Not Your Grandfathers’ Church ““ A Visit to Another Not-So-Steadfast Church, by Phillip Magness

(Cantor Magness writes a regular column for the Steadfast Quarterly. This is his article from Volume 1, #3, which we thought would be timely for the Brothers as many of us may have been on the road visiting extended family this weekend and so may have experienced a ‘less than steadfast’ Divine Service. His posts are also archived on the Regular Columns page.)

 

During my travels this past year I participated in worship in Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, and several places in Illinois. I sought out parishes that offered different “styles” of worship so that I could see what things were valued as essential by a parish and what things were considered  “adiaphora” (essentially indifferent to the Gospel and therefore optional). While one cannot fully ascertain a congregation’s position on everything from just one Sunday experience, the liturgy does give a significant and profound confession of what a congregation believes. Conversations with congregational members at these locations reinforced my belief that the conclusions I drew from worshiping with these fellow Lutherans were indeed correct: how they pray does confess what they believe.

 

This quarter’s article is about a moderately large exurban church. This parish was recommended to me as a place where there was “excellence” in three current styles of worship: traditional, blended, and contemporary. I eventually plan on writing about the various “traditional” and “contemporary” services I observed, but for now I want to focus on the “blended” service. This “style” is probably the most difficult to pin down of the three, as it varies the most from parish to parish. I have defined the traditional service as “the tradition that preserves the customs that were followed by a particular parish before they embarked on offering alternative services.” Similarly, the contemporary service can be explained as “what the new associate pastor and/or church consultants brought in after convincing the congregation that a new way of worship was needed for the sake of church growth.” But the “blended” service can be pretty much anything the locals make up as they go along, and so they are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: one never knows what to expect!

 

This blended service began as the pastor came out in a golf shirt and made a series of announcements about “mission and ministry opportunities.” He then sat down and let the band take over. As is typical in contemporary services, the band leader introduced the songs and functioned as an assisting minister. The people were supposed to sing along with the band, but few did on the verses of the first song. They were in a solo vocal style with a range and syncopation that did not invite communal singing. The second piece was a nice Celtic melody which was sung well by everyone. I found out later it was a staple at this church and so it is sort of a liturgy for them. This often happens in Protestant churches: losing an understanding of the liturgy as the singing and praying of God’s Word, they pick favorite melodies and repeat them for the sake of the experience of singing favorite songs together rather than for the experience of magnifying God’s Word in song. This song led into a time of prayer, after which people were seated for the readings of the day.

 

The front-loading of the prayers in this service was illustrative of a theological emphasis on sanctification that came through loud and clear in the sermon, in which sanctification did not flow from our justification (i.e. the Gospel), but rather was a ‘purpose-driven’ exhortation to follow the “life lessons” offered to the hearers in God’s Word. Similarly, the prayers of the faithful to live according to God’s love were not offered after the reading and preaching of God’s Word (as is done in the Divine Service and in the daily offices), but came before the reading and preaching. This seems to be a natural order of service for Third Use of the Law orientation: rather than hearing the Gospel and then asking the Lord to grant us His good and gracious will according to the mercy He gives us through the forgiveness of sins, this order of service gathers people into the Lord’s presence where they then ask for His guidance and blessing and receive instruction on how they are to get their needs met. This is a big burden to place upon the people. No wonder they need to pray first!

 

One thing that did follow the sermon (entitled “Life Lesson”) was a confession of faith. However, they did not confess one of the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian) as we bind ourselves to do in the Lutheran Confessions but instead had their own. To get around this obvious affront to confessional sensibilities, they took the postmodern approach of redefining what they were doing by simply calling the newfangled creed an “affirmation of faith.” I could tell from the zealous way in which the lady behind me was confessing this creed that this particular set of words was a habit for this congregation. At this I was greatly distressed, not just at the breach of fellowship with their fellow Lutherans, but also at the tone of the worshipers around me: this was THEIR creed. They were “with it”–apparently not like those Christians who cling to those  old-fashioned creeds. This was when I knew that I simply could not commune at this church, even though it was in my own synod.

 

As the service continued, my sadness turned to nausea. As is common in contemporary churches, “Confession & Absolution” took place as a prelude to the Lord’s Supper. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; Walther had this custom. But the confession did not confess anything more than “falling short of the mark” in our desires to have “better relationships.” And the absolution was not an objective declaration of forgiveness but merely an affirmation of God’s goodness. Then, before communion, worshipers were told: “If you are guests here this morning, we simply ask that you take a look at your own life. If you are repentant and desire this blessing of the Lord here today, we invite you to join with us for communion.”

 

So there it was. Heterodox creed and open communion in a one-two punch. I became literally sick to my stomach with remorse over the spectacle of all this happening in a Missouri Synod church. These aren’t mere customs here, but actual bad practices. Say what you want about a screen, banter between band leader & pastor, informal attire, mood music during the prayers, contemporary music, and even the jumbled order of service. There are ranges of opinion on such things as to how desirable or undesirable they are. But about the practices of the church we have objective confessional standards, and these were being broken at every turn.

 

This is not the only place where this is happening. And, yes, I have brought this to the attention of the appropriate District President (DP). Perhaps in this case the DP will convince this parish of the wrongness of what they are doing and the need to return to a more Lutheran piety. Let us all pray this be so! (Update: The DP has now demurred on three appeals for him to investigate this.)

 

So why bring this to the church-at-large if the DP is aware of this? Because laymen need to hear the testimony of what is really happening in our churches. Most of us worship in our own congregations or in the congregations of family members who attend churches similar to ours. It is easy therefore to dismiss concerns about others’ worship practices as conservative over-reaction to a guitar or an unfamiliar setting of the liturgy. Certainly some confessional Lutherans are repristinators at heart, and so their complaints aren’t taken very seriously by average churchgoers who simply don’t share their passion for the culture of 1950’s Wisconsin or 1580’s Wittenberg. But these articles are written so that you may know indeed that today’s LCMS is not your grandfathers’ church, and that it is going to take the work of some truly courageous leaders to restore unity to our communion. Whether these things are going on in your church or not, you, the laymen of the evangelical Lutheran Church, can provide the leadership we need. “Ecclesiastical Supervision” is everyone’s responsibility! We need change from above and from below–and lay leadership is key.

 

Certainly nobody can put a stop to a congregation doing whatever it wants to do. But we can appeal to their consciences to return to the fold. And, if they refuse, we can and should stop them from hanging the LCMS sign outside their door. We did not create this conflict, but our decision as to whether we will confront it or avoid it will determine whether or not this synod prevails. Think about it: how long would Subway last if they allowed hundreds of their stores to stop selling sandwiches and offered only pastries instead?  

 

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

Comments

Not Your Grandfathers’ Church ““ A Visit to Another Not-So-Steadfast Church, by Phillip Magness — 26 Comments

  1. Thank you for the update. If we copy the American Evangelicals in worship and sermon style, why retain proper creeds, closed communion, or confession and absolution?

    Spelling correction = Wittenberg.

  2. If this is the blended worship, I can’t imagine what “contemporary” must be like. Also, I wonder how traditional is traditional.

    I think you should name this congregation, so that the church at large can be better protected from its errors, though I’m sure that your doing so will cause a terribly negative reaction.

  3. Mr. Magness–

    Could we at least know if there were any trends in your travels among the states: Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, and Illinois? Did some states seem more confessional than others? Were there some districts that particularly stood out?

    Just curious, as I know in your last post on this topic, you profiled a church in Northern IL district as being highly un-confessional.

    As a side note, I learned by accident the identity of that last church in the NID you profiled, and I wanted to tell you that your observations are absolutely correct. I actually attended grade school there, and I can personally attest at just how un-confessional they have become.

    Please keep the reports coming! 🙂

  4. Thanks for catching that typo, Dr. Phillips.

    Heartbroken, I’ve heard there have been some changes for the better in your former congregation – if indeed you are correct in their identity – which is one reason I think it is best to hold off on ‘naming names’.

    I am painting a landscape here, with idea of showing how we as a synod have become. If I were to point to individual congregaitons, it would distract from that. This is bigger than the individual congregaitons involved. I am encountering these worship trends in Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas – pretty much wherever I go. So the identity really isn’t “St. Somewhere” but……The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

    To be sure, I do run into some good things, and will be writing about that as well. I was actually encouraged by a ‘contemporary’ service in Rockton, IL and very pleased with worship at an African-American congregation (St. Philip’s) in inner-city Chicago. The services were very different in style, but I’m not looking for uniformity in custom – only faithfulness in practice. Indeed, some of our confessional brethren would look at what we do at Bethany-Naperville as too ‘contemporary’. (The Triduum included music accompanied by: synthesizer, guitar, various percussion instruments, and piano as well as the more traditional pipe organ, handbells, brass quintet, choirs, and timpani. I even played the accordion at the Easter Vigil!)

    But there is clearly a trend afoot in our synod, and I intend to continue reporting on it. People need to know that there are serious reasons to be concerned. This is not about traditions or musical preferences, it is about practices that are not consistent with the pure Gospel we are called to preach, teach, and confess.

  5. This is how to criticize a congregation’s ceremony. Point to the bad doctrine not the deviation from tradition. The purpose of our ceremonies is to teach the Gospel.

    Closed communion is clearly taught by Scripture, consistently practiced through history, enshrined in the confessions, and now eagerly tossed by our churches. It is a mission opportunity ask visitors where they are from and to frame the issue of closed communion in Godly terms for them.

    I’ve found that blended worship is usually worse than contemporary as it must be difficult to rewrite the liturgy every week without messing up some point of doctrine.

    The argument for uniformity is at its strongest when talking about things like the Creed or confession and absolution, or the words of institution. When you refuse to recite the creed and confess to only not being quite as good as you can be, your ceremony isn’t teaching Lutheran doctrine. If you are going to recite a creed, you should recite something that all Lutherans agree to. If your congregation revels in being different, pull something from the Book of Concord or small catechism.

    I think there is something inherently Lutheran in wanting to exercise Christian freedom. Christian freedom is greatest in Lutheranism and Lutherans do not make rules to burden consciences or create disunity unless required by doctrine. But we must always be united on that doctrine. Saying “God is good” is not enough. That’s what Muslims say. Lutherans say God is good AND SO he sent Christ to die for you and so that your sins may be forgiven.

  6. Where does this “Affirmation of Faith” come from? I visited another church this Easter, and sadly the Nicene Creed was replaced by this. It had the same Trinitarian structure, but seemed to emphasize things that are a bit off…

    I thought about not communing for that reason. But I was raised there, and I do know they teach the Nicene Creed. But maybe it should give me more pause. If only they confessed it each Sunday.

  7. Awful news! But , I guess I should not be surprised after all many of these churches think that to grow the church they must become like the culture. By the way, this is not becoming all things to all men to save some it is moving into unionism and sometimes sycretism.

    I don’t mind guitars if they are played with an intent to display confessional worship. I am sure there are several pieces of music that can be used to convey the liturgy through the use of the medium. However, every time I have seen modern instruments used(i.e. drums , guitar ,etc.) they have often been used to convey evangelical style worship and the next thing to go is doctrine and practice, which is the case here.

    If I wanted to attend a “Movie Theater ” I would pay my $8. If I wanted to play golf with my pastor I would go and play golf with him and not see him dressed as golfer at church.

    This may seem like I am being a “represtinator or stick in the mud” but that is one of the reasons why I became a Lutheran. I became a Lutheran so I could partake of the Word and Sacrament, hear Law and Gospel on Sundays, and sing hymns that can teach me, praise God and strengthen my soul. None of these things are present at churches that preach things like ” America where have you gone?” But , the contemporary instruments and false teachings are and I want no part of these.

    Every Lutheran church that I have attended that seeks to blend or contemporize worship pretty soon ceases to be Lutheran and becomes a “Movie Theater Where The Usher Wears a Special Uniform” where the meal that is served is crackers and grape juice. The sermons also become pep talks about your life or how to make it through depression without Christ. I remember hearing a sermon at one church called “Comfort Now!” and another church where the Pastor was giving the sermon and put his daughters picture she drew on the podium and hardly mentioned Jesus once.

    I think blended and contemporary worship take us further from Law and Gospel and take us to the theology of my “Christian Life ” and later in ELCAS case apostasy. Most of the time if a church engages in this type of worship it begins going down the slope with exception to rare cases. I will not attend blended or contemporay churches essentially because of these problems.

    If you want to know why some would say Christianity is now past in America it is because church as presented by some has become just another social club only one with special rules that come from God with cheesy or outdated music and grape juice and crackers. This is not my view of church, but it is the view of those outside it and how the media has portrayed it. Personally, I find it a little offensive when the only people identified in the news as Lutheran are the ELCA and the only Christians in America are those who go to movie theaters wheres the pastor plays golf , talks about how you are not living Gods purpose for your life and here is how to do it, and you get to eat crackers and grape juice every time you go to meeting and clap hands to syrupy false teaching ditties.

  8. One point of doctrine that I have noticed to be downplayed or ignored in such churches is our own sinfulness. I suppose they figure that “sin” stuff is what drives people away from church. Since spreading the Gospel is the same as packing the pews then talking about sin hinders the spread of the Gospel.

    The problem is that if we don’t understand our own sinfulness then Christ dying on the cross doesn’t mean much. They can talk about how to live a better life and maybe even mention Jesus now and then, but if it is without the understanding that He gave His life because it was the only way to reconcile the horrible things you and I have done to God then it’s just fluff and not really spreading the Gospel. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Not when we tried hard or led a good life or played “hip” music to coax people into the pews but while we were sinners. We deserved hell and He took our punishment on Himself at the cross so that we sinners could join Him in paradise. THAT is love. THAT is the Gospel. THAT is something you do not usually hear about in churches concerned with growth more than the Gospel.

  9. #6 Eric H. about local “Affirmations of Faith” used in place of the historic creeds.

    They come out of the Reformed tradition. Lutherans view creeds as the faith once delivered for all time, they are relevant and true in all ages and places. Generally the Reformed look at creeds as defining the faith in a specific place and time and thus they can change as the “needs” of the time and place change.

    While I suspect the Lutheran church in question is not thinking purposely in this way, the reasoning I have heard in other places is “We need to make this relevant to the people” (and they mean in this time and place) and wham-o that is, like it or not, skirting the Reformed view of creeds, even if not intentional.

    This, by the way, is not my insight but I picked it up in a class with Dr. Feuerhahn at the St. Louis Seminary. I think Herman Sasse actually pointed this out but I can’t remember the specific reference.

  10. Great discussion, everyone.

    I see many of us have experienced various kinds of “blended worship” in our churches. Liturgy Solutions is running a poll right now on this topic, and would appreciate as much input as possible. The poll isn’t looking for opinions, but for what people are seeing out there when they run into “blended worship”. So there is a list of things out of which people should pick several in order to describe their experience.

    Please drop by and take a look at the Liturgy Solutions blog – and tell your friends to take the poll, too: http://www.liturgysolutions.blogspot.com

  11. Phil,

    I’m glad you are writing about the concept of leadership in terms of these confessional catastrophes. I’ll submit that in some congregations, the lay leadership is actually the problem. In our circles, we should clearly distinguish between “leadership” and “those in charge.” Leaders have enough of a spine to make the right, albeit unpopular decisions, even if it means fewer cheeks in the seats. If unqualified laypersons are placed in charge of selection of music, at best, your mileage may vary. You are quite correct in your assessment regarding selection of favorite tunes solely for the sake of having the experience of singing them, rather than proclaiming the Gospel. I once had a Sunday School superintendent hand me a stack of copies of Alan Jackson’s “Let It Be Christmas” and asked to have it sung for Christmas Eve. I simply told her that it’s not appropriate for church because it is not about Christ. How can we let people like this run things in our congregations? How can we let pastors be complicit in letting their congregations feel mildly guilty about “missing the mark” when their sins are silently killing them?

    I’m thinking that back X-rays should be a pre-requisite for leadership (or in-charge positions) in the church, simply to confirm that the candidates have a spine.

    Here I stand, 6’10”,
    -SG

  12. The essence of Lutheranism is not our liturgy or traditions. Making them required contradicts our confessions:

    Although in the Confession we also have added how far it is lawful for [bishops] to frame traditions, namely, not as necessary services, but so that there may be order in the Church, for the sake of tranquillity. And these traditions ought not to cast snares upon consciences, as though to enjoin necessary services; as Paul teaches when he says, Gal. 5:1: Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 16] The use of such ordinances ought therefore to be left free, provided that offenses be avoided, and that they be not judged to be necessary services; just as the apostles themselves ordained [for the sake of good discipline] very many things which have been changed with time. Neither did they hand them down in such a way that it would not be permitted to change them. For they did not dissent from their own writings, in which they greatly labor lest the Church be burdened with the opinion that human rites are necessary services.

    BUT we must always insist that correct doctrine is taught: that for Christ’s sake through faith we freely obtain the remission of sins. I am constantly amazed that pastors trained at our seminaries can lose site of this and they focus their sermons and songs and ceremonies on works, never stating that our ONLY motivation for doing good works MUST BE out of love in response to God’s free grace.

  13. In regards to the practice of writing their own or using other liturgies – confession, absolution, glorias, et al, my reason for disliking it is I find I have to spend too much time before worship examining the liturgy to see if I can possibly speak it because it is free of error or “watering down.” This time would be better spent in prayer and self examination. We have a hymnal that many folks put a lot of effort into, using it seems like a good idea to me.

  14. These horror stories remind me of the young boys in “The Lord of the Flies.” Lost on an unknown island with no adult leaders the Anglican boys choir, religious but poorly instructed in the faith, quickly accommodate themselves to the situation and “create” their own god, worship it and carry out its will – idolatry, abuse, murder, etc. Of course it’s just a story and has nothing to do with contemporary and blended worship! How silly of me to see a connection!

  15. Boaz,

    I think a closer look at the confessions draws more helpful distinctions.

    When you say the essense of Lutheranism is not in our liturgy or traditions you are, of course, right. The essence of Luthernism is the Gospel. And we are unified by doctrine, not the mass (Rome) or liturgical uniformity (Canterbury).

    However, “making them [liturgies or traditions] required contradicts our confessions,” as you say, is too broad of a statement, and not helpful in this context. True, it is against our confession to require attendance at liturgies in the sense that we reject the sanitive model of justification. Among us there should be no assignement of attending x number of masses for the sake of earning grace. But nobody is making that claim here! And, yes, we don’t beleive that church orders should be the same in every time and in every place. But that case is not being advanced here, either.

    “Not Your Grandfaters’ Church” is, instead, pointing out violations to good order (not in the sense of violating requirements of the Law, but rather violating the requirements of love, for member congregations freely and voluntarily agreed when they became members of synod to worship according to our hymnbooks and agenda), and the causing of offense (because congregations are obscuring or even contradicting the Gospel with their innovations and borrowed practices). Given your concern for pure doctrine, I hope you will agree that these are legitimate concerns that should be addressed.

    I am not advocating uniformity of customs or traditions, though certainly traditions among us that edify the faithful in the Gospel should be celebrated.

    Hope this helps!

  16. Elnathan,

    I appreciate the point you are trying to make about turning a worship style into a god, but I think saying that the cause of the choir boys in Lord of the Flies resortng to such horrible behavior was weak catechesis is a bit of a stretch. The point of the novel is the evil that dwells within each of us–we call it original sin–and the fact that such evil cannot simply be “civilized” out of us. The choir boys were “civilized” but look what happened when they were removed from the constraints of that civilization–they turned into monsters. Each of us has the same little monster dwelling within, catechesis or no catechesis, and we are each capable of making idols for ourselves of all kinds of things.

  17. It may be a bit of a stretch to say the atrocities in Lord of the Flies was solely due to poor catechesis, but it ought not to be excluded. I think that human nature, being what it is, will always, in and of itself take the low road whether it be childish paganism on a deserted island or syncrectism in a church that ignores it’s roots and presumptuously writes its own creed. So, I agree with you! You added an important point that I failed to make. Man, left to himself creates god in his own image.

  18. Thing is, these worship atrocities aren’t being perpetrated by little boys a few lessons shy of complete catechetical training, but often by men who’ve completed seminary training.
    And not on some deserted island where it’s every man for himself and the big dog rules. They weren’t and aren’t
    ‘Man left to himself’ but men who took it upon themselves.
    They’ve come to think they are the providers of the feast; not merely the servers of it.

  19. Thing is, these worship atrocities aren’t being perpetrated by little boys a few lessons shy of complete catechetical training, but often by men who’ve completed seminary training.

    And not always at CTSFW or CSL. We have our share of Fuller grads.

  20. All – Reading these posts I see that I am a child among giants. It is an honor to sit at your feet in this forum.

    I have been wandering around the internet since I can’t travel in person. A larger number of web-sites by LCMS congregations around the country than I would have expected point to the “blended” and “contemporary” service with a large emphasis on the “reaching the lost and forgotten” mission.

    I have also found an Ordained Minister on the LCMS roster who is the Pastor at an ELCA congregation and another who is at a non-demoninational one. Incidentally the ELCA Pastor is also listed on their web-site. These men were “Colloquized by Committee” in 2004. I’m not sure what that means or how that works but it certainly hasn’t produced fruit for the LCMS.

    Again – thanks to Pastor Rossow and all the Steadfast Lutherans on this site for grounding us in God’s Word and our Lutheran Confessions and for bringing LCMS errors to light in an informative but not too confrontational manner.

    He is Risen Indeed!

  21. I, too, am very grateful to find sites such as these that uphold Confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice.

    I returned to the LCMS in February after a bout of “Roman fever”, having had one Lutheran and one Catholic parent. The same liturgical deconstruction is happening in the Catholic church as well as in the ELCA.

    I am blessed to have found an LCMS parish that upholds the Confessions and the historic liturgy. I was awed that we confessed the Athanasian Creed on Easter Sunday. Even Catholics don’t seem to know what it is since the “reforms” of Vatican II.

    I am honored to find Lutherans who are still “steadfast” about who we are.

  22. On second thought, I think Cantor Magness is wise not to “name names” of the congregations that he observes. For then I would be tempted to think of the problem of disorderly worship as “out there” in other congregations instead of “in here” in our church fellowship.

    Those in favor of innovative worship are quick to quote the confessions on the freedom that Christian congregations enjoy in worship forms and traditions. As others have pointed out above, this is a strawman argument. No one is arguing for strict liturgical uniformity.

    But it is impossible to separate doctrine from the forms and media we use to convey the doctrine in worship. Singing “A Mighty Fortress” to a reggae beat introduces (subtly, even subconsciously) the emotions and ideas of reggae, the liturgical music of a pagan cult that is the antithesis of Christianity.

    Those of us who confess the Book of Concord and correctly understand the relationship between music, doctrine and liturgy tend to use historical and traditional forms, and do so in Christian freedom because we want our worship as reverent and meaningful as possible; not because we have been compelled to do so.

  23. How sad! And sadder still is that the congregation is being taught that this is proper worship. When oh when will we begin to elect District Presidents who will revert to the policy of DP’s of years ago and visit congregations and pastors to make certain that worship is proper. I attended a congregation for a few years that put on a regular dog and pony show every Sunday in an effort to attract visitors. And for a few years it did. But that has all changed and their numbers are declining more rapidly than most churches. I think people get tired of the same old entertainment every Sunday and since they’re not being spiritually fed, it’s easier to move on looking for the next new thing.

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