Thursday, April 29, 2021

Who will we follow now?

Becoming a pastor in 1980, I saw the fascination with Evangelicalism first hand.  We began to listen to church growth gurus who promised revitalization and growth to a stalled and stagnant church body.  We learned a new vocabulary and began to speak like people who did not share our confession.  We watched how evangelicals worshiped and learned to skip parts of the liturgy or abandon it entirely.  We turned the sermon into therapeutic words designed to help people reach the goals they set for their lives.  We silenced the mighty organ and replaced it with a band that played with a beat much like the songs we listened to in our homes.  We practiced new songs that sang less Christ and what He did to save us and more about how we felt about Him.  We saw that the evangelicals were the rising stars in American Christianity and wanted to join them in their journey to popularity, power, and influence.  Encouraged by district officials and even Synod programs that mirrored the evangelicals and their church growth methods, we began the process of remaking our churches to be what we thought the people around them wanted to be.

We were not alone.  Lutherans were not the only ones watching and learning.  Much of American Protestantism joined the movement to dress up their churches in the borrowed clothing of evangelicalism.  Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and even Episcopalians all started to look eerily similar.  We all agreed that though this was not who we were in confession, it was who we needed to be to jump on the growth train to rescue us from oblivion.  As the stagnation became decline, the numbers pushed us to desperation.  It was our duty to do whatever was necessary to make the church grow.  The cause of Jesus was, after all, more important than creed, confession, liturgy, and piety.  It began to seem shallow and self-serving to choose faithfulness over outreach.  Those who did were painted with the harshest judgment of all -- maintenance workers.  Jokes were rendered about who would turn out the lights and lock the door when the last old man or old lady still clinging to their hymnal died.  Books were written to make light of our dullness -- how many Lutherans does it take to change a burned our light bulb?  None, we never change anything.

But now, it seems, America is no longer in love with the evangelicals or their wannabes.  The election has cast a shadow over evangelicals because of their overwhelming support for Trump.  It did not help that prominent stars in the evangelical spotlight have had their reputations tarnished for financial or sexual improprieties.  It did not help that evangelicals were divided over abortion and the cause of life.  It did not help that evangelicals have been slow to join the woke culture and adopt the full LGBTQ+ agenda.  It did not help that the growth of the nones has diluted the prestige of the evangelicals as a social force or voting block.  It did not help that the evangelicals found themselves a less exclusive group when more and more Protestants and even Roman Catholics began to mimic their style.  But the end reality is that most Christians no longer have evangelicals as a group to emulate in the hopes of rescuing themselves and their denominational structures.  The shine is off their star.  So who will we follow now?

I cannot guarantee what jurisdictions and leaders will do but I would suggest that now might be a good time to be who we are.  The lie of separating style and substance has never served us well and many who sought hope in evangelicalism were half-hearted enthusiasts at best.  We all knew that this is not who we really were.  So how about trying to be who we actually are.  In worship, in creed, in confession, and in identity, let us be the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  Let us stop apologizing for who we are.  If who we are is not Biblical, if it deviates from the catholic faith (as Augustana insists), let us reform the reform so that it is in accord with Scripture and the great tradition.  But if we read our confessions, confess our creeds, and pray our liturgy because they are faithful, let us not be embarrassed by this.  This is not our crutch but our foundation, not our weakness but our strength.  The Church that grows by lies and deception is not the Church established by Christ.  The truth still sets us free.  So let us cast off every constraint of fear over what those outside the faith might think of us or a path devoid of crosses and work and follow Christ, being the Church in its fullness.  The world cannot overcome and the devil cannot stop the work of the Spirit acting through the means of grace.  If that Word and Sacraments are the beating heart of who we are, whatever God chooses will endure and we will be just fine.


Steve said...

“America is no longer in love with the evangelicals or their wannabes.”

True. America is in love with individualism and the freedom of selfishness and sin. Our nation has largely turned from God to a Godless, science-worshiping narrative that provides legitimacy for such license. However, the churches that still pack ‘em in on Sundays are still nondenominational evangelical congregations. Americans as a whole exhibit little aptitude or interest in navigating the finer subtleties of denominational divisions.

“I would suggest that now might be a good time to be who we are.”

The suggestion here is that the majority of LCMS churches aren’t already who we are. Yes, many still have some version of a contemporary service, but most use LSB and worship in a liturgical format to shrinking numbers year after year. Again, the larger issue is a nation that has crafted a worldview that does not recognize God. Also in play is the fact that the unchurched have little reason to seek out a Lutheran church unless it’s the biggest church in town, which is the case only in limited areas of the Midwest. The typical church shopper is really looking for a Christian community to belong to, which entails friends, a school, activities and friends for their children, business contacts, groups and social activities.

“If who we are is not Biblical, if it deviates from the catholic faith (as Augustana insists), let us reform the reform so that it is in accord with Scripture and the great tradition.”

Isn’t being Lutheran being in accord with the Lutheran tradition?

Pastor Peters said...

While the majority of congregations have the Lutheran service book, the majority of people who attend LCMS congregations attend a congregation in which at least one if not more of the service options are contemporary and do not use the hymnal.

Steve said...

If I lived in Nashville, I could go to Our Savior in Brentwood, which saw its glory days in the 1980s and has liturgical and contemporary services (and closed their school not too long ago), or Redeemer which is small and liturgical, or Concordia which is also very small and liturgical. Or I could go to St. George’s Episcopal in tony Belle Meade, in a beautiful architectural sanctuary with a great paid choir, wealthy parishioners, a kindergarten, a bookstore, a fantastic organ, and elaborate liturgical ceremonial.

Perhaps since everyone can and does drive to the church of their choice, maybe we should focus in the future on planting and supporting larger, fewer churches that continue to uphold the confessions and embody the “great tradition” as well. I think we agree here. And schools have always been a key for LCMS congregations for growth, since we are still known for a tradition of educational excellence and an unending need of parents for quality Christian education for their children. Do we have the resolve and resources as a church body to downsize and commit to and fund such a plan? Maybe. Or just stay the course.