NOT YOUR GRANDFATHERS’ CHURCH: Visits to Not-So-Steadfast Churches

By Phillip Magness

A couple of years ago, I was traveling back home from vacation with my family and decided to attend Divine Service at an LCMS church in one of the growing exurbs outside a Texas metropolis. Upon entry I noticed a few red flags, but didn’t say anything to my family out of respect for what we Lutherans call “adiaphora” (rites and ceremonies neither commanded nor forbidden by God). After all, maybe there were no hymnals in the pew racks because a recent spike in membership had resulted in not enough to go around. And maybe we couldn’t see a baptismal font because we just had poorly located seats. Still, it was hard to overlook the size of the sound system and the visibility of the sound engineer. Yet this was supposed to be a “traditional” service, and I took comfort that a clearly Lutheran liturgical order was outlined in the bulletin provided by the ushers.

As the service progressed, there were some irritants, like sitting for the Collect, but nothing one could point to as contrary to Lutheran piety. Indeed, it was easy to put the best construction on some of the things, and I was thinking that I could use them as examples of choices congregations make, showing that while some choices might be more meaningful than others, different choices are not necessarily wrong. Who knows? Maybe this fairly young congregation had many people with health problems, and so the pastor was trying to let the people stay seated as much as possible!

Then something happened I’ll never forget. After the Epistle the pastor announced that they were going to “take some time this morning to share the excitement that was VBS” at their parish the past week. Immediately, tracks of Disney-style music blared through the sound system and a couple of dozen kids came streaming down the aisles. Once up front, they began to move and shake–at least the younger girls did. The older ones, especially the boys, looked uncomfortable. But I love the sound of children singing the Lord’s song, and so even as my own children sat up straight in shock with their backs against the pews, I leaned forward in anticipation of something edifying.

But the children didn’t sing anything. Instead they lip-synched to the kids on the tracks. And neither the words nor the tune were worthwhile. Just a cheerleader jingle about being pumped “up, up, up” for the Lord. And as if one song weren’t enough, there had to be an encore! During this second number several of the parents stood up to get a better view with their camcorders, presumably since the second one had some sort of “hand jive” associated with it that older girls seemed to enjoy giggling through. Predictably, the spectacle ended with a vigorous round of applause led by the pastor.

Things could go nowhere but up after that, and the rest of the service was fairly calm. The sermon was heavy on sanctification, with emphasis on “everyone a minister.” This flowed logically into the installation of the congregation’s first Stephen ministers. The folks in the narthex afterwards were friendly enough, and all the buzz was about how “alive” things were at the parish now that their new pastor was getting “so many things going.” Clearly there was more than adiaphora involved in all this mix of new things, and I knew our family would have lots to talk about on the way out of town.

As we drove away my daughter said the service reminded her of a Monty Python comedy skit in which there was an election involving a Serious Party, a Silly Party, and a Very Silly Party. My children had come to know that while we in our family are serious Lutherans, there are some Lutherans who are not serious about doctrine and practice, but are just plain silly. My children had never seen these other Lutherans in action. So my daughter asked, “Daddy, were those the silly Lutherans at that church?” To which I replied, “Yes, sweetie, those weren’t serious Lutherans, they were some of the silly ones.” At which point my older son interjected, “Very Silly!”

President Kieschnick likes to talk about how today’s LCMS is “not your grandfather’s church.” But do our synodical leaders know how silly it is becoming?

Maybe it is time for laymen to speak up and tell them. Grandfather was a Serious Lutheran. So are we.


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