Steadfast Parish of the Month – Memorial Lutheran Church, Houston, Texas
Once upon a time – a half century ago, to be exact – a little boy named Scott Murray was born in Kitchener, Ontario. He can’t remember wanting to be anything but a pastor. The years passed and the little boy grew in the grace and knowledge of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In due time, Scott Murray completed his studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, and was ordained in Ontario in 1983. The Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray is now pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas. Pastor Murray talks about Memorial’s founding and membership:
Memorial Lutheran Church was founded 52 years ago by LCMS Lutherans that wanted a new congregation on the “far west” side of Houston. The founding Pastor was Gene Oesch. The congregation bought property on Westheimer Rd when it was a two-lane dirt road. We are now on the western edge of the Galleria, a financial and shopping hub in Houston, on an eight-lane surface street. The “far west” side of Houston is at least fifteen miles farther west now. What a great location this is for the gospel! Just recently, the congregation, after some debate, determined to remain at this location and started a building project. This project made our church much more visible to Westheimer.
Like all Texas churches we have members who have Wendish heritage, although our congregation includes Vietnamese members, and a growing community of Africans, especially Tanzanian members. The congregation is relatively young, about ten years below the LCMS average. One-third of our members are 21 or younger. The majority of our hospital calls are for births. Memorial Lutheran Church serves many professional people, especially oil people. That means there is a fast turnover of members, and we have members presently living in Europe, England, Libya, and Qatar.
Memorial has always been a conservative, confessional Lutheran congregation, and they want to remain so, although Pastor Murray says that, when he arrived in 1996, the congregation wasn’t always sure what that meant beyond “the Bible is the Word of God and we should vote for George Bush.”
Memorial member, Robert Harvey, is chair of the Board of Finance, co-chair of the church’s recent capital campaign, and an active participant on the building, construction, and dedication committees. He also serves the church at large on the Board of Directors of the Luther Academy and the Board of Regents of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. He talks about the church:
I grew up in other LCMS churches in the Houston area at a time in the 60’s when most local Lutheran churches were similar in practice. I briefly attended St. Matthew Lutheran when I returned to Houston in the early 1980s but found the church too liberal on multiple fronts. Once I arrived at Memorial, in the 1980’s, I felt more at home and have felt that way ever since. I wasn’t particularly aware of what was happening at other churches in the area until family members started to complain of changes in their congregations (and were ultimately forced to change churches).
Memorial is confessional in belief and practice. It has retained a traditional liturgy and strengthened such practice over time. It has two identical services on Sunday morning and a traditional “Sunday School hour” between the two services with a strong adult education component.
Over the years, preaching that properly distinguishes Law and Gospel and biblical and confessional catechesis has taught the congregation to see the connection between faith and practice. Robert Harvey tells us what helps keep him firm in the faith:
(Our pastors) preach law and gospel with a heavy emphasis on gospel. Both of our pastors have taught a Bible Class focused on the Scriptures (weaving some confessional Lutheran dogma into the discussions); in other words, we have an ongoing Scripture-focused Bible class for all adults. They, along with the Elders, have taken the congregation back to a traditional liturgy (we weren’t that far off before), with communion each Sunday.
In fact, Memorial’s return to celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday is an excellent case in point of solid catechesis. Pastor Murray describes what happened in his church several years ago:
(M)embers came to the voters assembly and asked why the congregation was not offering every Sunday communion. Good teaching gave rise to hunger for the Supper.
Good teaching, indeed. Robert Harvey tells the story from his perspective as a catechized member:
Holy Communion has gained meaning to me as I have aged – and perhaps matured – in the church (which is to say that for many years I found communion redundant to other aspects of the service and time consuming – “the dreaded page 15 Sunday.”) Today, I know that Christ is literally present in the sacrament and that through this Sacrament and His presence I gain strength to face the perils of the coming week. The magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross combined with His availing Himself directly to His people through this sacrament is impressed upon me each time I participate. I think that including the Eucharist each Sunday in all worship services has helped me realize that communion is an important blessing to be obtained whenever possible.
Pastor Murray cites lack of enough hours in the day to do what he wants to do as his greatest frustration. Little wonderâ€”he is a noted author, essayist, presenter, editor and lecturer. His writings include many books and magazine articles, plus a daily email devotion that reaches more than 900 subscribers all over the world. (Find it at www.mlchouston.org/memorialmoments). He is working on producing a radio program in Houston called, “Dying to Live,” which will begin podcasting soon. At home, Pastor Murray is the husband of Maryann; they are the parents of Anastasia (20) and Hilary (16).
Pastor Murray has interesting insight on his experiences with baby boomers and younger adults in the church:
The twenty- and thirty-somethings are especially insistent on the importance of confessional identity. The younger people are often much more respectful of tradition than their self-centered elders. They are less swift to throw over the gunwales things that they don’t fully understand. The baby boomers are still trying to run the church like they run their lives: with a casualness that is fatal to integrity of practice. Often, our practice is attacked with nothing more than the question, “Why can’t we…”
I enjoy working with the younger people, who do not come at Christianity with any preconceived animus, as did the baby boomers. Today, when you tell a twenty-something about the real presence in the sacrament of the altar, he or she says, “Cool! Tell me more about that.” Twenty years ago boomers, said, “You don’t believe that nonsense do you?” So there is an opening for faithful and confessional teaching today. Young people have a yearning for authenticity and mystery; those are certainly provided by thoughtful Christ-centered confessional Lutheranism.
We thank God for steadfast parishes like Memorial Lutheran, unwavering pastors like Scott Murray, and faithful laypersons like Robert Harvey. Pastor Murray gets the last word:
I can’t list all the joys I experience here, because you would run out of space.