“You know what happens; perhaps you have seen it in your own congregations. People look around and see the greying heads in the pews and they panic. ‘This is a disaster! We’ve got to do something!’ is the cry. There is no lack of eager would-be saviors of the church. They frequently prescribe radical surgeries or complete makeovers. ‘Change or Die’ is their motto. Sadly, the outcome is all too predictable: the patient emerges from surgery or makeover looking remarkably like the surrounding culture.”
This is a scene that plays out far to often in the modern church. Dr. Harold Senkbeil, executive director for spiritual care for Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel in Brookfield, Wisconsin, has been studying the decline of “confessional Lutheranism” since the days of his seminary studies. In a series of lectures that he delivered shortly after his book, “Sanctification: Christ in Action,” was published he correlated this decline with the influence of American Evangelicalism. Since then, Dr. Senkbeil has rethought his diagnosis of the problem. And with the wisdom that has come with years continued study and thoughtful observation, he offers a full diagnosis and treatment plan in the Fall 2014 Concordia Journal in an article entitled, “Engaging Our Culture Faithfully.”
Rather than hastily jumping into the breach in an effort to “do something,” Dr. Senkbeil puts forward the thesis that “we are going to have to first step away from our culture if we are to truly embrace it and connect it to Christ and his word.”
Far from advocating full disengagement, Dr. Senkbeil carefully examines the cultural decadence that can be abundantly observed and shows, “that much of what is ailing us [in the church] can be traced to cultural accommodation.”
Pointing to the idea that we are moving from “the postmodern era,” to whatever is to come next, He highlights the cultural problems we face such as “The Loss of Virtue,” “The Flight from Reason,” “The Debacle of Individualism,” and connects these with what’s happening in the church as he describes, “The Movement from Christ to Christian,” and points out that in many areas of Christendom, “The mission of the Christian takes over for the mission of Christ,” and “’How to’ has taken over for ‘repent and believe.’ ‘What would Jesus do?’ has taken over for ‘What has Jesus done?’ – or more precisely, in terms of the efficacious word and sacrament: ‘what is Jesus doing?’” And then with critical insight, Senkbeil points out, “We do not serve a dead hero, after all, but a living Lord, who comes among us daily to nourish us by his word.
In a section titled, “What Goes Around Comes Around,” Dr. Senkbeil points out that this is not a divide between liberal and conservative Christians. This problem runs deeper. Where liberalism sold out “to the intelligentsia of its day, modifying biblical teaching to accommodate scientific and philosophical reasoning, conservative evangelicalism has adjusted its compass to the trends of pop culture, packaging its teaching and church life to appeal to a customer base informed by marketing, advertising, and entertainment.”
He then describes “The New Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” pointing out that “The strange thing about this captivity is that it is not enforced or imposed on the church from without, but chosen and embraced from within . . . [we have a] strange fascination with our contemporary culture evident across denominational lines.”
Having described this “New Babylonian Captivity,” Dr. Senkbeil lays out the symptomatology of the disease brought about by the church’s affinity with culture pointing out, “1. How the church lost its story, despising and rejecting its identity as curator of God’s sacred mysteries. 2. The move away from eternal verities toward personal fulfilment; exchanging the truth of the gospel for the dictates of expressive individualism. 3. The move from chastity toward decadence as the church increasingly apes the sexual promiscuity of her pagan neighbors. 4. The move from soul to self as the church endorses the faulty view that each person must construct reality out of his or her own impulses.”
Finally, Dr. Senkbeil offers the diagnosis: Acedia. Acedia is “one of the seven deadly, or cardinal, sins; often translated as ‘sloth.’” But more than our common conception of laziness or sloth, Acedia is “not caring about those things that demand our utmost care.” What’s more, Acedia has a “narcotic effect that covers the pain and struggle of life.” Dr. Senkbeil references the “hectic pace of contemporary life,” and asserts that “The frenzy with which much of the church busies herself with things perhipheral to the kingdom in a frantic attempt by her own ingenuity and effort to make God’s name holy or make his kingdom come is a sign that something is radically wrong.” He goes on to say that, “Our hectic lives are examples of the narcotic effect of acedia among us,” a sort of “spiritual morphine.”
After offering an expert diagnosis indicating that the church suffers from a profound case of Acedia. Dr. Senkbeil exhibits his extensive experience as both a spiritual diagnostician and curate of souls as he puts forward a treatment plan that seeks first to “revive and recover the third article of the Creed; to live corporately and communally in a world of expressive individualism,” then offers a prescription that offers “specific suggestions to face contemporary challenges, all of which flow from the corporate life of the church.”
“We need to show how the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies people one by one through the gospel, and then draws them into communion in his holy church,” says Dr. Senkbeil.
In offering his “Treatment Plan for Evangelization,” he observes, “For too long we have seen the ministry of the church and the mission of the church as distinct compartments, outreach and inreach, making disciples and keeping disciples. Yet the life of the church revolves around the central article: the justification of the ungodly by grace through faith in the Son of God, who is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Loke the hub of a wheel, the church’s corporate life is an extension of the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
Acknowledging our embrace of “an idea from Arminianism and frontier revivalism, that bringing people to Christ is a one-time event that centers on getting them to decide for Jesus,” Dr. Senkbeil notes the bifurcation of Christian mission and discipleship and counters such a view saying, “Every aspect of the church’s corporate life is evangelization, an extension and expression of the living Christ present at work in his church.” And citing 2 Timothy 4:1-5, he notes, “Jesus, his cross, and resurrection are at the center of mission and ministry.”
Senkbeils “Treatment Plan for Evangelization”contains three elements:
- Proclamation and Ministry – As “the first and perhaps most important part of our treatment plan,” Senkbeil rightly asserts that “Preachers need to learn all they can about effective rhetoric and communication techniques.” But he also rightly asserts that what is most important is not style, but substance saying, “as important as it is that preachers know how to speak, it’s more important that they know what to say.” And, in answer to the question of “what,” he says, “We do not preach about Jesus, we preach Jesus present among us with his gifts.”
- Catechesis for Faith and Life – Pointing to the rich treasure of the Scriptures, Creeds and Confessions, as the tools, “by which is taught the faith once delivered to the saints,” Dr. Senkbeil emphasizes that, “To evangelize the world and catechize the faithful, we need to be a teaching church once more.” “We can only speak of what we have heard and seen,” he notes. And as the church, “The language of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer is our mother tongue.” Through these, “we can once again speak concerning our hope in Christ.” And, he emphasizes that, “From cradle to grave, baptized believers need to be immersed in the divine saga of God’s creation, redemption, and sanctification.”“If we are to effectively treat acedia in all of its manifestations in the church, it is time we pay more attention to the catechesis of worship, preaching, and teaching.”
- Prayer and Meditation – To deal with our “need of a deeper sense of the holy,” Dr. Senkbeil asserts that, “we need sanctification.” Taking guidance from 1 Timothy 4:5 which states that things are “sanctified through the word of God and prayer,” Senkbeil notes that, “prayer begins in a receptive posture. First we listen to God speaking [in His word], and then we speak back to him. Therefore meditation [on God’s word] is the heart of prayer.”
And to conclude, Dr. Senkbeil reminds us that, as the Church, “we have been in situations like this before.” Therefore, “We should have some sympathy for [the] ancients, for in many ways we live in a world much like theirs.. . . . We live in a time between the age of reason and whatever will come next much like that of late antiquity, when the classic age was collapsing in ruin and the early Middle Ages was beginning.” Therefore, there is hope even for us in these gray and latter days, for “As we search for vitality in the church’s life and mission, we can draw inspiration from St. Augustine in the closing words of City of God. To shed light on their present darkness he points the faithful to their glorious future, to an end without ending, to that time when they would know God’s eternal kingdom no longer by faith, but by sight.”
A 1600 word review can hardly do Dr. Senkbeil’s article justice. While here I have given a reasonable outline of his thesis and some of the more salient points of his exposition, it would be of benefit to the Church at large for all pastors, boards of elders, and church councils to examine and discuss the article in depth as they seek to faithfully preserve and propagate the faith once for all delivered to the saints in these foreboding and perilous days.