Friday, September 21, 2018

Closed Churches. . .

It is not the first by any means but the story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune chronicles the closing of a few congregations, typical of many churches shutting their doors across the prairie states and, in this case, Minnesota. 100 years, Lutherans in this farming community on the Minnesota prairie have come to one church to share life’s milestones.

They have been baptized, confirmed and married at La Salle Lutheran. Their grandparents, parents and siblings lie in the church cemetery next door.

But the old friends who gathered here early one recent Sunday never imagined that they would one day be marking the death of their own church.

About the series This is the first in an occasional series about Christianity at a crossroads — a time of unprecedented decline in church membership and a changing future for the faith.

When La Salle Lutheran locks its doors in August, it will become the latest casualty among fragile Minnesota churches either closing, merging or praying for a miracle. Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.
Though the story focuses especially on Protestant congregations, it is also true that the numbers of Roman Catholic buildings also are on the decline with mergers and church closings.  That said, the stark reality is that in the last 16 years or so the ELCA has lost nearly one third of its membership, the Presbyterians two-fifths, and the Methodists one sixth.  The aging demographic of these prairie congregations is unmistakable with baptisms in the ELCA (Minnesota) down 43%!

While there are surely many reasons for this, the story fails to note that these same churches have made a rather dramatic shift to the left both in theology and practice.  During this same period, they have moved to accept most of the GLBTQ agenda with respect to marriage and the openness of these churches to gay, lesbian, transgender, etc., clergy.  During the same time period, these same churches have identified with the left not only in terms of the social agenda (pro-choice) but also the political (read through church resolutions on immigration, for example).  Yet there is no denying that these communities themselves are in decline and the population of rural areas ages faster than in urban and suburban areas as well as offering fewer jobs and reasons for young adults to stay.  Family farms are increasingly small agribusiness and use technology and farm machinery to do large scale what individual families did generations before.

The future of the prairie is not a small thing for Lutherans of all stripes.  Lutherans in particular have a larger proportion of their congregations in these rural areas and as they decline, they contribute to the decline of the whole denomination.  Added to this is the diminishing presence of Lutherans in the greater urban domains across America where buildings are also being sold and people saying good bye to once vibrant ministries. 

So what will America look like once these churches close?  On one level, these communities will lose an important dimension of the communal life and identity, a place for folks to gather, and a resource to address ills within their communities.  On another level, the Christians who must find new church homes will find it hard to relocate their memories in new places and to live with the loss of sacred places once home to generations of their ancestors.  Finally, the churches are among the last to leave these communities after the doctors, lawyers, grocery stores, hardware stores, banks, pharmacies, lumberyards, mechanics, and a host of others who leave main street a ghost town.  As one who grew up in just such a small town in Nebraska, it is a hard pill to swallow.  But as much as this is difficult for those directly involved, this will mean the closing of a vast chapter in American history as well as the history of the churches of these immigrant groups who fed us, created jobs and businesses to employ us, shaped our values, defended our nation against our enemies, and provided the firm foundation on which millions lived their lives.  There is much here to consider. . .

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The leap no one wanted to make. . .

In the wake of the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II (it is unfair to blame the Council for those changes since little was actually directed by the Council itself), Roman Catholics complained that they did not know their church anymore.  Non-Roman Catholics wondered if the Reformation was over because Rome had given up and given in.  Rome still fights the same battles over those liturgical changes and Protestantism has pretty much been won over by Rome's leadership of both missal and lectionary.  According to recent evidence, perhaps even Paul VI was surprised by what went forth in his name (but from the actual pen of others). Lutherans, in particular, followed Rome's example and this has remained an area of some concern for them as well.

The first issue is one of rupture.  Nearly all liturgical change prior to the post-Vatican II reforms was incremental.  It was a small step.  Yes, things changed but the changes were not dramatic nor were they disruptive.  Some were greater than others but on the whole history was rather kind to the folks in the pews and they saw a remarkable consistency - think of the changes of Trent lasting pretty much for 500 years.  For Lutherans, this is no less true.  The forms were consistent though the loss of our liturgical identity proved to be a greater issue than slow and deliberate evolution of the Divine Service.  This was in part addressed even in our Lutheran Confessions -- a concern for liturgical changes that were not startling or disruptive to the faithful.  Whether we like the changes of modern liturgical reform or not, there was a distinct rupture between the past and the future. This is never good and it is certainly a failure of the pastoral responsibility of those charged with such liturgical supervision.  Yet we Lutherans followed the example of Rome and introduced radical liturgical change with the publishing of Lutheran Book of WorshipLBW has continued to influence the shape of this change though the LCMS tried to step back a piece with a doctored up version of what had been in use when it published Lutheran Worship in 1982.  Lutheran Service Book took a much more nuanced view of liturgical change and the acceptance of this hymnal is testament to the benefits of a more pastoral and deliberate pace to reform.

The second issue is more difficult.  That is the underlying premise behind much of the early liturgical movement.  There was at one point in time a rather Polly Anna like view of liturgical change which believed that a pristine and primitive common source could be found and this source should be the primary influence over liturgical change.  In reality the liturgical history of the West is much messier and less simple.  There did not turn out to be an early source that was uncorrupted by elaboration or devoid of less catholic accretions.  In the end, I suspect this is a good thing.  The liturgy is not something which cannot change but is rather something so important that change must be slow, deliberate, gradual, and careful.  We should not look for some perfect rite to be restored nor should we try to recreate a particular moment in time.  Liturgical change is inevitable but the pace and extent of that change is certainly something the Church must exercise great care in managing.  Even Lutherans must not view the 16th Century Church Orders as the zenith of Lutheran liturgical form or practice but neither dare we ignore them or their influence over our past and present.

The last issue has to do more with integrity.  History and sources have sometimes been seen as a vast parts bin from which we may shape what we want.  In other words, we have the technology, we can make it better than it was.  Here, in particular, some attention should be given to cut and paste liturgical reform and its suggestion that all pieces will fit together if we want them to...  The Church's rites have an integrity of form and content which is tested and even destroyed when we simply exchange parts and pieces without much concern for the uniformity of language, musical style, and liturgical form.   It is clear that this was the view of the anaphora of the Novus Ordo and in deference to this bias vastly different Eucharistic Prayers were inserted into the form though they were so different as to represent a more significant change than was first presumed.  Lutherans, often under the guise of adiaphora, have long been guilty of this locally (even though the forms officially published suffer less from this ill).  Pastors pick and choose, replacing hymns for parts of the ordinary without respect to what they say and the role they have in the liturgy.  Especially for festive occasions Lutherans often mix and match things with a nod to diversity but end up with something that is at best a hodge podge and at worst unintelligible.  From forms to rubrics, we cut and paste until it becomes identifiable with nothing.  I can think, for example, of Lutherans who have attached the Words of Institution to everything from Matins to Vespers to create a Divine Service (and a host of other things that are not worthy of mention) in an effort to create from the chaos a Divine Service.  In the end it is like a meal where foods compete with each other.  Just because you can does not mean you should.

So consider this a plea for deliberate and gradual liturgical change, for dealing not simply with the ideal but also the real, and for making sure that the Divine Service has integrity of structure and content.  And if for no other reason, do this out of pastoral concern for the folks in the pews who put up with changes that do not help but actually hinder their faithfulness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

So how religious are Americans and their counterparts across the world. . .

Considering leaving?

Among Protestants surveyed by LifeWay, a change in teaching is probably the most significant trigger to people walking out the door or considering taking a walk.  That said, the graph tells us what we already knew in that when people change addresses, they often change churches (denominations).  Surprising and yet somewhat predictable is the change in preaching style as a reason for considering a change (since preaching style and doctrine are often connected).

I suspect that people are not being entirely honest when it comes to music style changing.  According to LifeWay the number who mark this change as a reason for walking is surprisingly low -- 5% -- but we know that there is, in reality, a significant turnover when just such a shift comes (usually from traditional church music for that denomination to contemporary).  Of course, this is often accompanied by a change in preaching style and theological identity as well so it is not often isolated as the only factor.  Perhaps another reason is that so many of those surveyed by LifeWay have already long ago moved to contemporary Christian music -- so many that this has, in effect, become traditional for some, even many, denominations.

My favorite line in the study is:  The more people go to church, the more committed they are to attending their same church. How sad it is that we need to be reminded of this. The reality is that the people most likely to walk are those who live on the fringes of the church's life and work and identity.  It is unusual, though not rare, for folks who have been faithful and regular over the long haul to simply wake up one morning and seek a change.  In fact, the survey said that those who have been members over the long haul are pretty well certain they will stay until death or move forces them from their church home.

If there is cause for concern, it is that the average size for Protestant congregations is so small -- under 100 people.  If 15% of a hundred walk, that is going to be felt big time in those congregations.  If the congregation is even smaller, those leaving could make or break the financial viability of that congregation -- especially for denominations accustomed to a full-time pastor.  Most church members have been at their church longer than their pastor.  One of the most significant factors in people choosing to leave or to stay in their church is how much their identity is wrapped up in that congregation.  For many congregations, a significant number of members have been there longer than the current pastor.  Again, could this be saying something about pastoral longevity and how this affects the stability of a church's membership?  Could a revolving door history of pastors coming and going work against the congregation in a whole host of ways?  I suspect there is more here than meets the eye.  In the end this could give comfort to some and make others uneasy about the future. 

Some 76% of those surveyed believe their participation in the life of their church has been helpful to them as individuals, helpful to their spiritual lives, and supportive of their faith.  That is a number we ought to pay some attention to -- only 3% think that statement is wrong or are not sure how true it is that their church has been helpful.  I must admit that I am a bit surprised by this. 

In the end surveys can end up seeing only what they look for.  I hope that no one uses surveys to redefine what their church believes or does.  We ought to be more grounded than the latest and most recent poll.  But in the end, it does suggest that we should not be as worried as some have been that their people are waiting to run.  That said, non-denominational churches and those new congregations that pop up overnight seem to be overly dependent and crowded with people who left in search of something new -- and who will leave again if something new or better comes along.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Belief for the Unbelieving. . .

               How often do we feel like we’re walking through life and there’s no light?  How often do we feel like we’re all alone, like God is far off, that He’s listening to other people’s prayers, that He’s taking care of them and has forgotten about us?  We know this isn’t the true.  With head knowledge we know God’s promises; we know that we’re His blessed, chosen generation, that we’re His people and He’ll never abandoned us, and yet, there are times in life when it feels like He has.  During these times, when it seems like all hope is lost, it’s good for us to follow the example of the father in the Gospel; praying, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” (Mk 9:24) 
               If anyone ever knew the darkness of despair, it was the father in our Gospel reading.  This man’s son was possessed by a spirit that made him mute.  And not only that, it tried to kill the boy by throwing him into fire and water.  This spirit plagued the boy from childhood.  His whole life was tormented by this spirit, and so was the father’s.  Helpless, all he could do was watch as his child suffered.  As parents, there’s no greater hurt that we feel then when we see our children hurting and there’s nothing we can do about it.  It tears us up inside to see them in pain, suffering illness and disease.  Our only hope is that we can comfort them, if even just a little bit.  The father had a glimpse of hope when he heard about Jesus.
Jesus healed many people with all kinds of diseases and ailments.  He cleansed people with leprosy and healed many who were paralyzed.  He cast out demons and even raised the dead.  Hearing about all these miracles, the father had hope.  So, he brought his son to Jesus. 
At first, he asked the disciples to heal his boy; something the Lord enabled them to do before.  When Jesus sent out the 12 earlier in Mk 6, He gave them authority over the unclean spirits (Mk 6:7), and they cast out many demons as they went along proclaiming the gospel (Mk 6:13).  But, this demon they couldn’t cast out.  They couldn’t help the boy.  And again, the father despaired. 
When Jesus approached all the commotion, He asked what was going on and the father spoke up, explaining his great need.  Filled with hopelessness, he asked Jesus one last time for help: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). 
“If you can.”  These words prefaced the father’s final request.  “If you can.”  These words have a sense of doubt in them, a sense of unbelief.  “If you can.”  This man questioned Jesus.  Did he really believe Christ could help after His disciples had already failed?
For many, unbelief begins with failed hopes and dreams.  Struggling through life’s darkness, we question the goodness of God.  We question whether or not He cares and loves us.  We question whether or not He’s really all powerful, and if He is, why doesn’t He do something?  Why doesn’t He stop all the evil?  Why doesn’t He stop all the pain and hurt?  Why doesn’t He stop all my pain and my hurt? 
We all know someone who’s turned from the Lord because of the bad things He let happen in their life?  People lose their job for no apparent reason, and after struggling to make ends meet, they lose their house as well.  People who live active and healthy lives out of nowhere become terminally ill.  A child dies after a long painful fight with cancer, taken before they can enjoy fully what life has to offer.  A friend is taken in a tragic way, dying in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.  There’s no shortage of terrible things happening in this world.  Just take a quick look at the headlines and you’ll see more tragedy than you can handle.  For many, these terrible things drive them to unbelief.  They become angry with God asking why.  Why did He allow bad things to happen to good people?  Why did He allow bad things to happen to me?  They want nothing to do with Him.  Some even hate our Lord.  Maybe you’ve even question the Lord’s goodness in times of your suffering? 
               The father in our Gospel had his doubts.  He wasn’t sure Jesus could help.  And yet, Christ answered the darkness of the father’s despair with the light of His life.  Responding to the man’s doubt, Jesus said, “If you can”!  All things are possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23).   Those who trust in the Lord will receive all of the Lord’s blessings, even if those blessings seem impossible.  These blessings include deliverance from pain and suffering, deliverance from the seemingly never ending darkness and despair of life, deliverance even from death.
Hearing Jesus words, the father asked for what he lacked.  He asked for the faith to trust in Christ, to trust in the goodness of the Lord: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9: 24).     
On our own, it’s hard to believe.  On our own, it’s downright impossible for us to believe.  With our own strength, we can’t trust in the Lord’s goodness when all we see around us is despair.  No amount of positive thinking on our part will give us the hope that is strong enough to carry us through the dark times of life.  The faith we need to trust in God’s goodness and mercy must come from Him.  Like the father, we must pray, “I believe; help my unbelief.”  And graciously, the Lord answers this prayer, through the working of the Holy Spirit. 
It is the Spirit of God who gives us the faith we need to trust in our Savior.  This truth of faith we confess every week as we speak the Creed.  When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” what we’re really saying is, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ , my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” (SC, Creed Article III).  It is the Spirit of God, working through the good news of the Gospel, working through the gracious promises of our Lord, who gives us belief and keeps us in that belief.  The Lord has chosen us for faith; faith that trusts in Christ our Savior; faith that trusts in His salvation won on the cross. 
Our Lord hasn’t left us alone in the darkness of despair.  He came to us, to live in this darkness, so that He might overcome it with His light.  Born in that stable He grew up and lived in our sin filled world.  He knew the struggles of temptation.  He knew sorrow, mourning the death of loved ones.  He understood suffering and pain, and all of this He took to the cross.     
The OT reading from Isaiah (50:6) speaks about the suffering our Lord endured.  Jesus didn’t turn from the pain and suffering of the cross.  He knew His suffering and death was the only way to save you from death.  So He gave His back to be beaten and flogged.  He faced those who struck Him in the face.  He endured being spit upon and mocked.  He willingly died on the cross in order to overcome the sin and death that plagues us.  He gave up His life, so that you would have life, so that you’d be delivered from the darkness of despair and brought into the light of His everlasting life. 
The OT reading for today ends with these words, “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Is 50:10).  God hasn’t abandoned you.  He hasn’t left you alone in your despair.  He sent His Son to suffer and die in order to save you from your despair.  Christ endured more suffering than any of us could ever imagine.  His pain was more than any of us could ever bear.  The weight of the whole world’s sin and despair was on His shoulders, and He willingly carried it so that you would be saved from it. 
There are times in life when it seems like there’s no light.  There are times in life when it seems like there’ll be no relief from pain and suffering.  Like the father in our Gospel, we might be despairing; we might question God’s mercy and goodness toward us.  But during these times we still trust in the name of the LORD.  During these times we hold fast to our Savior, knowing that He can, and He does save us from all that afflicts us.  The light of His salvation is there, even in the darkness of our sin and death, and nothing can take that from us. 
We’re God’s people; His blessed, chosen, generation.  He’s inclined His ear to us and He listens to our prayers.  God’s provided us the light that we need when we’re in the darkness of despair.  He’s given us His Son, who died and rose so that we might have life and salvation.  This is what the Lord blesses us with.  He’s chosen us for this everlasting life.  With Spirit worked faith, we trust in this life, always praying, “I believe! Help my unbelief. Our Lord is faithful, He will do this.  He will bring you out of the darkness into His marvelous light.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Some light in the dark. . . ages that is. . .

The Middle Ages lasted about a millennium from the Dark Ages right after the Fall of the Roman Empire through the early, mid and high Medieval periods. Most of us were probably taught to write off the whole era as dark, brutal, uncivilized, and without much learning, art, music, or erudition.  I was.  But if we consider that this civilization lasted through great stresses and changes, perhaps we can learn something by going past the stereotype -- especially the upheavals of modernity we face.

Prof. Andrew Willard Jones, who teaches Church history, theology, and social doctrine at Franciscan University in Steubenville, suggests that our view of those dark ages may be more colored by anti-Catholic prejudice than the reality of history.  Jones said, “I was studying the papacy of the 13th century. I was inspired by what I was reading. It was a whole world that had not been investigated… We’re blessed in medieval history. They had advanced letter-writing operations. There were papal letters and manuscripts… It’s a treasure trove of court records, monarchial registries and chronicles.”  Jones sees the medieval era as a Christianized, sacramental civilization, quite unlike the usual way the period is treated by typical histories.  It is far too simplistic to see the period as one of only decay until the rescue of Luther for the Church, Erasmus for reason, and the Renaissance giants for art and music.  The truth is that during this period there were great advances in the arts and in learning and these provided the foundation for the flourishing of that Renaissance period.  Far from being stark, staid, and, frozen, the medieval period was a complex, dynamic culture.  Surely that does not suggest that this was some sort of mountain top achievement of humanity but it does mean that this time has been the victim of a characterization less than accurate.

It is one more testament to the fact that history is not the only thing that suffers from a stereotype that fails to scratch beneath the surface.  Once again I am reminded that we judge too much from a shallow sweep across the breadth of time than from the informed consideration of its reality.  Certainly this is true of Christians with respect to the Old Testament.  We have heard for so long that it is a different God than Jesus, a violent story without real peace, and a condemnation without hope that we began believing it.  For Christians it got to the point where some suggested the Old Testament was irrelevant and unnecessary to the Gospel.  In some respects, we have treated Christian history the way we treat medieval history, a distasteful distraction from the real story.  We are always the poorer when we succumb to such tempting but false characterizations.  That this is true of Scripture is one shame we ought to admit.  That this is true of the way we escape a more critical view of our own history is also something we should admit.