Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lutheran Worship: another view. . .

The March 2017 Forum Letter (why don't you subscribe?) features 8 pages from an old voice complaining about the more liturgical face of Lutheranism.  In it, David S. Luecke provides a predictable review of his previously published critiques of liturgical renewal along with some interesting tidbits sure to evoke the ire of many in the LCMS and encourage others.

His first point is that the liturgical movement was a fringe movement that became dominant in Missouri (something he finds incredulous).  Although he claims to have done extensive research to bolster his position, Luecke apparently has not delved back much into Lutheran history and worship or he would recognize that what he calls liturgical renewal is in reality a restoration of what was normal and normative Lutheran worship practice from the earliest days until the end of the 18th century.  His complaint that liturgical renewal substituted for the needed spiritual renewal seems to distance the Spirit and God's work from the Word and Sacraments from which spiritual renewal proceeds (perhaps he should read Bo Giertz on the topic of Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening).

His personal view is, of course, that Lutherans took a wrong term.  He blames the precipitous decline of Lutheranism in America on liturgical renewal and claims it violates the Pauline dictum of all things to all people.  He quotes Epitome, Formula of Concord X to claim that every church in every locality has the authority to change ceremonies (but fails to note that this does not, in context, mean individual congregation but refers instead to church in the larger sense of jurisdiction).  No one has ever claimed otherwise.  Yet he fails to note the manifold other places in which those same Confessions insist that worship is not a thing indifferent and ceremonies teach and confess in themselves.
We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions (such as the liturgy of the Mass and various canticles, festivals, and the like) which serve to preserve order in the church. (Augsburg Confession XXVI:40 [German])

We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:9 [German])

We are perfectly willing for the Mass to be understood as a daily sacrifice, provided this means the whole Mass, the ceremony and also the proclamation of the Gospel, faith, prayer, and thanksgiving. Taken together, these are the daily sacrifice of the New Testament; the ceremony was instituted because of them and ought not be separated from them. Therefore Paul says (I Cor. 11:26), “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.” (Apology XXIV:35)
From this description of the state of our churches it is evident that we diligently maintain church discipline, pious ceremonies, and the good customs of the church. (Apology XV:4)

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquillity, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. (Apology XV:38-39)

On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:34-35 [German]) Since, therefore, the Mass among us is supported by the example of the church as seen from the Scriptures and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved, especially since the customary public ceremonies are for the most part retained. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:40 [Latin])
He also has a big thing against the word "liturgy" and says that the Lutheran term is "mass" (which he defines as something other than "liturgy" and certainly not Introit, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Dismissal -- which begs me to ask if that is not "mass" what is)?  He presumes to know the mind of Luther and insist that Luther preferred a simple preaching service but was reined in by the ignorance of the peasant folk and, well, had bigger fish to fry anyway.  Curious, indeed!  Even more curious since the kind of service Luecke prefers has a praise band, a host of sound engineers and lighting specialists, performers to entertain, and everything from parking lot attendants to coffee baristas to serve up the sacred brew!

His claim that in Saxony there were 75 different church orders presumes that any difference, however slight, constitutes a "different order" when the reality is that they, while different in nuance, were remarkably consistent -- not only in Saxony but throughout Lutheranism.

Of course, it did not take long for vestments to enter his discussion.  He longs for the Geneva gown (black in winter and white in summer, fall and spring depend upon the weather, I guess).  Never mind that art shows us Luther in eucharistic vestments and the early Lutherans retaining such vestments.  The truth is that eucharistic vestments never disappeared from Lutheranism even though they may have disappeared from specific places.

Luecke does not care much for the early church, specifically the time of the church following the legalization of Christianity.  Strangely, his description of words used for worship in the New Testament involves posture -- bowing and kneeling -- something he thought Article X of the Epitome declared unimportant.

But the last part of his article is the most interesting.  Bowing down is for Luecke a euphemism for contemporary worship and music -- singing the Word in "rhythms and tunes heard on the radio, often now in Country and Western style... [and] singing a love relationship with God" with a "spirit" bowed down before His majesty.  This is meaningful to him but not so much the rites and rituals of the mass.  The pathways that should define worship, he suggests, are best described by Gary Thomas in Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God.  He believes these God-given temperaments to be equally valid and that the job of the Lutheran service is to appeal to those temperaments.  Hmmmm.  That is something out of left field for a church that insists God comes to us not where and how we desire but where He has promised (Word and Sacrament).   According to Luecke, we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit (closer to what the first Christians did) and live more in the spirit world between God in heaven.

It is a good thing to read Luecke's words because so often it is easy to think that the worship wars were and are merely arguments over taste and preference.  Clearly they are about much more.  What is at stake in these disputes is not merely what appeals to whom but how God works, the mark of faithfulness through the ages, and the worship consistent with and flowing form our confession of faith.  I have heard David Luecke speak and read his books.  It is hard to reconcile his perspective to the Lutheran Confessions or to history of how Lutherans have worshiped in the Divine Service from Luther's day to the present moment.  If anything, Luecke's point of view represents the fringe of Lutheran identity and practice.  I only wish it were a smaller fringe.  Lutheran angst and insecurity have left us vulnerable to the next wind blowing through the Christian landscape and too many Lutherans have found the breeze hard to resist.  If Lutherans are all over the page on Sunday morning, it is not a good thing.  In fact, it is one of the things that we will someday soon have to resolve if being Lutheran is to mean more than theory.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Who owns the Church?

Have you ever noticed that when you approve of something the parish or denomination says or does, it is "my" church.  But when you disapprove of something the parish says or does, then it is "their" church.  We struggle with this idea of identity on many levels.  People in my own tradition love to castigate the "purple palace" (euphemism for our headquarters building) just the way some love to talk about "Rome" or the "pope" or the "bishop" -- these are used to distance the individual or even the congregation from the larger church.  In the parish, people love to blame the pastor or parish leaders and distance themselves from things they disagree with.  The "pastor" runs the church or this family or that group.  We all know it and have heard it before.

Though we in the Missouri Synod have had our own epiphany about episcopal structure through the faults and failings of Bishop Stephan, prior to coming to America much of what people complain about in the congregation was decided at a level higher than the parish.  In Germany jurisdictions took responsibility for many of the things that local congregations now decide (or their pastors) and it was also cozy and comfortable with the government itself.  This is what Luther knew.  He was hardly the congregational spokesman we try to make him out to be.

America and its experiment with democracy had profound impact upon institutions -- even churches.  Those churches with episcopal structures have seen their authority question and even challenged.  Who can forget the millions upon millions spent by the national church and diocese of the Episcopal Church to prevent individual congregations from seceding from the church with its bank accounts and property in tact.  In Roman Catholic America we saw the invention of parish councils and lay boards where once the priest made all the decisions (except those the bishop made).  Born in the 19th century,  “lay trustees”— the system of lay boards that owned or controlled parish property and even claimed authority over the appointment and dismissal of pastors—was a major problem for Roman Catholic bishops as well as their Protestant cousins.

Who owns the Church?  It remains a rather significant question even today.  Mega churches and media giants are often family owned and operated enterprises with self-sustaining boards of directors that make all the decisions without much input or review from those who sit in their theater seats sipping Starbucks during worship.  Lutherans try to divide authority and responsibility but not always without some confusion and messes.  Those with episcopal structures have tried to minimize the idea of centralized control and flirt with local input and direction.  All of this has to do with important issues of property, tax exemption, etc...  but I wonder if our pursuit of this side of things has not allowed us to forget that we do not own the Church.  Christ owns His Church.

The Church is not ours either to own or to control; the Church belongs Christ’s. We did not create the Church and we say that the Spirit is her life.  As Luther put it so well paraphrasing Christ  (“You did not choose me, but I chose you”), the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the Church.  No earthly power, no marketing schemes, and no individual effort creates the Church.  She is Christ's bride and she belongs only to Christ. The Church was established by Christ Jesus and washed and cleansed by His blood.  We put blood, sweat, tears, money, and time into her but because we are part of her and not because she belongs to us. So the Church is not ours to “take back,” and it is not ours to "lose" because she was never ours to “own.” As soon as make the Church our own, we betray the Lord whose Church it is.

So worship is never a preference or choice made for what works or what people like.  It is and must always be the domain of Christ, the Word and the Sacraments, and in this the voice of the living is not louder or stronger than the voice of the dead who passed to us the best of the past.  So doctrine is never about what fits with culture, the prevailing world view, the particular trend of science, what seems reasonable, or what will sell.  No, it is and must be the Word of the Lord which endures forever and the truth that does not change but is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  We will admit no novelty nor will we tolerate the loss of what was believed, confessed, and taught.  We conserve and preserve (the Reformation principle).

Building ownership is important and decisions about budgets and spending plans are nothing to sneeze at but this is not really where the Church lives.  We live in and by the means of grace.  These belong to Christ and our only authority is to see that these remain the center and foundation of all we are, think, and do.  Who owns the Church is a question fraught with problems.  But when we are all working as best we can with the resources God has supplied to do His bidding faithfully and vibrantly, the question of ownership is really not so important at all.  In congregations where a lay structure exists and works well, they do not forget this.  In congregations where conflicts lie or where structures are failing, it is usually because they have forgotten this.

Friday, April 21, 2017

If invited. . .

Barna says 47 percent of unchurched would come if invited.  That is surely a judgment designed to elicit a sigh from folks who have grown wary of inviting because they have been turned down so many times or because they have encountered hostility to the invitation.  But if Barna is correct (and his organization is so full of statistics that this is not always an easy assumption), half of the folks around us who do not attend church would be open to an invitation from YOU.

Symbolism is important.  When I first came to my present parish, it did not seem unusual that there was no door facing what was, by all accounts, one of the busiest roads in the city.  After all, there was no parking that faced the busy street and the entrance to the building was amply identified from the parking lot.  A few years after we built on and put up a steeple and a door (though to the offices) and a small parking lot that faced the busy thoroughfare, a longtime resident of the city talked to me about it.  He said that to the folks driving by, the lack of an identifiable entrance seemed to say that this was a closed church -- closed to outsiders and open only to insiders who knew the code, namely, where to enter.  I had never thought of it before but was glad we had decided to make a clear statement of an entrance when adding onto the facility.

Even people who do not think they ever want to attend, want to know that they could if they wanted to.  I had never thought about it before but it is certainly true of the invitation.  It may well be that those we invite do not become regular attenders or members but they want to know that they could if they desired.

Another story.  A neighbor family beside where we lived finally showed up one Sunday to see what kind of church this was and what kind of pastor I was.  Neighbors joke and wave and do neighborly things and they were not sure what kind of person I would be in church.  They came and found out that the reverence of the Divine Service and the presence of God within His Word and Sacrament proved to be a very different kind of church and a very different kind of clergy than they had ever experienced before or expected from me and the parish I served.  They moved and years passed and guess what -- this family was catechized and received into a Lutheran church.  It was a spark that went on to ignite a faith, a seed planted that bore fruit.  I would have never expected it of them, but, as they say in Mayberry, "surprise, Surprise, surprise!" Barna's 47% may not immediately translate into folks showing up in droves but how shall they hear if no one tells them and how shall they respond if no one invites?

One more thing, people will invite more freely when what they are confident and proud of their church.  This means that the little things that may not mean much to insiders, count to the outsiders.  Maintain the facility.  Be sure to extend a friendly welcome.  Do the best you can do (those in the chancel and those outside).  Follow up.  Remember the name.  These are the little things we can do.  God does the heavy lifting.  He speaks the living Word and bestows the Spirit to bring those to faith who believe and He has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty.  It will accomplish His purpose.  We don't do the big stuff but we can and must take care of the little things.  An invitation.  A welcome.  An invited facility.  An effort in pulpit, at the altar, and on the organ bench.  It is not rocket science.  This is the stuff we can do and should do.  And if we do this and the congregation does not grow, leave it to the Lord.  But if we won't do at least this, perhaps we might be part of the problem in churches that do not grow.

Barna is full of stats but this one seems designed to encourage reticent Lutherans.  Perhaps half of those who you meet without a church home would be interested in your invitation.  All of those who hear the Word meet the Lord and His Spirit working for the sake of their faith and salvation.  A potent combination, indeed.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Change or die. . . but keep doing the things you do well?

Thom Rainer, the change or die guru of church growth, recently wrote about the five things that traditional churches (those that don't change) do well.  He vows never to stop saying "change or die" but he does acknowledge that traditional churches do certain things well.
  1. The members have a deep love and concern for one another. Go into many traditional churches and you will see members caring for one another, taking meals to each other, and praying consistently for one another.
  2. They are loyal to the institution. I have argued in other articles that institutional loyalty taken to an extreme is unhealthy. But the inverse is true as well. Members with no institutional loyalty will move from one church to another with little concern. Traditional church members tend to be fiercely loyal to the churches where they are members.
  3. They are passionate about giving to missions. It seems to be in the congregational DNA of many traditional churches. If there is a mission cause put before the church, these members often give abundantly.
  4. They offer stability to the congregation. Because of their loyalty and devotion to their church, traditional church members offer stability and steadiness to local congregations. They will continue to give, to serve, and to care for others even in challenging times in the church.
  5. The members have a historical perspective that can be healthy for the church. Many of them have seen the best of times and the worst of times. The traditional church member has a healthy perspective that realizes God is above the crisis or the situation of the moment. Sometimes just hearing from these members about how the church survived a crisis in the past can be encouragement for the congregation to move to the future.
What he lauds should have been obvious, but it is not as obvious to Rainer or to those quick to write off the traditional church.  Traditional congregations are better at their love and support for one another but this is also not something automatic to traditional vs contemporary and this is something fostered by the shape of these congregations but also perhaps encouraged by their smaller size. 

I would suggest that institutional loyalty needs to be unpacked.  Yes, these congregations are more identified with the larger denomination and they are very loyal to their local church.  This is not something blind but an informed loyalty.  They identify with their church's confessions and they are generally more convinced of their doctrinal stance than those who are attracted to contemporary churches (mega, large, or small).  It is a loyalty not simply to the building or the people but to the faith.

Strange how often I have found that small, generally rural congregations have produced many pastors, missionaries and church workers -- well beyond their proportionate size.  My own congregation has never had an a regular attendance over a hundred and now is about half that size and yet they have produced  dozens of pastors, teachers, and other church workers.  In addition, they are passionate about the support of those preparing for the Lord's service.  They supported me every year of college and seminary and paid for the material costs of a full set of eucharistic vestments (all colors) when I was ordained.  They take their mission support seriously and the proportion of their budget sent to the work of the kingdom beyond their locale is generally much higher than larger churches.

The last two go together.  These churches are stable but it is because they have a perspective on history and themselves that seems designed to avoid the quick and easy judgements that characterize other churches.  Folks in the pew have learned to quickly lose interest or enthusiasm of contemporary churches that take a back seat to whatever cutting edge trend moves through evangelical Christianity.  In the same way, church leaders there tend to be less wedded to tradition, to doctrine, and to stability in the pursuit of what is new, relevant, and attractive.  It does not help that a significant number of those who do not attend traditional congregations move rather freely from one big box church to another and these have a bigger segment of revolving door attenders than traditionals do.  But underneath all of this is the fact that traditional congregations and churches do talk about membership and commitment while larger and contemporary churches tend to talk about attenders.  Membership and commitment fosters stability in the pew and in the pulpit and reminds both that the church was there before they were and, if they have not screwed it up, it will probably be there long after they leave.  Roots are important for us as people and for our faith.  Traditional churches foster this sense of rootedness both in the denominational history and in the congregation itself.

Although generalizations can be dangerous, the kind of churches that listen to Thom Rainer tend to be those who value spirituality over doctrine, relevance above truth, and people getting what they want over faithfulness in confession and practice.  They also tend to be quick to adopt whatever somebody else is doing that appears to work and re-invent themselves regularly.  In contrast, the traditional church says the dreaded words "this is the way we have always done it" -- words that cause some to shudder and others to rejoice that we do not have to invent the wheel every time we want to drive the car.  Creed, confession, catechism, hymnal, and history all are important to traditional churches while they are not even found in the other kind.  Finally, I wonder if it might also be fair to say that traditional churches tend to focus on the kingdom while the non-trads seem to focus more on the individual.  At least that has been my experience.  All in all, change or die may not be the mantra found in traditional churches and this is not a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Time like a rolling stream. . .

Today my dad would have been 90.  He died two years ago last month, a month shy of 88.  I never thought of my dad as old.  He went to work every day of his life, except for the last few weeks of that life.  He was alert and seemed to know more than a little about a lot.  He was never fragile or weak in my mind (though he was hesitant to charge much for the work he did and that was one the drags on his business that we saw clearly in retrospect).  And I am over 60 (look at the side of this blog where it says I have been a pastor for more than 36 years!).   I like to be busy (perhaps too busy).  Time has passed quickly and I have no clue where it went.  Like a rolling brook, time as moved quickly by and now suddenly I realize how old my father was and how old I am getting.  But I am not going to waste time in deep introspection.  Only a few words to acknowledge that time, even a long life, is brief and too quickly passes away.

This past month my wife got out all our kids baby toys (yes, we will become grandparents soon) and in the blink of an eye I remembered when our children played with those baby toys and wondered why I had not noticed how quickly that time had come and gone.  The children who once required everything from parents, now grown up, married (two of them, anyway), and expecting a child (one of them).  Wow.  When did that happen?  Where was I?  I still feel like the 26 year old who showed up newly married, without children, and with only enough furniture for a few rooms into the parsonage of my first parish.  I guess those days are gone.

Life can sometimes trick us into thinking that everything will stay the same.  It is an illusion.  Perhaps delusion is a better term.  The clock is ticking.  We are not permanent.  We have no abiding home here.  We come and we go.  Time passes by and passes us by.  Though we were designed for eternity, the eternal is not today.  Redemption does not band-aid the temporary but bestows the surprise of the eternal to a people caught in time.  Time passes.  Not aimlessly but toward the goal God has assigned.  In Christ, we have more than regrets over a past too quickly gone, we have hope for an eternal future.  I miss him, to be sure, but I expect to see him when I behold Christ face to face.

1 O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
    And our eternal home:

2 Under the shadow of Thy throne
    Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
    And our defense is sure.

3 Before the hills in order stood
    Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
    To endless years the same.

4 A thousand ages in Thy sight
    Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
    Before the rising sun.

5 Thy word commands our flesh to dust:
    "Return, ye sons of men!"
All nations rose from earth at first
    And turn to earth again.

6 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
    Dies at the op'ning day.

7 Like flow'ry fields the nations stand,
    Pleased with the morning light;
The flow'rs beneath the mower's hand
    Lie with'ring ere 'tis night.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last
    And our eternal home.