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The CE Interview: Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer, senior pastor, The Moody Church, Chicago, IL

The Moody Church and its founder in 1864, Dwight L. Moody, are as recognizable in Christian life and work as any church in the country. In a long line of outstanding preachers, Erwin W. Lutzer marks 30 years in that pastorate this fall, with only a thought of retirement any time soon as he turns 67 next month.

By Ronald E. Keener

“The Moody Church is a downtown church, on Chicago’s north side and the areas around the church have improved substantially from what it was like in the 1960s,” he says. “Because of the regentrification of the city it is in a better position than it used to be in terms of its location.”

Lutzer says the church has been in four locations. The first church burned in the great Chicago fire of 1871, the second church was temporary, the third, close to where Moody Bible Institute is today, had to be torn down when LaSalle Street was widened. The leadership brought the church one mile north and built the present building, which was dedicated in 1925. The Moody Bible Institute is a separate entity from the congregation.

Where does the church draw its attendance?

Our congregation is increasingly filled with city folk, people from the surrounding neighborhood, because as the city has improved, the flight to the suburbs has ended and the reverse is actually now true. People are coming back into the city. Because we are a regional church there are some who come even from Wisconsin and Indiana.

Being downtown in a commuter society must present problems?

One of the great bottlenecks we have had at The Moody Church is parking. We spend more than $200,000 a year giving tickets to attendees so people can park free. We bought a parking lot across from the church that holds about 50 cars at most and we paid $3.8 million, so you can see how every space is very important.

Is there a mission or vision for this historic church?

A number of years ago we tried to define The Moody Church and what is unique about it. As we sat there and worked through the whole process in the course of a day or more, we came to the conclusion of 15 words, and that is what we call our promise statement, that “The Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God and others.”
Now every phrase is important. First, that The Moody Church is a trusted place. There are many people who look to us, and if it is approved by The Moody Church, it’s fine with them. I think it gives legitimacy in the minds of many people because we are trusted and we know that we have been given a very sacred trust and we do not want to take it for granted.

The Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect. A number of years ago we began to emphasize diversity. I tell the congregation that we want to be as diverse as heaven where the Bible says there are people from every tongue and people nation. We took a survey about three years ago, in which we discovered we had people in our church from 52 different countries of origin, so The Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God.

And the small phrase “with others” has been a real challenge, since until recently we had no place to connect as a people of God at The Moody Church because our lobby was far too small for the congregation. We have a wonderful sanctuary. But in the new building, the Christian Life Center, we not only have classrooms but we have connection spaces where people can sit down and connect.

You have been at the church since 1980. Have you studied Dwight Moody and the man he was?

D.L. Moody was a remarkable individual and was somewhat uneducated, perhaps he had a grade three or four education; he didn’t speak English very well. He had grammatical problems when he spoke, but the thing that characterized him was this burning passion to see people come to know Christ as their Savior.

Let me tell you about a turning point in his life. When he came to Chicago from Massachusetts, his whole intention was to earn a lot of money. He was going to earn $100,000, which of course in the 1800s was a huge sum, and he really believed that was his goal. But he began a Sunday school because the church that he had attended complained that the children were destructive and rowdy. So he began his own Sunday school, in what was called The Sands, which was the name for the poorest area of Chicago.

He had gathered a class of rowdy girls that no one could control or teach. What is more, the Sunday school teacher said that he was dying, and he had to go back East to be with his family in his closing days. And the teacher wept because none of these children had trusted Christ as their Savior.

So D.L. Moody said why don’t you come with me using my horse and buggy, and we’ll visit all of them, and over a period of days they did. And all of these girls, perhaps eight or nine, received Christ as Savior. A few days later when they were saying goodbye to this teacher, they had a little party for him in this dingy place where they had Sunday school. As Moody was praying on his knees, one of these girls began to pray and then another. Moody was so overcome with the presence of God in that little prayer meeting he said that money was never attractive to him again. He said it was as if heaven came down to that little meeting. So after that, his burning passion was to see people come to know Christ as their Savior.

How have you seen evangelism change since Moody’s days?

I think that with the fading of Billy Graham off the scene it is very difficult to get people to attend evangelistic meetings, because we live in an entirely different environment and different culture. We at The Moody Church for many years had Evangelism Explosion [from James Kennedy] and that was very effective.

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However, recently we have begun to emphasize that we need to be able to teach people to do evangelism and along with that we need to teach apologetics. So, we have faded out our Evangelism Explosion program in the last two years or so, because we have to be able to engage people where they are at.

Ultimately, I think statistics bear out that evangelism is best done one-on-one based on friendships, based on relationships, and I think that has to be the way we teach it today.

The Web site says that “We believe that the primary message of the Bible is so clear that it can scarcely be missed if read and studied with an open mind.” Does that mean inerrancy?

Yes, we believe that the Bible as it was written is inerrant in the original manuscripts, so the intention in the statement you quoted was not to get into the details but rather to help people to understand that we are actually in the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation, affirming sola scriptura that the Bible alone is the word of God and should be our only basis for faith and practice.

There’s another place where it talks about taking the Bible literally, and taking the Bible “in its plain sense.”

Some times in the wider culture when we are called biblical literalists, people think that because Jesus said “I am the door” that we really think he is a door. What we mean to say is that, of course, the Bible has figures of speech so we take it literally in its plain sense. But at the same time we recognize that there are various genres in literature and we realize it is filled with imagery, it is filled with figures of speech, and all of that needs to be taken into account.

Take for example the book of Proverbs. Proverbs I take to be maxims, they are generally true but they can’t always be universalized. So every kind of biblical literature needs its own context and its own understanding and method of interpretation, but looked at as a whole that’s what we mean when we speak of the plain sense.

There’s a view that says we should filter the culture through the Bible, and not the Bible through the culture. What is the impact of culture today on the church? It’s getting worse, isn’t it?

Oh my yes. In fact, my latest book is entitled Oprah, Miracles and the New Earth, in which I deal with guests on Oprah’s program. What you have today is this great quest for spirituality, but it’s a spirituality that is divorced from theology, it is a spirituality that makes no moral demands whatever, and what you do is go down inside of yourself and there you find God.

Think of all of the people in our churches — even evangelical churches — who are impacted by Oprah and her guests. Her influence is huge.

So on the one hand you have this religious stream that flows into our culture. Another stream that flows into our culture is entertainment. Moody never had to deal with things such as television and pornography. Today it is everywhere. Another stream that flows into the culture is the result of our legal battles, where you have courts that are trying to sweep the public square clean of any religious influence, criminalizing all public expressions of Christianity in the public square.

You meet with a group of area pastors called G-11. What is that about?

There are a number of us pastors, who get together four times a year, and it began as the G8, and it may grow even beyond G11. But it includes people like Bill Hybels, James McDonald and James Meeks.

This has forged friendships between us. For example, I travel in circles where Bill Hybels is often criticized, but because I know Bill and I know his heart, whenever that happens, I tell people that although I do not agree with some of the things Bill does, I know his fervent desire is to spread the Gospel. As a result he has a great passion to see people come to know Christ as their Savior and we always need to keep that in context.

Friendship brings about less suspicion, more trust, and an understanding that each of us has a context; each of us has our limitations and our strengths. A sense of acceptance develops when you actually know people rather than just speak against them when you don’t know them personally.

What are your concerns for our culture in which Christians live and witness?

I believe that America will never turn back from its downward course until individual Christians begin to live out the Gospel wherever God has planted them, whether as nurses, factory workers, bankers and so forth, where they live lives of honesty, commitment, trustworthiness, and winsomeness to make the Gospel attractive to people who are very, very skeptical — and they are very, very skeptical today.

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