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Some thirty-four years ago I served as Assistant Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Chapel and Student Center in Madison, Wisconsin, a campus ministry of The Lutheran Churchâ€”Missouri Synod. In those days we averaged a couple hundred students per service in worship every week. The numbers were impressive. Unfortunately a lot of this growth and attendance was due to less than solid Lutheran practice. The Chapel at that time was practicing open communion, using a variety of contemporary worship services, and had women serving on the Board of Directors (the chairman [or “chairperson”] of the congregation at that time was a woman); all this designed, of course, to attract non-Lutheran students and disgruntled LCMS Lutherans who did not agree or even know what was the historic practice of The Lutheran Churchâ€”Missouri Synod or were just eager to “spread their wings” and rebel against that which they had been taught as children.
Having just graduated from the seminary I had naively walked into the proverbial “hornet’s nest” theologically. My entire tenure at Calvary was marked by theological controversy as I tried to maintain some semblance of confessional Lutheran practice in an ecclesial context that was less than friendly to orthodox Lutheran doctrine and practice. I ended up leaving Calvary in a stalemate with the congregation’s Board of Directorsâ€”having rejected a closed communion policy I suspended the board from the Lord’s Supper until this resolution would be overturned; in turn they suspended me from preaching (I paid no attention to this suspension but held services anyway). In hindsight I would admit that I did not always handle this situation as evangelically and patiently as I probably would have done today being of course more seasoned in the ministry. On the other hand, I experienced first-hand what happens when a congregation sacrifices pure Lutheran doctrine and practice on the altar of numbers and church growth. Besides breeding disagreement and controversy among God’s people loose doctrine and practice leaves people unable and unwilling to say with Luther in his Small Catechism, “This is most certainly true!” lest such conviction offend someone.
The Augsburg Confession soberly reminds us, “The Holy Spirit works faith when and where it pleases him in those who hear the gospel.” Those years spent in campus ministry taught me that the business of the Church and her ministers is not to attract big numbers into the Divine Service but to be certain that the gospel of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus in all its articles is always proclaimed clearly and firmly. Even though I spent many days at Calvary somewhat depressed about the holy Ministry I now realize that in a small way the Lord of the Church was teaching me what Luther meant when he once commented that besides oratio (prayer) and meditatio (meditation and study of God’s Word) one does not become a theologian without tentatio or tribulation. Tribulation is the “graduate school” for one who would be a faithful pastor. For this lesson that I learned early in my professional career, I humbly and gratefully thank God.
For all that, much good came out of my short tenure at Calvary, especially in the area of outreach. Besides the personal growth I experienced during my years at Calvary, the Holy Spirit raised up out of that cauldron of theological controversy some real gifts to His holy Church. There was Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr. (or “Fritz” we fondly knew him then), who was at that time not a Lutheran and involved in “rock-and-roll” worship but is now a highly respected Lutheran theologian in our own LCMS and a respected authority on Lutheran liturgy and hymnody. And there is his dear wife Carol, also not a Lutheran at the time when I met her, but a young lady whom I took under my wing to instruct her in Lutheran doctrine; she is now a staunch Lutheran and mother of several beautiful Lutheran children! There was a young man named Ric Gudgeon who was studying Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin and went on to Concordia Theological Seminary to work with students studying Hebrew as he himself studied for the ministry. There was a young lady named Brenda Borchardt who went on to marry Jonathan Shaw, also a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, who now serves with distinction as a Lutheran chaplain in the United States Army. And there was Christopher Mitchell, a young, formerly long-haired drummer in a rock band, who was studying physics. He met a red-haired Lutheran nursing student named Carol (his future wife) who brought him to Calvary (in more ways than one). He came to Christ through our campus ministry and was was confirmed by me, then followed my suggestion to study for the Lutheran pastoral ministry. Chris switched over to study Hebrew at Wisconsin, eventually taking a Ph.D. He then went to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, took an M.Div., and entered the Holy Ministry. Chris serves our church now at Concordia Publishing House where he edits the Concordia Commentary Series which will benefit pastors in the Lutheran Church for years to come (by the way, he authored one of the volumes himself, a commentary on the Song of Songs). I might add that I knew none of this until years after I had left Calvary.
What lessons did I learn from my experience at Calvary? Most importantly, I learned from bitter experience that it’s a slippery slope when the church becomes enamored with numbers because this usually (if not always) happens at the expense of sound Lutheran doctrine and practice. But I also learned that even in the bleakest of situations there will always be a faithful remnant in God’s Church even though this may not always be evident for a time for “the Holy Spirit [always] works faith when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession V). Or, as God assured Elijah who was depressed and cynical about his work in God’s Kingdom, “I have seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:21). And regarding outreach, I found that if you are faithful to God’s Word, good things will happen. As it is written, “My word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). I’m sure that Fritz and Ric and Chris and Carol and Brenda and Carol would agree.
Pr. Steven C. Briel
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church & School
Corcoran/Maple Grove, Minnesota