Imagine My Surprise

I am a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism, something I’m content to wear on my sleeve.  My journey out of Evangelicalism was a long, difficult road of seeking to make sense of some tough situations in life.  I resonate very strongly with Jonathan Aigner’s comments on why younger Christians like he and I found ourselves no longer at home in popular American religion.

As I wandered down the corridor of “mere Christianity,” seeking to find a new spiritual home for my family, I investigated the various “rooms” of Christendom with a rather fine-toothed comb.  I learned much about and gained a deeper appreciation for most of the denominational traditions I had previously written off.

But as our search came to a close, there were 10 things which drew me powerfully to the Lutheran confession, so much so, that after having learned these things, they could not be unseen.  These 10 things were:

1.  The proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

2.  Weekly communion.

3.  Sacramental spirituality as a tangible means to encounter God – a much healthier alternative to revivalist emotionalism or reformed intellectualism.

4.  Catechism – teaching people what they believe and why.

5.  The Christian calendar – annually walking through the events of the life of Christ in order to keep Him constantly before us.

6.  The use of creeds and confessions – a willingness to learn from the consensus of the faithful before us who have passed the faith down to us.

7.  A proper emphasis on the doctrine of Justification sola fide – keeping the Gospel good news, instead of turning it into a continual carrot to strive after.

8.  Worship that is tenaciously Christ-centered.

9.  Outstanding musical heritage – from Praetorius to Bach to St. Olaf.

10.  The theology of the cross.

These are the kind of things that make our religion ultimately comforting and eternally true.  Of course, many of these things can be found in other forms of Christianity.  But nowhere else can you have them all together, and with such strength and purity.  My family moved from Southern California to New York to join the LCMS, since, as vocational church workers, we had to go where the opportunity was.  I was very excited to finally enjoy the benefits of a Gospel-saturated religious experience.

Because these ten things are simply exuding from every congregation of the LCMS, right?

Imagine my surprise to hear so many pastors neglect the Gospel in preaching, for whom it would seem Walther’s 25 theses were new information.  Imagine my horror to hear such a large quantity of preaching attempt to use the demands and threats of the law to elicit obedience from the faithful, more beholden to the moral majority than a responsibility to feed grace to their hearers.

Imagine my surprise to find so many churches who not only celebrated communion infrequently, but gave the EXACT same excuses for it that I heard in countless churches holding to Baptist theology.  Imagine my alarm to see how people would resist the suggestion to increase the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, as if they did not really need more forgiveness.

Imagine my surprise to observe worship services minimize sacramental ritual and rush irreverently through it.  Imagine how startled I was to see the overt practices, mannerisms, and philosophies of charismatic worship emanating from our members seeking to experience God through the music itself, rather than the Word.

Imagine my surprise to find such little interest in studying the scriptures with an eye on history, while observing no shortage of therapeutic tomes by celebrity ministers.  Imagine my disappointment to find the majority of adult members I ran into unable to finish a sentence that begins “We should fear and love God so that…”

Imagine my surprise to see so many congregations devoid of liturgical color, use of a lectionary, or regularly emphasizing much from the life of Christ beyond his birth, death, and resurrection.  Imagine my sadness to find congregations that never celebrate the Epiphany, Transfiguration, or Ascension, preferring to focus on what is useful over what is true.

Imagine my surprise to find so many in our pews who had never heard of the Book of Concord, much less read anything beyond the Small Catechism.  Imagine my dismay to find so many Pastors who did not find regular study of it worth their time.

Imagine my surprise to hear the article on which the church stands or falls dismissed as “all that theological stuff” that normal people aren’t interested in, while youth ministry supposedly taught the Catechism without going there, and the programming more resembled a good works boot camp.

Imagine my frustration to watch so many children graduate high school and never darken our doors again.  Imagine my anger to discover they grew up in our church and still have no idea what makes us different from other churches, besides the fact that we are more boring.

Imagine my surprise to hear the joyful proclamation of Christ minimized to make room for political agendas, ridiculously long announcements, testimonies, presentations on missions, and constant promotions for religious busy work.  Imagine my confusion to find so many who can’t understand why that even bothers me.

Imagine my surprise to see genuine beauty systematically eradicated from so many congregational music programs, while mindlessly pursuing inferior mimicry of the commercialized black-box-concert-arena-posing-as-religion down the street.  Imagine my shock to find so many in the pews that expect to sing on Sunday what they hear on popular radio, whilst being completely unaware of how quickly they tire of these songs and throw them away.  Imagine my sorrow to encounter a stubborn refusal to present the Gospel in as beautiful a way possible.

Imagine my surprise to hear so much preaching I would never invite a hurting person to listen to.  Imagine my angst at hearing unreflecting tribalism and politics edging compassion out of our message.  Imagine my heartbreak at hearing one of our ministers respond to my pleading with “Do I really HAVE to preach the Gospel in EVERY sermon?”

Fortunately, I have also found significant pockets in the synod for which these things are sincerely not the case.  I do not have any way of quantifying the extent of either, but no amount of these “surprises” are a good thing.  At the same time I have made these “surprising” discoveries, I have also been very encouraged by plenteous good things in our Synod, and so I recognize that we live with this tension of our churches never being all that they could become.  But there is such a thing as a line, and we have absolutely crossed over it way further and more often than we have any business tolerating.

There is a world of the religiously disaffiliated out there wandering the spiritual wilderness giving up on Christ because they were unable to find grace with his followers.  When they come through our doors and find us just like the rest of the circus trying to bait them with a good show, they don’t bother coming back.  In our archive sits the treasures of heaven, gathering dust as we exchange it for the tacky schlock of the Evangelical publishing industry.  We have so much to offer those who are struggling spiritually, who are wondering if there is something more to Jesus and a Gospel more beautiful than the smiling faces on the dust covers at the Christian bookstore.  There is simply no excuse for them to be able to visit our churches without getting a strong whiff of it.

It makes me want to stand and scream, “People, wake up!”  I get it, no church is perfect.  I know how to live with uncomfortable compromise.  But for the love of all that is good, true, and beautiful:

If you’re hearing moral pontification or practical self-help from the pulpit, if the Lord’s Supper isn’t the heartbeat of worship, if the services aim to create subjective experiences of “God’s presence,” if you’re not being encouraged to learn a faith that requires discipline to study, if the entire story of Jesus isn’t diligently and deliberately kept front and center, if doctrinal instruction doesn’t go deeper that who is currently living (and selling books), if the grace you’re being promised isn’t absolutely free and devoid of condition, if our focus is schizophrenically diverted to our burdensome religious activities, if our music doesn’t seek a beauty that is transcendent and able to inspire beyond the current generation, and if the death of Christ isn’t extolled as the final virtue against which all else fails and without which there is no hope….

…what really is the point of being Lutheran?

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