Reformation Education in the Congregations
Russell Sommerfeld, M.Div., Assistant Professor of Theology, Philosophy, and Biblical Languages, Concordia University, Nebraska; President, Nebraska District, LCMS, 2013–2015
In his article, “5 Reasons to Teach Your Kids About the Reformation”1 Jeff Robinson writes, “I want my children to know that without the gospel, they cannot make sense of life in a fallen world. Without the gospel, there’s no hope in this life or the next, no real purpose to our days and seasons … justification is the hinge on which the door of salvation swings. I want them to keep a close watch on that door.” And he offers these suggestions, noting that there’s no single correct way to do this, but here are some things his family has done:
- Read biographies of the major reformers: Luther, Calvin, Knox—even Augustine as a forerunner to the Reformation, or Edwards and Bunyan as its heirs.
- Study the five solas, covering one per week. We’ve helped our kids define them and then looked at pertinent Scripture passages that teach sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria, in that order.
- Study the book of Romans or Galatians. Focus on sin, grace, and justification by faith. We’ve covered pertinent parts of Romans and read Galatians in its entirety.
- Teach hymns that articulate the doctrines of grace. “A Mighty Fortress,” “And Can It Be,” and dozens similar offer opportunities to tell the writers’ stories or discuss the songs’ theology.
- Attend a Reformation party for children or a Reformation Day service at a local church.
- If you haven’t begun catechizing your children, this month is a good time to start. The various strands of the Reformation tradition have produced useful catechisms to fill little hearts and minds with the architecture of biblical truth, one question at a time.
Many a Lutheran pastor would glow with delight to hear a parent within the congregation he serves express such a heartfelt parental commitment with Reformation education suggestions. However, as you may have guessed, a seminary professor who is a parent penned these Reformation education thoughts. Nevertheless, you might be surprised to learn that Dr. Robinson is adjunct professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Then, again, you may have ascertained the writer’s Reformed affiliation by some of the references within his suggested family educational activities. Robinson also recommends educational resources including Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul L. Maier of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, noting that the book can be read to your family in one or two sittings and provides a lively account of the monk with whom it all began.
Robinson’s Baptist perspective on Reformation education is evidence of how influential Lutheran theology remains today. It is stimulating confessing movements among Christians beyond the Lutheran fold. Robinson is a senior editor for such a movement called the Gospel Coalition founded by Dr. Timothy Keller in Manhattan, New York. The Gospel Coalition, like all confessing movements, seeks to focus Christians on the church’s historic and orthodox doctrines and practices. As a global network of 7,800 Reformed congregations in 22 chapters, the Gospel Coalition encourages and educates current and next generation Christians. One aspect of their work has been the development of the New City Catechism.2 Robinson’s encouragement for family catechesis at the family altar is certainly commendable (recall Luther’s purpose for the Small Catechism) and reminiscent of a traditional means to transmit Reformation theology to coming generations.
Ah, the family altar! Family time together in conversation, godly devotion and prayer is surely the ideal for spiritual formation. To be sure, the family is the most valuable locus to impart the vibrant blessings of the Reformation teachings of Justification, Law and Gospel, Baptismal confidence, the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper, the Theology of the Cross, the Priesthood of All Believers, Two Kingdoms and Vocation. However, in our overcommitted society of constant employment, back-to-back and overlapping activities, a plethora of organizations interconnected on-line with social media zinging virtual relationships through cyberspace, the family altar ideal does not have much of a chance.
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. In 1524, Martin Luther enumerated three struggles with parental Christian education of children: “In the first place, there are some who lack the goodness and decency to do it, even if they had the ability. … In the second place, the great majority of parents unfortunately are wholly unfitted for this task. … In the third place, even if parents had the ability and desire to do it themselves, they have neither the time nor the opportunity for it, what with their duties and the care of the household.”3
Nevertheless, following the 1527 and 1528 visitations of the Saxony congregations and schools, Luther preached a series of sermons in 1529 that were transformed into wall-hanging instruction tools for fathers to catechize their children. Knowing that many fathers were willing but their flesh weak, Luther in 1530 wrote his “Letter to the Councilmen of All the Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Schools.”
He turned his attention from parents to the offices of the church and demonstrated a high respect for those entrusted with education. In 1539, he wrote, “A pastor and schoolteacher plant and raise young trees and saplings in the garden. Oh, they have a precious office and work and are the finest jewels of the church; they preserve the church.”4 Luther was a strong proponent of pastors and teachers imparting the faith through education in the Word. He preached in July of 1530, “If I myself could or should be obliged to leave the office of the ministry and other duties, I would rather have the office of schoolmaster of boys than any other office. For I know that next to ministry this work is the most useful, the greatest, and the best. In fact, I do not know which of the two is better; for it is hard to tame old dogs and to make old rascals pious. Yet this is the task at which the preacher must labor and often labor in vain. But one can bend and train young trees more easily even though some of them break in the process. My friend, let it be considered one of the greatest virtues on earth faithfully to train the children of other people. Very few people—in fact, practically none—do this for their own children.”5
Reformation teachings offer such precious treasures to pass forward! Congregations of the 21st century with a Reformation theology continue to be in possession of marvelous biblical riches to disburse through their members, young and old. Oh, how valuable they can be in our secularized, polarized and cynical world. It is inspiring to consider the benefits of teaching and demonstrating grace and forgiveness into the daily lives of people trampling one another with, “I must have what is coming to me.” Contemplate the confidence of Baptismal certainty for this era of personal identity confusion. Reflect on the power of the forgiving presence of Jesus in His Supper for guilt-ridden, shame-laden, weary Christian souls. Ponder for a moment what the theology of the cross can mean to those who suffer with no one to turn to. Reformation-educated Christians can comfort them with the suffering Jesus while also displaying their own compassion as “little Christs” (Romans 12:15). Oh, how blessed people can be when they encounter those who passionately live out their vocations as callings from God to serve their neighbors. Thoughtfully examine what it can mean for 21st century Reformation Christians to function in God’s kingdom of the government, bringing order to bless their neighbors in temporal matters while also serving God’s Church to bring eternal salvation to their neighbors through Christ!
How are we to fill the living jars of clay in our congregations with these Reformation treasures to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:7)? Five centuries after Luther, the responsibility and challenge for Reformation education remains focused on parents, pastors and the church’s teachers. However, is it prudent to limit such responsibility? We have already noted how overwhelmed many parents are by the pace of life, not to mention how unprepared many see themselves to conduct Christian education for their children. Pastors in the various contexts and sizes of congregations are also experiencing multiple demands. Pastors race from Word and Sacrament ministries to administrative duties to increasing care for an increasingly aging population. Local congregation survival frequently requires pastors to simultaneously serve more than one congregation. Meanwhile, the strong ministry emphases for pastors of today’s congregations are outreach and community engagement, and our pastors are deeply concerned about church revitalization. Thus—and ironically—providing parish educational resources is not a current high priority.
In the 1960s, 1970s and into the early 1980s the former Board for Parish Education of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the education executives of the various districts of the Synod directed significant attention to resource development for congregational education. Specific materials were created for assisting pastors as parish educators. The LCMS even established a new office in the church for congregational Christian education. The 1959 convention of the LCMS called upon congregations to analyze their parish education needs and consider creating the office of director of Christian education to enhance their parish education programs.6 By 1981, the office of DCE had become an office into which congregations issued divine calls to trained and certified men and women who were rostered in the LCMS as ministers of religion–commissioned. Since then, nearly 2,000 DCEs have made lasting contributions in congregational education for all ages. DCEs continue to be well prepared to exercise the educational function of the pastoral office in the life of a congregation. However, as of November 2016, there were 6,101 congregations in the LCMS and only 584 DCEs.7
Since the Synod’s formation in 1847, its school ministry has been one of its greatest educational strengths for congregations and associations of congregations. The schools have been and continue to be served by teachers who are quality educators of the church. Nevertheless, the number of students to whom they have access is decreasing. Tragically, since 2005, LCMS congregations have closed 458 schools with an overall enrollment drop of 99,113 students from its remaining 2,029 schools.8 Of those schools, 1,150 are early childhood centers, 793 are elementary schools, and 86 are high schools.9
In light of these current realities, pastors remain at the center of leading congregational education for all ages. How prepared are they to do so? In 2012, Dr. Mark Blanke, Director of the DCE Program, Strategic Planning, University Institutes, and the Chair of Christian Educational Leadership at Concordia University, Nebraska, wrote an informative article titled, “The State of Education in the Congregations of the LCMS.” He made important observations about pastoral participation in congregational Christian education from a 2006 study of 200 congregations by Concordia Nebraska’s Institute for Religious Education. The pastors who were surveyed estimated that they spent 23 percent of their time working on Christian education ministry (teaching, planning, and preparation). However, a majority (57 percent) never had college coursework outside of seminary that focused on educational methods. Another majority (56 percent) had never participated in any continuing educational experience that focused on educational methods since becoming pastors.10
In many small to medium-sized congregations, the pastor creates the educational programs, recruits and trains lay teachers while also functioning as a teacher of children, youth, and adults, addressing an array of biblical teachings and life applications. All LCMS pastors have made an unconditional quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions—Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms (1529), the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), the Smalcald Articles and Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537), and the Formula of Concord Epitome and Solid Declaration (1577). A key concern, then, is that developing and implementing a curriculum of Reformation theological education for the various generations within the congregation is a daunting prospect for many pastors within the complex of their many responsibilities.
To address this key concern, congregational education in Reformation theology and practice calls for actions in the spirit of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). This is said not to promote the reforming of doctrine: the 16th century Lutheran reformers accomplished this task for us already, and the Lutheran Confessions clearly depict their faithfulness to the Scriptures. The call to action here is for the ongoing reform of delivering those biblical truths of the Reformation to today’s church and world. The recommended reforms for our ongoing delivery include using the God-given assets within LCMS congregations and connecting these to the cooperation, collaboration, and coordination of the resources of the LCMS. While the details of budget, personnel and agreements for coordination would require careful planning and implementation, we can here at least begin by considering our semper reformanda in broad strokes.
The two seminaries in addition to the several colleges and universities of the LCMS are tremendous resources for Reformation education. Continuing education for pastors has recently become a priority in the LCMS. As an effort to bring some structure, organization and encouragement for pastors, the Synod in its 2013 convention passed Resolution 5-08B, “To Establish a Standard for Continuing Education for Pastors.” A task force consisting of faculty members from the seminaries and members of the Council of Presidents has worked collaboratively to develop a list of qualified continuing education resources and activities. Among the most requested content for continuing education were for instructional preparation and skills, refresher background in the Confessions and Systematics, applications of Law and Gospel, and assistance with Confirmation instruction. Through this continuing seminary education, pastors have multiple opportunities to grow in their Reformation theology. The January 2016 “Pastoral Education Newsletter of the LCMS encouraged congregations to support their pastors in such continuing education with funding and available time to attend week-long seminars that typically cost between $150 and $250.11
The colleges and universities of the LCMS could also provide cooperation and collaboration for in-depth educational training of pastors. Theses quality higher education institutions could also create curriculum for Reformation theology for pastors to administer and teach in the parish. As noted earlier, surveys of LCMS pastors make it apparent that training in education is both needed and desired. The educational programs and faculties of the Concordia University System could offer newly developed quality programs to aid pastors in both teaching and equipping the lay teachers.
There are also several options for the delivery of such helpful educational resources from LCMS colleges and universities. They include face-to-face seminars, webinars, YouTube videos and on-line courses. In addition, 20 of the 35 LCMS districts have created educational programs for laity that are delivered on the district level. Many of these district level entities continue to provide the introductory course work for men who will apply for admission to the Specific Ministry Pastor training from each seminary.12 They also offer lay training programs designed for pastors to identify church members for biblical and practical learning to assist in various aspects of congregational service. Pastors without the necessary time and resources to train individuals to assist them in evangelism, assimilating new members, youth work, and visitation have discovered that this district lay training has a multiplier effect for their efforts. The addition of on-line learning is enhancing effective district level delivery of education for congregations. In many of these ways just described, the Council of Presidents of the Synod’s districts and the National Mission Office of the LCMS could partner to initiate the needed cooperation, collaboration and coordination among congregations, districts, seminaries, and colleges/universities. Through their regular visitation of congregations, district presidents in collaboration with their education executives could provide invaluable local congregation, pastor and church educator input to highlight specific needs for such cooperation in Reformation education.
Parents, pastors, DCEs and teachers within LCMS congregations would also do well to consider the various vocations among the priesthood of believers to identify congregants who have a God-given calling to both teach and demonstrate Reformation theology and practice. While the classroom setting has been the typical method of parish education, what opportunities might be accessed through the various callings God has worked among congregants? For example, we can provide a course of study on the Lutheran biblical understanding of vocation for men and women in various roles and stations (including the home, employment, civic activities, and other forms of service). Children and youth could then be matched with them to see and learn how the Reformation doctrine of vocation informs their roles and stations. When possible, a process could be developed for children and youth to accompany these trained folks to see their vocations in action. By shadowing them, they could witness how Lutherans use their vocations to serve their neighbors.
Gaining first-person understandings from individuals within the congregation who have become intimately acquainted with the theology of the cross could greatly increase the compassion quotient of God’s people. Bringing such veterans of the cross to make presentations and dialogue within classrooms can enrich learners. Moreover, bringing children, youth and other adults into personal relationships with them can become even more instructive of the power of Christ crucified for life and service.
Training in the Reformation’s “two kingdoms” teaching is highly applicable for the congregants who serve in municipal, county and state government positions, whether employed or elected. Those in public service and roles in government could be instrumental for the education of all generations. Both through the classroom and on-site experiences, a deeper understanding as well as practical application of two kingdoms teaching could emerge for that congregation and the broader church.
To be sure, Reformation teachings, understandings and practical demonstrations possess lasting significance for the education and daily life of the various generations in our congregations. Living out the Reformation teachings by trained and informed Lutheran Christians would also quietly impact their communities and the larger church. Grace, mercy, forgiveness, confident Baptismal identity, reliance on the sacramental presence of Christ, living at the foot of the cross, passionately engaging God’s various callings in both of His kingdoms—all these themes would influence communities in manners known to their true depth only to the Lord and those served.
At this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation it is time for us to ask: What could be possible if the LCMS seriously examined cooperation, collaboration, and coordination of its seminaries, colleges/universities and districts to partner with its congregations for teaching, training, and equipping pastors and the priests (people) for Reformation education and living? And it is time also for an answer.
1 Jeff Robinson, “5 Reasons to Teach Your Kids About the Reformation,” The Gospel Coalition, October 15, 2016. www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-reasons-to-teach-your-kids-about-reformation. Accessed 28 June 2017.
3 Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” Luther’s Works: American Edition, Eds. J. Pelikan, H.C. Oswald and H.T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, Vol. 45, p. 355.
4 Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church, 1539,” Trans. Charles M. Jacobs, Revised Eric W. Gritsch. Luther’s Works: American Edition, Eds. Eric W. Gritsch, E. Gordon Rupp and H.T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, Vol. 41, p. 135.
5 Martin Luther, “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” Trans. Charles M. Jacobs, Revised Robert C. Schultz, Luther’s Works: American Edition, Eds. Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, Vol. 46, p 253.
6 44th Convention of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959, Reports and Memorials, p 283; Proceedings, p. 224.
8 “Task Force to Explore ‘Creative Solutions’ for Lutheran Education,” The LCMS Reporter, March 7, 2017, blogs.lcms.org/2017/creative-solutions-for-lutheran-education. Accessed 20 July 2017.
9 Lutheran School Statistics for 2016-2017 School Year, Department of Rosters and Statistics of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, www.lcms.org/school-ministry. Accessed 21 July 2017.
10 Mark Blanke, “The State of Education in Congregations of the LCMS,” Issues in Christian Education, Spring 2012, vol. 45, no. 2, p. 8.
11 “Pastoral Education,” News and Information of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, https://blogs.lcms.org/2016/pastoral-education-january-2016. Accessed 22 July 2017.
12 Concordia Seminary’s Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program is a four-year distance education program supplemented by periodic short-term residential courses. It prepares men for pastoral ministry in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The program was established by the LCMS in 2007. See http://www.csl.edu/admissions/academics/altrt/specific-ministry-pastor-smp-pastor/