Friday, December 4, 2009

Lutheran Not In Name Only

Since I stirred the pot well with my post about Novus Ordo, I might as well keep the juices flowing...

Today my thoughts flow to those who feel uncomfortable wearing the name Lutheran. Unlike some who might think I am talking about Lutherans about to swim the Tiber or the Bosporus, my point is directed to those "cutting edge" congregations -- often mission starts -- who have transcended the name "Lutheran" and eschew the identity in order to fulfill the larger purpose of reaching people turned off by denominational names. It is an up and coming thing in missions across the Luther land of the LCMS. In my own District one of those is regularly identified as a "good" congregation that all the rest of us "bad" congregations should emulate. In another District the unwillingness of a new mission to look, act, and name itself Lutheran was the cause of great controversy at its summer convention. This is just to name a few...

Examples of these congregations are HERE and HERE Both of these are of the mission start variety. Another large and established congregation in the suburbs of St. Louis also decided that the name "Lutheran" was not a benefit to their ministry. The question is what does this mean for the church body that wears the name and pays the bills for these mission starts?

I asked a highly placed Synodical official about it and got the standard answer: "Well, I am a traditional sort of guy and when I began a mission 37 million years ago I did not find it a problem but I am sympathetic to the cause of reaching those turned off by denominational affiliations and understand their mission hearts are driving this and not some rejection of Lutheran identity..."

If just half of our mission starts make the name Lutheran optional, and if these actually grow, and it repeats itself down the line, it would not be long before this now rarity could become common place. What would it mean to us as a Lutheran church if our newest congregations and members rejected the name and identity as Lutherans? It would seem to be obvious to me that we would cease to be a "Lutheran" church after some time.

But the larger issue here is not institutional identity or survival but the Lutheran identity rooted in our Confessions and lived out in the local congregation dynamic of Word and Sacrament. I would rather have Lutherans decide that Lutheran identity was no longer needed or relevant than to simply whittle away at is until it becomes optional. You recall Neuhaus' law: When orthodoxy becomes optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." We might just adapt it to say that when Lutheran identity becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed. Some of you may think this a good thing but I doubt you read my blog. The rest of you probably think this is not a good thing -- that Lutheran identity and practice is something worth sustaining. How do we do it?

My answers are few to answer my own question -- either we debate ourselves to death at conferences (in which the real voices for either side may not be present) or we show those who doubt the viability of this Lutheran identity and practice by renewing not only our congregation's commitment to but also practice of this Lutheran faith and identity. In other words, we make our congregations shining examples of all that is right in this Lutheran identity and practice. That is the path I have chosen. It began with catechises (and, by the way, it continues with catechises). It began with holding up to the people in the pew the Lutheran confession and identity as an evangelical catholic faith and life -- as a GOOD thing without apology. It began with the reintroduction of the liturgy to the center and life of the congregation and all her people. It began with the slow and deliberate introduction of such things as the chalice, chanting, ceremonial actions, and reverential attitude toward our Sunday gathering. All of these begin and continue with each new member and each Advent and Lenten mid-week service. We must become comfortable with who we are before we can invite others to become one with us. This is the principle of local parish growth and of the reclaiming of the Lutheran churches for Lutheran faith and identity.

We cannot appeal to the past as a dead voice of regulation but we can appeal to the past as the living voice of tradition and to continuity even within the framework of constant change and renewal. REnewal does not mean abandonment of the past nor does it mean repristinating yesterday in a world radically different. The choice is not to become the Lutheran Church of the 1940s or the 1640s but to become the Lutheran Church of 2010 that owes its heritage to the living legacy of those previous generations while being true to our confession and our identity within the framework of the world around us. The choice is not to be a dying Lutheran or a non-Lutheran -- we have yet to fully explore the unspoken alternative -- to become the Lutheran community of today that is faithful to her heritage but faithful to her mission and purpose of equipping and sharing God's people to tell God's story, to welcome the stranger, to teach the faith, to extend Christ's love to the needy, to adopt the burdens of the poor, and to be a healing community around the sick, suffering, and grieving. Too often, the choice given to congregations in decline is to continue to decline or to become non-Lutheran -- emulating the winning ways of whatever denomination is showing results. There is another way. Be who you are but be this Lutheran congregation from the perspective of those who do not yet know you and break down the barriers and extend the hand of welcome and fellowship to those newly inspired to bring their neighbors and friends.

If we are to confront the slow drift of Lutheranism away from its identity in faith and practice, it will happen parish by parish, pastor by pastor, parishioner by parishioner... And those who think like this have little time to waste to begin to reverse this deathward drift of Lutheran identity and practice.


Eric said...

Though from a different context, I appreciate your thoughts on the importance and validity of labels, identity, and practice.

Anonymous said...

Since I stirred the pot well with my post about Novus Ordo, I might as well keep the juices flowing...

Keep stirring, Pastor Peters, these topics are well worth addressing.

When I returned to the LCMS I did NOT seek out the local "mission" congregation that intentionally downplays its Lutheran identity. I was blessed to have been formed by a faithful Lutheran mother and culture that did not exhibit the historical amnesia that seems to affect so much modern culture, especially here in the U.S. I realize that others have not been that fortunate.

I agree with everything you have stated, especially The choice is not to become the Lutheran Church of the 1940s or the 1640s but to become the Lutheran Church of 2010 that owes its heritage to the living legacy of those previous generations while being true to our confession and our identity within the framework of the world around us and the tremendous importance of sound catechesis.

The LCMS may not survive corporately as a confessional Lutheran body, may meld into generic post-denominationalism. So be it. Those of us who still identify as evangelical catholic Lutherans dare not sacrifice the riches we have to offer the world. If for a time we become a remnant, so be it, God has worked through remnants before.

We Lutherans need to bear the name proudly and share our gifts more boldly. May God grant it.


Sue said...

Amen, Christine!

Lee said...

Pastor Peters, I greatly enjoy your posts. I serve as pastor of an ELCA Lutheran Church in Durand, Illinois. The struggle with Lutheran identity is all over the board in the ELCA. This post and others show that many of us pastors in our respective denominations are struggling with the exact same things.

Unknown said...

I believe that most Americans are starting to feel like it is a waste of their time trying to become educated about what each denomination believes and would rather remain ignorant to it which is why they are turning to the non-denominational churches. These non-denominational churches seem to be trying to create a univeral Christian church. The problem with them trying to do this is that half the people that come to worship in these non-denominational churches had at one point some denomination prior to comming there but due to moving, becomming more educated, and in the process of becomming an adult they seemed to get lost in the world and what they believed became a complete mess because they felt like they had to be careful of what they said so that they wouldn't offend anyone. Some of these people take their beliefs with them to a non-denominational church afterwords including some of their pastors. Which in reality if you think about it doesn't really make it non-denominational if you have someone that says that they are non-denominational but grew up as a Baptist in charge of a church at some point there will be some point where the fact that he/she was a Baptist will show itself in something that he/she does or the way they worship the same is true for any other non-denominational church.

It is sad to see Lutheran churches starting to do things like this. It is sad that some of them that claim to be more strict on somethings starting to act as if they are another type of church other than being Lutheran to accomodate people and their desire to have a church like Burger King where you can have things your way. Honestly I was always under the impression that being Lutheran meant being stubborn and disliking of change.

LoieJ said...

About two years ago, I was reading blogs about independent churches with the more "modern" worship practices. Interestingly, there was a survey published that asked what could be done to improve the worship services. The points mentioned sounded exactly like a traditional Lutheran worship service: More scripture readings, more participation, more structure.

Of course, a church could have only recently composed music and a freer worship structure and still be Lutheran in content, in what is actually preached and taught. Or a church could have traditional liturgy but have some questionable preaching. I think that people need to look at the actual meaning of what is in the service not just whether it has a praise band, etc.

For me, personally, I would have problems with two things that could happen in a church that becomes a "community church" rather than a Lutheran church. One would be if the worship services no longer had Communion. The other would be if the heart of the church seemed to be the pastor(s)ie their personality, rather than the traditional way that the pastor(s) are called to serve a certain church for a particular time.

Anonymous said...

It is really quite irrelevant whether Lutheran churches use the name Lutheran or not. American Lutherans have decided to reduce having children to the point where they will extinuish their religion no matter what else they do. Take a look at your own church, and ask this question: "Do we confirm more than we bury." Gains and losses in most cases mostly cancel eachother out, but what determines viability has more to do with how one live's life with respect to the really important things.