Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Wake Up Call. . .

I am coming up on my 40th seminary class reunion.  It is not that I look forward to such things but I am struck by how things have changed.  There were twice as many graduating from my seminary that year than both seminaries this year.  Eight years before that graduation day, there were literally hundreds upon hundreds of pre-sem students at St. John's College (where I attended) and its sister colleges throughout the LCMS.  Now there are not even be 100 pre-sems in all the Concordias combined (even though the Concordia University system has ballooned in size).  This is, by the way, not about nostalgia.  It is about what is happening to our shrinking numbers and why.

I wonder if the crisis of vocations for our church is not more self-inflicted than imposed upon us by cultural, economic, and social changes.  Yes, we live in a different world.  I know that.  But the factors which have contributed to the decline are not all external.  Some of them are internal.  Many of them.  So what has changed?

  • We no longer esteem the pastoral office as highly as we once did.  We are quick to criticize pastors and complain about them.  Such conversations make a big impact upon a young man who may feel God's call but hears all around him negative talk about his pastor that he knows could all too soon be said about him.  Pastors are drains on church budgets and people are saying all over our Synod how we cannot afford them anymore.  Pastors need to be more than pastors but visionary leaders and agents of dynamic change to rescue a moribund church from itself.  It can be daunting to think that being a pastor means emceeing a religious variety show every week to entertain people into giving their money and making a return visit.
  • We are confused about what it means to be a pastor.  A young man may not be sure he can live up to a modern day job description.  We are surrounded by conflicting ideas of what pastors are supposed to do and be.  Does he equip and delegate or do what is to be done?  Must he save the congregation, be solely responsible for making it grow, find a way to appeal to those not in the congregation on Sunday morning, and make the faith winsome to people spiritual but not religious?  He may not even realize that none of this is in the call -- which is about preaching, teaching, administering sacraments, visiting sick, shut-in, fallen away, sinners secure in their sins, burying the dead, praying, etc. . .
  • We have decided to finance the ministry on the backs of those who desire to be pastors.  Yes, our seminaries are offering free tuition right now but there are still costs involved.  The undergraduate cost of a church college pre-sem program alone are daunting and have priced most out of the market (allowing our church schools to largely ignore what was once their core mission).  Then when they come out of seminary with debt, we pay them as if they were supposed to work for free.  Pastors have become budget busters for small congregations who either cannot or refuse to find ways to support the office.  Everyone else looks forward to retirement but we expect pastor's retirement to mean serving full-time for part-time pay in a congregation that cannot afford to pay them what they are worth.
  • We don't think as much about education and training as we once did.  We have invented programs to churn out people who are just as good (perhaps better) but without residential seminary education.  Online programs that reduce the coursework to a minimum have become the drumbeat of our people and our leaders.  What that says to a young man considering the ministry is that it is no big deal, anybody can do it, it is not worth investing yourself into something as demanding as three years of classroom work and one year of internship.  Unless you have extra money and want to, this is an optional extra no longer esteemed as valuable except by old foggies like me and the seminaries themselves.
  • We do not catechize at home like we once did.  Ask any confirmation class how many of their families even eat together much less pray before meals.  Our busy lives and filled schedules have spilled over onto our children's lives and we have squeezed out any room for a prayer life or devotional life as a family or as an example to our children.  Sure, this is not true of all but it is more true of most than it once was.  Time is our most valuable commodity and we show what is valuable by how we spend our time.  Work and pleasure come first for most of us.  God and church compete for the leftovers.  Plus we have set a poor example by attending church every other week or once a month and calling it faithful.  Even if our family does not do this, it does not take much for a young man to look around and see who is missing from the pews or Sunday school classes half the time or more (assuming they still attend Sunday school).
  • We don't know our church music and we are too cheap to pay a decent organist so music is no longer the faithful handmaiden of the Word in many congregations.  We press the play button and music flows from speakers.  Or we have a praise band and a playlist drawn not from the sturdy hymns of old or the solid hymns of more recent vintage but the pop gospel hits of the latest contemporary music station that come and go with the style.  So we carry around in our minds and ears little of the hymns that actually teach the faith.  Instead church music has fallen victim to personal preference and become like muzak playing behind the scenes of our lives.
You can argue with me if you want, but I wonder if some of these are not more influential in the decline of those who feel the call and go through the preparation to become the pastors of the church.  Far from being simply the press of culture outside the building or the growing disdain of orthodox Christianity, these factors are what our young men live with in the home and at church.  It is hardly a rich environment for us to raise up good and faithful men for the most noble calling of all.  So we can complain about how few graduate from seminary but it is not the seminary's fault and we cannot even blame the world around us.  But if we would look into the mirror, we just might see what has brought us to this moment.


Martin R. Noland said...

Dear Pastor Peters,

Thanks for the blog post, Pastor Peters! This one definitely deserves a wider audience. Congratulations on 40 years, by the way! :)

I agree that most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Guys in the NRA will tell you that is not uncommon! :)

Seriously, you are right about church musicians. I attended Concordia Teacher's College, River Forest in 1976-79, with the intent of becoming a Lutheran school teacher, with choir directing, organ service playing, and music education as some of my services offered to the congregation. Though I received an outstanding education there, I began to see that synod congregations and people my age (boomers) had less interest in classical Lutheran organ and choir music. The music educators at River Forest were already grousing about it. I could see it in my home district (CNH) and the metro Chicago area (NID). River Forest students were attracted to the new mega-church style at Bill Hybels church in Lake County, and some attended there regularly. I concluded that my musical talents, which I had worked on for sixteen years, were going to be obsolete by the time I retired. So that was one of the reasons I headed to seminary.

Seriously, you are right about pastors. The 1989 Wichita Convention resolution about district-licensed lay deacons sent a signal to all pastors that their service was not valued as it once was. Everything you said here about congregations saving dollars on the backs of pastors, retirees, and of seminarians, is absolutely true. There is some consolation in that, on average, our pastors do a little bit better, in terms of salary and benefits, than many other denominational ministers these days. But that is not saying much. And in many parts of the US, that doesn't amount to middle class compensation. My biggest concern here is our seminarians, who graduate with loads of debt that is not easily repaid--but am thankful for the seminaries and their donors offering free tuition right now.

We have some of the best-trained pastors, teachers, and other church-workers in the "church business." So what is wrong with this picture?

In my opinion, we are hurting in the area of lay leadership in local congregations. Certainly not all congregations, and we have some brilliant lay leaders--don't get me wrong about that. But there aren't enough to take care of and lead every congregation. The biggest congregations get all the "blessings" here; the smaller and smallest congregations are hurting.

This has been a slow decline in the LCMS and not due to any synod president or synodical administrations. Some of that is the fault of aggressive pastors who push aside good lay leaders. Some of that is the loss of the Walther League, which used to raise up good lay leaders in congregations. I know that many laymen of my parents and grandparents age learned their attitudes toward the ministry and skills from Walther League. Nothing replaced that when the Walther League died. LWML is doing a great job with training laywomen. But Lutheran Layman's League has been subsumed under "Lutheran Hour Ministries," which tells you something. Certainly there are some good people there at LHM, but not much is going on in the area of training laymen for congregational leadership.

I was very pleased to see President Harrison's support for training laymen in evangelism with the new, excellent program "Every One His Witness," with Rev. Mark Wood and Dcs. Hayter. But evangelism is not congregational leadership. My friend Gene White has been working for years on this lay leadership problem with his program "Church Matters" at But more needs to be done.

Anyway, your blog post deserves wider reading, in my opinion. I hope my ramblings give you some encouragement to get it "out there." Thanks for writing a great blog!

Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

James said...

Part 1

Pastor Peters wrote:

"Plus we have set a poor example by attending church every other week or once a month and calling it faithful. Even if our family does not do this, it does not take much for a young man to look around and see who is missing from the pews or Sunday school classes half the time or more (assuming they still attend Sunday school)."

I respond:

Lay leaders you say? Pastor Noland, have I got a story for you about the "lay leaders" in my LCMS congregation!

Well, we do our best to be in church every Sunday morning, so that is not an issue most weeks. Our struggle is participation. My small kids don't enjoy going, so we let them squirm in the back pew with their lego toys as long as they are quiet and don't bother anyone. We don't want to be too pushy nor threaten them. Doing so might have the opposite effect and push them away from church forever. I hope that as they continue to see both mom and dad sing and pray during the service, they will eventually come around. We go to church as a family out of a sense of obligation. Some Sunday services are a complete waste of time, as I will explain below.

Our small group, youth, and adult Sunday school materials are Rick Warren and Saddleback approved. We will sometimes even have a Sunday sermon series based on the same small group materials. I should have never listened to the podcasts of hard core LCMS traditional pastors such as Johnathan Fisk, Todd Wilken, Brian Wolfmueller, and Matt Richard. Doing so has caused so much internal tension. Chris Rosborough has especially shaken my faith to the core.

What I am taught most days in my LCMS congregation is completely different than what I hear on these podcasts. I get zero value out of a shallow, pop-Evangelical curriculum that in many cases is hostile to the Lutheran confessions. Should I be more loyal to my LCMS congregation or to my confessional Lutheran podcasts?

James said...

Part 2

My LCMS congregation has several small group *lay leaders* that were trained in Willow Creek, Fuller seminary, and Saddleback leadership principles. Our small group leaders learned to assume the roles of coaches and senior managers of the church corporation, I mean - "congregation." Raise any criticisms or polite objections to any of the contents of the latest Rick Warren-approved video or book during small group discussion/meeting time and be quietly labeled as "weird." I was no longer deemed a good "fit" for the small group clique and soon became an object of gossip. It got so bad that I was ignored and avoided while volunteering to help set up crafts for VBS. Did I mention that they badly need volunteers? And yes - a couple of the 30-something gossipy women in the group are elder's wives.

I will attest that my 9 year old boy absolutely cannot stand going to Sunday school. He flatly refuses to go and cannot be convinced otherwise. Some of the same 30-40 year old gossipy women are also Sunday school teachers. My son senses that he is treated differently than the other kids. He knows he is not welcome there, and he feels judged. He no longer wants to go to VBS. I am not encouraging these feelings. My whole family has been ostracized for being critical of the pop-Evangelical curriculum. My wife happily attends a small adult Sunday school group that focuses on Christian living for women. Most of the participants are elderly, which is perfect. Most of them are nice. Most old people are not interested in grandstanding in "cliques," right?

We have two or three adult Sunday school sessions during the same hour. Each one has a different topic. I have decided not to attend adult Sunday school anymore. Why bother if only given a choice from different pop-Evangelical authors? As a result, my wife will attend her women's Sunday school class while I meet her later in the morning at church with my sons. We no longer attend church for the fellowship, but for Word and Sacrament only. Who knows if my kids will want to remain in church as adults? I can only pray that they will like my confessional Lutheran podcasts on KFUO and from elsewhere on the internet. Maybe the podcasts will also keep them from leaving the LCMS. They have kept me from leaving.

If I wanted to join a non-denominational congregation, I would do so. Congregations Matter, FiveTwo, and Willow Creek Association LCMS members: Your admiration of, and copying of the Evangelical megachurch is chasing people away. Some of the more traditional members leave in disgust because the LCMS is no longer "grandpas church." Other people shrug and leave for the better coffee and cooler praise band at the Evangelical Mcchurch across town. "Change or die," or "change and die?" Mission accomplished.

Mark said...

Stack on CRM just for good measure! The pastors that take short cuts are also poorly equipped to reply to deeper theological questions and become defensive and combative when they don’t have the knowledge to properly answer or discuss.
First hand experiences here. This experience shattered my life long respect for pastors. I now carefully examine any pastor. Unhealthy and unheard of in the LCMS! Shame.
Lets add to the stack the problem of Distric presidents: if you don’t know about the evil perpetrators do your own research. Here again we have CRM and the evil closing and destroying of University complexes. I don’t think I need go on it’s all available if you want to look.

Ignorance is the fertile field plowed by Heretics!