Imagine My Surprise

I am a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism, something I’m content to wear on my sleeve.  My journey out of Evangelicalism was a long, difficult road of seeking to make sense of some tough situations in life.  I resonate very strongly with Jonathan Aigner’s comments on why younger Christians like he and I found ourselves no longer at home in popular American religion.

As I wandered down the corridor of “mere Christianity,” seeking to find a new spiritual home for my family, I investigated the various “rooms” of Christendom with a rather fine-toothed comb.  I learned much about and gained a deeper appreciation for most of the denominational traditions I had previously written off.

But as our search came to a close, there were 10 things which drew me powerfully to the Lutheran confession, so much so, that after having learned these things, they could not be unseen.  These 10 things were:

1.  The proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

2.  Weekly communion.

3.  Sacramental spirituality as a tangible means to encounter God – a much healthier alternative to revivalist emotionalism or reformed intellectualism.

4.  Catechism – teaching people what they believe and why.

5.  The Christian calendar – annually walking through the events of the life of Christ in order to keep Him constantly before us.

6.  The use of creeds and confessions – a willingness to learn from the consensus of the faithful before us who have passed the faith down to us.

7.  A proper emphasis on the doctrine of Justification sola fide – keeping the Gospel good news, instead of turning it into a continual carrot to strive after.

8.  Worship that is tenaciously Christ-centered.

9.  Outstanding musical heritage – from Praetorius to Bach to St. Olaf.

10.  The theology of the cross.

These are the kind of things that make our religion ultimately comforting and eternally true.  Of course, many of these things can be found in other forms of Christianity.  But nowhere else can you have them all together, and with such strength and purity.  My family moved from Southern California to New York to join the LCMS, since, as vocational church workers, we had to go where the opportunity was.  I was very excited to finally enjoy the benefits of a Gospel-saturated religious experience.

Because these ten things are simply exuding from every congregation of the LCMS, right?

Imagine my surprise to hear so many pastors neglect the Gospel in preaching, for whom it would seem Walther’s 25 theses were new information.  Imagine my horror to hear such a large quantity of preaching attempt to use the demands and threats of the law to elicit obedience from the faithful, more beholden to the moral majority than a responsibility to feed grace to their hearers.

Imagine my surprise to find so many churches who not only celebrated communion infrequently, but gave the EXACT same excuses for it that I heard in countless churches holding to Baptist theology.  Imagine my alarm to see how people would resist the suggestion to increase the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, as if they did not really need more forgiveness.

Imagine my surprise to observe worship services minimize sacramental ritual and rush irreverently through it.  Imagine how startled I was to see the overt practices, mannerisms, and philosophies of charismatic worship emanating from our members seeking to experience God through the music itself, rather than the Word.

Imagine my surprise to find such little interest in studying the scriptures with an eye on history, while observing no shortage of therapeutic tomes by celebrity ministers.  Imagine my disappointment to find the majority of adult members I ran into unable to finish a sentence that begins “We should fear and love God so that…”

Imagine my surprise to see so many congregations devoid of liturgical color, use of a lectionary, or regularly emphasizing much from the life of Christ beyond his birth, death, and resurrection.  Imagine my sadness to find congregations that never celebrate the Epiphany, Transfiguration, or Ascension, preferring to focus on what is useful over what is true.

Imagine my surprise to find so many in our pews who had never heard of the Book of Concord, much less read anything beyond the Small Catechism.  Imagine my dismay to find so many Pastors who did not find regular study of it worth their time.

Imagine my surprise to hear the article on which the church stands or falls dismissed as “all that theological stuff” that normal people aren’t interested in, while youth ministry supposedly taught the Catechism without going there, and the programming more resembled a good works boot camp.

Imagine my frustration to watch so many children graduate high school and never darken our doors again.  Imagine my anger to discover they grew up in our church and still have no idea what makes us different from other churches, besides the fact that we are more boring.

Imagine my surprise to hear the joyful proclamation of Christ minimized to make room for political agendas, ridiculously long announcements, testimonies, presentations on missions, and constant promotions for religious busy work.  Imagine my confusion to find so many who can’t understand why that even bothers me.

Imagine my surprise to see genuine beauty systematically eradicated from so many congregational music programs, while mindlessly pursuing inferior mimicry of the commercialized black-box-concert-arena-posing-as-religion down the street.  Imagine my shock to find so many in the pews that expect to sing on Sunday what they hear on popular radio, whilst being completely unaware of how quickly they tire of these songs and throw them away.  Imagine my sorrow to encounter a stubborn refusal to present the Gospel in as beautiful a way possible.

Imagine my surprise to hear so much preaching I would never invite a hurting person to listen to.  Imagine my angst at hearing unreflecting tribalism and politics edging compassion out of our message.  Imagine my heartbreak at hearing one of our ministers respond to my pleading with “Do I really HAVE to preach the Gospel in EVERY sermon?”

Fortunately, I have also found significant pockets in the synod for which these things are sincerely not the case.  I do not have any way of quantifying the extent of either, but no amount of these “surprises” are a good thing.  At the same time I have made these “surprising” discoveries, I have also been very encouraged by plenteous good things in our Synod, and so I recognize that we live with this tension of our churches never being all that they could become.  But there is such a thing as a line, and we have absolutely crossed over it way further and more often than we have any business tolerating.

There is a world of the religiously disaffiliated out there wandering the spiritual wilderness giving up on Christ because they were unable to find grace with his followers.  When they come through our doors and find us just like the rest of the circus trying to bait them with a good show, they don’t bother coming back.  In our archive sits the treasures of heaven, gathering dust as we exchange it for the tacky schlock of the Evangelical publishing industry.  We have so much to offer those who are struggling spiritually, who are wondering if there is something more to Jesus and a Gospel more beautiful than the smiling faces on the dust covers at the Christian bookstore.  There is simply no excuse for them to be able to visit our churches without getting a strong whiff of it.

It makes me want to stand and scream, “People, wake up!”  I get it, no church is perfect.  I know how to live with uncomfortable compromise.  But for the love of all that is good, true, and beautiful:

If you’re hearing moral pontification or practical self-help from the pulpit, if the Lord’s Supper isn’t the heartbeat of worship, if the services aim to create subjective experiences of “God’s presence,” if you’re not being encouraged to learn a faith that requires discipline to study, if the entire story of Jesus isn’t diligently and deliberately kept front and center, if doctrinal instruction doesn’t go deeper that who is currently living (and selling books), if the grace you’re being promised isn’t absolutely free and devoid of condition, if our focus is schizophrenically diverted to our burdensome religious activities, if our music doesn’t seek a beauty that is transcendent and able to inspire beyond the current generation, and if the death of Christ isn’t extolled as the final virtue against which all else fails and without which there is no hope….

…what really is the point of being Lutheran?

About Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robbert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.”


Imagine My Surprise — 28 Comments

  1. Unless you are going to cite names, dates, and places, all this amounts to is setting up an imaginary boogie man to satisfy heartland confessionals who fear the outside world. I can say, from personal experience, that what you are claiming I have not found in ANY Atlantic District congregation and I have lived my entire life in the NY/NJ area.

    I have worshiped with the deaf, with African congregations, Hispanic congregations. Despite musical, language, and cultural differences, vestments, seasonal colors, and confession remains intact. It is not necessary for Liberians and Malawis to play the organ or appreciate Bach any more than it is for the deaf to carry a tune. But I have witnessed people expressing hymns and singing Psalms with drums and hand signs. through friends, I have seen Orthodox worship older than any Western liturgy. Christianity is not the property of Western Culture or an expression of Western Culture. The liturgy, rites, colors and forms we have serve to teach and deliver the Word. This is a wonderful thing! But, even our confessions admit that these things are not expected to be uniform across time and space.

    Here, it is most important for any confessional Lutheran to appreciate adiaphora (FC X). It is good and right to evaluate or criticize rites, traditions, and expressions based on scripture. However, we must be sure not to make a law of any practice or insist on conformity if such obscures the Word with relation to another language or culture:

    “We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God.” (Ep X)

    There is some excitement with outreach to First Nations/ Indians/ Native Americans in the form of new Bible translation that our own missionaries are starting to use. It is in infancy and only just coming together but a liturgy expressed in these terms using the same passages of scripture we use, has a jarring effect on us, when we hear it. This does not mean those it is meant for are not hearing God’s Word. Ever pick up an old Jerusalem Bible where the entire Old Testament uses God’s name, “Yahweh”, instead of “Lord”? read it aloud and feel the difference that language choices make to your sensibilities. Yet, the change in language is our familiar and comfortable reading of “Lord”. Should we cling to something because it is comfortable and matches our sensibilities our heritage, our traditions, or because it is true?

  2. @CKR #1

    Uniformity of ceremonies (perhaps according to the Saxon Church order published by the Synod, which is the simplest among the many Lutheran church orders) would be highly desirable because of its usefulness. A poor slave of the pope finds one and same form of service, no matter where he goes, by which he at once recognizes his church. With us it is different. Whoever comes from Germany without a true understanding of the doctrine often has to look for his church for a long time, and many have already been lost to our church because of this search.

    How different it would be if the entire Lutheran church had a uniform form of worship! This would, of course, first of all yield only an external advantage, however, one which is by no means unimportant. Has not many a Lutheran already kept his distance from the sects because he saw at the Lord’s Supper they broke the bread instead of distributing wafers?
    The objection: “What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies?” was answered with the counter question, “What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs. We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers. They were so far removed from being ashamed of the good ceremonies that they publicly confess in the passage quoted: “It is not true that we do away with all such external ornaments.” -C.F.W. Walther

  3. @CKR #1

    “Unless you are going to cite names, dates, and places, all this amounts to is setting up an imaginary boogie man to satisfy heartland confessionals who fear the outside world.”

    You then cite a document that itself didn’t cite names.

    Many of us have seen everything that Miguel describes above.

    But then (unless I missed something) you decided to beat up a straw man.

    “It is not necessary for Liberians and Malawis to play the organ or appreciate Bach any more than it is for the deaf to carry a tune.”

    Again, unless I missed it, where is that even suggested in the article?

    It kind of seems like you may have missed the forest for the trees.

  4. This is most certainly true.

    Sadly, this entire commentary echoes my own experiences and journey in the LCMS Eastern District these past few years.

    Thank you for writing this and for saying what needs to continue to be said.

    May God continue to bless you and yours!

    Grace And Peace,

  5. Dear Miguel,
    Great article! Don’t worry about CKR. He is either woefully ignorant of the condition of our congregations (most likely); or possibly just a troll who just doesn’t get it. We have our fair share of such folks, but I don’t think more than average. Just ignore them …
    We truly do have great treasures in our synod, some of which are the people in it (see upcoming article here). In the American context, Lutherans have to work and work (and nag) in order to keep what is special. This is the dominant theme in the history of American Lutheranism–all the professionals in this area of church history know it. The challenge is to be firm and nice at the same time— and not let your frustrations take control. Blessings to you and yours!
    Yours in Christ, Martin R Noland

  6. Thanks Miguel!
    Your quote below brings to mind Luther’s description of the gospel as a “passing rain shower”. I pray that this is not the case among us.
    “In our archive sits the treasures of heaven, gathering dust as we exchange it for the tacky schlock of the Evangelical publishing in dustry. We have so much to offer those who are struggling spiritually, who are wondering if there is something more to Jesus and a Gospel more beautiful than the smiling faces on the dust covers at the Christian bookstore. There is simply no excuse for them to be able to visit our churches without getting a strong whiff of it.”

  7. May I be so bold as to suggest (yes, I will) that the ACELC has been trying to address this issue since its founding and has run into much the same criticism from people who know better. If you want to join us in this effort to bring the good ship Missouri back to uniform practice and belief, here’s the link to our website. Check it out.

  8. Excellent post, Miguel. You have cited the reasons why I proudly identify myself as Lutheran when someone asks if I am Protestant.

  9. Miguel I also want to thank you for your Christian, sincere interaction with me on FB, something I can’t credit some others here with. I’m not going to stop mentioning this, and they know to whom I refer.

    I also appreciate that your (lay-written) article doesn’t give itself the tone of a scholarly work.

  10. Imagine My Surprise

    As I watch the Elders of an LCMS church swearing allegiance to the BOC having no intention of doing the most basic things it requires, or worse having no idea of what the book contains.

    I will stop at open communion, but could go on.

    As I and My family was shunned out of the congregation, I guess I was deemed unsuitable because of my ” Old Time ” LCMS values such as closed communion?

    Ga / Fla. GEORGIA

    Why yes I don’t know how wide spread this is but the pastor of the above church was the circuit visitor.

  11. Great article!

    It makes me wonder: how can we be in communion fellowship with one another while sections of our church are clearly outside our fellowship? I check myself sometimes… should I even commune here?

  12. @CKR #1

    What a sincerely hopeful and encouraging thought to know that there are people like you in our synod who have never encountered these surprises! I hope this will be the case for more and more of our people.

    I just finished a five year stint in the Atlantic District, and if you haven’t encountered any of this there, you just aren’t getting out enough. However, it’s not like you can get all 10 surprises in the same congregation. Most do use the lectionary and such, as you say.

    But this is no boogeyman to scare the True Scotsman away from outsiders. I WAS an outsider, and came here in order to find what our confessions describe in our church. I’ve found what I was fleeing from in our ranks. There is simply no denying this, it is a self-evident truth. Try as you may, you cannot wear rosy enough glasses to pretend it isn’t there.

    That being said, my experience in the Atlantic District was largely a very positive one. The people were exceptionally receptive and supportive of my family and my work, and leaving them was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do.

    “It is not necessary for Liberians and Malawis to play the organ or appreciate Bach any more than it is for the deaf to carry a tune.”

    …then why do they? I mean, I can’t speak for those countries specifically, but I do know for a fact that the music of Bach and the organ, along with the common service liturgy and even music of TLH are appreciated and used in many Lutheran churches in countries outside the west. This is because they speak a universal language that transcends any one culture, time, or place. Is it absolutely necessary? Well, necessary for what? You certainly won’t go to hell for failing to enjoy Bach’s music, but you’d better get used to it if you plan going to the other place. 😛

    But more seriously, local culture bears an undeniable impact on the aesthetics of worship practices. But we are fools to let it be ultimate. We sing African hymns over here. They use our musical products over there. There is a great interchange between various cultures going on globally, and throughout time and history, within the church, through which the best of the best rises to the top and endures throughout many generations. This is why Bach and organ music (and sacred choral) are so pervasive that secular academics regularly enjoy and promote them, outside their original intended sacred context. They are timeless, excellent, and objectively beautiful. Sure, some people don’t like them. They are on the wrong side of history.

  13. @Martin R. Noland #6

    Thanks, Dr. Noland. Being firm and nice is indeed the challenge. Overcoming frustration has been a source of spiritual formation for me these last five years, a challenge to which I have risen with varying success at various times.

  14. @CKR #1

    Very well said. Glad I am not the only person who seems to feel that we don’t have to be obstinate about certain things to preach the word and deliver the sacraments. That being said I am not being dismissive of the author’s claims (speaking for myself, not for you) that there may be pulpit issues, there always have been and always will be. I do agree that Christ should always be the central focus, law and gospel should be preached. I personally like using the liturgical calendar and lectionaries, but I also see the merit in perhaps taking seasons away from the lectionaries to provide topical sermons or series. (Gospel can still be preached while exhorting the follower of Christ to be a disciple in faith.). As for the music issue as I have said before I think that you don’t automatically have to sacrifice depth and theology to contemporary worship styles. It’s all in the execution and song choice. Third Day comes to mind for example as a contemporary band that blends hymns with a modern sound. I think we also need to allow pastors the freedom to determine the needs of their congregation and target their ministry to those needs. I personally trust that the vast majority of our clergy are faithful ministers. While there are exceptions, I have not seen anything systematic that leads me to question that in the aggregate.

  15. This post appeared on my FB page & considering I’ve been a Lutheran for just the past 7 yrs. I decided to read it…..and see it was written by Miguel, one of my favorite I-Monkers, along with CalvinCuban (think that was his name). Great article! Don’t know if you still follow Internet Monk. I only occasionally visit there these days, a little too progressive for me.

  16. @CKR #1

    This (Atlantic District) person’s posts read just like Dave Benke’s posts over on the ALPB Forum. Sad.

    I sent a copy of Mr. Ruiz’ article to my pastor and asked that it be put in our Sunday bulletin.

  17. Miguel, if only it were that cut and dried. I have found while living in a heterodox Lutheran community that the Pastor is all too ready to defend himself and the new brand of outreach as compliant with the Lutheran Confessions as he understands them. In other words, pastors who countenance contemporary worship, open communion and women elders have justified these practices and rationalized them in their own minds as not being contrary to their understanding and interpretation of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. This new breed of pastor coming out of the Concordia system will argue that contemporary worship is a great tool for outreach and that a bulletin notice regarding the real presence of Christ in the communion elements is sufficient and allows each person to examine him- or herself before eating the bread and drinking of the cup. It sounds like something St. Paul might have said to the Church at Corinth. And women in the church, as in corporate America, have taken over the “management” of the church and tasks in public worship that men have abdicated. In this sense, the church has become pragmatic, taking the path of least resistance to accomplish its goals and objectives. What’s a church to do when the men won’t step up?
    But even if Scripture and the Confessions are loosely translated by a Concordia graduate, no Lutheran congregation has any business giving even the appearance of impropriety by simulating church communities who despise the Sacraments as we understand and receive them; allowing women elders to distribute the bread and wine provided, of course, that they do not overstep their bounds and supersede the pastoral duties of the Office of the Holy Ministry. Yet women are welcomed as lectors and encouraged to become involved in the Divine Service (or other) and to read Scripture as though reading scripture publicly is not confined to the office of the Public Ministry.
    The problem has become that Confessional Lutherans are seen by too many within the LC-MS as a faction or an enclave of stubborn holdouts, fearing the inevitability of change. We’re seen as obsessed with incessant, internal purification. We’re not seen as mainstream, but as purists who want something that is ideal but not possible this side of the Resurrection. To a few others, we’re seen as curmudgeons discriminating against people of other faith traditions and preventing them from communing with their Lord and preventing women from rising to their proper place among men in the church.
    What I’m seeing is a refusal to be taught and a lapse of teaching. If Lutheran churches don’t vigorously teach the confessions to their parishioners then, as nature abhors a vacuum, their understanding will be carried away by American evangelicalism which will fill the void with encapsulated ideas from pop culture and Western progressive politics. But what makes it difficult is a Lutheran hybrid that takes on the trappings of the seeker sensitive church but with a Lutheran twist. Pastors, why do you even go there?!!

  18. @Mark #24

    Question, is our understanding of the duties and responsibilities of elders still reflective of the elders or overseers in 1 Timothy 3, or would they be more in line with the duties and responsibilities of the deacons and deaconesses in 1 Timothy 3? My understanding of the apostolic definition of overseers is that these were the original pastors and bishops, whereas deacons and deaconesses were people who performed a specific ministerial duty, usually involving distribution of the sacrements. For example, deaconesses were used to help with baptism of women during the early church. I ask in reference to Mark’s post regarding the role of women in the church. Does the LCMS have a definitional document surrounding the role of elders tying it to the requirements provided in the pastoral epistles of Paul? Just curious.

  19. @Sean #25

    Sean, start with this LCMS document:

    It touches on a number is issues including the role of elders in a congregation and the definition but not the duties of a deacon:

    … Scripture does not define the exact role of such deacons, only their qualifications (1Timothy 3:8-13). Scripture gives them no special spiritual responsibilities in the congregation beyond those given to every Christian.

  20. @Mark #24

    “The problem has become that Confessional Lutherans are seen by too many within the LC-MS as a faction or an enclave of stubborn holdouts, fearing the inevitability of change. We’re seen as obsessed with incessant, internal purification. We’re not seen as mainstream, but as purists who want something that is ideal but not possible this side of the Resurrection.”

    I’ve been called worse.

    The problem has remained the same for quite some time now. There is no over-sight. And there is no over-sight to be given in many cases. A District President or even the Synod President isn’t going to walk into a congregation any time soon and say… stop doing that. What grounds will he be able to stand on to do so?

  21. @Mark #26

    I hear you. I was basing my take on the role of deacons from some of the historical sources such as the didache, mention of Phoebe as a deacon in Romans, etc. My understanding of the Greek word is that deacon means servant, attendant, or minister, particularly in the sense where the person is charged with running specific errands or even waiting tables. I want to say that the seven appointed in Acts 6 were appointed as deacons with the calling to distribute the freewill offerings to the poor. However, we also see that they have some measure of authority, precisely what that is seems to be in flux though. For example, Paul calls Phoebe both a diakonon (deaconess) and prostatis (patron) and gives the church of Rome a subjunctive wish or what could be a command to assist her in her mission. It’s a tricky subject. Paul seems to thread the needle between providing women roles of great importance within the church without abrogating the institution of marriage. One of the things I have felt for a while now is that those passages such as 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul limits the authority of women in the church, needs to be balanced with passages where Paul affirms the work and authority of others such as Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, etc. We also have to keep in mind that where a passage such as 1 Timothy 2 references passages in Genesis 2 and 3, those Hebrew passages use a term for woman that can also mean wife, as does the Greek term gunaika used throughout the NT. Similarly the term used for man is equally subject to two definitions, man and husband in both Hebrew and Greek. I think we continue to need a healthy dialogue in the LCMS in regard to the proper role of women in the church, using the scriptures as the base from where we start, then working outward to such things as the Lutheran confessions and position papers. I am not advocating for a female clergy as I think Paul is pretty clear on that matter, but I do think that women were provided with the role of deaconess and are equal partners in ministry within the body of Christ. I guess the question is how do we harness what our women of faith bring to the body of Christ while affirming the god-established institution of marriage. Thanks for the link. Would like to look it over so that I am more understanding of the roles as outlined by the church. Had never really thought about the specifics of what those roles are actually called to do.

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