For the first time in recorded US history “Protestants” make up less than 50% of the US population and the fastest growing self-identified religious affiliation is “none,” now almost 20% of the US population. And, of course, what we prayerfully sing is also true: “Still God’s children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #712).

Such shifts and challenges are not the primary reasons, however, that cultivating faith communities as mission centers is such a high priority. In his book “Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism,” Walter Brueggemann reminds us that it is “the simple ‘news’ of the gospel itself that provides a missionary impetus for sharing the news with our ‘news starved’ society. Finally, the ground of evangelism is found in the gospel itself, and not in any church condition or societal need.” Emil Brunner put it another way, “The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning” (“The Word and the World”). Like its Lord, the body of Christ exists not for its own sake, but as a means of God’s grace and goodness in the world.

Of course, as Martin Luther reminded us, our human and congregational tendencies – sin? – are to always turn inward on ourselves. We focus on maintaining our buildings, filling our pews, justifying our existence. Much of this is not wrong in and of itself. But it can become unfaithful and eventually death-dealing when turning inward becomes an end in itself rather than turning us outward to serve God’s self-emptying mission of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and hopeful love in the world.

So together we seek to cultivate congregations as centers for mission, outwardly turned, world-engaged, self-giving communities. Together we will discover and be reformed in faithful and effective ways to till and plant, tend seedlings and nurture newness, support sturdy stalks and bolster besieged branches so that every community of the baptized in this mission territory will be caught up in the profound joy of following the Christ of the cross deep into the world to discover and share new and abundant life for all.

“Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-11)

+ Bishop Bill Gafkjen