I guess this is as good of a time as any to write my spiritual autobiography. It’s not as long of a story as some–years of apathy have ways of shortening stories.
I guess I could sum up my current state in a couple of lines: Reach the world. Work within the system and change it from within.
Here’s how I got there.
My mom was Baptist, so I started out Baptist. My earliest memory of God was Mom taking me to Sunday School at a little Southern Baptist church in the next town over (we lived about an hour southwest of Kansas City at the time). I learned about Samson, and I learned about the three men in the fire (I won’t call them by the Babylonian names we all remember because those names are blasphemous), and I learned that Jesus died on the cross and God planned for Jesus to die on the cross. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me why.
The pastor of that church was a 30-year-old named J.R. And that’s what he wanted to be called. Not Pastor-this or brother-that or Reverend-that, just J.R. He was real and genuine and he played guitar. That image of a pastor got burned into me.
Well, Dad got tangled up in some other doctors’ malpractice suit and he refused to cave into their demands that he change his records. Dad did the right thing, and they weren’t happy about it, so Dad did what he had to do to protect his family and we left town in a hurry. I was seven years old. The only time I went to church for the next two years was when I was visiting my cousins in Kansas City. I’d go to Sunday School with them at the Disciples of Christ church near where they lived. I learned about morality but nobody ever mentioned why Jesus died on the cross.
In 1983, we moved again. The town we moved to had a public school system with a terrible reputation. But there was a Lutheran school there, and Dad just happened to be Lutheran. So all of a sudden I was Lutheran. I wasn’t too happy about it. I may have been 9, but I knew everything, and Christianity didn’t make sense. In religion class, I was the troublemaker in the back of the room. I asked the kind of questions you’re not supposed to ask, like “How do we know there is a God?” and “How do we know there is a devil?” I didn’t think much of the simple answers I got.
And Pastor kept talking about something called grace. The theme of the year was Growing in God’s Grace.
About mid-year, I finally managed to put the pieces together. There was this thing called sin, which is the bad things all of us do. And none of us can get through a single day on our own without sinning. But God wants us to be perfect. God doesn’t sin. He wants us to be like us. We can’t do it. So Jesus lived a perfect life, then he took our punishment. That was why He died on the cross. One mystery solved.
And that was enough for me. The Holy Spirit got a toe-hold on me, and I was willing to admit the existence of God and my need for Him.
At some point, I learned a simple definition of grace that my little brain can understand: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. Jesus paid for it all, so now God’s free to give us stuff. By “stuff,” I mean things like forgiveness and faith and spiritual gifts and for that matter just listening to prayers.
We moved again in 1988, to St. Louis. (The suburb of Fenton, for those of you from St. Louis. And for those of you who are wondering the St. Louis question: Predictably, I went to Lutheran South.)
In St. Louis, I lost my innocence, in more ways than one. I learned that in a lot of churches, the thing that matters the most is what your Daddy does and how much money Daddy gives to the church’s pet projects. Well, Daddy was a doctor, which scored big points, but Daddy didn’t practice in St. Louis, so he lost most of those points. And Daddy didn’t give as much money as they thought a doctor ought to. They also didn’t like how Daddy drove Dodge pickup trucks when a doctor really ought to drive a Lincoln.
Yeah, really important stuff. And at one point I had a conversation with the pastor and I don’t know anymore what he said, but I know what I heard was him saying he didn’t have much use for me. That was our last Sunday at that church, and I never saw the man again.
The church we transferred to was cast from a similar mold. I started asking my boss to schedule me to work on Sunday mornings. We talked about God occasionally as we were making salads, so I got better Christian fellowship at the fast-food joint I was working at than I did at church.
I went to church about a dozen times from the ages of 17 to 21. I joined a Lutheran fraternity in college in hopes of re-igniting that fire I’d found in 1983, but it didn’t happen. That fraternity isn’t very happy with me because I don’t have any involvement with it anymore, but if I’m going to give my time and money to something Lutheran, it’s going to be something Lutheran that’s making a difference. I’ve found such a thing, and I don’t have any left over. I sleep just fine at night. Except when I’m thinking about girls, but that’s normal.
Speaking of girls, that’s how I finally got back into church. I was 22. I’d had my eye on a classmate of mine for about a year. She was a year behind me, and everything I’ve ever looked for: smart, talented, beautiful, and undiscovered. I was working at the university, so I still saw her. I called her up out of the blue and we talked for a couple of hours. She showed up at work the next day at the end of the day. We talked some more. I mentioned something about being Lutheran. She asked if that was important to me. I said God was important to me but I could do without most of the people who called themselves His people. She invited me to a Bible study. I went. I’d like to think I was interested in the subject at hand. But, honestly, mostly I was interested in her.
It was non-denominational, but had a very heavy Presbyterian influence. They played acoustic guitars and the songs were upbeat, and the people were real, genuine. And they were nice. None of them cared what my Daddy did or what kind of car he drove or how much money he gave. They took me in like they’d known me forever. And that was pretty cool. I’d never had that in a church setting before.
I’d accumulated a few more questions over the years, mostly about the Holy Spirit (most Lutherans don’t talk about Him much) and the origin of Satan, and would you please tell me exactly what a demon is, anyway? Everyone I’d asked those questions evaded them or flat out ran away from them. This girl was different. She took time to answer every last one of them, and she made sure I was satisfied with the answer. Yes, it was a very long conversation.
We started dating. We had a pretty stormy relationship. It degenerated into an off-again, on-again mess. She said something about me not progressing fast enough and not being able to stand on my own two spiritual feet. The majority opinion in the group agreed. I got tired of not having answers for them. Their answers felt wrong, but I had no idea why. So I read the Bible cover to cover. It took me about four months. That earned me the respect of everyone, except the person whose respect I craved the most.
I had a couple of conversations with She of the Off Again and On Again while this was going on. She told me further involvement in the church was a privelige to be earned. I asked her how you earn grace. She had an answer for that question. That really bothered me. And at another point, she told me if I became Lutheran again, it would be my spiritual death.
I called up the pastor who baptized me. I told him I wasn’t Lutheran anymore. He talked to me anyway. He said he experienced no great joy when someone converted to Lutheranism because the Kingdom of God hadn’t gained anything. And he experienced no great sadness when someone left for another denomination. He wanted to know what he’d done wrong so he wouldn’t do it again, but the Kingdom of God hadn’t gained anything.
Pastor Merlen Wegener, I owe you a debt I can never repay. I guess that ties into grace, doesn’t it?
I realized why Calvinism’s do-it-yourself attitude really bothered me. You can’t do it yourself. If you could, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus. I reached the point where I realized I couldn’t do everything that these Calvinists were demanding of me. I came down to two possibilities. I could stop believing, which I didn’t want to do, because once you experience God you really don’t want to give that up. And then there was suicide, which wasn’t an option either.
So I prayed. And I received a Word from the Lord (I really hate that terminology). Yeah, Lutheran Boy prophesied. Don’t get used to it. I’ve only done it twice. Three times if you count really generously. What did God tell Lutheran Boy? Well, it wasn’t actually a word. It was initials. LCMS.
I told Him He was nuts. No way was I going back to that country club. There was one good Lutheran left in this world and he was pastoring a church three hours away and he told me he was retiring. Wrong answer. Okay God, if You’re going to be no help, I’ll fix it myself.
Since the s-word (not the four-letter one) was creeping into my thoughts on occasion, I enrolled in some group therapy. In Kansas City. That was a good thing. I was really starting to hate that college town, since everything about it reminded me of She of the On Again and Off Again. So, on my first night, I met someone there from the same town I was from. Fascinating. And he was Lutheran. Being polite, I asked him which church. It was one I hadn’t heard much about. I asked him about it. He said they didn’t use hymnals. He asked what I was used to, and I said guitars and sermons that are about real life and not like a college lecture, and he told me I really needed to check out his church.
So, the Sunday after Easter in 1998, I visited Alive in Christ Lutheran in Columbia, Mo. I liked it. The building was small. I hated big cathedrals with lots of expensive stained-glass windows. The building was small and utilitarian. Its resources were going elsewhere. The praise band wasn’t as good as I was used to, but it was upbeat. The pastor talked about real life. I told him about my recent experience. He invited me to lunch. We talked for a couple of hours. I told him I didn’t like Lutheranism’s elitist closed communion. He said taking communion in an unfit matter wasn’t The Mortal Sin, and in trying to prevent that sin he risked committing a much more damaging sin, so he didn’t close off communion. I had a couple of other objections to Lutheranism but he had answers for them. I don’t remember what the objections were anymore. And he knew what grace was.
I enrolled in adult confirmation class. They dragged me off on a mission trip before I was installed as a member officially. I was installed by absentee. So much for service being a privelige to be earned. Soon I was making PowerPoint presentations for the Sunday service, and I was even running sound in emergencies. It would have taken me years to rise to that level of service in that non-denominational church. And everybody knew my name. There was nothing exclusive about this place.
When I moved to St. Louis again, some members of Alive in Christ pointed me to Faith Lutheran in Oakville. It’s a like-minded church, only bigger. Much bigger. I walked in to be greeted by my favorite teacher from high school. I saw a guy in a robe playing electric guitar for the praise team. I asked if that was the pastor. She said yes. I said I was going to like this place.
Yeah, I’m one of those flaming liberals who likes praise music. Most of it’s right out of the Psalms. Yeah, it’s simple. But my music of choice outside of church is punk and goth, mostly because my simple mind can understand it. I believe in using the music of the common people to help them get excited about God. The first time I sang in a church setting for 10 years was “Shout to the Lord,” at a retreat in 1997. That’s our song. I get chills when I hear it. Chills like I used to get when my Dear Departed would scoot closer so I could put my arm around her. God wants to be important to me–more important than she was. When the words to “Shout to the Lord” are running through my head, that part of me is much closer to heaven, and God’s better able to make use of the rest of me that’s stuck down here. If “How Great Thou Art” played badly on a pipe organ does that for you, that’s great. There are hundreds of churches that’ll meet that need for you.
I fit in there at Faith just like I’d always gone there and my dad and his dad and his dad and his dad had always gone there too. I’d felt for a couple of years like God was calling me into ministry, but I had no idea what that meant, since Lutheran Boy hadn’t received that Word from the Lord lately telling him exactly what he was supposed to do. That communication came instead from the lips of Pastor John Brunette one Sunday when I asked him why Faith had dozens of small groups but not one for GenXers.
“Why don’t you start one?”
After one false start and a lot of really uncomfortable steps, we got one off the ground. And it thrived. You don’t leave the mission field when you step through the doors of a church, I told the group once. If anything, the church is a better mission field. If the stranger sitting next to you had no interest in God, he or she probably wouldn’t be in church. So at least find out the person’s name and pray for him or her that week.
The group grew and thrived. And I learned something. If you build a community where people can belong, and you take the time to find out their needs and show them the answers God has for those needs, they will bless you beyond anything you can imagine. And so will God.
Time for an aside about prophecy: Every self-styled prophet seems to have a really good idea about what God wants the church to do or someone else to do. I’ll be generous and grant myself that I’ve heard God’s voice three times. Once, it was God telling me where He wanted me to go. I made like Jonah. The second time, He was assuring me and scolding me all at once. I was stuck in the belief that while God would take care of my basic needs like food and clothing and shelter, He didn’t give a rip about my lesser needs. The third time, the message seemed to be for someone else, but in retrospect, I needed to hear it at least as much as she did. (It was about those lesser needs too.) Otherwise, God would have found some way to communicate to her without involving me. And I’m sure He did use some means in addition to me.
Faith church made use of my journalism degree, handing me the responsibility of putting together a pamphlet and asking me to assist in producing a video. That responsibility meant doing anything their hired professional told me to do, which usually meant carrying equipment around. I learned a lot from him though. A few months later, one of the elders came to me with an idea for a music video. I said I couldn’t do it but could probably learn quickly. The church found some money to send me to St. John’s Lutheran in Ellisville, Mo. for a couple of afternoons to take a crash course in video production.
If you’d told me five years ago that God would be using my journalism degree by having me make videos for a Lutheran church in South St. Louis County, I’d have said you were an absolute lunatic.
God’s foolishness is far better than my wisdom.
So what of those other churches?
I know I could have helped that community church that I left to become Lutheran again. I don’t need to hear it from them. It’s been more than four and a half years since I left, and in that timespan, one person has missed me. I’m OK with that. God’s granted me plenty of other people to miss me. Their theology is a bit misguided and it could be producing healthier and happier folllowers than it is producing, but not everyone comes to the crossroads I came to several years ago. Not everyone wants all the answers I want, and in that case they’ll be fine there.
I did take something very valuable from that church though: I learned not to run from tough questions. I enjoy them.
What about the church that essentially told me to get lost more than a decade ago? They frequently send a contingent out to my current church for advice. I’ve never been asked to talk to them. But that time may come. And by the time that happens, I trust that I’ll be capable of showing them the grace God wants me to show them. I’ll work with them if asked, but I have no reason to go back to them.
Speaking of Lutheranism, I don’t believe that the Lutheranism most people know today will outlive me. The traditional LCMS didn’t serve the majority of my parents’ generation, and now that their kids are baptized and confirmed and graduated and married off, most of them have fallen away. In late 1997, I visited the church where I was baptized in 1984. I had just turned 23. Aside from my teachers, I saw the parents of exactly one of my old schoolmates. Now, that’s not a statistically significant sample, but considering I knew the parents of roughly 60 of my contemporaries, and since very few people who raise their families in that town leave that town, I should have seen more than one set. And yes, this is a church that is anything but a country club. I saw exactly zero of my old classmates.
On any given Sunday, there’s at least one of my former classmates from St. Louis in church at Faith. What’s the difference? Faith intentionally sets out to build community.
It’s not entirely a fair comparison. And that particular church does enough of the right things that I”m sure the trend was reversing in 1997, let alone now.
But the statistics coming from LCMS itself say the church body as a whole is shrinking. Traditionally, Lutheran churches have grown more from natural reproduction than from outreach, and today families are smaller and fewer of them go to church. But Faith Oakville is growing faster than it knows what to do with. You know what Pastor said this past Sunday in church? At both services? “If you’re visiting, we welcome you, but we’re not here to steal you. Take the energy you get here back to your home church and use it to transform it.” We’re getting too many transfers and not enough true conversions.
Some people will transfer anyway. And at the rate we’re going, within a year or two we’ll have to rent parking a half mile away and run a shuttle and seat people in the hallway leading into the sanctuary. But we’ll do that until God tells Pastor John what we’re supposed to do with all the people.
Within 20 years, the churches like Faith Lutheran in Oakville and Alive in Christ in Columbia will have the majority of the people, if they’re not the only LCMS churches left standing. I know some in LCMS would like to kick churches like Faith and Alive in Christ out entirely. If that should happen, the expelled churches will likely band together in some kind of an association that provides them with what little they need. Most of them produce the majority of their own materials already, or buy them from whoever will sell them the things they need (increasingly, it’s not LCMS’s own Concordia Publishing House, sadly). They don’t really need a publishing house. Their authors can write for basically anyone, which they already do. They do need a seminary to provide them with pastors. They have a few other simple needs. God will take care of them if that situation arises.
As far as other denominations, I know the differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism and Calvinism. I know the basic history of most of the mainline Protestant churches, and if pressed hard enough, I can tell you some differences between Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists. But I don’t concern myself too much with their affairs. I can only say that God specifically told me to do something once. Right now I’m where God told me to be. And there’s a lot of work to do here.
So I mostly concern myself with blooming where God planted me. It’s not like there’s any lack of work to do here.
My marching orders from Pastor John Brunette (written with the help of a few others, myself included) are very simple: Reach people for Christ and equip them in Christ. When I evangelize, I do so from a Lutheran point of view, because the Lutheran interpretation of scripture is the healthiest interpretation I’ve found. (Note that this is different from practice.) But I don’t set out to make Lutherans. I set out to reach and equip people to be Christians. The elements that matter are awfully simple: We can’t reach God on our own. Jesus Christ is the only way to truly reach God and to please God. After we believe and accept that, a deep relationship with God is possible and essential. Following Christ is something we’re to do every day, not just once a week. Good works are the result of that relationship with God through Christ, and they are an indication that the relationship is working. They are a goal, but not THE goal.
I won’t condemn any church that teaches those basic principles. And I’ll live with any weird practice they have on top of that. Even if it involves scitars.
If I take care of God’s kingdom, then I can trust God to ensure that the little fiefdom I call home gets taken care of.