Praying for Revival in Our Churches (Part 2) OR "Pfotenhauer Throws Everything But the Bible Under the Bus"
Last week I wrote about the topic of revival, noting that while this word is often misused and misunderstood, there is a valid place for revival in the theology, practice, and prayers of our Lutheran churches. And not only is there a place for such things - there is also a vital need. I also urged any Reformed readers who have a renewed interest in the Great Awakening and the legacy of Jonathan Edwards to also delve deep into the writings of C.F.W Walther. I would argue that Walther - a man who, like Edwards, had a genuine concern for true conversion and spiritual renewal - pursued such things through the proper distinction between the law and the gospel, which, in the end, leads to more assurance rather than less.
Revival In Our Own Tradition
My thinking about the intersection between revival, awakening, and renewal with Lutheran theology and practice has also led me into some deeper reading on the topic within my own tradition. So far I’ve tracked down a few suspects: A fresh reading of Walther’s Law and Gospel (wouldn’t it be great if we all just read this every year?), a look at some of Walther’s sermons, “The Pastor” (a book on the pastoral theology of Wilhelm Loehe - thank you Rev. Tim Koch for the recommendation!), and, of course, a closer reading of the Confessions - especially the sections on repentance, faith, and good works. Other recommendations are welcome.
Thoughts on "The Elevation of Spiritual Life" by a Past Synodical President
My interest in this topic led me to pull a book off my shelf that I had never really cracked open- “At Home in the House of My Fathers," edited and partially translated by current LCMS President Matthew Harrison. The book is a series of essays, letters, and addresses from past presidents of the synod. Among these writings, I found one of the addresses by Friedrich Pfotenhauer to be particularly interesting - “Revitalization of the Synod Shall Come from Neither Missions nor More Synodical Power: The Word is the Only Remedy.” How interesting. How timely. There is really nothing new under the sun. The church goes through times of up and down, hot and cold, and in history we read the record of saints who, like us now, groan inwardly with the prayer, “Come Holy Spirit.”
The Challenge of Apathy Then and Now
As I read, I noted maladies and concerns with both church and society very similar to our own. It’s almost like Pfotenhauer was addressing the 2019 synodical convention. In 1936, he addresses the district presidents and circuit visitors at a conference in River Forest, Illinois with these words:
That spiritual life among us has declined is evident from many and various observations. The main Sunday Divine Service is carried out in shoddy fashion, and as a consequence, the Christian training of the Church in the family is neglected. Once-flourishing parish schools are shrinking, in many case without due cause. Many are satisfied with Sunday School and inadequate confirmation instruction instead of making every possible effort to have Christian schools. Attendance at the Divine Service is of secondary importance for many, particularly in the summer months when the automobile allows the whole family to go places other than church. The ways of the world are ever more prevalent among us.
All of this sounds very familiar - just add sports, activities, and all the distraction created by smartphones and social media, and maybe add the rampant consumption of online porn for good measure, and Pfotenhauer's diagnosis of the American church is just as timely as it was in the 1930s.
Remedies Which Require No Holy Spirit
So, what does the Synod’s president propose as a remedy to these maladies? What will bring about true spiritual renewal? Before getting to the real catalyst for renewal, Pfotenhauer lists a number of proposed solutions that, while appealing on the surface, are found wanting. Each of these embody efforts to revitalize and revive the church “with means that cannot accomplish what we seek.” In other words, such means - much like counterfeit revivals - need no Holy Spirit to achieve their goals.
He begins with a renewed call to missions and evangelism:
An attempt has been made to elevate spiritual life in the home congregation by rousing the Church to missions and directing her sight to the misery of the churchless and especially the poor non-Christians.
Why is this a fail? Well, what good is a renewed concern with the mission of the church when Christ is not adored and cherished as the highest good of the congregation? If I was told to go and make disciples of golf, I would do everything in my ability to avoid the mission because I do not love love golf. I don’t mind golfing, it’s just that I’m not all that committed to golf. I think that many members of American churches are about as invested in Jesus and his mission as I am invested in golf, so can you see why a renewed call for mission won’t accomplish a renewal of the church? We need to go deeper.
How about trying harder? What about making renewed commitments to be better, more zealous Christians? Pfotenhauer addresses this as well:
Another confusion was that of the Pietists. In order to elevate spiritual life, they taught that spirit and life flowed out of our personal life of sanctification.
What’s the problem with this?
But we can’t produce spiritual life. We live from that which God gives.
In other words, the solution does not reside within us. “I cannot by my own reason or strength.” Or, to be more culturally relevant, "I can't even."
Well, why not invite synodical bureaucracy to revitalize and renew our congregations? What about a binder from the district, or a glossy printed pamphlet with three steps from some omniscient movement within the church? Or what if the right people are in power?
Other’s would heal Joseph’s wound with tighter church governance. They say, if our president, visitors, and commissions had more authority, if they could prescribe things to congregations and the congregations had to obey, then life would be brought to these dead bones.
Once again, it’s as if Pfotenhauer were speaking in the present rather than the past. Why will such measures fail?
Without question, if such a yoke were laid upon the necks of the children, many external works would be produced. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be that difficult to get the money to begin flowing. But that would in no way elevate spiritual life.
Such measures will fail because they use the law to coerce unwilling people to do what they would rather not do. And even if some glitzy, impressive works came as a result, like the grass they will soon wither under the resentment and frustration that so often follow when big ideas are applied in a top down fashion in the local congregation.
As a final solution, some would even try to spice things up by being more relevant:
Indeed, today everyone thinks he can help the Church somehow! Music, liturgies, all sorts of things are proposed as medicine for old and young.
The Word of God Endures Forever
In prophetic fashion, Pfotenhauer has successfully diagnosed the need for revival in the church. He has also thrown every proposed solution under the bus. Except for one - the most obvious, but most forgotten solution - the Word.
When it comes to the elevation of spiritual life in our midst, let us therefore, dear brothers, completely forsake the above-mentioned means and steadfastly maintain that the Word of God alone can elevate spiritual life.
So if we desire to elevate spiritual life, we must diligently bring to bear the Word. This is what the apostle Paul admonishes when he writes to Timothy, “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Revival and the Pastor - This is Not the Time for Laziness!
So, what does this mean for pastors? Pfotenhauer is addressing district presidents, circuit visitors, and synodical officers, but what he says rings true for all pastors in the local congregation as well:
From Luther he quotes: Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent! True! This evil horrible time is not the time for laziness, snoring and sleeping! Use your gift, which has been entrusted to you, and make known the mystery of Christ!
Pfotenhauer exposits this exhortation further:
The chief requirement of a capable district president and visitor is not that he be great with finances and a capable administrator, but much more that he be a profound theologian and experienced student of the Scriptures (how much more the pastor who teaches and preaches on a weekly basis!).
You must absolutely cast aside everything that hinders you from studying the Scriptures. To be sure, modern life is complex. The demands of pastoral and synodical office are multifaceted. But do not forget that one can make a matter more complex than it really is (It’s really amazing to think that this was written before email or the iPhone existed!).
So, what’s the solution? What brings about revival, renewal, awakening, the “elevation of spiritual life in our congregations,” or whatever else you want to call it?
Spiritual life comes about, and will be maintained, through faith in Jesus Christ, through confidence in the declaration of justification, which God has created through the redemptive work of Christ and proclaimed in the Gospel. And this spiritual life is realized immediately through holiness and piety, and through living in the commandments of God.
None of this exists without the consistent, clear, faithful, preaching and teaching of God’s Word. No bag of tricks. No sexy solutions. No hype or high blood pressure. Just pastors and people who love the Word of God, and the Jesus to whom it bears witness.
And what happens when this is the case? Missions and evangelism becomes sacred privileges rather than anxious, onerous burdens. Good works flow from faith, for faith is a living, active, busy thing. Congregations pursue doctrine, worship, preaching, and practice that are healthy, wholesome, and God-honoring, and therefore no longer subject to the whims of culture or the management of synod. May God grant such things by his power alone, even as we pray and preach for such things through the power he alone gives!
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windosr, CT