Posts Tagged ‘Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS)’

Rhode: The Gospel for Former Evangelicals

November 22, 2011 2 comments

I have been facing a deadline crunch at my day job, and I’ve had to let the blog sit idle (not to say fallow) for a couple of weeks. I’m hoping to clear the backlog over the next week or so.

If this is your first visit to this blog you may not yet know that I’m one of the people who agrees (that is, “affirms”) that American Evangelicalism is sick: the churches are big and too much like television, the teaching is too shallow, the theological conservatives are too cozy with the Republican Party, etc. etc. Unlike most of my unsettled brethren I don’t know what the cure for this sickness is; I tend to be skeptical when I hear many of the proposed solutions.

I realize that for many Christians the way out of the post-Evangelical wilderness (or whatever you want to call it) is to join an older theological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical tradition, and for some of these people this means becoming a confessional Lutheran. I understand some of the appeal of say the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS): it has roots in an old but nearly modern tradition; it sort of has American roots; it has a vast literature, has fairly straightforward answers to lots of questions, and it has some semblance of an intellectual history. You don’t have to think to be a Lutheran, but you can be a thinking Lutheran.

Still when I listen to Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken I am tempted to put the speakers into one of two categories:

  1. People who sound like Christians
  2. People who sound like Catholics

And most of the guests fit into the first category, which is one of the reasons I keep listening. It’s the people in the second category who just plain drive me nuts. These are the ones who remind me of the Catholic apologists I used to hear on Sacred Heart Radio: who do not countenance the actual questions people ask about their point of view; who set up “Evangelical” straw men I find unrecognizable; who put questions in the mouths of these fictional Evangelicals that sound like they’ve been back-fitted to the safe Catholic catechetical answer.

Which brings me to the recent series with Jeremy Rhode titled “The Gospel for Former Evangelicals” [link]. Rhode is about 15 years younger than I am, graduated from seminary about four years ago [link], and sounds like he’s still in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with the LCMS. I don’t know who these former Evangelicals he’s talking about are; what kind of Evangelical they used to be; how many of them there are; or what would possess them to consider Lutheranism; but Rhode’s presentation of confessional Lutheranism as a cure for what’s ailing the American church strikes me as unfair both in its presentation of the disease and its cure.

I just can’t bring myself to seriously consider what Rhode suggests is the heart of the fix for Evangelicals: that the Body of Christ is in any sense actually present in Communion; that Communion (rather than Jesus’s death on the Cross, which it symbolizes) brings forgiveness of sin; that distinguishing between the pastor and the office he holds is anything but a recipe for abuse; that baptism actually brings regeneration; etc.

I highly recommend listening to the entire series if you can stand it and understand it. It’s as good a place as any to start understanding what little dialog there is between confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism.

In conclusion: we affirm that American Evangelicalism is sick; we deny that confessional Lutheranism is the cure.


Polytheism and American Civil Religion

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

I haven’t had time lately to offer much more/other than quick takes, and this is another one.

I’d like to recommend this month-old segment from Issues Etc. [mp3]; it’s an appearance by Alvin Schmidt, where he notes the theological overtones to some of the aspects of Independence Day observances and frames them in the context of polytheism, particularly First and Second Century Roman polytheism, and suggests that they are aspects of a kind of American civil religion of which a careful Christian needs to be mindful.

I am for the moment going to punt on what constitutes a religion; I believe that many of my contemporaries play fast and loose with definitions here; not everything that has one or more of the characteristics of a religion can fairly be called a religion. I’m thinking here of atheism in particular, because that’s a fashionable argument. A generation ago Secular Humanism got trotted out as a religion too, and I didn’t buy the argument then either.

Never mind all that. Schmidt makes one good point here that bears repeating: if somebody is talking about a god, and doesn’t mention whether that god has a son called Jesus, it’s fair to say he’s not talking about the Christian God. And this is an important distinction to make when observing secular holidays like Independence Day.

I sometimes wonder if the LCMS is the only place I can find somebody pointing out problems with American civil religion because the LCMS is just not all that American, and certainly not American in the way (say) the Southern Baptist Convention is. The SBC, with its history rooted in groups that dissented explicitly from Anglicanism both in the UK and in the States, sometimes has a hard time seeing how its thinking on matters political is framed by its preoccupation with things American. Or something like that.

The LCMS, of course, being for so much of its history predominantly ethnically German, carries different baggage.

financial realities of the LCMS

So there are two fairly common counterfactual games a person can play when considering another tradition in the light of one’s own tradition or experiences. They are roughly these:

  1. Why are you not X?
  2. What would it take to make you X?

The former category seems to be more popular; the latter requires a bit more intellectual honestly and is sometimes tougher. It’s relatively easy to say why you’re not Emergent, or Roman Catholic, or whatever; it’s harder to picture what you’d do if you had to make do. Sometimes the two questions are duals; sometimes they’re not.

I sometimes wonder what I’d do if, say, I were in some tiny town in the Dakotas and had to pick between a shouting church and a Lutheran church. Hint: I’d probably settle for the Lutheran church, especially if it were LCMS. As much grief as I give them here from time to time, the LCMS offers several things I wish every church organization or denomination had. In particular, they have a catechism, and they at least pay lip service to financial accountability.

Regarding the latter please consider the following artifacts: a summary of budget shortfalls from the Board of Directors [link, PDF] and an appearance by President Matt Harrison on Issues Etc [mp3].

The former is chock-full of numbers of the sort I don’t ordinarily see from a denominational board:

Looking ahead, prospects for the 2011/2012 fiscal year look even more dire. According to Rhodes, “the best numbers available” show an anticipated decrease in undesignated support to the Synod (district pledges and other sources of income) from $23,025,000 in 2010/2011 to $19,529,000 in 2011/2112. Income from the Synod’s 35 districts constitutes the major portion of the undesignated income of the Synod. District pledges demonstrate that many districts are being adversely affected by economic hard times, which in turn affects the financial support they are able to remit to the Synod.

Executive Director Rhodes also called the board’s attention to the additional concern that the current year’s budget has almost no flexibility. The nearly $86 million budget includes only a budgeted $250,000 surplus, which provides less than one-half of 1 percent flexibility—a concern also to be taken into consideration as the board develops and ultimately adopts the coming year’s budget during its May 2011 meeting.

Never mind for the moment the question of whether the surplus is properly contextualized against the total budget or the undesignated income; these are better-quality (not to say more-encouraging) numbers than I’m accustomed to seeing from a ministry with a sizable budget. I’m more familiar with a mindset that doesn’t share bad news until it’s too late, shares too little detail along the way, etc. for fear that donors will come to believe that the Spirit of the Lord has left the organization when the financial numbers are poor and stopped giving altogether.

Apparently LCMS Lutherans are not subject to these inclinations.

The appearance by Matt Harrison is less encouraging; to my ears he points his finger at the $66 million unmentioned in the summary above, namely the designated income, and suggests that church leadership should have more say over how money is spent. Broadly speaking, designated income, as Harrison explains, is money that has been given but earmarked for a specific purpose. He doesn’t explain how this money would be repurposed to cover the shortfall: whether there are surpluses hiding all over the place in the designated income, or whether some items that were important to donors would be cut so the money could be diverted to the general fund.

I am a little disappointed to hear his line of reasoning not include some suggestion that perhaps the Synod has overspent from its undesignated income in the past, doesn’t have a history of saving money, etc. It sounds to me like he’s locating, as they say, the budget problem in the pews rather than in the leadership. Still, it’s easy to imagine why: cutting budget is hard and unpopular; suggesting the leadership should have more control is easy.

All that being said, the LCMS is miles ahead of most ministries of comparable size; how many $90 million ministries make their financial statement and auditor’s report [link] available for download on the Web?

Two items on contemporary church music

For the record I don’t really have a side in the so-called Worship Wars. I personally mostly dislike contemporary Christian music generally and praise choruses in particular; if I had to imagine the worst possible church service it would start with a half-hour or so of one guy on a stage with an electric guitar, playing repetitive music in two chords and praying connecting prayers dominated by repetitions of the name “Father God.” But by the same token I’ve sat through dismal hymn sandwiches too, and will admit that sometimes the sweetest words in the English language are “the second verse as the last.”

I’m willing to admit that there are good and bad praise choruses; and good and bad hymns. And I’d far and away prefer to attend a church that sang mostly good hymns (relatively short; pitched so I can sing along; with lyrical content I can understand and affirm), but that by itself isn’t a deal-maker or -breaker.

It is my understanding, however, that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is struggling with the introduction of contemporary music; as a result it ends up being discussed on Issues Etc. with host Todd Wilken from time to time. It’s important to remember when listening to the show that the LCMS is fairly conservative (they didn’t switch from German to English until about World War II) and Wilken is part of one of the more conservative elements within it. So it’s safe to assume when listening to him that the correct answer to any question will be “whatever the LCMS was doing twenty or thirty years go” and this will be characterized as being “historical Christianity” or “traditional Christianity” as surely as if e.g. Paul the Apostle wore a clerical collar, the disciples met in a church building dominated by not a cross but a crucifix, and Romans 10:9 was an explicit reference to the Augsburg Confession, or some such.

I say this so as to make it clear that it’s not Wilken’s conclusions that are necessarily interesting so much as his (and his guests’) arguments.

Which brings us to a couple of segments from shows last month:

  1. An appearance by Bryan Wolfmueller, during which he and Wilken dissect three “praise songs” [link]; the page I’ve linked to here includes a link to Wolfmueller’s “Criteria for Discerning the Usefulness of Praise Songs” [link]. Some of these are pretty good and some are weak; Yes, songs we sing in church should not include explicit false teaching; No, they don’t have to be comprised entirely and exclusively of complete sentences.
  2. An appearance by David Petersen [mp3] entitled “Style as Substance.” Here the arguments are weaker; put simply, style and substance are often related but it’s important to remember which is which and separate arguments against one from arguments against the other.

Petersen and others sound to my ears to be indulging in a false “objective vs. subjective” distinction here; music always plays on the emotions; that’s part of its job. And to suggest that older hymns don’t play on our emotions is to admit that they’re just failing to move us, rather than saying something about their intrinsic worth as part of a church service.

I’d offer an excerpt from this [link] to bolster my argument here:

In relation to the question of worship, it is important, in order for us to be Lutheran, that we determine what kind of worship is Lutheran. In essence, as Lutherans, we seek a worship that conforms to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions; which, in our understanding, is synonymous with Christian worship. (i.e. Lutheran worship and Biblical Christian worship are one and the same)

I’m not sure I could find a clearer statement of what’s wrong with the “the way we’ve always done it is the way it should always be done” school of thought. I don’t have a problem with Lutherans being Lutheran; but I resent the confusion here between what should be aspirational language (“we desire true Christian worship”) and self-satisfied language (see above).

Oh; and as an aside let me repeat what I should always say when I take the folks at Issues Etc to task: while I think they’re being silly at least I know what they think; I wish my own tradition(s) made more of a habit of discussing matters like this in a straightforward manner.

two sermon reviews from Issues Etc.

March 30, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago over at Phoenix Preacher in one of his Linkathon postings Brian Daugherty asked why we don’t see more “Why I Am Not A Calvinist” or “Why I Am Not Reformed” postings on various blogs. It’s a fair question, and one that has been much on my mind.

It isn’t a subject I want to wade into very deeply now, but I think if I had to I might start with something like “because I would go out of my mind hearing a sermon out of Romans every Sunday.” But that’s hardly an adequate answer, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.

If instead I had to put together a list of reasons why I’m not a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I might start with a couple of recent sermon reviews from Issues Etc.:

  • A review of what appears to be a sermon from Saddleback Church on “The Daniel Plan” diet program [mp3], featuring Chris Rosebrough
  • A review of a sermon by Brent Kuhlman on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [mp3, link]

I’ll give you a clue up front: Wilken and Rosebrough hate the first sermon, while Wilken doesn’t just love the second sermon, but recommends it as a pattern for every sermon.

The first sermon (if you can call it that) is a discussion by Rosebrough and Wilken of Rick Warren’s endorsement of a diet plan based on the story of Daniel and his fellow captives and their choice not to eat the king’s food, but to eat only vegetables and drink only water (Daniel 1). Let me be clear: I think it would be a great idea for many of my fellow Christians (including myself) to get a grip on their calorie intake, be mindful eaters, etc. I think it’s a great spiritual discipline, and a defense against the sin of gluttony. That being said, I can’t agree with Warren’s approach here. I don’t think this is appropriate use of the pulpit, and I’m embarrassed for Warren and Saddleback.

But I can’t take the tack Rosebrough and Wilken take here; I don’t hear Warren suggesting that losing weight gets a person into Heaven, and that’s what they say he’s saying by responding to this with the neat soundbite “there are lots of skinny people in Hell.” They’re right to call Warren out for connecting God’s blessings with our “blessability,” or whatever, but their analysis is all wrong. I think they’ve misunderstood what he’s saying, so their response is unhelpful. Fleeing various sins is part of the process of sanctification, not a part of salvation, and I’m surprised to hear them responding to this as if Warren were saying it is.

I hesitate to mention that when Wilken has a Roman Catholic guest on Issues Etc. he doesn’t cover this same ground, where it would seem to be more appropriate. But I digress.

By way of contrast, Wilken highly recommends Kuhlman’s sermon. The core of the text is Paul’s quote that when he was in Corinth he was “determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified.” Wilken interprets this to mean that every sermon should be about Jesus’s death on the Cross as the sufficient sacrifice for our sins. This is apparently orthodox Lutheran teaching, at least in the LCMS. I tend to understand this text as being a description of Paul’s description of his intent when he was visiting the young, vulnerable, worldly, etc. Corinthian church and not as a basis for a universal directive applicable to all believers at all times in all places. It’s indicative, not imperative. Also, I think this reading is contrary to the spirit and intent of Paul’s letter; I consider his letter to be a sermon, since it was meant to be read openly before the church, and Paul deals with many issues in addition to soteriology.

Beyond that, Kuhlman’s sermon makes me cringe. He trots out straw men, and lousy ones at that. He belabors familiar and accepted points in a funny voice. And Wilken’s analysis of Kuhlman’s sermon compounds the problem by drawing a false dichotomy between Kuhlman and straw men of his own. I have to suggest that when Wilken suggests that the only choices for preaching style are either what he and Kuhlman have to offer and ear-tickling consumer-driven pablum he’s at best oversimplifying and at worst condemning other Christians on the basis of the teaching of men.

I have to admit that if I had to sit through a sermon like this every Sunday I would go out of my mind. The only rationale I can imagine for doing this week after week would be the mistaken (and I dare say mystical) belief that simply hearing Scripture read is a means of grace, and the text itself doesn’t matter, etc. Wilken suggests that he has been accused (conveniently by unnamed accusers) of creating fat, lazy, spoiled Christians by preaching the same sermon every Sunday. Let me be one of them: I believe preaching the same thing every Sunday dulls the soul and stunts spiritual growth. I can’t imagine why anyone else can’t see this too.


Larry Rast on “American Revivalism”

Every few months Larry Rast shows up on Issues Etc. and every few visits he talks about Charles G. Finney [link], who was one of the main characters of the Second Great Awakening. His latest discussion regarding Finney is available from the Issues Etc archive [link] and his segment is called “American Revivalism.”

A typical Rast appearance involves a give-and-take with host Todd Wilken in which Wilken asks Rast softball questions as Rast sets forth distinctions between what Finney preached and what the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) teaches. Rast then draws connections between Finney and modern evangelicalism, and/or between Finney and Lutheran Pietism, and suggests that anyone “saved” as a result of Finney’s preaching isn’t really a Christian somehow. He typically also refers to the “burned-over district” [link] as being some sort of spiritual wasteland and blames Finney for the secularization of modern Upstate New York.

In this appearance he adds what to my ears sounded like a new twist: he suggested that Billy Graham is just Finney repackaged. Also, he retold what he claims is a typical revivalist plea that goes like something like this:

Our lot for all eternity depends entirely on ourselves. God votes for heaven; the devil votes for hell. The deciding vote is ours. [e.g.]

At the end Rast and Wilken draw a straight line between Finney and modern evangelicalism, suggesting that Rast’s criticisms of Finney also apply to modern evangelicals.

I believe Rast and Wilken do their listeners a disservice when Rast does this, and for a number of reasons. First of all, the Second Great Awakening was primarily a Methodist phenomenon [link] and while it spawned a number of sectarian or heretical groups none of them are modern evangelical groups. Second, Finney died in 1875; most strains of modern evangelicalism have their roots in events in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy some 40 years later, or in the Azusa Street Revivals in 1906. So far as I can tell while there were important revivalists (e.g. Billy Sunday) who did some things that were passingly similar to what Finney did, there’s no lineage to connect them; I can’t see how Rast justifies connecting Finney to these various movements on the basis of the similarities he cites without there being some link between them. Third, so far as I can tell the Lutheran Pietists Rast and Wilken consider to be aberrant made no contributions to modern evangelical theology. And finally, while I’ve heard the voting cliche Rast trots out from fundamentalist or evangelical pulpits I’ve never heard it said seriously the way Rast presents it.

I would appreciate any help in finding an actual evangelical using the voting cliche above, seriously, from the pulpit. Please note that the source I quote above is a Catholic source.

“It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” and other stories

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Intelligence Squared sponsored a dial-in debate between journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and “megachurch and leadership expert” Dave Travis [blog] on the premise “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” [link, free registration required]. The introduction for the debate doesn’t look promising; apart from some soundbites (Robert Schuller, Eddie Long, George W. Bush, Ted Haggard) there’s this definition:

The evangelical movement has a globally influential role, and the megachurches are an important element of it. They have huge congregations with inspirational, charismatic pastors. They are run like businesses and, it might seem, often with rather business-like objectives of raising funds and satisfying customers.

Hemingway gets off on the wrong foot from the start:

Most notably, the size and charisma aspects affect the relationship of the pastor to his congregation. These features require for lowest common denominator preaching; it becomes based on ‘You’, rather than Christ.. Equally, sacramental worship is not feasible with a congregation of 2,000 people. In small congregation churches, members are active. In megachurches, the audience is passive, consuming rather than engaging with gospel entertainment.

Yes, there are problems when the relationship between the preacher and church is out of whack, but she trots out the “big/passive, small/active” red herring: neither of these is necessarily true. And while her point about “gospel entertainment,” whatever that is, is probably apt, she’s made the mistake of making the conservative Lutheran method of worship standard so everything else is deviant.

The problem of America’s churches is that they’re market driven, but megachurches are market driven on steroids.

I have no idea what “market driven on steroids” means; this sounds like a fancy way of saying “very market driven” or “very very market driven.” And of course it begs the question “market driven as opposed to what?”

Hemingway is offering the usual talking points here, as if the alternatives in the megachurch debate were the LCMS standard on one side and Joel Osteen on the other. Briefly: not everyone outside a megachurch is looking to “receive sacraments for the forgiveness of sins” and not everyone in a megachurch is looking for “your best life now.” I’m disappointed in her presentation and don’t think it was effective, especially once she conceded that church size isn’t the problem.

Dave Travis on the other hand offers a fairly standard set of church growth arguments: “we took a survey, here are some results, lo and behold they support our model of church.”

Here’s part of his opening argument:

People are moving from small to big institutions in every sector of America’s society. In the church, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a healthy relationship with Christ; it just creates a different one. Yes, in megachurches, preaching is simpler in approach than smaller churches, but accessibility to doctrine does not make it un-challenging. In fact, megachurches preach what is relevant to the congregation.

I’m not sure how the first two sentences are related to one another; if there’s a causal connection between other institutions getting bigger and churches getting bigger I don’t see it. He concedes that megachurch preaching is simple and includes mention of the relevance of the text to the believer, but doesn’t point out any differences between sermons that are relevant to the believer and sermons that are consumer-centered. It’s a weak presentation, but Travis is mostly stuck responding to the moderators’ opening comments and Hemingway’s opening comments.

Travis doesn’t handle a question about pastoral accountability well; he answers a poorly-presented question about congregants in a small church engaging in question and answers with the pastor by saying megachurch pastors take feedback via websites and response cards. He also interacts poorly with a question about authoritarian preachers.

Hemingway responds to the same question by presenting the same lousy argument “churches should be defined by creeds and sacraments, not market research” and equivocates between creeds and sacraments on the one hand and Scripture on the other. I don’t know what if anything Hemingway can say about churches that are neither focused on creeds and sacraments nor driven by market research.

I think Travis misses an obvious knock-out punch that goes like this: The Hartford Institute, which provides definitions and lists for American megachurches, lists 1408 churches that meet its criteria. Of these seven are part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [link]; does Hemingway’s analysis apply to these? If so then all her bluster about creeds and sacraments is nonsense; if not then her distinction she’s making above is invalid.

I hate to say it, but I don’t see a winner here; neither party actually interacts with the premise. Hemingway’s argument is just special pleading, and she grows increasingly shrill as the discussion progresses. Travis comes closer to interacting with the premise by relating survey results about church attenders’ impressions of their relationship with God, but never suggests that there’s any way to close the gap between those results and an actual God. Hemingway can’t seem to see past her tradition. It’s a mess.

On the whole I’m left wondering if there is any common ground between the two sides, and whether this is an issue a debate can resolve. I would recommend listening to this debate anyway; 25 minutes isn’t very long to sort out issues like this, but it’s helpful to hear where the discussion is now (nowhere, mostly). As I said several months ago, this still sounds like a dialog between a dead church and a dying church to me.

In other news, Dee at The Wartburg Watch offered a take on Cruise With A Cause 2011 a couple of weeks ago [link]; her comments cover some of the same ground I covered [link], from a different angle and somewhat more pointedly. She also points out that the online biography for Ergun Caner appears to mix in elements of his brother Emir’s biography.

And finally: I found myself awake between 1:30AM and 2:30AM and ended up taking a peek at the KAZQ [link] overnight offerings. They offer GOD TV [link] as a second OTA digital signal (Digital channel 32.2) and on their primary signal in the wee hours. I got to sample the late Barry Smith’s program Mystery Babylon [link, link]; it caught my interest when I saw the word “Weishaupt” on the whiteboard behind Smith and heard his Kiwi accent. His presentation was a fairly typical fast-and-loose “Freemasons are apostate; Freemasons run the English-speaking world” presentation. Highlights included

  • Smith’s claim that floor tiles in contrasting colors, especially in black and white, in public buildings, are a secret Freemason symbol
  • Smith’s claim that certain hand gestures require Masonic judges to free Masonic criminals
  • A dissection of the symbols on the back of a one-dollar bill that sounded even stranger with a Kiwi accent

GOD TV currently offers two or three episodes of Barry Smith programming a night and another in the afternoon; Joe Bob says check it out.