Our unity has become a paper unity built upon our desire to be an institution of some size and influence more than upon doctrinal knowledge and confessional unanimity. In our poverty, we work to maintain our house of cards through constitutions and bylaws. They are all well and good but they cannot replace the unity of people who speak with one voice this we believe, teach, and confess. Fellowship has become an issue of church membership more than our place before the pulpit and at the altar. So pastors check ID cards more than they know and examine the communicants who come to the rail. Preaching has become an art form, a type of speech, more than the pastoral address of the shepherd of the flock speaking the Word of the Lord to them. We talk about preaching as if it were a skill and good preachers as if the knack could ever be divorced from the content. We push programs that compete for the heart of the good people of God and confuse them into thinking that good refreshments can feed the hungry soul and good social life can supplant the discipline of faith and worship. Nobody has done this to us. We have done it to ourselves.
We might look back to someone like Cyprian for a good challenge to what we have created. He knew that the unity of the Church is centered in the Ministry of the Gospel. He would challenge our way of dealing with issues of unity and fellowship and call for the honest conversation of bishops who preach, teach, and preside. In the LCMS we have raised up the congregation above the bishop and in other places the bishop has been raised up above the congregation and in too many places the only understanding of church is what you see right there on Sunday morning. It is that, to be sure, but no congregation can or should live in isolation. The larger unity and the fuller fellowship of the Church has been lost in our pursuit of what seems right in our own minds and we forget the duty we have to the saints who bequeathed this faithful deposit and to those around us who are also gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord and to those who will judge us after we are gone.
We have orchestrated our larger gatherings so that real conversation is missing and real theological debate seldom happens. We have a corporate structure which is not the Church and we have the Church which depends to some extent upon a corporate structure for too many things. As pastors we are too focused upon our pension plan, retirement options, and health care system. We need these, to be sure, but have they become the real glue that binds us together? We have a financial system that is a testament to our frugal roots and our desire to keep things in house but has it become one more driver behind the wheel of what it means to be the Church? We have a penchant for programs that we trust more than the means of grace and we seem to endlessly pursue the reinvention of ourselves and what we do as if no generation has anything in common with the generation that gave it birth.
The center of gravity in our churches has moved from altar and pulpit to conference rooms and board meetings. Some of us have tried to adopt the accountable manager structure which seems more efficient as a method of doing business but in doing so we have sacrificed some of our identity as churches. We have developed a seemingly endless street of storefront parachurch organizations to do what we think the Synod is not or cannot or should not be doing and they mine our pocketbooks in competition with the local parish. We start churches without them being churches and instead of places where the people of God are focused upon the Word and Sacraments, we create a confusing array of coffee houses, day care centers, leader dependent inspirational groups, and whole movements in which worship is a mere sideline.
Congregations are defined and characterized by lots of other things, which compete with or practically take precedence over the Ministry of the Gospel; so that congregations are identified with and known by particular styles of practice, or programs, or whatever. And as far as our 'fellowship' is concerned, that seems to be more a matter of formality, of political and legal structures, a shared pension plan, and so forth, rather than an active theological engagement of brother pastors. Our bishops have, by and large, been taken out of the parish, and the parish pastors typically stick to their own 'turf,' guard their own 'territory,' keep their heads down, and ignore one another to whatever extent they can. I know that is not universally the case, and that there are notable exceptions. But, to my observation, most of the interaction between pastors is based upon personal friendship rather than fellowship in the Gospel, and is governed more by common opinions to begin with than by the catholicity of the Church in the common Ministry of the Gospel of Christ. I've been as guilty of falling into these patterns as anyone else; but it grieves me, and I don't believe it bodes well for the life and health and future of our Synod.