Imagine a newly ordained pastor leaving the seminary only to be assigned to some podunk parish in say, the Florida-Georgia District, for example. Here they find they are the suddenly a pastor of a parish that only begrudgingly tolerates the most minimalistic interpretation of Lutheranism in liturgy and ceremony.
- The newly ordained pastor, so excited at his first call, discovered his parish celebrates the Eucharist only once a month. In fact, they really don't like it when he calls it the Eucharist, or even the Sacrament of the Altar like the Catechism says. They refer to it exclusively as "the Lord's Supper", just like the Baptists.
- Also like the local Baptist church down the street, this Lutheran church is predominately a bare lecture hall. Little color, white walls, no stained glass, certainly no crucifix and no statuary and no kneelers. Probably just a bland freestanding altar (built to look more like a Zwinglian table than a proper Lutheran altar), some type of modernist bare cross on the wall behind it, several ugly potted plants, lots of wall-to-wall carpeting to make the room as dead acoustically as possible, and an old Baldwin electronic organ (more of an appliance than a real musical instrument) that the church bought used from somewhere else to provide the music for the "traditional" service.
- There are hymnals in the pews, but they are never used anymore. Several overhead screens have been added so that people can sing along to the texts projected thereon.
- People in this parish are more committed to following the Hallmark calendar than the Liturgical Calendar. (In fact, if the truth be known, it would actually surprise many of them to know that the Church HAS an official calendar).
- The High Holy Days of this parish (and they really prefer the term "congregation" as "parish" sounds way too "catholic" to their ears) are: Mother's Day, Father's Day, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day. Veterans Day, the so-called "National Day of Prayer" etc. This parish insists that Advent is four-weeks-of-Christmas-before-Christmas and insists that the Sanctuary be decked out in full Christmas splendor on the First Sunday After Thanksgiving. "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" are traditional favorites for the First Sunday in Advent. Of course, this parish does not have a Christmas Day service and doesn't understand why anyone would want such a thing. As the President of the Congregation here says, "Christmas Day is all about being with family. Why would you want to be in Church, of all places, on Christmas Day?"
Brother Boris is not far off from the situation I found in my first parish. I am shocked at the accuracy of his tongue-in-cheek attempt to describe what might be found in a typical Lutheran parish. Let me make a couple of corrections. There was a crucifix on the back wall of the nave and not behind the altar. The organ was not a Baldwin but a Wurlitzer (complete with a percussion section). The hymnals in the pews were a generic American hymnbook primarily made up of old time Gospel hymns. There was no Christmas Day service or any Advent or Lenten services and Holy Week was limited to Good Friday. No overhead screens but plenty of blank white walls on either side of the altar provided projection space for overhead or slide projector (the current technology in 32 years ago).
As far off as we might hope Brother Boris extreme situation might be, it probably can be found in a real place with an address and, at some time, a struggling young Pastor trying to make it there. And he may be facing depression and disappointment in the face of the daunting effort to remake the parish into a Lutheran congregation. That is what I faced. I was lonely and disillusioned. The congregation was not what I had expected nor what folks had told me to expect. The parish was miles from the closest Lutheran congregation and Pastor (ELCA) and much further to anything that might remotely have resembled the congregation of the Augsburg Confession. But I had some debt, I was without the prospect of other employment, I was without children, my wife had a skill, and I was just stubborn enough to decide to make it work. Yet, I prayed for a call to establish a mission on the outskirts of hell instead of where I was at. But the Lord's answer was no call. I was there nearly 13 years and poured my soul into that parish. I loved them into following me and, when they were stable and solid and it appeared that the Lord was calling me elsewhere, I found that their call list was riddled with people who ridiculed the weekly Eucharist I had worked so hard to establish and who worked against the rich program of church music I worked in partnership with a very fine organist (St. Olaf grad) to develop. Sometimes a parish often must work against their own Pastor in order to keep Lutheranism alive.
Brother Boris is not far off and I know personally of that which I speak. The readers of this blog need to be aware of the reality. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is a Lutheranism that looks like a mediocre and moderate mainline Protestant congregation. And of course, there are those who will inside that you are making your complaints all about chanting or vestments or incense and not about the "real" important stuff. But smells or bells or dressing up was never mentioned by Brother Boris nor by me. What we ought to be preparing our Pastors for is how to lead a parish through a sea change of identity and back into the confession and confessional practice that we claim defines us. That requires a stubborn nature, a patient heart, lots of love, and a long pastorate. Not all of those heading out the Seminary door to their first call are up to it. But the point is, they should not have to be up to it!
If you faced something similar, I would appreciate hearing about it and about your response and where things stand today...