The word “evangelical” tends to be polarizing these days.
For all the confusion about what “evangelical” means in these hotly debated and politicized times, the word is definitionally useful. For non-Lutheran Protestant groups known by the moniker, one thing is clear: The evangelical impulse to share the message of the good news is a good one. Though how one defines “good news” is often confused nowadays.
Gospel Clarity and Faithful Witness
That’s why I’m thankful for ministries like 1517 The Legacy Project. They embody the best of both worlds: Clarity regarding the content of the “evangelical” message (i.e., Christ crucified for sinners), as well as the motivation to share this good news.
Now, here’s full disclosure about the writer of this piece. I myself am not officially Lutheran. I come from a generic, non-denominational background as a teenaged convert. When I originally came into contact with some of the types of materials 1517 produces roughly ten years ago, all the theological furniture in my mind was reorganized for the better. Luther’s message put the message of Jesus front and center in a profoundly hopeful way.
I wanted more of what I was hearing, but sadly, I was disappointed that I couldn’t find what I was searching for. Surely the unfiltered, transformative message of the gospel (as articulated by the faithful Lutherans I was hearing) was in high demand! But as far as I could tell, there were two outposts for this kind of media: Issues, Etc. and the New Reformation Press website. I didn’t understand. Was there an aversion to the use of technology? Stinginess about sharing the good news with others? I wasn’t sure.
Fast forward about a decade, and 1517 is a content-producing machine delivering top-notch theological content aimed at the gospel-hungry layperson (like me). They produce several podcasts and blogs, and they also have a book publishing arm.
I got a chance to catch up with the producer of The Thinking Fellows Podcast, Caleb Keith, to talk about what 1517 is up to and why Lutherans are a little bit like Leprechauns (hint: they tend to hide the theological gold)!
Media Faith and Culture
Matt Johnson: Hello, Caleb! I’m a huge fan of 1517 The Legacy Project, and I wanted to tell the world about all the great stuff you’re doing. For those who may not be familiar, can you give us a little bit of background about 1517, what you do, and why?
Caleb Keith: 1517 is a non-profit organization, but we’re not formally associated with any particular church body. We have a theology rooted in the Lutheran Reformation that has been cultivated throughout the centuries in various ways and recently, through particular professors in the US—notably, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. Throughout their careers, they trained people in evangelism and apologetics from a Lutheran perspective. And that culminated into Dr. Rosenbladt training a bunch of different people at Concordia University, Irvine, many of whom ended up going into the field of theology—some of them pastors and many of them academic theologians.
The idea behind 1517 is to take historic Lutheranism and spread it to the masses by proclaiming the gospel to as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. So, we believe that the gospel was recovered and renewed in the Reformation, and we take those principles to apply it to today’s world.
The majority of the content we do right now is podcasts and blog posts that go out with hand-selected writers, many of them pastors. As for the podcasts, we have four active podcasts right now. The first is The Thinking Fellows Podcast, which is one of the podcasts that I produce and co-host, and that is about historical Christianity. We do Christian doctrines, apologetics training, and the history of the Christian church through great thinkers in the church.
We have another podcast called Virtue in the Wasteland that is the oldest podcast at 1517. They actually were podcasting before 1517 added them as a podcast, and a lot of what they do is related to Two Kingdoms stuff. They ask questions about what Christians can do in the civil realm. So, they’ll do historical topics of events that have happened throughout the world, they ask ethical questions, and they interview outside the box characters.
The third podcast is called You Are Forgiven Radio. That podcast is a collection of sermons that goes out on terrestrial radio every Friday in the greater LA area. Those broadcasts are then gathered as a podcast that is distributed, but the sermons are collected and handpicked. That podcast is primarily focused on the proclamation of Christ, crucified and risen for you. This is what we call first-order proclamation—a term coined by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde and that has been part of that tradition. But it focuses primarily on the sermon. We believe that if a sermon is missing Christ crucified for you, it’s missing the center and the core of the Scriptures.
And then our final podcast is called Ringside with the Preacher Men, and it’s an extension of the Jagged Word blog, which is a project of 1517. It’s sponsored content. They are friends and associates of 1517. We sponsor their blog, and they produce content with us.
Another big component of 1517 is the publishing house. This year, I think we published 11 new books, which is crazy because we are not a huge publishing house. The publishing house is not a money-making endeavor for us, but it is funded by donors; and the goal is to get good resources out at affordable rates.
Matt Johnson: That’s great. Related to the audio lectures, I’m a big fan of Dr. Rosenbladt’s material. And while I didn’t get a chance to be a student of his, I did find a few MP3 recordings in the last ten years—notably the audio lectures for The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church and his talk on Law and Gospel.
Those lectures were total game changers for me. But I admit that I was a little bit frustrated there wasn’t more material out there. I thought, “Man, these guys have such an important, powerful message here,” but it was kind of slim pickings.
With that in mind, it seems like within the traditional and confessional crowd, maybe there’s a slowness to adopt technology and media. -I hope that’s not an ungracious way of seeing it, but do you think that’s accurate? And why do you think that would be?
Caleb Keith: Yeah, I can speak to this from the perspective of 1517 and from a personal perspective. I grew up in what you would call a traditional, liturgical Lutheran church, and I’m very happy there. That’s still how my family and I choose to worship. Modern traditional churches do appear to adopt technology slower. Here’s an example I have from growing up: Some of the sermons were recorded at my church and it was 2007, 2008. And they were being recorded on to cassette tapes. And then when I was just entering high school, I volunteered to help convert those cassettes over to MP3. It’s a really complicated answer as to why they adopt technology slow. It’s not something theological. It’s not even a theology of money per se, because a lot of people say it would be allocation of funds, so they just don’t think it’s worth it.
But I think part of it is demographic.
The Lutheran church that I’m familiar with now, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), is getting older. There are not a lot of young people. And even for those who are involved in the day-to-day work and life of the church, it is much lower than what you might see at the big non-denominational evangelical churches where youth might be more involved in volunteering time or being on staff at the church in auxiliary roles— helping out with technology, custodial stuff….things like that.
In the traditional churches, those type of things fall to older volunteers, because that’s just the majority that are there. Even if there’s a desire to, say, upgrade recording equipment or add some sort of digital donation, there might not be somebody with the capacity to do it, and so, the initiation to do those things falls on the pastor. I would say most LCMS churches are sole-pastor congregations, and he’s already got a lot of responsibilities. If he wants to initiate something like this, it’s just adding something else to his plate.
Communicating the Gospel with the Right Technology
Matt Johnson: 1517 puts out so much great content, and it’s such a great example of utilizing all these different technologies to get the word out. Here at echurch, we ran a review of the book, Brand Luther. Have you read that book?
Caleb Keith: Yeah, I have. It’s fantastic.
Matt Johnson: The takeaway I got from that is that the Reformation was about all these things coalescing: The right time and place, Gutenberg’s press, Luther’s personality, and the theological issues that he was battling at the time. It also seemed like Luther was very forward-thinking in terms of how he got that message out. He wrote with real clarity and brevity on a certain subject so that the common person could digest what it is he was trying to say. Within the spirit of proclaiming this message with clarity and simplicity, 1517 has done a great job.
Caleb Keith: Well, thank you. That’s the whole goal. Even in Luther’s more academic writings, you’ll see examples where he’s talking about artisans or shoemakers while he’s talking about Christology. If Luther was only talking to other academics, why would examples of common working places be in there? And he expected people to read it—not just monks, trained theologians, or pastors—but common people.
The Lutheran Challenge of Evangelism
Matt Johnson: From my point of view, the centrality of the gospel in the Lutheran tradition is so vital and important, but why do you think it’s so challenging getting younger people involved?
Caleb Keith: There’s a long history that contributes to part of that closed-offness. We have not been great at evangelism in the last 60 years. We just haven’t. Part of that is historical. The reason why Lutherans fled Germany and came to the United States had to do with syncretism and different church bodies being forced to worship together and things like that. And so one of the fears is always if you expand in certain ways, are you going to be adopting the doctrine of those people that you’re approaching? And then thus corrupting the doctrine that we hold. I don’t think that fear is ever a good way to approach your ministry.
Matt Johnson: Agreed, yeah.
Caleb Keith: But there is definitely some historical precedent for why certain people or churches would be concerned.
Matt Johnson: Yeah, those issues are really complex; it’s really interesting. Do you sense that non-Lutheran folks are paying attention? And what’s your take on that?
Caleb Keith: It’s hard [to gauge] with the internet. I get basic demographic info. When somebody listens to the podcast, I can see what kind of device they listened on and where in the country or world they are, because that’s kind of the information you get pinged back on your podcasting services. But people do write in to 1517. And I would say the majority of people that contact me with questions about 1517 or the Thinking Fellows podcast are non-Lutherans.
Matt Johnson: For those confessionally-minded folks out there who are motivated to reach out through media and technology, how can they get started?
Caleb Keith: There’s a lot of things individual churches can do. Most pastors and church leaders think there are certain things they can do to get younger people more involved, and often it has to do with changing worship. For whatever reason, some historically liturgical and traditional churches think that the way to get young people is to host a contemporary service. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but one of the things I noticed is that even when younger people start going to these churches, there’s not a lot of need presented to them. I think what the church could do is request their services more. Ask them to volunteer. Don’t wait for them to volunteer.
Sit down with the younger families in a church and see if something like digital giving would be a benefit to them. I know, for instance, we have started that process of digital giving at my church because I never have cash, and I don’t have checks. The only reason we ever have cash is my wife’s a waitress, and she takes home cash tips at the end of the night.
Checkbooks are virtually obsolete nowadays. If they have them, they’re buried somewhere. So, that’s one of those things that more traditional churches probably need to do. Even if you have one or two families who are going to utilize something like that, engage them to help set that up.
Increasing Church Participation through Engagement
Matt Johnson: At echurch, one of the challenges we aim to address is lack of engagement in the church. On the one hand, in a more traditional church context, you don’t want to water down the message—and some may think that introducing any innovation into a church service detracts from the message. But churches should be thinking through how to increase congregational engagement in ways that people are accustomed to engaging in their day-to-day lives. That means carefully thinking through and finding entry points for engagement.
Caleb Keith: Yeah, I think the interaction’s really big. One of the things my dad says all the time (and I think it’s absolutely true) is that the older generation, the Baby Boomers, the ones who show up on church every Sunday….a lot of them would show up no matter what was going on up front. They grew up with a sense of obligation to go to church on Sundays. It’s what you do. The younger generations do not have that sense of obligation built into them, and so you have to ask yourself (since people aren’t just showing up because they have to), once guests do show up on Christmas and Easter, what can we do to make it so that they do feel like they have a place here every week?
You know, it’s really great to say preaching Christ crucified is what’s going to keep them coming back every week (and it really should, right)? That is what keeps me coming back or leaving a church, but not everybody’s thinking that critically about being in church. Sometimes we ask people to do arbitrary things in church, but one meaningful change or progress in your church could be a huge point in getting guests to return consistently and become members in those churches.