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.)

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.


Not Your Grandfather’s Church ““ Visits to Not So Steadfast Churches, by Cantor Phillip Magness — 24 Comments

  1. Are you sure you were in a Chicago suburb? That sounds terribly like my experience in Metro Denver.

  2. Phillip,

    Your terms “post-Lutheran” and “nominally Lutheran” are accurate. “Non-Lutheran” would also do.

    People wonder why the old charismatic groups in the LCMS (like RIM) died out. The answer is obvious. The Church Growth Movement rendered them redundant.


  3. In Ezekiel 10, God leaves the Temple. In the Liturgy, God delights to give us His gifts. At what point, do we so mar the liturgy, that it is no longer Gottesdienst, but merely a badly performed lounge act?

  4. I don’t know which is scarier–that the traditional Lutherans that felt uncomfortable in that service don’t speak up about it, or that there may not be anyplace else for them to go if they came up with the courage to leave.

    [Being familiar with a few churches in the Chicagoland area, if they are looking for alternatives, I know a few that I would highly recommend….]

    Although they had confession and absolution and the Lord’s Supper…..the heretical teachings are beyond belief.
    Since when does God intend sin??? What kind of sick twisted doctrine is that?

    Praise the Lord that there are still a very few Confessional Lutheran churches that remain in the Chicagoland area.

  5. Steven Bobb,

    Which congregations in Metro Denver have you found to be confessional Lutheran churches? I am also in the Metro Denver area and have looked for many years for a good church, which I have found in some respects but not in others.

  6. Peggers and Mr. Bobb,

    Having just recently been installed at a congregation in Denver, I’d be happy to let you know of some of the good, confessional congregations around. There are definitely a few.

    I’m at Mount Calvary in Denver, off of 36th and York. I’d be happy to give you some info on my congregation or to point you to some confessional congregations that might be closer to you. Feel free to email me at [email protected]

  7. “Recently I had the opportunity to visit an LCMS congregation in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.”

    Names of the church and pastor, please?!

    If this was a public worship service in an LCMess church, then such information should be provided in addition to the description of their service. Otherwise, the article publicly casts suspicion an ridicule on all northwest Chicago suburb Missouri Synod churches.

  8. I’ve been to a wedding at an LCMS church in Arlington Heights, IL (does that count as a NW suburb?) in September 2007. A non-Lutheran layperson, from Elmbrook non-denominational megachurch of Milwaukee land, spoke from the pulpit. A quick look at a map makes me think it was Faith Lutheran.
    How about “pseudo-Lutheran?”
    Anybody seen any good Mormon skits lately, done by high school groups during LCMS worship? Mormons talk about God’s love a lot, but don’t seem remotely interested or knowledgable about any objective demonstration of that love.
    Guess what’s worse than confessing our “weakness?”–confessing our “mistakes,” as is often done like at Holy Cross Los Gatos. My sin is by nature deliberate. It’s not a mistake. To confess a “mistake” smells like public mockery of the Almighty. That’s can’t be safe.

  9. I pray we can stop the slippery slide we’re on in MO, and retake the faith/doctrine/worship that is rightfully ours. I agree, we’ve been taken over, just like France. What a way to describe it!

  10. 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.”

    That just makes me LOL

  11. 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.”

    “If you will jus’ inspire a big collection so I can jus’ buy a Cadillac and I can jus’ go to Vegas and I can jus’
    win a million and I can jus’ build a big house….

    If you will only [just] give me everything I’m asking for, Lord,
    I’ll merely [just] thank you.”

    [I’m jus’ stretching the point a little bit.] These preachers have been listening to TVangelists too much! They make me want to tell them, “Stick to the Book!” It’s full of Psalms and other prayers, for use by inarticulate people.

  12. Since I’ve lived in the Chicago area for many years, I’m interested in where this church is. It sounds a whole lot like Palatine, but they have improved things there, so I wonder when the church in the article was visited. My friend in Palatine eventually started worshipping in Arlington Hts., but after much complaining from many members things have changed in Palatine. So prayer can help.

  13. Reminds me of a funeral I suffered through at an EV-Free church. The invocation was “what we’re going to do now is..” and the benediction was “we’re going to the cemetery now.” Believe it or not they had an altar call. The only person who seemed to know what he was doing was the teenager directing traffic in the parking lot.

    It must be the old German in me, but what I am often more distressed by than the false doctrine is that no one can give me a good reason why they do what they do. Finding a heterodox pastor or priest who can tell me why they believe what they believe is refreshing compared to the tautologies coming from LCMS Lutherans as they explain their practices.
    That is, I go to a mega Lutheran church and ask why they had communion before the sermon and oddly these progressives give the answer that should be the antithesis of church growth; ‘that’s the way we do things here.’ Sounds a lot like; ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’

  14. Regarding the identity of this last congregation, I appreciate the desire of some to know exactly who was being reviewed here. There would be good reasons for doing so, but also good reasons not to. We discussed the matter of “naming names” when I began this series and decided to take the “high road” and preserve anonymity for the following reasons:

    1 – The scenes described can be and are going on throughout the synod, so “naming names” puts an inordinaite amount of focus on one parish.

    2 – I did not want this series to degenerate into personal attacks & defenses. This travelogue is about the state of worship in our synod, not the individual personalities involved.

    3 – Formal admonition should come through the church’s process. District Presidents, relevant pastors, and congregational elders have been contacted regarding my findings. Putting actual names “out there” would sensationalize this issue and wind up harming the prospects for change. (For example: Marilyn reports an improved situation at a congregation in Paletine. We praise God for that! Would Internet headlines naming that congregation a few months ago helped or hindered that process? I think it would have risked making some parish leaders dig in their heals in a defensive posture. It is far better to push for change through official channels – as congregation members apparently did in Paletine.)

    4 – Pastors should not be judged on the basis of one sermon. Likewise, I don’t want to judge a congregation based on one liturgy. At Bethany, we had applause break out during a rite when we were blessing the 40th anniversary of a day school teacher. We didn’t plan it that way, and will conduct the rite differently in the future so that it won’t happen agin, but it did happen and I wouldn’t want people coming to Bethany one Sunday and then go out and say “Bethany: the Congregation that Applauds Itself!!!”.

    So what I am intending here is just an honest travelogue that slowly paints a picture of the landscape which is today’s LCMS. Each of the dozen or so upcomign reviews is of different size parishes, in different demographics, in different parts of the country. As this picture unfolds, I hope to show that we have a problem that is much greater than the errors or excesses of particular congregations: the loss of Lutheran piety throughout the LCMS.

  15. PM Wrote: At Bethany, we had applause break out during a rite when we were blessing the 40th anniversary of a day school teacher. We didn’t plan it that way, and will conduct the rite differently in the future so that it won’t happen agin, but it did happen and I wouldn’t want people coming to Bethany one Sunday and then go out and say “Bethany: the Congregation that Applauds Itself!!!”.

    All I can say is “Yikes!” Whatever happended to Paslm 47:1, Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. Cut some people a little slack and allow them to clap for joy…and do not assume that it was applauding itself!

  16. Martin,

    Why do you put the worst construction on things?

    The example I cited was where the applause was not directed to God. I wouldn’t have made sense to have brought up an occasion where hand clapping was part of praise, a la Psalm 47. When the congregation has clapped along with the choir singing Siyahamba (a South Africna Psalm 27 setting) or when the added hand percussion to “When In Our Music God Is Glorified” (see Sept 28 Bethany podcast), we were making Psalm 47 noises in praise of God.

    But that’s beside the point. “Martin” it is frankly annoying that I have to cite these examples but I guess that’s what I felt I had to do since you assume I’m some sort of legalist.

    And to be clear – we DO applaud people at assemblies, voters’ meetings, after-church announcements. We just don’t think it is appropriate to applaud individuals during the Divine Service. At best it distracts from “Soli Deo Gloria!”

  17. PM: The example I cited was where the applause was not directed to God.

    How do you know?

    And by pointing out other things…like he wore a tie and no collar…or they prayed ex corde prayers (from the heart)…or these charismatics…seems to be setting someone up as “wrong” as well…a tad judgmental?

  18. “Martin”,

    You ask how I know. Fair enough. Answer: because I was there. Becasue I talked to people. Becasue they told me so.

    Has it occured to you that you are the judgemental one? You are so intent on defending license that you will automatically assume the worst about anyone who observes anything wrong.

    Objective reality exists, whether or not you choose to hear it or see it.

    I’d hate to be a messenger sent to your house to warn you of an impending disaster. You wouldn’t shoot the messenger, but it appears you’d be sure to question the poor chap to death about every detail, ridicule his motives, ultimately ignore his warnings, and then perish tragically and unnecessarily out of your own willful blindness.

    Lord, have mercy.


  19. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer,
    Intersting information on EV-Free. I’ve never been to one before, but I would have expected better from them. Is there a blog that tracks what’s going on with those guys?
    How about a good blog on WELS? I find it interesting that some people seem to prefer the politics of LCMS over the politics of WELS. My goodness. Can anything be worse?

  20. “Wading into the affairs of others is like taking a passing dog by the ears.”
    Thus, I have been warned.
    So Martin & Philip (nice combination of names),
    “And by pointing out other things…like he wore a tie and no collar…or they prayed ex corde prayers (from the heart)…or these charismatics…seems to be setting someone up as “wrong” as well…a tad judgmental?”
    It could be considered judgemental; but these are also things that make the bologna meter go bezerk.

  21. Ms Rotermund (13),
    “but after much complaining from many members things have changed in Palatine. So prayer can help.”
    This is good to hear. “Whiney Christians” have been run out of quite a few Ablaze congregations, like in Aurora, IL. Young confessional LCMS pastors in downtown Chicago have been ostracized by their numerically dominating liberal associates of the region. There seems to be a certain shortage of pastoral care in the Chicago area. I wonder if the non-geographically oriented English District is more hopeful. There are a few of those in the area.

  22. Anon 1138, not aware of any blogs on the EV-free. I hope my experience was not representative.
    This particular funeral was a mess because there were two pastors there, one from the church where the funeral was held and one from the deceased former congregation which was unassociated with EV-Free. So we had 20lbs. of heterodoxy crammend into a 10lb. bag. The worst of which was there was no gospel spoken in any shape or form, and therefore no comfort given to the bereaved. There were no prayers for the family but they did have a video of the deceased that they played twice because the first time they couldn’t get the sound to work, which of course only served to jerk more tears from the mourners. The woman who died was a much beloved figure in the community who had been killed by a drunk driver, and so there was a great deal of anger and resentment amongst her adult children. None of this was addressed, rather in the pastor’s sermon the father of this family was told that he would have to be a better man and a better father than he had been prior to his wife’s death.

    I would think that in most EV-Free churches, if they have an altar call they would preach Christ, and tell who he is. But this did not happen. The altar call happened right after the ‘invocation’ no gospel, no law no nothing, just ‘pray that Jesus would come into your heart.’ I’ve been to many funerals where I walked out annoyed at what transpired, but this was the first I left angry. Angry that two men who were called pastors took two hours of time from 200 people and didn’t come within spitting distance of the gospel, only mentioning Chirst twice in passing and the Trinity not at all.

  23. Janis Joplin had a ‘request prayer’ in the song “O, Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz” didn’t she? in any case, the “God, if You love me a (fill in the blank) have always been there. Name it & claim it has been “proven” many times, but they all fall aside when it’s seen how often they fail. Somehow it seems a pitty that such a rewarding theory was to fall to the jaws of relentless fact.
    My father told me of the mutterings in LCMS churches with the introduction of The Lutheran Hymnal. My Pastor/Grandfather told me that famlies threatened to switch to the Wisconsin Synod, but the churches were too far away. One family ‘stayed’ LCMS because the WS church was a 2 hour drive away!
    I have some arguments with the latest book. It’s almost like the ‘improvements’ are attempts to force decreasing difference, so that the LCMC church in Beloit will be EXACTLY the same as the one in Walla Walla or Albany, or in Portland.
    And, finally remember; Jesus told His followers “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you.” Now that’s something to ponder until Lent.

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