Not Your Grandfather’s Church ““ Visits to Not So Steadfast Churches, by Cantor Phillip Magness

Recently I had the opportunity to visit an LCMS congregation in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Entering a large sanctuary with free-standing altar and beautiful stained glass, I was cautiously optimistic as I took my seat for the 8:00 “traditional” service to the accompaniment of “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” on the organ.

However, I soon began to notice some of the signs I’ve come to recognize as indicative of post-Lutheran congregations: no hymnals in the pews, no baptismal font in view, and the presence of casually dressed “worship leaders.” Sure enough, at 8:01, a smiling gentleman in a golf shirt and sandals greeted and then began to “lead” us in the opening hymn. I put the word “lead” in quotes because he missed the opening pitches, changed tempos regularly, and held the high notes for longer than their assigned value. The organist clearly had a hard time following him, but some in the congregation eagerly followed his cues, and we all did get through it because it was a well-known hymn (“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”).

This “song leader” then continued in the charismatic “lead worshipper” tradition, offering an ex corde prayer after this hymn, followed by exhortations to the congregation to shout out “Praise God!” and “Amen!” He did this throughout the morning, at one point admonishing the assembly with “we’ve been doing this for three years, now! Come on, let me hear you!” After our song leader/liturgist had his “prayer time,” a casually dressed woman came forward to read the lessons, which had no relationship to the preaching to come nor the songs that were sung, and the congregation had no response to the readings. Interestingly enough, before the Gospel was read the congregation stood and sang the Gloria Patri from the old TLH page 5 service! I guess this was inserted because this was the “traditional” service, and the Gloria Patri is the one thing from the old liturgy that sounds somewhat like a praise chorus. Even it was led by the songleader, who held up his hands in the charismatic position before the lady read the Holy Gospel. The overall effect of this Service of the Word (i.e. the second part of the liturgical pattern of Preparation-Word-Sacrament-Thanksgiving) was sort of a “time out” before the pastor finally came out to preach.

The pastor, clad in tie instead of collar, told several funny stories that led into his message, which was not based at all on the readings of the day. A review of the sermon itself would require a separate article, but if you’ve heard Chuck Swindoll before, you’d have a good idea of the theology of glory that was unpackaged in this sermon, which could have been titled “God Reigns in Our Failures.” Calvin and Zwingli would have been especially pleased with the teaching that God intends sin so that He may be glorified.

After the lesson in double predestination, it was the pastor’s turn to lead the people in an ex corde prayer. This prayer led into a prayer of repentance, in which the pastor paused for a moment to allow people to individually confess their sins in silence. Ironically, though the worship leaders allowed plenty of time for vocal expressions of praise, the pastor allowed no more than two or three seconds for people to silently reflect on their sin and rend their hearts before God. Evidently, repentance is something that can be dispensed with rather quickly. Because this was the “traditional” service, the pastor’s prayer was followed by a corporate confession of sin, read together from the bulletin. Unfortunately, it was not one of the well-crafted confessions from the liturgy, and as a result so much was missed. No confession of total depravity, no acknowledgement of the righteousness of God’s judgment, no confession of sins of omission as well as commission, and no confession of original sin. Instead, the bulletin prayer led people to confess their “weakness” and praised God for forgiving them. While certainly we should praise God for the forgiveness of our sins, it seemed rather presumptive to start doing that before the Absolution! At any rate, the pastor did forgive people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Then we sat down. I expected the offering to be received, but instead the pastor launched into the Words of Institution, which he said while uncovering the elements on the altar! Other than the Peace exchanged between pastor & congregation immediately afterwards, this was the entirety of the communion liturgy. The continuous line communion kept the Lord’s Supper down to about three minutes, while the worship leader sang a praise song–except when he was assisting with communion distribution. At those times there were lulls in the song, as the congregation wasn’t participating.

The service concluded with the pastor saying “Let’s pray!” and then improvising an ex corde prayer with at least seven uses of the adverb “just.” This was accompanied by soft music on the piano. There was no Benediction. Then, though there was a closing hymn listed in the bulletin, the worship leader sang a “Gospel” song, complete with repeated chorus modulating up by half-step and ending with a romantic ritard and fermata on the high note before the final cadence. The weepy lady behind me cried out “Thank you, Lord Jesus” and several other people shouted “Amen!” as the congregation burst out into applause. Later, at the “blended” service, the worship leader would sing the same song before the sermon, at the beginning of which the pastor brought the soloist back out in front of the congregation for a standing ovation.

Clearly this nominally Lutheran congregation is being taken over by neo-charismatics. While there were a couple hundred folks at the services I attended that morning who were definitely into this style of worship, there were many quiet and uncomfortable folks around. I’m sure many of them are lifelong Lutherans who just don’t know where else to go. Looking on the synod’s attendance statistics for this church, I can see that a few hundred folks have evidently left in search of greener pastures; one hopes they didn’t end up on the golf course. As in many European countries today, it seems in the LCMS the “natives” are leaving while the “Muslims” are moving in. One wonders why these charismatics want to take over a beautiful, historic Lutheran church when they could simply have built their own church–but then one realizes that by taking over a Lutheran church they get a facility and a location that is much better than the pole-barn “praise tabernacle” they would have built on the outskirts of town. It’s just like Muslims in France. They don’t want to become French; they want France to become Muslim so they can keep their culture but enjoy the beautiful buildings, the fine art, and the tasty cheeses. France seems to be waking up to this threat by electing a man (French President Nicolas Sarkozy) who wants to save their nation and their culture. Will the LCMS wake up in time and elect a synod president who similarly loves the Lutheran Church?

(This article is a part of Phlilip’s regular column on this site. Phillip is the Cantor at Bethany Lutheran Church and School, Naperville, Illinois and was one of the plenary speakers at last summer’s LCMS worship conference in Seward, Nebraska. This post was also printed in the Steadfast Quarterly, I, 2.)

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