Monday, October 27, 2014

The Authentic Alternative

By Larry Beane

This post is intended as a follow-up to an earlier recent post about worship style and the latest battles within the LCMS over worship.

The church growth movement (the term may no longer be popular, but let us call a thing what it is) and its defenders accept the premise that style is divorced from substance, that doctrine is unrelated to practice.  This is a longstanding debate that has continued to foster disagreements in the LCMS since the emergence of the church growth movement (and this latest discussion is just yet another incarnation of that philosophy).

The Lutheran confessions themselves routinely link doctrine and practice.  The ancient connection between "lex credendi" and "lex orandi" is made explicit in the Book of Concord.  So, it does matter whether the pastor wears vestments or casual wear.  It is a confession of what is happening at the altar and an expression of a pastor's commitment to the church's confession of Catholic continuity.  If it is a case of need, want, poverty, or extenuating circumstances, that's obviously a different story.

But the church growth movement is a deliberate theological thrust away from the Book of Concord and a rejection of the Catholic tradition, just as was the state of general American Lutheranism when our forbears founded the LCMS.  This different thrust is what led the early LCMS into clearly articulating an explicit "quia" position on confessional subscription as well as a more unpopular stance against Lutheran unity, and likewise against incorporation of popular, but non-Lutheran, elements in worship.  This current debate actually gets to the very roots of the LCMS, and is in part why we've tended not to join in fellowship with other Lutherans, and have been parodied as grumpy sticks in the mud.

The current discussion is similar to when people link Lutheranism to the "Lutheran" church down the street with the "nice lady pastor."  One could argue that she is teaching the same doctrine, and is maybe even a better law/gospel preacher than many LCMS men.  She is truly officiating over valid sacraments (an argument that I don't accept) and saving people from hell (I don't believe this either), and so we should not be critical.  Whether or not to ordain women is merely a style issue, based on individual tastes and preferences, not a matter of doctrine (so the argument goes), and therefore we should be "nice" about it all and offer no criticism.  But to the contrary, this is a doctrinal issue, it does scandalize the faithful, and it destroys faith.  It's wrong, and we should say so.

Many also accept the premise that none of this church growthism is spiritually harmful.  It is.  People are scandalized by this.  I nearly left Lutheranism when I moved to a different part of the country as a layman and found all sorts of LCMS congregations and pastors that wanted to be entertainers.  My own parishioners are scandalized when they go on vacation and find this kind of thing.  It's not simply that these churches have blue doors and our door is red, this is a deviation from (among others) Article 24 (an article that one church growth pastor actually told me is no longer binding on Lutherans!).  There is also an obsession with numbers among church-growthers that is at odds with our confession of the Holy Spirit, predestination, election, and our condemnation of Arminianism.  This touches upon the article of justification itself, and is no mere window-dressing - all the protestations that "we're all just like you" notwithstanding.

We traditionalists/conservatives are routinely told to shut up and go with the flow.  Don't like gay marriage?  Then don't marry someone of your own sex.  Don't like abortion?  Don't have one.  Don't want a woman pastor?  Don't call one.  Above all, don't criticize others who are different, but coexist, just like the bumper sticker tells us to do.  Our churches all have LCMS on the sign out front, and even if they don't, they're secretly part of the LCMS - as evidenced by the church worker benefit plans, and possibly even financial support and subsidization from their districts.

I believe the church growth movement is a deviation away from our confessional heritage, that it seeks to drive a wedge between doctrine and practice, necessarily leads to splitting the Lutheran confessions into articles that are bonding vs. articles that are not binding, and harms people spiritually.

I have no doubt that church growth pastors and lay leaders are sincere and mean well.  But a lot of people are sincere and mean well.  That isn't the hallmark of what is orthodox, godly, or within the rubric of what is authentically Lutheran.  When we traditionalists are compared to the Taliban, mocked as being "Romanizers" or "chancel prancers," when our sacred liturgy is cast as a losing proposition that chases people away, when our Book of Concord is marginalized and actually laughed at (and yes, I have heard this repeatedly my entire ministry by church growth advocates), when we are told to shut up about the nice lady "pastor" or the congregation with the big screens and charismatic worship style - that's all okay.  When we write critiques - be they systematic arguments against such practices, or tongue in cheek parodies and satire, and we're told we're being divisive or engaging in polemics.  Luther was likewise criticized when he would not link arms with Zwingli over what many perceived to be a minor issue that did not actually divide us.

It did, and it does.

The good news is that in the long run, the fads always burn themselves out.  Traditional worship was here when we were all born, it will be here after we are all dead.  It was here when our Lord manifested Himself in the Tabernacle, and it will abide even until Christ returns.  First-world fad worship - be it cowboy church, biker church, dancing girls and rock music, secular narcissism, entertainment worship, and everything of that ilk - will ultimately end up like 8-track players and leisure suits.  The problem is that in the mean time, people are confused about Christianity, worship of the one true God, and the Lutheran confession of the faith by being told diametrically opposite things by groups all claiming to be teaching the same things.  The church growth movement cheapens the faith by recasting the profound as shallow, by shifting the focus from eternal transcendence to the life-cycle of a 140 character tweet, from the theological to the anthropological, from atonement to enjoyment.

"In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc."  If a pastor and congregation can't say that - and it is by intention and design (rather than an inherited anomaly to be changed pastorally) - then such pastors and congregations are simply not part of the "our churches" - unless the Book of Concord is no longer relevant, binding, normal (in the sense of being the norma normata of "our churches"), and that which defines what it means to be authentically Lutheran.

One of the tenets of the church-growth movement - to which its advocates pay lip-service - one that I actually agree with, is the need for authenticity.  People will inevitably sniff out the inauthentic.  Authenticity for us Lutherans is spelled out in our confessions.  Anything contrary to what Dr. Kenneth Korby called "our Catholic Book of Concord" invalidates claims to such a pastor or congregation being truly Lutheran, and is a big red flag that says "counterfeit."  I think people are tired of counterfeit religiosity and are increasingly wary of being manipulated.  I think the church growth movement is not just wrong, contrary to the Lutheran confession of the catholic faith, and spiritually toxic, but will ultimately prove ineffective of even its own goals, because it is, by definition, inauthentic.  It is rationally self-defeating and logically self-contradictory.  Its necessary postmodernist gymnastics are incongruous with the exclusive truth claims of the Christian faith itself.

Love, both for the sinners for whom Christ died as well as for the truth itself, demands that we expose the church growth movement for what it is, articulate this reality in different ways, and present people with an authentic alternative.


  1. Are you saying that LCMS is the only way to salvation?
    Are all other churches wrong and are they all leading people to hell?
    For people who like traditional worship and feel comfortable with it, let it be offered.
    For people who are turned off by that format, offer the message of God's love and forgiveness with a style that communicates the message.
    Is LCMS the only way? I heard that in the 1950's, I did not expect to read that now.

  2. Dear Jim:

    "Are you saying that the LCMS is the only way to salvation?"

    I don't know how anyone could draw such a conclusion from what I wrote. But in case you have this impression, your impression is not just wrong, but diametrically so. The Book of Concord does not say that only Lutherans are saved. In fact, the BOC never uses the word "Lutheran." Articles 7 and 8 define the Church in a way that makes any Lutheran who believes that only Lutherans are saved to be violating the Lutheran confessions themselves.

    I wasn't born until the 1960s, so I can't speak to your experiences in the 1950s LCMS. I suspect many of our churches did not celebrate the Mass every Sunday then either. Two wrongs do not make a right.

    Once again, to be authentically Lutheran is to embrace the Book of Concord, including this: "In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc."

    The fact that I enjoy 1980s big hair heavy metal, Austrian Economics, my cats, and my motorcycle have zero to do with what the Book of Concord says about divine worship. Worship is not about what I like, feel comfortable with, or are "turned on" by. It's not about us and our wants, but about our Lord and what He gives us by grace - to satisfy what we need. I think this is a crucial distinction between entertainment worship - which tickles the ears - and traditional worship - which proclaims the Word and saves us from our sins. The former may be temporally comfortable, but the latter truly delivers eternal comfort.

    There are a lot of Christians who are not Lutheran. Church growth advocates and liturgy-naysayers should be honest and jettison the label "Lutheran" if they don't want to be Lutheran. A lot of Christians are bereft of the blessings of worship that doesn't just fit one demographic, but transcends space, time, and culture. But to be Lutheran, by definition, accepts the Book of Concord. That is built in to the very concept of authenticity.

    I hope that clarifies things.

  3. Thank you for the clarification.
    Perhaps congregations should jettison the label "Lutheran" and stick with the label "Christian".

    1. I agree! If a church doesn't want to be Lutheran, it should choose a label more fitting with its confession for the sake of honesty.

  4. >>Is LCMS the only way? I heard that in the 1950's

    Dr. C.F.W. Walther, First President of the LCMS and Concordia Seminary, June 19, 1885:

    “Though we esteem our Church highly, may this abominable, fanatical notion be far from us, that our Lutheran Church is the alone-saving Church! The true Church extends throughout the world and is found in all denominations . . . Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ and is a member of His spiritual body is a member of the Church. . . We have this precious promise in Isaiah 55:11: ‘My Word shall not return unto Me void.’ Wherever the Word of God is proclaimed and confessed or even recited during the service, the Lord is gathering a people for Himself. . . there are always some children of God in these communities because they have the Word of God, which is always bearing fruit in converting some souls to God.”

    [“Law and Gospel,” 32nd Evening Lecture, Concordia Publishing House; German edition, 1897; English translation, 1929, p. 337]

    Dr. Franz Pieper, President of the LCMS and Concordia Seminary, 1920:

    “Though God desires that all congregations be orthodox . . . still it is a fact that also in the heterodox communions there are believing children of God. . . The Fathers of the Missouri Synod . . . taught: If a person sincerely clings to the cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith, if he believes that God is gracious to him because of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction, he is a member of the Christian Church, no matter in which ecclesiastical camp he may be.”

    [“Christian Dogmatics,” Concordia Publishing House; German edition, 1920; English translation, 1953, Vol. 3, p. 423f]

  5. Perhaps congregations should jettison the label "Lutheran" and stick with the label "Christian". -- Mr. Davis

    An honest application of the label "Christian," to a congregation's outdoor marquee, implies a weekly worship which entails doctrine (true to the faith once delivered to the Apostles and saints, and preached for the hearing of those seeking God and His absolution of their sins); fellowship (which entails an agape sharing which goes beyond the hippodrome frolics, or a Bar-B-Q or an attendance at a minor league hockey game by the Lake Wobegon congregation ... and, I think, possesses antiphonal and other back-and-forth, shepherd-flock liturgical exchanges); the breaking of bread (as in the Lord's Supper, reverently and ritely managed); and prayers ... all according to Acts 2:42. As Fr. Beane rightly and confidently asserts, other trappings of a considerably looser sort, wherever and however found, are inauthentic and Spirit-starved. They won't last.

    Instead, things will move on to the next outrage.

    Perhaps Mr. Davis can encourage congregational use of the alternative term "Montanist," as opposed to "Christian," since the former description usefully allows for lady enthusiasts, Spirit inspiration outside of the Word and indeed, all sorts of innovations; such as maybe dropping the Sacrament so as to better snare the seekers out-en-mass (and out of Mass) on Christmas, Easter, and the ever-popular, ever high-calendrical feast of "Mother's Day."

    This latter idea has actually been touted by the WELS' well-intended but peculiar Institute of Worship and Outreach, which may be advised to change the order of its name, before messing with the ordos of the Christian/Lutheran Church. To be amicably fair to the IWO, favorably-disposed pastoral readers of the position paper do exist, and have publicly chirped about the "Mother's Day et al." concept in these compelling terms: "It's a no-brainer!"

    To which sentiment I can but only agree, as to its derivative source. On the positive side, no arrangements were (yet) advanced for "Hallowe'en Sunday."

    There is a certain (if unsettling) logic behind the IWO's suggestion, however (cf. "Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics," Charles S. Clifton, p. 98-99, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1992). St. Epiphanius has disapprovingly cited the Montanist's special reverence towards Eve, who is indeed our primal mother ... the mother of all mankind, in fact. Evidently the Montanists saw it as a good thing that Eve was the very first human to prefer and choose the Tree of Knowledge over the Tree of Life, and thus accorded her exceeding honors. So I can easily see an official WELS' connection made by the IWO, between an eschewing of the Medicine of Immortality and "Mother's Day."

    Then again, to forestall interpretational difficulties and embarrassments of this very sort, the WELS might be richly blessed, and the "M.D." bust-out could Providentially fall on its "Service of the Word's" regularly set for the second and/or third and/or fourth and/or fifth Sunday of the month.

    And/or the first. For that matter, maybe we'll hit the real jackpot, and there might be no Sacrament for an entire quarter or so in the spring (Easter already being a non-communion day, for the best of strategic purposes), until the circuit-rider manages to show up.

    Granted, it's kind of tough living the spirit of the ancient Christians and of the winged angels, when it appears that we contemporaries are still saddled with the schedules belonging to the black-buggy, riding crop and flesh of hooved 19th century horses. But not to fear! Many "with-it" (as well as so-called "conservative") congregations schedule the dose of vital medicine in that way. So why not you?

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor


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