Being more interested in growth than being Lutheran? Hardly.

On Monday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Vatican, er, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road.

Their complaint: Issues, Etc., a popular radio show on the LCMS’s unpopular talk radio station, got cancelled without warning, and the host and producer were fired.

I know from personal experience that this is how the LCMS does things. About this time of year, people come into work like any other day, and they lose their jobs. The next day, everyone else comes in and finds out a bunch of people are gone. Sometimes there’s an announcement, and if everyone takes it like a man there might even be a little fare-thee-well with cake and punch and a picture for the internal newsletter, but it’s just as likely there’ll be nothing but a few whispers.

Several years ago it happened to me. It still bugs me a lot, since I moved 120 miles, made a less-than-lateral move, and worked for far less than fair market value for those people.

So I feel for The Rev. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz. I’ve been there. And I really hope they find stable employment very soon.

I happen to know David Strand, the LCMS employee quoted in the article. In fact, if my phone rang and I saw it was him on my caller ID, I’d probably pick up. There are maybe a dozen people who work at The Vatican that I can say that for. I spent a fair amount of time with him and I trust him. I also know in the past that his department has been ravaged with cuts. It seems like pretty much every time the LCMS loses money (which they’re very good at doing), his department takes the bullet. So when he throws the monetary figures out there, my inclination is to believe him.

So while I sympathize with those who lost their jobs, and while I’m very disappointed in how it was handled (but not surprised), I very much take issue with what one of the protesters said: “They’d [the LCMS leadership in Kirkwood] like to be more in the mainstream of American evangelicalism as opposed to distinctly Lutheran.”

I’m not sure what Bible the so-called confessional Lutherans read, but my Bible doesn’t say, “Wait, therefore, for 15th-century Germans to come to you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It says to go–don’t wait, GO!–to all people, all nations, and baptize them.

The church I attend takes that seriously. And we attract an interesting mix of people. A lot of people are lapsed Lutherans, like I was. But we also attract a very large number of lapsed Catholics. We also have a small but vocal group who have, shall I say, some Calvinistic sympathies.

Our church looks more like a library or a community center than a German cathedral, and we don’t have a pipe organ and we put–gasp!–Bibles where other Lutheran churches put those horrible blue hymnals. I’ve had people tell me it doesn’t look or feel like a Lutheran church. But the theology that our pastor preaches is extremely Lutheran. The confession and absolution of sins is as Lutheran as it comes–the difference slaps me in the face any time I go to a non-Lutheran church–and in fact, if anything I hear more references to things like sola scriptura, grace alone and faith alone than I did in more mainline Lutheran churches.

And that’s good, because that’s what the people God brings us need to hear more than anything else. Isn’t that what God wants us to do? Heal the hurting? What could be more healing than the message of God’s grace?

We Lutherans have a near monopoly on perhaps the most potent force in the entire universe. I don’t think anybody understands grace as much as we do, and certainly nobody else has studied it like we have, because perhaps nobody in history needed it more than Martin Luther did. But all too often, we just sit on it. Or we bury it in tradition that people don’t understand.

The church I attend does a few things that draw people in, the upbeat, modern music being the most noticeable thing. But I don’t think that’s what keeps people there. Lots of churches have good praise bands. Lots of churches have eloquent pastors. But not a lot of churches have that plus the Lutheran doctrine.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My church is one of the few Lutheran churches that’s growing, but that’s not necessarily a comfortable place. Growing is painful, and it’s expensive. It’s been a while since I was the one counting attendance, but I believe we can fit about 700 people in our sanctuary comfortably, and sometimes we have to squeeze a lot more than that in there. On Christmas and Easter we have to go to extreme measures to fit everyone in. Some people end up watching the service on closed-circuit TV in another room. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than turning people away.

Our life really would be a lot easier if more churches would make their services a bit more friendly for people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the old German Lutheran tradition. Play a new song occasionally. Preach practical sermons that people can use to apply to their lives, rather than sermons that sound like seminary lectures. Look at the problems we face in life every day and tell people what the Bible has to say about that, and make sure there’s a good helping of grace in the middle and at the end. The word will get out, and people will come. And then maybe my church’s buildings will last 10 or even 15 years before we outgrow them, instead of seven.

I think my church goes beyond what most of the current administration finds comfortable. I occasionally spot some higher-ups in attendance. I don’t know if that’s a sign of approval or if they’re keeping an eye on us. I do know they wish more churches would try an approach like ours, however.

I got a good healthy dose of decision-based evangelical theology this weekend, and it reminded me of how I ended up at this church. CBS News did a special called God’s Boot Camp. That movement is real, and in college it found me. It finally caught me a few months after I graduated. At least it got me in church when I hadn’t been going at all, which I think pretty much everyone would agree is a good thing. But the gospel they preached was very works-based. For a time it was really nice, because I’d never seen a church like this one before, but eventually I realized the burden was literally destroying me.

I found an evangelical-minded Lutheran church that knew what a guitar was, had a pastor who knew how to apply the Bible to daily life and preach a sermon about it, but most importantly, that pastor and his church knew what grace was, and all of a sudden, it was like all was right with the world.

I have a question for the Lutherans who are reading (both of you). Those people are out there. They will find your children. Given a choice between guitars and pipe organ on Sunday morning, your children probably will pick the guitars, unless you’ve somehow managed to spawn a teenager who prefers Lawrence Welk to MTV. So which gospel do you want them to hear? Works, or grace?

I want my son to hear about grace every Sunday. And I couldn’t care less what the rest of the church service looks like as long as the pastor’s definition of grace is something along the lines of “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Speaking of expense, I also have one more request, although I’m pretty sure it will fall on deaf ears. I worked nearly seven years at 1333 and other LCMS office buildings, and I saw a lot of waste–waste that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world (I know, because I’ve worked in the private sector too). By and large, the money that flows to 1333 flows there via the offering plate every Sunday morning. Please remember that it’s offering money that funds everything there, and in some cases it comes from people who really don’t have a lot to give. With that in mind, please use it wisely, carefully, and honestly.

The waste I saw wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference in Issues, Etc. being on the air. But it’s a symptom of a large but solvable problem. If the LCMS had addressed this problem seven years ago when layoffs and huge cuts became an annual event, then it’s entirely possible that Issues, Etc. would be on the air, I would be working at 1333, I wouldn’t be writing my offering check in such a way as to minimize the amount of money going to 1333 to be wasted, and none of this talk would be happening.

Good night.

2 thoughts on “Being more interested in growth than being Lutheran? Hardly.

  • April 18, 2008 at 8:30 am
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    The ads are almost funny. Google lists mostly Lutheran things, and four out of five Amazon ads are by Calvinists (the only people, in my extremely biased opinion, who threaten the Lutheran monopoly on grace).

    • April 18, 2008 at 6:06 pm
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      The Amazon selections are based at least partly on your buying and/or browsing history. So I’m guessing the Amazon engine spotted a keyword or two here, matched it to a pattern in your history, and served those up.

      It served up three religious books to me, plus an antiques/collectibles book, and Message in a Box by The Police (the last one is funny, seeing as it’s irrelevant, I already own it, AND I purchased it from Amazon).

      I haven’t been real impressed with the Amazon engine. I’ve gotten exactly zero benefit from it since I put it in, but it’s not hurting anything, and removing it would require work, so it’ll probably stay put.

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