Sunday, February 21, 2010

Triumphalism and the Missouri Synod

A million years ago, before the Lutheran landscape was narrowed to two and one half church bodies, before CCW (contemporary Christian worship), before the CGM (church growth movement), before the Internet and cell phones, and while our numbers as the LCMS were still growing, I was introduced to the triumphalism of the Missouri Synod. Coming from a parish which did not join Synod until just before the unpleasantness of the 1970s, I was outside this part of the culture of the Synod but it did not take long to observe the phenomenon.

Those in the ALC or LCA would complain about a certain smugness in Missouri, a clubbiness (is that a word) that did not need to say a word to say that Missouri was a notch above others in just about every way. For a long time I thought it simple envy. At the time we had the best if not the largest Lutheran seminary in the world (801 was its short hand name in the old days)... we had a rigorous gymnasium (not the sports building) system of colleges and a curriculum rich in language and the classic liberal arts mold... we had heavy hitters in many disciplines -- known the world over like Martin Marty, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, Pelikan, Hoelty-Nickel, Bunjes, Piepkorn, just to name a very few... we were growing (the boats from Germany had only recently stopped coming and our moms were popping out kids like crazy... Yes, we may be smug but we have some things to be smug about... I thought...

Then I began to realize that we were clubby sort of like the old school money that used to hang around in dark paneled, smoke filled rooms. Yes, we had some things to be smug about but we had long ago adopted a certain attitude of superiority that was detached from this reality and more about image and self-esteem than about theology, character, and real identity.

There are some who continue this certain smugness and some have identified the myth of Missouri's exceptionalism. But in the parish this has seemed to disappear more quickly than in the national headquarters and certain political leaders. When a book is published that describes us as a "sleeping giant" with strategies to awaken this giant... well, you can see that the arrogance is not gone. While this is the attitude of some at the top of the flow chart, the opposite is true at the other end -- where the congregation lives.

I see and hear of many who are defeated and broken. These are the Pastors who are under the gun to produce and tempted by every non-Lutheran means to make the numbers look better. These are the parishes who a few years ago or more could afford a full-time Pastor but now must go for long periods to "save up" for a local Pastor or forgo this dream altogether (in part because the benefits package now costs, well, for me 2 1/2 times what my first salary was). These are the colleges where few bucks come from Synod coffers anymore and so the administration's main job is find a cheap way out and then raising enough funds to stay in the black. These are the Sunday mornings where the organ is silent not out of choice but out of a lack of organists and a bigger lack of funds to splurge on this luxury (so cd music is used, piano, or other instruments accompany the liturgy and hymns).

Sure there are those entertainment oriented congregations who have become mega churches by selling out their Lutheran souls for whatever is new and works... There are those who delight in fencing in the altar with close(d) communion, but who sadly feel no regret at the lack of doctrinal unity within the Synod or among all those who wear the name Lutheran... There are those who repristinate their theology and their golden years of glory back into Missouri's past instead of the present or future... but this is not our glory or our particularity or our redemption...

Missouri's future, if she has one, lies not in a purity cult where everyone's orthodoxy is constantly under scrutiny. We need no Gestapo policing the dogma. Missouri's future, if she has one, lies not in recapturing a snapshot of our past. We cannot afford to live in or act like yesterday is still today. Missouri's future, if she has one, will not be born of rewriting the constitution and by-laws of Synod (though clearly they need repairing). Missouri's future is not waiting for us in some non-denominational how-to journal. We have tasted enough of the forbidden fruit of those beliefs and practices incompatible with our Confessions.

Missouri's future, and I believe she has one, lies in Pastors and parishes who want to be Lutheran, who are not ashamed of this identity, who are convinced that our Lutheran answers are relevant and speak in a timely way to the questions laid before us by our times and our culture, and who speak apologetically (in the sense of defending the faith) in a winsome way to those not yet with us, who do not attempt to be all things to all people but simply Lutheran people amid all things, and who are the same people when they are gathered on Sunday morning that they are throughout the week.

Yes there is a great deal of triumphalism in our past... some in our present... but what I worry about even more are those who have stopped seeing Lutheran as a positive and vibrant identity... who no longer identify with our Confessions... who do not see Scripture as a living voice and the faith of the Scriptures that form our Confessions as a living identity... The broken, the wounded, the disheartened... these are the ones I worry about most... who go to Church on Sunday morning because they are Lutheran but who are surprised when others shown an interest in this faith and church... For unless we address these folks, our future will continue to be played out in the great battle between those who are not only at home in the house of our fathers but wish they were alive 100 years ago... and those who do not like their grandfather's church and a working with every ounce of their being to remodel it to look and act more like the no-name variety down the block... and this will kill us... for sure...


Rev. David M. Juhl said...

I recall reading a similar thought from a Wisconsin Synod pastor. To WELS, Missouri pastors are "slick" and tend to be smug. Mind you, this was written years ago and is, in general, a caricature.

Tone is important. Our tone can be our worst enemy.

IggyAntiochus said...


Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

There is both anger and fear among the laity who care and pay attention. I have heard it in conversation, and I see it on the Internet. I feel it myself. I wish I could shout to the self-satisfied in Missouri: "I just got here! Don't screw it up!"

As long as there are pastors like yourself (and I know there are many more around the world), 'Missouri' will remain. It may not always be called 'Missouri', but it WILL BE LUTHERAN.

Anonymous said...

I am an Anglican Priest, but I was a member of the LCMS many years ago. In recent years, I have had some dealings with the LCMS in my community, and I have observed some disturbing things there. It appears to me that the LCMS Pastors live in great fear of being accused of any possibility of doctrinal deviation, to the point that they are virtually paralyzed and unable to lead.

I see that they fail to teach, apparently because they are afraid to take a clear stand on anything that might be challenged doctrinally. This is so very regrettable, both for the Pastors and the parishes.

Fr. Sam+

Bill said...

I think you're right about a change needed to folks wanting to be Lutheran. I've been attending an LCMS church now for about three years and I'm in the membership class for Easter.

We use a book called 'Introduction to Lutheran Beliefs'. The theology is dime thin and more suited for teenagers than adults. The Catechisms and Book of Concord are referenced, usually in margin or footnotes but they aren't the focus. Three weeks in, the pastor hasn't said anything about the Book of Concord, the Large or Small Catechism or even the new Lutheran Bible that has so many good things in it.

He's not a bad pastor and he consistently provides law and gospel sermons. He's an older man who started serving in the 1950's, and he's well liked, and very well versed in the Bible. I'm just not sure that he's all that enthusiastic about traditional Lutheranism.

I think what's needed is the Lutheran equivelent of the RCC/RCIA class. Sacramental, liturgical with doctrine taught right from the Book of Concord and no apologies for being different.

There's no way that the 'inquisition' approach will work. That only creates more hostility and problems. And as you said, the contemporary worship road is a certain road to destruction as we will wind up being no different than the evangelical church down the road--and maybe even worse!

In order to do this, though, the Synod would have to lead and the leadership will have to change. I sure pray to God that such a change will take place this year!

Anonymous said...

Was it irony or something else that you were going for by referring -- in a post lamenting smug attitudes and triumphalism -- to another Lutheran synod/group as only half a church body?

chaplain7904 said...

So what does it mean to be Lutheran, Fr? I don't think people know. It's not just doing the things that make us so, but understanding them, loving them, embracing them, defending them and promoting them. There's a difference between being a church that has sacraments, and being a sacramental church. We no longer have a united Lutheran voice to point to. I don't know if we ever did. You can speak of Scripture and Confessions, but people need more. They need men to lead them in these things. I don't think we will see any large scale unity (such as it was) again for a very long time in America. But instead I think we will see small areas in which pastors and congregations unite in the Confession of the true faith.

Bill said...

Well, if we do have small areas or local congregations in which the pastors and parishoners unite in the Confession of the true faith at least that is a beginning. That is a seed, a nucleus, around which a revival can grow. The internet can serve to connect and to nurture these little islands of confessional faith.

Large scale unity? Perhaps not, but twelve apostles were the core to a movement that turned the ancient world upside down. We do what we can with the talents God has entrusted to us and leave the results up to God. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us, in this we can be assured.