The history is somewhat amazing. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) was founded on April 26, 1847, when 12 pastors representing 14 congregations from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, New York and Ohio signed the church body’s constitution at First St. Paul Lutheran Church, Chicago. Since that time, the LCMS has seen ups and downs and a few sideways detours along the way. While the anniversary is significant, the timing is not so good. At the very time we should be celebrating we are wrestling with serious and substantive problems over everything from our Concordia Universities to where we are going to get future pastors to discrepancies over such things as online sacraments to the confusing array of worship styles that pass for LCMS Lutheran to the declining numbers in our pews and of congregations. It is not exactly the moment one might choose for a big anniversary celebration, now, is it?
The reality, however, is that the golden years are the ones we esteem to be moments of earthly glory. They are not exactly our finest hours -- they were the times when it all seemed easier, less confusing, less troubled, and more peaceful. Few of those things could be said of the present moment and of the start of a year long observance of 175 years. Quite frankly, like most of our folks, I am not exactly sure I am excited enough to do much. Maybe it could be a time to grab a beer and some munchies and reminisce while crying into that beer the lament of the days of our lives. Or, we might do something else. We could try to remember why this Synod was formed and rediscover both our identity and our mission while looking at Jesus.
I purposely waited a bit before posting this. The fuss ought to be where it belongs -- not on us or those who went before us but on the changeless Christ our changing world needs now more than ever. The means to this will not come by beating our chests about the past but it will come from a renewed focus on what we believe, teach, and confess. The whole genesis of our Synod was about doctrine and practice, dogma and praxis, faith and life. That is the part we have the most trouble with of late. We grew from a dozen or s congregations into a Synod well known throughout the world not by magical programs or charismatic personalities but by remembering it is all about Jesus. This was not mere sentiment but a people who actually believed not only that the Word of the Lord was and is true, that it endures forever, but also that it does what it says. When there is little you can point to in statistics and current accomplishments, we ought to at least be able to point to unanimity with respect to our Confession and trust that God still works through the Word preached and the Sacraments administered. If we get this right, I suspect we might be around to celebrate another anniversary. If we get it wrong, I am not sure there would be any reason to notice the passage of another 25, 50, or 100 years.
I am invested in this church body, in its history and confession, its past and its future. But that is not institutional loyalty. Perhaps the best institutional loyalty is to freely admit all our weaknesses, faults, failings, and foibles while at the same time determined to address them with the trust that the Word still works. We have enjoyed the blessing of many larger than life leaders on every level of our Synod's life and work. We have lived with the abundance of resources and people from generation to generation. We have also revealed how much we tend to squabble, how hard it is for us to decide when to stop that fighting, and what is worth fighting for and what is not. I suspect we will continue to wrestle with this for a while -- the good and the bad. But as I have so often said, the future does not lie with a Lutheran Lite catechism, creed, and confession or with an anything goes attitude toward Sunday morning. If we fail, then let us fail for being faithful. And if we succeed, let us credit the Lord and pray that He makes us humble. If we just end up muddling through the next quarter century, let us give reason for the hope within us in a spirit of love and gentleness about everything except the truth of Christ crucified and risen. Let us appeal not to the rules that govern us but to the Gospel we confess for our courage, reason for being, and the power to unite us. Let us remember that theology must sing -- from the chapels of our seminaries to the smallest place where two or three gather in His name. I have no illusions. The LCMS has no guarantee of existence but the faith that is embodied in our confessions and praxis will endure even if this institution does not. But I hope I am not a cause for its decline and I hope and pray you join me in this prayer. So let us do as we are able, the best for His glory, to make sure that it remains about Jesus and let us leave our anxieties at the foot of the cross.