Monday, March 21, 2011

An Ordinary Lutheran

I had someone tell me not long ago that Grace Lutheran Church (where I serve) was a special congregation.  Having listened to enough of Saturday Night Live, the word "special" does not necessarily mean, well, "special."  So I queried the individual to find out exactly what was meant by the comment.

He first mentioned that the liturgical and musical practice of the parish.  Yes, we have a sung Eucharist twice each Sunday, a spoken Eucharist on Thursday mornings, sung Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, and Compline on Mondays.  Yes, we have a fine pipe organ and a fine organist.  Yes, we have a fine liturgical choir and fairly broad musical program.  Yet, aside from two services on a Sunday and the size of our pipe organ, none of these things is necessarily beyond the norm or should be unusual for any Lutheran parish anywhere.

He mentioned good preaching (here is where I felt humbly great by his comment).  Yet, good, solid Law and Gospel preaching, with enthusiasm and conviction (which is what I call "good" preaching) should not be beyond the average Lutheran parish and the average Lutheran Pastor.  It is not what I would think unusual for a Lutheran parish true to its identity and confessional faith.

He mentioned our facility.  Yes, we have a large building with ten large classrooms, an administrative suite, a large nave seating up to 400, a wonderful chancel with stenciling and plaster work, good solid (but not expensive) liturgical appointments, a large fellowship hall, additional rooms of various sizes, and a chapel seating about 60.  Yet, I have not found many structures that are inherently difficult for worship and could be made rather beautiful with some careful attention.  Our structure is utilitarian and, aside from the liturgical art, is not fancy at all.  Any Lutheran parish should be able to provide a structure commensurate with its size and need -- there is nothing particularly noteworthy about our building.

He mentioned a sense of mission.  Yes, we set aside 12-15% of all our income for mission beyond this local place (in the community around us, in the District, in the Synod, and to the world at large).  We did vote to send $9,000 to the Siberian Lutheran Mission, raised $1250 for the care of a Lutheran Pastor's daughter critically injured in a car accident, sent $1100 in Sunday school funds to our Lutheran partner in Tanzania (East of Lake Victoria Diocese), etc.  Yet this is not extraordinary either for our size or for any Lutheran congregation whose focus is oriented outward as well as inward.  A sense of the Church beyond your local borders is healthy for any Lutheran congregation and ownership of this mission focus is part of who we are as Lutheran Christians.

In the end, I find myself more and more mystified with his comment.  He gets around to a lot of Lutheran (nearly all LCMS) parishes across the states and for him to suggest that our parish is "special" is less a compliment to us than, perhaps, a cause for concern about the others.  For we are not extraordinary but rather ordinary.  We use the hymnal, we preach the lectionary, we invest in worship as the primary activity of God's people in this place, we care about those outside our parish and our community, and we use the Confessions and Catechism as the documents that both inform and norm our parish teaching and practice.  I would expect that every Lutheran parish would do so.  In fact, I would hope that we are ordinary, normal, and fairly typical for Lutheran parishes out there. 

The more I think about it, the more this whole thing bothers me.  I know that there are strange Lutheran incarnations out there but I have always believed that they were a distinct minority.  My hope, prayer, and, maybe, my private illusion, is that the vast majority of Lutheran parishes were not so different from mine.  I do not believe that I am more than your average Lutheran Pastor and I do not believe that we are special or unusual in all that many ways.  If it is true, then it is not a compliment to me or to my parish but a cause for serious concern about the health of Lutheran congregations and their Pastors.  So let me say it again.  I am an ordinary Lutheran Pastor and Grace Lutheran Church is a typical Lutheran parish.  Or it should be.  I cannot wish for more Pastors to be like me (believe me, I know my faults and weaknesses more than most of you readers).  But I do wish and pray that more Lutheran parishes would be like us in that their worship and teaching flowed seamlessly from their Confessional identity, that it was powerfully evangelical and faithfully catholic, that it was unashamedly and unabashedly Lutheran, and that it was deliberate and determined to be not only a Lutheran island where the parish is located but a Lutheran mission to shape, encourage, and live united with other Lutherans -- not as some minority splinter group but as the essential core and typical expression of our Lutheran identity within the congregation.  If I am wrong, please do not tell me.  Allow me this small waking dream of hope....


Bill Hansen said...

Wonderful post! Thanks!

(And, I won't tell you.)

Rev. David M. Juhl said...

Larry, compared to most of the congregations in your district, yours is a VERY special congregation.

Cheryl said...

Pastor, I LOVE this post. I frequently get told the same thing about my parish, and I don't get it either. Yes, we're different in a few externals from some other parishes. We are in the suburbs. We're bigger than some (not as big as others). But we're not "special." We're not "exceptional." We're just Lutheran.

ErnestO said...

Pastor Peters:

You are special to many as you minister us in your blog postings, thus helping many to be better servants.

I see God works through you. You aren’t called to a God-works-beside-me ministry; the Holy Spirit, the Jesus-deposit, works from within you. The syntax of this paragraph is from a blog posting today by Jon Walker, I thought is fitting in the context of this post "An Ordinary Lutheran."

We know not what prayer cannot do!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The problem and irony is this. So many congregations try to be "special" and unique that they fall into silliness, so that those that simply wish to be faithful and simple and normal end up being special.

Anonymous said...

There is no typical LCMS parish in
the 21st century. The quality of
liturgical and musical practice can
vary greatly in larger cities with
4 or 5 LCMS parishes as does the
quality of preaching. Those parishes
who lack quality in liturgy, music
and preaching will soon lack members.

Throughout the 35 Districts of LCMS
some parishes excel in liturgical
tradition, musical excellence and
dynamic Law/Gospel preaching and
other congregations do not. There
will never be the same high quality
in all parishes. Yet all parishes
need to strive for excellence in
these 3 areas as they serve the
Lord and carry out His mission.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

This goes back to your thread on funerals. I often get comments on how beautiful our funeral services are, and I have a hard time getting what the big deal is, its just a straight out of the box stock TLH funeral service, some good hymns, readings from the OT, Epistle and Gospel, a psalmody prayers, obituary and a law-gospel sermon. But the poverty that people experience everywhere else makes it a novelty. It's nothing really to brag about, its really rather disheartening at times.

Anonymous said...

Going by the book is special? You must be kidding. Going by the Lutheran Confessions is special? We are not special. Jesus is the special one. Give him the glory and praise, not to us.

Anonymous said...

The Church Lady on SNL used the word
SPECIAL as a derisive compliment
to do-gooders caught in sin. So if
Dana Garvey says your parish is
SPECIAL.....Look Out.