Monthly Archives: December 2016

Mission: Decline of the Church, Self-Esteem, and the Small Catechism

At the 2016 LCMS convention, a recurring topic was the decline of the church. President Harrison had written about it in his report. Some had criticized one part of what he said, the part about declined birth rates among church people. Our birth rates are below the replacement rate. Other explanations also circulate, and each one has its critics.

The explanations and the criticisms of them are important because they are part of what drives our approach to mission.

I’ll add one more that is not the be all and end all explanation, but should be in the mix. We have had one full generation raised with the doctrine of self-esteem. That generation now is raising the next one with a doctrine whose name has yet to be crystalized, but it follows on from the trajectory of self-esteem.

Why does this matter?

It matters because people are not interested in what the Gospel proclaims when they are entrenched in self-esteem’s denial of sin and judgment. Self-esteem is a temperamental fortress against the witness of the Law about our sin.

This poses multiple challenges for how the Lutheran church is to proclaim God’s Word.

  • How to preach the Law to self-esteemers without turning into legalists.
  • How to preach the Law for the purpose of bringing self-esteemers to Christ without confusing that preaching with the mere promotion of civil righteousness.
  • At the same time, how to promote civil righteousness.
  • How to preach the Gospel in a way that does not become a mere general amnesty, but depends entirely on the sacrificial blood atonement of Christ, and the delivery of the justification of the world Jesus won on the cross through the means of grace.

At first, this does not sound so simple. It reminds me of a juggler, trying to keep several balls in the air without dropping any. To accomplish all this is what we might call the Lutheran art of proclamation. We need to be able to practice this art in the pulpit, at the font, at the rail, and with our neighbors in our vocations.

The Holy Spirit is sovereign over the effect of the preaching of the Word. It would be tempting to just proclaim the Word and then “Let go and let God.” The “Let go and let God” part would work if only the “Just proclaim” part happened. But let’s face it. In the Lutheran church, one arm of the body of Christ is not doing its share of work.

The two arms are:

  • All believers are royal priests and possess the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Laity in this royal priesthood has the right and the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel in their vocations to family, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. The Holy Spirit gives efficacy to this proclamation.
  • God has established a particular office to proclaim the Word, administer the Sacraments, and administer the Office of the Keys publically on behalf of the church. This Office of Public Ministry is to be held only by certain men who possess scripturally prescribed qualifications and who are rightly called into this office.

The priestly work of the people of God and the special calling to the office of preaching and the administration of the sacraments on behalf of the church are complementary. They are not competing. They exist side by side in Scripture and in the life of the church.

The pastors who are examined, called, and ordained into the Office of Public Ministry are practicing the art of Lutheran proclamation, as they have been trained to do. That arm is working.

The other arm – the laity, the royal priesthood – not so much.

Our vocations are presenting opportunity continually. The adage, “Opportunity only knocks once,” of questionable veracity even where it usually is applied, has no veracity at all when applied to the mission of the royal priesthood. Opportunity for witness is like wisdom in the book of Proverbs who calls aloud outside, raises her voice in the open squares, cries out in the chief concourses and at the openings of the gates in the city, and seldom gets an audience.

We actually know that. Whereas some decades ago Christians typically said they were waiting for a good opportunity to be a witness, I seldom hear that any more. What I hear nowadays is that “I don’t know how to present it.” People ask for classes, and even after having classes, the royal priesthood still often is AWOL.

This often is the result of bad experiences people have had in witnessing now that we are speaking to so many people who are sunk in self-esteem. The royal priests of the laity intuitively feel that they don’t have the art for this situation, and they don’t see how they ever are going to acquire the art.

But, this art has been given to us.

This art is in Dr. Luther’s Small Catechism. Here is the Law without legalism. Here is the Law to bring people to Christ. Here is the Law to promote civil righteousness, but without confusion of that with bringing people to Christ. Here is the Gospel that is not a trivial general amnesty but the Word of the cross of Christ and his holy, innocent, and bitter sufferings and death for our sin. Here is forgiveness not because God must be at least as nice a guy as we are, but for Christ’s sake, without which there would be no remission of sin.

The order of the six chief parts of Christian doctrine in the Small Catechism shows us the order in which to proclaim the Word. Luther upended the order of the catechism that had prevailed, placing the Law first in the Ten Commandments, then the Gospel in the Creed, and then the Christian life in the Lord’s Prayer.

He made the Gospel predominate. Even in the Ten Commandments, while he explains that each commandment means that we must fear God, he also includes love and trust. The Law commands love, but gives no power to love, so the Law alone would strike dread and despair. Certainly trust would be beyond hope, except that we already are anticipating the Gospel. This is a presentation of the Law that leads to Christ. Learn these words, “fear, love, and trust.” Meditate about why Luther chose them. These words make all of the commandment parts of the first commandment, and these words lead to the Gospel.

At every turn, in the commandments, in the creed, in prayer, in the sacraments, the Catechism is throbbing with genius, already all worked out for you, and distilled into a couple dozen pamphlet-sized pages.

To be a witness for Christ does not require learning something more or different from what you learned to be a Christian confirmed in your baptismal faith. When opportunity to be Christ’s witness arises, simply think catechetically. As you listen to your relative, neighbor, friend, or coworker, think to yourself, what part of the Catechism touches this? Then bring forth that part. The Catechism is small enough and simple enough that you can do it.

It is most gratifying to see that in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Board for National Mission and the Office of National Mission are on to the strategic power of the Catechism for lay evangelism. They have developed a new Every One His Witness lay vocational evangelism program. This program weaves the Small Catechism into every part of its fabric. If you are in the LC-MS, look for your chance to participate in this program. Ask your pastor about it. Call the Office of National Mission.

But that is not the only way you could acquire the art. Here are things anyone can do:

  • Like Luther, read from the Catechism every day.
  • Learn to pray the Catechism.

Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. We cannot meditate on what we don’t know. We cannot give witness to what is not dear enough to us to meditate on. Get the Catechism into your heart. Meditate on it. When it is in your heart, your mouth will be able to speak it.

While we should learn to pray the Catechism for the value of doing that in and of itself, it also will have a side effect for witness. When you can speak from the Catechism to God, you can speak from the Catechism in vocation to your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Just now, a fabulous new resource for praying the Catechism has been published. Every Christian home should have a copy of Praying Luther’s Small Catechism by John T. Pless. Husbands and wives should read this together, discuss it, and pray the Catechism together. Parents should read this to their children and pray the Catechism with their children. For $9, you can learn to pray the Catechism, and you can learn to speak the Catechism in witness for Christ.

True enough, the Holy Spirit remains sovereign to create faith where and when he wills. But He freely bound himself to the means of the Word, and He has given it to us, the royal priesthood, to speak the Word vocationally. Dr. Luther’s Small Catechism in the layperson’s little Bible. It contains the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, which are enough for anyone to witness for Christ.

People do not believe a Word they have not heard. Let’s open our mouths and speak the Word, and wait upon the Holy Spirit.

Encouragement for the Scared Father

Not long ago in a discussion in an online Lutheran group, one father did a manly thing. He admitted he was scared in his role as father. He said, “Nothing scares me quite like teaching my children.”

Hallelujah! I told him, “This is a fact true of many fathers. Usually we just keep ducking, but now, in saying this, you are standing up. The Lord is at work here.”

Let me give you a collection of encouragements to overcome what scares you.

1.  God is for your children, and God is for you as father.
2.  The Catechism is simple, and using it is simple.
3.  Your influence is built into nature.
4.  Repetition is effective.
5.  Children like to answer questions.
6.  Your own faith and confidence in Christ will grow.

1.  God is for your children, and God is for you as father.

“He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

We wonder if God wants to give us what we need as fathers. He already gave his Only Begotten Son into death for your child. He will, with the death of his Son, give you what is needed to be the first evangelist of the Gospel to your child, so that the death of the Only Begotten can become precious to your child.

Through the Scriptures, the Church, and Dr. Luther, God has given you the simple little tool you need, the Small Catechism. “Prince George, of Anhalt, called it the layman’s little Bible, containing the substance of the teachings of all the Prophets and Apostles.”[1]

God wants your children to know the Catechism and be strong in simple faith, because this is to grasp onto Christ and his salvation. Realize that when you and your child are hearing the Catechism together, you are two or three gathered in Christ’s name, and there He is among you (Matthew 18:20), using his Word as a means of grace to deliver the gift of faith.

Fathering is what the Father in Heaven does, and he delights it giving you the vocation of father in his own likeness. See, He is for your imitation of him in fathering. He can be counted on for this.

Jesus corrected his disciples when they were preventing little children from coming to him. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ And He laid His hands on them.” (Matthew 19:14-15a)

2.  The Catechism is simple and using it is simple.

A child can learn the Catechism, and I mean a young child.

The Catechism that Dr. Luther wrote, without any of the bulky explanations that others added later, really is a very little pamphlet. Remember the story of Winston Churchill apologizing to his friend during the war for writing such a long letter. He explained its length, saying that with the press of war duties, he did not have time to write a short one. Shortening things down to the essentials and crystalizing them takes time. Luther invested a tremendous amount of time to be able to write a little Catechism that has everything your child needs, in the fewest, best, and most powerful words.

Merely reading the Catechism aloud to your child has effect. Its design and contents are powerful. Luther had many options and decisions to make in creating the Catechism. He gave much study and thought to it over a long time. His decisions are genius, and that genius is working for you.

Start while your child is very young. “Let it not be objected that the child cannot understand the prayer. The way of education is by practice to understanding, not by understanding to practice.”[2] Keep simply reading it to your child. This practicing of the words until your child starts to know them lays the foundation for the understanding that will come.

“By giving only a little time and attention to it each week, the parents could easily, in a few years, have all their children know it as perfectly as they know their multiplication table.”[3]

3.  Your influence is built into nature.

God at creation built it into nature that fathers have influence with their children. This includes all fathers. It happens automatically. All fathers influence their children. It is not a question of whether fathers have influence, but in which direction they will influence. Even an absolutely neglectful father is bearing an influence of neglect.

The mere fact that it is you reading the Catechism to your children bears effect.

Teachers and pastors have a helpful supporting role. But that is what their role is, helpful and supporting … to your primary role. Children will have many teachers and pastors, but they have only one father, you. No one else is “my Daddy.”

4.  Repetition is effective.

It is great that the Catechism is little. This means your reading can take advantage of repetition.

Repetition means that you don’t have to bite off more than can be chewed at any one time. Do a little today. Do a little tomorrow. Do a little the next day. Then repeat those same littles in the days that follow.

Read them the first table of the law today, the second table of the law tomorrow. On the third day, you can repeat the first table. On the fourth, you can repeat the second table. You can repeat this repetition as often as you like, and then go on to the next part of the Catechism.

If that is too much, just do one commandment today, one commandment tomorrow, and one commandment the next day. With the introduction and conclusion, it will take two weeks to get through them. No problem. There is nothing wrong with that. You are going to start over again in the third week. Repetition will get it.

By the time you reach the second chief part, the Creed, you will see what repetition does. This is what overcomes the squirmy childish behavior that you will see, the appearance that you are accomplishing nothing. Not to worry. You have repetition on your side. It does not all have to be accomplished at once.

What always is accomplished is that they hear the Word of God from their one and only earthly father. Remember, the Catechism is the layman’s little Bible. “The Word of God is living and powerful.” (Hebrews 4:12)

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

5.  Children like to answer questions.

After you have repeated one of the chief parts of the Catechism several times, you can start addressing the questions to your children.

Sure, they will stumble and fumble, but they will get pieces of it, and after a while, they will have pretty good chunks in memory. No sweat. No muss. No fuss. Bite sized pieces and patience will consume the whole thing.

Let them enjoy the fun of answering questions. The interaction with you — you questioning, them answering — is a great foundation of relationship, and relationship makes an impression. The Catechism gives you a ready-made conversation. It couldn’t be simpler.

Commend every effort and accomplishment they make. Tell them, “That’s right,” or “Good job,” or “You’re doing great.” Children want to please their parents. Children need to know their parents are pleased. Feed the hunger with good things, words of praise. Children like to answer questions because it is a good way to please their parents and receive approval.

6.  Your own faith and confidence in Christ will grow.

As you read what the Catechism is saying to your children, because of your love for them, you will be contemplating the value to them of its words. You will appreciate the importance of these little lambs hearing what the Catechism is saying. You will be seeing it through their eyes. Contemplated for its effect on your little lambs, you will be entering into the faith of a little child yourself, the kind Jesus loves to give you. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:14)


[1] Joseph Augustus Seiss, Ecclesia Lutherana: A Brief Survey of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 4th ed. (Philadelphia: Lutheran Book Concern, 1871), p. 80.

[2] G. H. Gerberding, The Way of Salvation in the Lutheran Church, (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1887, pp 49-50.

[3] G. H. Gerberding, The Way of Salvation in the Lutheran Church, (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1887, pp. 69-70.

It always brings something fresh

No pious heart can find it tiresome and superfluous if they read [the catechism] through each day and take part of it and say it aloud and meditate on it. When they do that with serious, diligent consideration, it will always bring fresh teaching, fresh warnings, fresh admonition, and fresh comfort. Thus the dear catechism is like a bountiful fresh spring; as often as a person comes to it so often will he find a rejuvenating drink.

C. Spangenberg as quoted in Robert Kolb, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God, 411-12.

HT:  John T. Pless who quoted this in his Didache group on Facebook.


Faith Enduring Attack: The Catechism as Field Manual for Discipleship, New Resource from John T. Pless

What are we trying to do?

Fix the church, like Evangelicals?

Fix the world, like Mainline Protestants?

Are we trying to make disciples, as Jesus commanded? If so, let’s recall, “Discipleship is catechetical.”

The Catechism is many things. It is a whetstone, a compass, a theological Swiss army knife, a life book, and a summary of Scripture. It is a little “Bible of the laity.”

But, where the Word of God is preached and believed, there will also be the Cross. This means that the Christian life is lived under assault by the devil, the world, and the sinful nature. Therefore, in making disciples, the Catechism is strategic, because the Catechism is training for faith to endure attack. This makes the Catechism a field manual for discipleship.

The church needs skill in teaching and meditating on the Catechism in the face of attack. A new resource for this purpose is under development by Dr. John T. Pless. We are able to get a preview and outline of it from Dr. Pless’ lecture in the Reformation Lecture Series at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 16, 2016, titled “The Catechism: A Field Manual for Discipleship.”

By Dr. Pless’ kind permission, we are able to distribute the lecture outline in PDF format and the Power Point presentation. Access them by clicking the following links:

Prezi Presentation on the Small Catechism by Pastor Philip Hoppe

Before this, I didn’t even know about Prezi presentations. What a Luddite!

And here, Pastor Philip Hoppe has made a very nice use of Prezi to introduce people to the Small Catechism. Any Lutheran will find handy uses for this with fellow church members, family, friends, online acquaintances, and others.

Go for it! Click here —>>  Prezi presentation on The Small Catechism.