In 2007, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church embarked on what was entitled “A New Beginning.” Apart from the terminological or tautological difficulties of whether one can have a “new” “beginning,” the idea to be conveyed was that something refreshingly different was to take place. Unwanted elements of the past were to be left behind, good things were to be kept, and new ideas and plans were to be conceived and made, respectively.

Viewed in and of itself, some of that has happened, and some of that has not. Juxtaposed to the verse from Hebrews 13:8 that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the questions arises what a “new beginning” might mean at all. If Christ truly is the same for all time, does not a “new beginning” seem to be the wholly wrong idea, and if the wrong idea, a complete waste of time? More broadly, if Jesus Christ is truly eternally the same, are not the unnumerable attempts by churches and denominations to do “something new” not only a waste of time but contrary to the Christian faith?

On the other hand, there is no shortage of verses which in various ways talk of God making “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). So, how can Christ remain the same and yet have all things made new? How do we know what is to remain the same and what it to be renewed? How do we know when to forego current practices, when to renew old ones, and when to create something as yet wholly new? With this notion in mind, what is the impetus to do so anyway?

These and related questions arise particularly when it seems that any given congregation is “struggling,” whether that is numerically, financially, organizationally, or otherwise. There seems to be a tendency for congregations to want to copy other “successful” congregations in the hopes that imitation will result in proliferation. To accommodate the notion of church as commodity, the market for programmes resembling “church by numbers” or “ministry by numbers” abounds. Whereas some of these may prove “successful” for “church growth,” what theological criteria lie behind the “numbers,” particularly the “cult by numbers” designed to attain numerical growth?

Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, the chief Lutheran statement of faith (Confession), states, “It is also taught that all time there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”

Where is the option for “ministry by numbers” in that definition? How does that offer a recipe to mix the right quantities of social programmes and baptismal water to sprout new members and increase cash flow?

If one looks at this definition of the church in Article VII carefully, there is nothing for a congregation to do but to be assembled, grammatically a passive construction, where one chief activity takes place, namely the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ administered in verbal and sacramental forms. Please note, however, that this proclamation by definition is to be administered “purely.” In the “church by numbers” scheme of things, how does one qualify and quantify such proclamation? How does one know that one has received adulterated or unadulterated gospel, and if adulterated, how pure it is, 95% pure or 73.4% pure or on a bad day just 21.62% pure?

Lots of so-called Lutherans like to talk about the church and church unity based on Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. Conveniently, many if not most of those so-called Lutherans omit, either by accident or by design, the reference to the “pure” proclamation of the gospel. At the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran theologians stressed the “pure” proclamation as the criterion for the mission of the church. Anything less could and would lead people astray, as was so evident in Luther’s day and is still evident today, especially in many so-called Lutheran churches.

Whereas it is a preacher’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel purely, it is the congregation’s responsibility to know and to ensure that they are receiving the pure proclamation of the gospel. That is one aspect of the “Lutheran difference” in comparison to all other church denominations. Unfortunately, that difference is often ignored, and a significant reason why Lutheranism is in such dire straits generally is because the church has been so “dumbed down,” literally as to defy belief. Pastors and congregations both have been remiss in exercising their rights and responsibilities as members of the priesthood of all believers seeking earnestly to ensure that the church is fulfilling its mission as clearly and as purely as possible.

So, if Jesus Christ is eternally the same, how do we know what to retain and what to renew? Perhaps the question becomes more clear if viewed differently. It seems not only logical but also prudent to be conversant with the “old” before moving onto the “new.” In other words, Lutherans possess a priceless treasure in Scripture and in the Lutheran Confessions, as a true interpretation of Scripture. In that light, it would seem neither meet nor right nor salutary to pursue the new until one is steeped in the Word of God revealed eternally in Jesus Christ. How conversant are you in the Bible and in the Lutheran confessional writings?

A significant driving force for the initiation and development of St. Luke’s Theological Academy (SLTA) is to redress in a small way the sacrifice of theological competence and responsibility in favour of “church growth” fads. SLTA provides an opportunity for pastors to teach and train congregational members to know and to understand their theological responsibilities better. That education can then, in turn, be used and applied to help and ensure that congregational members are willing and able for quality control purposes to help ensure that the preacher is fulfilling his call by the congregation to preach and teach on its behalf.

This autumn, SLTA is offering five courses: Foundations of the Christian Faith (beginning Sunday, 11 September, 4:00-5:30 pm), Introduction to the Old Testament, Worship and Music, The Lutheran Difference, and Christian History and Doctrine (all beginning Tuesday, 13 September, 7:00-8:30 pm). If you would like a refresher or more in-depth learning, there is probably a course just about right for you. You can register online via St. Luke’s website or by telephoning the church office.