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Thursday, June 5, 2014

What does JESUS mean to you?

Last week we had our Metro Chicago Synod Assembly, which is basically the yearly business meeting for the various pastors, church leaders, and church member representatives for Lutheran congregations all across Chicago.

There were votes on resolutions, budget reports, nominations to the national assembly; name tags around our neck and even freebie cloth bags and vendor booths.

It was all you'd expect from a typical business convention, with some communion and liturgy thrown in.

All in all - besides the 90-minute drive - I was glad to be part of the assembly. Bishop Wayne Miller gave a spirited sermon, I had the chance to brainstorm with other pastors of my generation, and I was lucky to be accompanied by Melanie, a bright and talented member of St. Philip.

One thing struck me, though, the second day of the assembly, and I wanted to share it with you.

The keynote speaker of the morning, a representative from the national office, asked us all to take a moment and share with our neighbors:
"What does the ELCA mean to you?" (note: ELCA stands for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; my denomination, or governing national church body)

Unfortunately at the moment I was sitting next to the wall charging my laptop to take notes, so I didn't have a "neighbor." I looked around but everyone was already engrossed in conversation, so I was left with my thoughts.

Here's the truth. I didn't have many. It just wasn't a question that inspired a whole heck of a lot of emotion in me.

What does the ELCA mean to me?

Gosh. It's kind of a mouthful of alphabet soup. There's a building in Chicago that houses people. They make forms for me to fill out.

I mean ... I just didn't have much to say.

Maybe that makes me a bad Lutheran. I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the ELCA. My home congregation was a part of the ELCA, and it was there that I learned the basics of the Christian faith: to love because of a suffering, dying Savior who rose again that I might have life, and have it abundantly.

My seminary was a part of the ELCA - I was even awarded a full-tuition scholarship funded by the ELCA.

I serve a congregation now that is a part of the ELCA.

I have friends and family who are members of ELCA churches.

When it comes down to it, though, the ELCA is just another institution. I don't know if you've heard, but institutions aren't so popular nowadays. They tend to suck up resources and slow down creativity. It's not their faults - they don't mean to do it - but it's the nature of institutions that bureaucracy is a necessary part of function, and bureaucracy always slows things down and stunts creativity and change. If you aren't sure about that, just look at the U.S. government.

This post isn't meant to knock the ELCA - or the U.S. government. I'm grateful for the ELCA. It's great.

But the ELCA isn't the reason I became a pastor.

And when I'm in this big conference hall outside Chicago, surrounded by pastors and musicians and church members and leaders and teachers and professors and students and Jesus followers - I've gotta say that discussing what the ELCA means to me is not really the burning question on my mind.

I've gotta say. I heard a lot of great, even brilliant minds at our convention. Great Lutheran talk about vocation (the way we serve God in our daily lives) about stewardship (how we responsibly use and distribute the gifts God gives us) about evangelism (the way we live and share the story of God) about liberation (one of the actions that Jesus' resurrection does in us and in our world).

Did you notice something in that last paragraph? Lots of parentheses. Lots of "insider" language. Lots of difficult concepts and abstract thinking.

If a non-believer who'd never been to church was air-dropped into our convention for a minute, he or she might be confused. Maybe bored. Maybe intrigued.

But I don't know that that non-believer would hear enough of the one word that called all of us into existence as pastors and churchgoers and students and professors and musicians and leaders and volunteers at our churches.


I know the reasoning; why we talk like this at certain gatherings and talk different ways at others. It's a business meeting; things get done that need to get done. It's not always pretty. It's not an "evangelism" event. I get it.

But you'd still think a room full of pastors could talk just a little bit more about Jesus. Share what drives us. What keeps us going. What causes us to tie ourselves down to a ship that seems to be sinking and pray and sing on the decks of the Titanic nonetheless.

What we really believe about the resurrection. Why it matters. Why we're here.

There's a lot of literature out there now about pastors and church leaders helping people to learn to share their faith. To talk about Jesus.

I gotta think it starts with us. We've gotta talk more about Jesus. Even in these insider business meetings where it seems dry and boring or where things get done that need to get done let's try to feel and sense a little bit of the Holy Spirit! How about it?

Instead of turning to our neighbor and having some halfhearted conversation about what an institution means to us - let's turn to the man or woman next to us and say: "Hey. What does JESUS mean to you?"

We've gotta try it amongst ourselves for it to be real and authentic when we do it the next time we're "working" at Starbucks to "be amongst the people," Pastors.

Let's give it a shot.

Last Saturday I shared this idea with a pastor friend of mine in the Chicago Synod.

What does Jesus mean to you?

Me: "That life means more than constant striving, fatuous superficiality and death. That God knows me, loves me, and forgives me. That the impossible is possible."

Pastor Mark: "Jesus means that my past screw ups don't control my future, and because of Jesus I can live forgiven so that I can teach others to forgive."

What do you think? What does Jesus mean to you?

Let's get the conversation going. When we know what Jesus means to us, then we'll know best how to use the tools and resources of the ELCA to further Jesus' Gospel.


  1. I come here via a recommendation from a seminary friend of yours, Scott Dalen. I really like the thought you've got going here. It seems so obvious, but how often do we lose it in the shuffle anyways? Speaking for myself, way too often. My wife and I have been talking about Praise a lot lately - about looking at Jesus instead of getting caught up in everything else at every opportunity. And what a difference it makes!

  2. When I was interviewing with the bishop of my synod during assignment (a region 7 thing), the first question she asked was, "Who is Jesus to you? And I don't want the seminary answer. I want to hear what you would say to someone who has never heard of him before." Three degrees in theology and I had never been asked this question before! When I had answered, she followed up, "And where have you seen that Jesus?" As I answered this question I'd never answered before, I cried for how moved I was by the chance to reflect on it.

    How do we expect our people to be able to tell the story and share the good news if they have never tried to articulate it themselves? We need to get people comfortable saying Jesus' name, and what he means to them, for themselves before we can hope they will talk about him to anyone else.