Friday, March 13, 2020

What went wrong?

Rome must be wondering what went wrong.  In an age of great catechesis, those entrusted with the communication of the faith have appeared to fail and instead Rome finds itself in the midst of doubts over what to believe and the numbers of the faithful at mass falling.  In addition to the disjuncture of a scholarly pope who is succeeded by one who seems well schooled in the art of smoke and mirrors, the cardinals who will pick the next pope are on track to repeat the same mistake.  The liturgical reform that prompted more Scripture, a renewal of Biblical theology, and the flourishing of hymnody has not lived up to its promise of more faithful, more deeply involved in the mass, and more profoundly participating in the church's sacramental life.  What went wrong?

Before Protestants gloat and giggle, the same is true for them.  More books have been published, more Bible studies held, and more people involved in worship than in any age before but instead of the faithful renewed in the faith, the result has been an increase in doubt and downright disdain for the Biblical truth.  Sanctuaries are empty and pulpits are filled with empty words.  About the only thing for which there is passion among most Protestants is the liberation of the libido from the final restraints left holding back desire.  The labors for merger and unity are being undone for the sake of a Biblical morality and sexual ethic foreign to Scripture and to the piety in which these traditions were given birth.  Except for the mission fields in Africa and elsewhere, Protestantism is mostly dead on the vine.

Lutherans dare not be smug about this either.  We find ourselves in much the same boat.  At least in the West.  American Lutheranism is a shambles, behind Europe and Scandinavia but not by far.  Only in the missions where some courage has been shown are Lutherans concerned about doctrinal integrity.  Missouri stands somewhat alone in it all and yet the decline in the LCMS mirrors the decline across the board for Lutherans in North America.  That said, the LCMS is the last best hope for Lutheranism.  The NALC and LCMC show no signs of growth in numbers nor do they show any prospect of much more than a delay to the rot that has infected the ELCA.  Wisconsin is off doing its own thing but nobody really knows if the WELS is really Lutheran or simply Protestant with a little liturgical flourish.

It just goes to show you that you may be the best-catechized in history, have access to all the books from ancient sources and the fruits of the most modern scholarship, be more involved in what happens on Sunday morning than any other generation, but without a sense of urgency about actually believing what you have been taught, all of this does not substitute for faith.  My greatest fear is that we have squandered so many of the resources afforded us and whittled away the opportunity we were given by presuming that God's wrath is not real, that sin has no consequences, that happiness is a greater goal than holiness, and that faith is neither practical nor imperative.  It is not enough for something to be true unless it is true for me -- the Amen of faith prompted by the Holy Spirit.  Grace is not license and mercy cannot be presumed.  Faith involves not a decision but trust.  It is not a commitment to a set of philosophical propositions but to Him who gave His life for you.  It is not simply worship attendance but a life of daily repentance lived out in response to this great good news.  It is delight in the Law as the accuser who can only be silenced by the Christ but also in the Law that guides the halting steps of the new life born of baptismal water.  It is a life formed from this baptismal encounter and lived out with the mysterion of the Savior whose flesh is food and whose blood is drink.  It is the refusal to be content with this life no matter how good it gets or to despair of this life no matter how bad it gets because your life is lived out in Christ now, in anticipation of the life to come when all that is hidden shall be revealed and all that is promised fulfilled.

Could we have rescued the Church while forgetting the faith?  That is the question that should haunt every Christian tradition contemplating not only reasons for decline but a path out of this destiny toward a different and hopeful future.  Churches are not museums of the past or schools for self-improvement.  They are the places where Christ dwells, through the means of grace He has appointed, to accomplish His purpose.  We meet Him there by faith.  His kingdom is in but not of this world, not a fight for territory or majority but for souls, one person at a time.


Michael Taylor said...

Excellent and insightful. So often, the church today sounds more like the two disciples on the road to Emmmaus BEFORE Jesus opens their minds and understanding. Forgotten the faith and then wondering what does it all mean.

James said...

Pastor Peters:

At least in the LCMS, it is still possible to find congregations that are not trying to become exactly like non-denominational congregations. By contrast, confessional WELS congregations are slowly going extinct.

I tend to agree with you regarding the WELS. You once described them as being "Amish Lutherans." Given the WELS practice of shunning family members who leave the WELS for other Christian denominations, the Amish label makes perfect sense.

Imagine if Gerry Kieschnick would have won re-election instead of Matt Harrison. Kieschnick would have presided over the restructuring of the LCMS, and Bill Woolsey and his FiveTwo group would be in charge of LCMS doctrine. After Kieschnick's retirement, Michigan DP Maier would be elected and would have continued the church growth tradition.

Regarding the WELS, the church growth people are completely in charge. Due to the centralized nature of the WELS, the few confessionals that remain are in hiding. Japanese proverb: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Many of them lament bitterly among themselves in *private* Facebook groups that they are slowly being wiped out. They cannot even complain in public out of fear of retaliation from a district president!

There is something to be said about confessional WELS pastors and laymen paying more attention to LCMS ministries than to their own....... Want proof? Just ask Rev. Fisk.