The Skeptic Among Us

Betty Bland-Thomas, an expert in community redevelopment, leads the Rev. Steven Schave, director of LCMS Urban & Inner-City Ministry (center) and the Rev. Elliott Robertson, pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, on a walk near his church (seen in the rear) on Friday, March 28, 2014, in Baltimore, Md. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

Betty Bland-Thomas, an expert in community redevelopment, leads the Rev. Steven Schave, director of LCMS Urban & Inner-City Ministry (center) and the Rev. Elliott Robertson, pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, on a walk near his church (seen in the rear) on Friday, March 28, 2014, in Baltimore, Md. LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

One of the community development buzzwords heard in city mission circles is “re-gentrification.” Many congregations in the city find themselves in communities that are revitalizing, and the church may even be involved in neighborhood renewal themselves. This process of renewal typically is either through a grassroots effort, which is preferred, or may be driven by an external force such as a development corporation who enter onto the scene and make sweeping changes. But, in either case, the trend has been set into motion that new faces are arriving in city neighborhoods every day. Immigrants, young professionals, business executives, and the like, are moving back into the city.

This can be a force for positive change in struggling communities and allow for great diversity − which brings about its own complexities in forming community. If it is done incorrectly, however, these changes can cause division and simply relocate societal issues of poverty and brokenness that still need to be addressed. If it is done right, community development can be a good thing for everyone involved; and with a growing population, create a re-invigoration in otherwise neglected neighborhoods. In the midst of this, the church of course is not simply another social agency amid a myriad of folks working in the urban environment, but as the church they should work within the community for the good of all involved, not driving away, but welcoming in.

It is encouraging to see young “urban pioneers” as they are called, moving into the inner city to help rebuild hurting communities.  And yet, while to the outside observer this new influx of residents may seem to be a great new opportunity for outreach for the Christian Church, make no mistake, the new wave of urbanites may be more than just ambivalent to Christianity, they are quite often diametrically opposed to it. At the heart of the matter are the basic biblical beliefs that we in the LCMS take for granted, but not so with the skeptic living among us. Gone are the days when it was standard fare that the average young person on the street knew basic biblical history from their days of Sunday School. The belief that God created heaven and earth in six days, that the world was flooded while sparing only a select few upon an ark, God taking on flesh only to die and rise … these are simply fairy tales for the unenlightened  in the skeptic’s eye and only makes for mildly interesting Hollywood fodder. And just as much an affront to the sensibilities of the skeptic, is for the church to judge others for whatever can be defined by society as individual choices and lifestyles.

Maybe we would do best to just leave this one alone. To go our separate ways and simply agree to co-exist. But what sort of mercy is this, if we are to leave them in darkness, to withhold the gifts of God from them. Yes, we are called to be the Jeremiah’s of our age, with a call for sinners to repentance and forgiveness. We are told the world clamors for authenticity and indeed we have what is real and true. To be sure, for our poor reflection of Christ, we too need to first seek repentance for our poor witness. In how we have not hallowed God’s Name when we have not loved God or loved our neighbor, or loved one another as we should: when our righteousness has not surpassed the Pharisees. But as forgiven, gathered, enlightened, and called children of God, the very Gospel that we have received in the absolution of sin: it is for all who dwell in darkness. Like Jeremiah or St. Paul, we are to engage those who have fallen into mysticism, dark arts, idolatry, and unbelief. Indeed in the modern city, the pagan and occult member and earth worshiper are in need of rescue and salvation. We engage the urban environment with the Gospel flowing from the core of a vibrant worship life and the living presence of Christ in His church via His Gospel preached and sacraments administered.

And rather than help them to normalize every deviance from God’s commands, we can offer that which is real and lasting and foundational in the midst of relative truths and shifting sands. The urbanite skeptics have no roots to that which is ancient, they possess nothing that is lasting … they do not have a foundation that is unwavering. They have popped their pills, they have buried their guilt into the depths of their souls, they have sought the oracles and a oneness with nature … they have lowered their expectations of having any real sense of worth or meaning. And they have found themselves to be a mere cosmic happenstance, an evolved species whose greatest act of kindness is to perpetuate the circle of life … everything is base, instant, and fleeting … and the lack of satisfaction remains. This is no new model that I would suggest to reach them, but the tried and true pattern of immense investment of time on the part of committed Christians of every walk of life as they connect with their neighbor in their daily life to testify of Christ.  Then model in their own lives what it means to live as a child of God in a world that is genuinely homeless, spiritually speaking.

We can certainly avoid persecution or embarrassment, by only engaging the like-minded. But we will only truly show mercy when we confront the culture of the modern city, forcing our way into house and heart … with a relentless love and speaking truths of Christ crucified, risen and ascended who will return to be our judge. With history and truth on our side, we will address our origins, the problem of suffering, the very fabric and foundation of society… and for those who yearn for action, how they have thus missed out on the greatest human rights issue of our day in the killing of the unborn and the collapse of family which is the nucleus of community.

What we can offer is the one thing needful: to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His Word. The single most important tool in mission is teaching the faith. Vigorous catechesis is essential as we draw hurting and suffering people from every walk of life away from the crumbling foundations of this world to become citizens in God’s Kingdom, to take up residence in the city with foundations, whose maker and builder is God. We must be concerted in our efforts to build relationships with the skeptic, to engage them intellectually, to plant the seed of the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit do as He wills for the salvation of lost souls. But if we are to about mission in the city, we will pick up our cross, we will suffer and sacrifice and lay down our lives, with reckless abandon we will sow the seed.  We will not be ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power to save.

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Note: LCMS leader blog articles express the personal experiences and views of our ministry staff and have not been subjected to the LCMS doctrinal review process. Readers are encouraged to leave questions in the comment section or consult their pastor with any queries related to this content.

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