do not know Jesus. Again, do the math. If the preacher’s statistical memorandum lasts for fifteen minutes, one thousand two hundred and forty-five people die and go to eternal damnation!
All right. So what’s the point? Really? Are we supposed to drop everything and knock on doors 24-7/365? Do I dare go home to be with my wife and children? Am I allowed to attend my daughters’ softball games? What about golfing a round with my son? Am I even allowed to go to bed at night? Do the math! Horror of horrors! In all the time I spend being a pastor, husband, father, substitute bus driver, substitute school teacher, eating, sleeping, attending required synodical conferences, or whatever else—thousands if not millions upon millions have died and gone to hell! And all because I didn’t.…Woe is me! Woe is me! Woe is me! What will the Lord Jesus think of me? Will I end up in hell too because I wasted so much time? Because I didn’t take the preacher’s words to heart and immediately forsake all my God-given vocations to join the fulltime modern Protestant version of the observant mission monastery?
Just silly remarks? Not hardly! One mission exec whom I know warned that those who refuse to be mission-minded will hear the damnatory words of Jesus addressed to the goats in Matthew 25 on the last day (Richard Boring, “Marks and Assets of a Maintenance Congregation,” Issues in Christian Education 41, no. 3 [Winter 2007–2008]: 8–13). The effect of this kind of preaching is very serious, deadly serious. As I have served in the office of the holy ministry, I have had to deal pastorally with the consequences of this despotic preaching, teaching, and writing. Many consciences are hurt and troubled because they take the mission preacher seriously. They are crushed because of their supposed monastic mission “failures/sins.” They cannot, despite how hard they try, fulfill the relentless mission requirements. Consciences are bound. People are living in man-made institutional prisons! I know. I hear confessions. In addition, how many times have you been popishly forced to confess specific imaginary “sins” against the Great Commission at the beginning of “creative/contemporary” services in the “general” confession that the institution or creative pastor invented? (Talk about out-poping the pope! The pope only requires the sinner to confess sins that he actually commits!) This worry about such “sinning” also comes up in regular conversation with the people I have served. It is as if their salvation depends on being a mission monk! Their consciences sorely oppressed because they take the time to be a parent, go to work, eat, sleep, and whatever else God has given them to do. This is one of the worst ways of religiously tyrannizing consciences and creating theological crises of the highest order for people.
That’s one very serious predicament. Neuhaus speaks of another that resulted from that mission festival a long time ago. I struggle with it too:
In my agitated state, I wanted to jump up and shout that we had better get going right now to tell all those hell-bent people about Jesus. The real crisis came later, however. I was excited all day and had spent a restless night contending with dreams about all those people in hell. The next morning I discovered that the visiting preacher and my Dad, who was the pastor of the host church, were taking three days off to go fishing. Thirty-seven thousand people going to hell every minute and they were going fishing!
Isn’t that precisely how it goes? After the mission messages or mission minutes are over it’s off for a couple rounds of golf, Gemütlichkeit complete with some serious adult beverages, and a long night of solving all the church’s problems. Then it is another week of meetings and more speaking engagements of preaching to the choir!
But what about the preacher’s words? How many people are dying and going to hell while the mission experts gallivant all around the world at endless meetings? Shouldn’t we adjourn and start pounding the pavement? Or is all this just church talk? Something for which the mission execs get paid and we are supposed to listen dutifully? Maybe these men don’t really mean what they say! Has this just become some religious “racket” or Ponzi scheme? If so, no wonder it has become so ho-hum for people in the pews. It is no wonder that many others hardly take such talk seriously at all any more. “But I only meant it for good,” the preacher may contend. Indeed. No doubt. But isn’t that how much harm occurs in a family?
As for my household, my congregation, and me, we will continue to go about our God-given vocations. Part of that “mission” includes making sure that our children are baptized, instructed, and commune faithfully. It also means the baptismal mission of daily dying to sin (death to the old Adam) and daily trusting in Jesus and his forgiveness (resurrection of the new man) so that we can love the people God has put in our lives throughout the various stations of life in which we live. This can and certainly does include inviting and bringing unbelievers to the divine service to hear about and experience the God who justifies the ungodly all because of Jesus who died and rose again. It certainly does include the exhortation for people to receive holy baptism and be gathered in the church to the glory of God’s name. This kind of living is not a prison. It is the free life of living in the Father’s house as his died-for-and-forgiven sons and daughters who confidently trust that the Spirit creates faith when and where he pleases in those who hear the gospel.