Published in Connections Magazine (July/Aug 2012)
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Lutheran Heritage: The Church and Family
by Marcus J. Carlson
It is easy to lose sight of our Lutheran heritage. After all, there are many other things we must think about in our day-to-day living as followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, Luther himself admonished that we must first consider ourselves Christians and not Lutherans. Today in North America, denominational affiliation is not nearly as significant or important as it was even ten years ago, and certainly not as important as it was 50 years ago.
While these realities are in many ways healthy, it would also be unfortunate to lose sight of our Lutheran heritage and connection. I have come to believe that the best understanding of our denominational connection and heritage is to view our denominational affiliation as a theological home. We are called to be Christ followers first and foremost.
One of the most significant aspects of our Lutheran heritage is baptism. As I think about family ministry, I find that baptism offers a critical picture and perspective of what it means to be a church embracing and supporting family, and focuses on a family model of life and ministry.
For the first time in the history of the church, we have at least six generations coexisting within the church. These six generations are equally important and very unique, and there are important differences in each.
When we think about the church, we must view it as a family. The church is the family of God, adopted by the God of the universe through the love and grace provided through Christ Jesus. We are God’s children, brothers and sisters in Christ. This is more than just an affiliation or a cliché expression, as we recognize we truly are the family of God.
The generational divide in the church can be challenging as each generation fights to find value, meaning and significance in the church. Stereotypes, division, hurt and misunderstanding can be more common than a sense of unity, love, community and understanding in the midst of diversity. We are an intergenerational church, but many times our intergenerational identity is limited to diversity of our membership instead of being an expression of life, worship and community.
We still hold the view that the older members of the church are the ones who fund ministry, while those of middle age lead the various ministries of the church. We assume that the youth and young adults are the labor force and missionaries of the church, while the children are at best seen as consumers to be nurtured—or at the worst, a nuisance.
While this may be true in a practical sense, it is not at all consistent with the Biblical notion of community, church or family. It is not at all the intergenerational expression of the church Christ envisioned, and it falls short of the picture of unity provided by Paul in many of his letters to the early church.
In the midst of our generational diversity we have lost sight of the unity we have in Christ. We have lost sight of our Lutheran heritage of what it means to be the church, the adopted family of Christ that is saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The challenges we face as an intergenerational church in North American are significant, but our potential is far greater than our challenges. We must look to Christ as the source of life, the model of the Christian life and image of what the church is called to be. As Lutherans the answer to these challenges can be found in our theology, understanding and heritage, specifically in our understanding of baptism and the language we use in our baptismal vows and order of service for baptism.
In our baptismal liturgy there are words the pastor, parents, sponsors and congregation share as a part of the baptismal service. These words are rich and intentional. They not only speak volumes about the sacrament of baptism, but also about the nature of God and His church. The parents and the congregation both make promises as a part of this liturgy, and are reminded of the covenant God has with His people.
Our theologically rich baptism liturgy is deeply rooted in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament. The parents promise to bring the child up in the Christian faith and the church. The parents commit to teaching their children about the Christian faith, to provide them with the Scripture and to nurture their faith that they might know, trust and love God.
The congregation also shares in a commitment—not only to their own faith in the words of the Apostles Creed, but also to the person being baptized. The congregation welcomes the new member of the family of faith (the adopted family of God to which we all belong), and also promises to provide for their nurture and instruction. Our baptism liturgy reminds us of some very important things about our relationship with God, our families, our church and each other. Our baptismal service provides some beautiful reminders about who God is and who we are as His people and His church. They are a key part of our Lutheran heritage and practice.
There are three things that strike me when I reflect on our baptismal liturgy. First, I am reminded once again that God has a covenant with us, His people. It is a covenant that we did not and cannot earn. It exists only because of who God is, what God has done, is doing and will continue to do. In short, it is not about us. What if we grabbed hold of this piece of our Lutheran heritage and theology and embraced the notion that church is not about what we have done or do, but about who God is?
The second piece of this liturgy that causes me to reflect is found in the promises of the parents of the child (or the adult) being baptized. Here we find a commitment to be connected to the body of Christ, the church, and to be raised in the Christian faith. In this way we are reminded that parents are the spiritual leaders of their children. This language is important. At a recent meeting, I heard a youth minister share that parents were the disciplers of their children based on what the Scripture says. The problem is that this is not accurate to the Scripture and runs counter to our Lutheran heritage and understanding.
The third piece of our baptism liturgy that causes me to stop and reflect provides some clarity to this issue. It is the response of the church during the baptismal service reminding
us about the purpose of the church and the order that God has set up for His community of faith and His people. It is the church that takes ownership for the discipleship of the child. While the spiritual leadership of a child belongs to the parents, it is the community of faith, the church, that is responsible for pointing this child to Christ. Our faith is not an individual effort, rather our faith is something that is learned, expressed and lived out in community. Our liturgy, theology and heritage remind us that the church is the family of God responsible for leading, caring for, and pointing one another to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
What would happen if we began to live out this understanding in our families, our homes, our work, our church and our communities? I suspect that the challenges of being an intergenerational church would fade away and we would not have to worry about attendance, giving, membership or outreach because we would not have church buildings big enough to hold all the people that would love to be a part of a family like that.