My Grandfather’s Church

(from Pr. Preus) Apparently I’m not the only one who wants to see my grandfather’s church when I go to services on Sunday morning. Reginald Bibby does too. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. For almost 40 years he has been monitoring social trends in Canada through a series of well-known national surveys of adults and young people. We trust that our friends to the north are not too different from those who live in the United States.


Bibby says, “A common impression about the attendance drop-off in the post 1960s is that it was associated with millions of Canadians jettisoning their respective religious groups….To use the language of the market model, those who wanted to have their religious spiritual needs met were said to be spending time browsing in an array of ‘meaning malls’ and ‘spiritual marketplaces.’ Allegedly their consumer choices were determined primarily by their personal tastes and whims. In such an environment, people were seen as having little or no regard for the religions of their parents and grandparents. Those, after all, were the ‘old time religions.’ This was a new day – a day of individualism, freedom and post denominationalism. Bring on the competition, New movements, New age, and all” (Reginald Bibby, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (Novalis/St. Paul University Toronto, 2004) 34.).


In order to meet the felt needs of these disillusioned dechurched masses the mainline churches and their church growth gurus (Bibby names Lyle Schaller and Robert Wuthnow) began to “propagate the idea that there has been a sharp decline in the importance being given to religious group loyalties. People are said to be abandoning allegiance to individual Protestant denominations and even to broader religious families such as Protestantism and Catholicism. Congregational gurus tell us that North Americans who continue to want to participate in religious groups are commonly gravitating toward churches that are in touch with their needs and they are showing little concern for denominational and religious family labels” (Bibby, p. 39).


So your grandfather’s church has been changed in deference to these wayward Christians in the hopes that they will like churches without the ecclesiastical accoutrements of their grandparents’ church. Traditional liturgies, vestments, crucifixes, pastors with collars, hymns and even the name Lutheran are abandoned in favor of praise bands, projection screens, congregations named “Living Waters” or “The Alley.” God forbid that people might think that they have entered into a traditional Lutheran church.


But Bibby continues, “The unquestioned eagerness with which religious leaders have bought into such masochistic thinking is quite bewildering” (p. 39).   He then goes on to show statistically that the vast majority of people strongly identify with the church of their parents even if they have left that church. To be specific, 90% of Roman Catholics, 80% of mainline Protestants and 70% of Conservative Protestants (Bibby’s designation of Evangelicals) identify so strongly with their parents’ church that “switching almost amounts to a form of deviant behaviour” (p. 39). Rather, “most are reluctant to wander very far from their religious homes” (p. 35).


So what is the LCMS doing with this data? We are changing our churches to look nothing like our grandfathers’ or parents’ church, virtually guaranteeing that when the dechurched Lutherans return they will not recognize it. By so doing we “fail to capitalize on our advantage, in large part because we fail to realize we have it” (p. 36).


We need to return and look like our grandfathers’ church not just because it was a God-pleasing, vibrant and biblical church but because both the data and a commonsense marketing strategy suggest it.

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.


My Grandfather’s Church — 13 Comments

  1. Projection screens can be very effective to bring the gaze up and away from the “nose in the book”. (and for those of use who don’t want to ask for the LARGE PRINT, very easy to read). With everything else, I would agree. The Church is not the place to practice the latest fads from the advertising agency.

  2. I’m only familiar with a few LCC congregations in New Brunswick and in British Columbia. All are quick to tell me that they have closed communion and to defend the historic liturgy. It is so refreshing to the ears that have heard so much nonsense in the LCMS. Alas, I fear that this small sampling of LCC parishes may not possibly be representative of the whole. A recent random visit to a congregation on Vancouver Island was wonderful. I wish the little place put their services on Podcast. I would love to listen to it again and again. Strangely, these few LCC congregations are all tightly bonded to Lutheran Hour Ministries and their strange collection of Christian living devotions.

  3. I must say a word against projection screens. As a former member of a Willow Creek evangelical congregation it saddened me greatly when we went to screens. The reason given for going to screens is that the pastor didn’t want to see the tops of everyone’s head, which was supposed to be a joke. In reality the screens represent our whole now you see it, now you don’t culture which cannot endure anything that lasts longer than 45 seconds or takes work. The one thing you miss with screens is being able to read and reread the words of a hymn. Of course, most screen users abandoned hymns in favor of the praise mantras. Then of course, once you go screens, you move quickly into worship teams and once you go to worship teams, you have to pick a good team for everyone to look at. Then the worship team must become younger and younger so that they will be pleasing to the eye. Doesn’t really matter if they can sing because the tunes are not that hard. Then you need to engage the congregation in clapping to give them something to do with their now empty hands. Then you can finally move into the hugging and the back rubbing of your partner because this is probably as close as you have been to each other all during the busy work week. This is called a slippery slope and don’t think for a minute it will not happen!!!! It always does.

  4. Gayle,
    Your comments are ones that I have addressed over the years about praise band ‘performances.’ Some of which I have witnessed over the years caused me to wonder why any Christian man in his right mind would allow his wife to be involved in (or a father his daughter for that matter). You graciously say ‘younger and younger’ I would say walking the razor’s edge of overt sensuality. Don’t even get me started on litugical dance.

    I have had people ask for video screens because they have difficulty seeing and following along in a hymnal. Yet for the most part I believe that a hymnal provides what a screen can never provide. The certainty that what you are saying has been reviewed doctrinally, that it was not thrown together the night before on the word processsor, that the round peg of scripture isn’t being pounded into the square hole of a theme; that you can re read at any time what you said in church on Sunday.

    Face it, when you go to church someone is going to try to put words in your mouth. Having your own hymnal means that you know what those words are, and that they are words that have been pondered, prayed over, studied and carefully chosen for their doctrinal purity. And those words have been chosen for their beauty and ability to express the mysteries of God. Those words are inspired, those word are scripture.

    Worship is the common manifesation of doctrine, hymnals provide the worshipper confidence that what is spoken and sung is what we believe teach and confess.

  5. … not to mention that you can’t sing harmony from a projection screen. 🙂

  6. I am about to need large print.
    I have not found that any screen improves that situation; the light is usually wrong.
    The “now you see it, now you don’t” really bothers me. I suspect the whole service is out of sight out of mind about 30 seconds after it’s over (unless there is a particularly useless ditty with a tune that sticks!)

    Besides that, I like my church beautiful. Screens don’t do it!

  7. I am a church musician, and the last time I went to the church where I grew up, I missed out on most of the singing because of the stupid projection screens. How do you sing along if you don’t happen to know the latest happy-clappy chorus that the praise team is leading that day? There’s no music to read!

  8. The world we live in today is not my Grandfather’s world. It’s not even my Father’s world. And this is all the more reason why my Grandfather’s church is needed. My Grandfather’s church offered stability. You came to church and God was there, ready to shower His gifts of mercy and grace in each service. It proclaimed a clear message of peace and hope in the forgiveness and love of Christ Jesus. It was a refuge for people who gathered together around Word and sacrament to encourage and help one another. This should be the message of the LCMS. This is not our Grandfather’s world. But the God who loved and served my Grandfather with His gifts of mercy and grace has an unlimited supply for those who are weary and heavy laden. Come and rest and be refreshed!

  9. Thank you all for your words of affirmation. Sometimes one can feel very alone in their feelings, but you have reminded me that we are all in this together and I believe we are on the side of right and reverence.

  10. Amen, Klemet! I am sick and tired of church “leaders” trying to scare everyone into thinking that we must make all kinds of silly changes. Fear is causing soooo many of our pastors and laity to turn their backs on the very means by which God has promised to work — and which, in fact, does work, but they deny it. Another lie: “There’s a shortage of pastors. There won’t be enough pastors to go around in x number of years.” I’ve been hearing that one for nearly 30 years now. Fear is NEVER the right motivation.

  11. For those worried about the ‘nose in the book’: have a book at home. Study it; learn its hymns.
    Sing them the other 6 days of the week.
    A book offers the opportunity for familiarity (else, why ever put your nose into one, if not to comprehend its contents?) that a screen simply cannot.
    I have an adult piano student from another faith, whose church uses only screens and has for years. She has no idea what the construction of a hymn on the printed page looks like. Four-part harmony, even a melody line, are like artifacts from ancient history to her.
    Once upon a time, in our grandfather’s houses, hymnals were always found at the pianos (remember those?), amongst the sheet music and the books of Broadway show tunes. If you couldn’t read the music, you at least knew what it looked like. There was something wrong with that?

  12. I appreciate all the observations and comments on the shortcomings with songs/hymns projected on overhead screens.
    It helps clarify for me why so many of the contemporary songs sound so similar. They must be simple, with simple, oft-repeated tunes and choruses so that the majority can join in.
    I sometimes try to sing the bass line (nothing like good Lutheran 4 part harmony) so that many times I have looked back at a hymn text (during the offering, of course, not during the message!) to review and profit from the message of the hymn writer.
    Neither of these opportunities are possible with overhead projection (4 part harmony and/or reviewing the hymn).
    (Gayle – thanks for the slippery slope warning)

  13. Some of this discussion reminds me of Rev. Preus’ Fire and the Staff and the section (see ‘The Church’s Staff’ chap) which talks about hymns and praise music. This is what hit me when I was re-reading it in my hammock:

    “The direction of communication in the Divine Service is primarily from God to us” and, “Hymns Teach”, etc. This section also describes the major difference between traditional hymns that have lasted 100’s of years, and praise songs which barely last 10 years. This difference being that praise songs invariably focus on how we feel about God, or what we do for God. Hymns on the other hand focus on what God has done for us, or teach some important doctrine.

    What a difference. Will anyone be singing “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” 50 years from now? I have a feeling they will be singing “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice.”

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