Glazed eyes, slack jaw, and disheveled attire. Such was the appearance of a young man in my parish whom I saw week after week in the pew. When I started as a pastor eight years ago, I was concerned about him and wondered what might be wrong. Was he ill? Was he able to hear the sermon? Was there something I had said that bothered him?
Now I am a father, with two children and another on the way, and I no longer wonder. I realized later that the disheveled young man was the father of a one-year-old. He was still getting used to nightly interruptions of sleep. Now he is the father of five. I must admit that he doesn’t look as tired these days. Either he’s adjusting to fatherhood, or my own eyes have become so glazed that I can no longer distinguish fatigue.
I’ve heard the joke that Lutherans evangelize in the bedroom. We’re too shy to make disciples by going door-to-door. We make disciples by procreating. The joke is intended to point out a deficiency in our practice, but I say we ought to claim it. A Lutheran invites one person to church every twenty years. If that statistic is accurate, then the young man in my parish is besting the average every time he and his wife drag their kids to church.
It must pain our heavenly Father to hear us disparage the most enjoyable way he provided for making Christians. Not, of course, that we are born Christians. As Jesus told Nicodemus, a second birth is necessary, a birth of water and the Spirit. But childbirth is the most elemental way that God puts the heathen right in front of us, as sinners who need the gospel.
Missiology is a hot topic. When I get mailings from my seminary, I don’t see the word “pastor” too often. What I see is the invented term “missional leader.” It seems we’re still trying to prove that Gustav Warneck was wrong when he said that Martin Luther offered nothing in his writings for missiology. We are indebted to Robert Bertram, and a number of other theologians, who have demonstrated that Lutheran theology, with its focus on proclamation, is indeed a great resource for teaching missions. Bertram said it well: “promissio” is the secret of “missio.” But I would add that another secret, another stone unturned, is an appreciation for childrearing. With respect to the great Bertram, “emissio” is the secret of “missio.”
It sounds crass, and yet God’s ways of operating often seem beneath us and our sinful pride. Luther contrasted the works of Carthusian monks to the works of a child, pointing out that the child could actually boast of pleasing God in the mere performance of filial obedience. Likewise a father could take comfort that he was pleasing God in changing diapers. God has commanded these duties, as humble as they seem to human reason.
Missions enthusiasts love the Book of Acts and use it as something of a manual for modern-day missiology, but God commanded his creation to be fruitful and multiply long before Paul’s missionary journeys. It was, in fact, God’s first commandment to his human creatures, spoken first to Adam and Eve, then Noah twice, and again to Jacob at Bethel. God is determined to have children, and he expects their earthly parents to raise them in faith. Again, long before Acts, we hear the Lord tell his people: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6). Mission happens around the kitchen table, at the bedside, and in the car. Evangelism is catechism. We should remember that Luther’s Small Catechism was originally printed, not as a booklet, but as a poster to be hung on the kitchen wall.
In his Epistles, St. Paul often instructs his congregations that moms and dads are to raise their children in the faith, but he doesn’t ever tell them to undertake door-knocking projects or organize mission societies. What would Gustav Warneck say to Paul? That he lacked a theology of mission? He was doing the work of a missionary. In Paul’s letters, one gets the sense that mission happens whenever and wherever God places someone in front of you who needs a word from Christ. To the Jews he became a Jew. To those outside the law he became as one outside the law. He became all things to all people that he might save some.
And when it comes to God placing someone in front of you who needs a word from Christ, there’s no place like home. When St. Paul considered the faith of his young colleague Timothy, he couldn’t help remembering the faith of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. No doubt Lois and Eunice showed up in the pews disheveled after getting little Timothy dressed and ready for church, but such is the appearance of a missionary. The mission field isn’t always across the ocean. As a sinner, I need forgiveness every day, and I’ve been blessed with a wife who provides it. Every day my children need both law and gospel. They need words of rebuke, but they also need to hear Christ’s forgiveness. Indeed, this makes the home the primary mission field, since it is in the home where sinners come into daily contact with one another and need one another’s daily absolutions.
I can hear the complaint that bedroom evangelism is one more way for a lazy Lutheran to lower the bar and not pay the full cost of discipleship. Shouldn’t I at least have to abase myself by knocking on doors? Isn’t this just maintenance ministry? But anyone who has suffered through morning sickness (a ridiculous name… if only it were confined to the morning!), given birth, struggled with infertility, or waited and waited and waited for an adoption knows that the crosses of parenthood are heavy. And once the children arrive, the sleepless nights are just beginning.
Christians, however, carry their crosses behind a Lord whose Father cares for his children and who places those crosses on his greatest gifts. Work and childbirth were delightful gifts given by the creator to his creatures before they rebelled against him. Before they ate the forbidden fruit, the man was put in the garden to till it and keep it, and he and his wife were told to be fruitful and multiply. Work and childbirth continue to be gifts from our loving heavenly Father, despite the curses fixed on them: “in toil you shall eat” and “in pain you shall bring forth children.” The wedding liturgies have said it well: “And although, by reason of sin, many a cross hath been laid thereon, nevertheless our gracious Father in heaven doth not forsake his children in an estate so holy and acceptable to him, but is ever present with his abundant blessing.” We’ll carry on this missionary enterprise at times joyfully, but always in faith, trusting the one who has sent us.
Unfortunately, concerns over missions are often coupled with concerns over declining numbers. Too often criticism about a prevailing theology of missions is mentioned in the same breath as statistics about shrinking denominations. In other words, our missiology is often driven by fear. If we don’t get out there and do missions, there won’t be any of us left. Christ, however, turns our attention away from ourselves, and even from our church structures, and directs it toward our neighbors. He died, not in order to save denominations but to save sinners.
Of course, there is a salutary reason to be concerned about numbers. After all, Paul became a Jew and as one outside the law in order to save more not less. We want to bring the gospel to as many as possible. With that in mind, perhaps bedroom evangelism fails to appreciate the urgency of reaching the many. As a mom or dad, you might only evangelize two or three. But then, why? Why not ten? Why not fifteen? The Bible has plenty of encouragement toward lots of children—happy is the man with his quiver full—and not a single caution against it. That would make Bach (with his twenty children) the Fifth Evangelist for another reason. One cannot ignore the global thrust of the Great Commission. There is certainly more evangelism to be done than what happens at home and inside church walls. The apostles traveled. Christ’s family is not confined to bloodlines. The servants in the parable were told to go to the highways and byways and invite everyone. Our churches should continue to send, support, and pray for missionaries as they work across the globe. At the very least, however, we should stop disparaging the evangelism that happens when a husband and wife bear and raise children. If only our members really did undertake bedroom evangelism with gusto! If only more parents were multiplying and then catechizing the little whelps!
Luther’s friend Justus Jonas once hung a branch of cherries above his kitchen table to teach him about divine creation. Luther told him that he didn’t need cherries; he ought to look instead at his own children. We might say the same in terms of missions. A while ago, I suggested that our church create a bulletin board to display the various missionary organizations we were supporting. I suppose I was hanging cherry branches. In order to teach about missions, why didn’t I simply commend the moms and dads in our congregation for bringing their kids to church?
The motto for missions is usually: “Go out!” Instead of going out, why not try staying in? And leave the kids at Grandma’s.
Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.