An Open Letter on the LCMS National Youth Gathering

First, some caveats.  I am not writing this angrily.  I am not a liturgical nazi (though no doubt some will dispute that).  I have good memories of the NYG when I was a student (San Antonio and Atlanta–which, if you’re keeping track, will tell you how old I am), and I will have good memories of this one (particularly Pr. Tim Droegemueller’s Bible studies, and the presentations by Dr. Craig Oldenburg, Dr. Reed Lessing, and Craig Gross of XXXChurch).  The NYG was obviously professionally done, and everything was done with the highest technology and skill. 

I am not writing anonymously so that I can snipe from behind a pseudonym; if you want to know my whole name, e-mail me and I will tell you (or if you came from Facebook, you already know who I am).  I write this blog semi-anonymously because I don’t want my personal political opinions confused with my work as a pastor to people of all parties.

I am as concerned for the future of our church, which includes these youth, as anyone else.  I have no personal grudges against anyone leading the NYG.  I count some of them among my close friends (although they may not count me so after this).  If you are not interested in having the discussion, please don’t comment.  It’s a waste of your time and mine.  No ad hominems.  If you can’t make your case without them, I will ignore you.  So then, to my observations and questions.

Who could argue that it is bad to see youth excited in a Christian context?  If we’re putting the best construction on it, they’re excited about being Christians along with thousands of other Christians, and they love Jesus.  And if the consequence of that is that they return excited about the Faith and their faith (as no doubt many would argue), then there probably would not be a problem.  But is that what actually happens?  For myself, I recall very little about the mass events or the Bible studies (except that the one in San Antonio revolved around Psalm 46) or the presentations.  I remember some of the concerts at Atlanta (particularly the surprising appearance of the 77s–Mike Roe signed my copy of  Drowning With Land in Sight!), but I think I was mostly excited about so many kids in the same place–or so many Lutheran girls?  (Now, obviously, that may just be an observation on my own superficiality.)  Are thousands of dollars necessary for that?  If Higher Things continues to grow, won’t that same experience be had there? 

I don’t think it’s too hard to conceive that a kid will come back thinking, “Wow, all the people I saw were really excited.  I’ve never seen anything even close to that in my congregation.  What’s wrong with my church?  We need to get a band and some screens and a more exciting preacher.”  And when that doesn’t happen, I guarantee there are more than enough churches willing to take those kids in; if not now, then when they leave for college.  And wouldn’t it be a strange, ironic, and tragic thing if, by trying to excite and engage the kids with things other than the crucified Christ serving us His gifts, we actually drove them to non-sacramental, and something-less-than-sola gratia churches?

So there’s the music.  Music with lyrics that either speak about the attributes and characteristics of God (which allow the actual content of God’s action to be filled in however the singer might choose; or the lyrics are about what I’m doing for God (worshiping, praising, singing, bowing down, living, confessing, declaring–none of which are bad, of course, but if that’s the full extent of it, won’t it eventually militate against the Lutheran theology of worship?  That is, that the highest worship is to receive forgiveness from Christ?)  None of the music I heard in the mass events was heretical, or even necessarily heterodox, but the question is, what should make up the majority of Lutheran worship?  In other words, the music I heard could be profitably part of a private devotional time (in fact, I think that’s primarily what such music creates: a number of individuals having their private devotion, but doing it in a large group).  Lutheran hymns are full of “we’s” and “us” and declaring the wonderful works of God, not dwelling on His abstract attributes.  I think anyone who listens closely to a hymn and a worship song will be able to see that they do not really have much in common, except there is music and people are singing. 

The NYG mass events and the Tuesday “worship service” (quotes, because Lutherans should be about the Divine Service of Jesus Christ, not primarily our own praise of God) were not primarily corporate worship gatherings, except in the sense that there were lots of people there.  Primarily, they were concerts and entertainment.  I’m not denigrating either, except as they masquerade as corporate worship.  When you get to sing along with professional singers, that’s good in its place, but it’s not the Divine Service of the Church.  (At one point, one of the song leaders said, “Okay, we’re going to let you sing this one” and within a couple phrases was singing again.  I thought you were going to let us sing it…)  Again, nothing wrong with that if it’s a concert, but that’s not what it was billed as. 

Now, I know some of you are thinking that there is no necessary connection between what WE BELIEVE and the “style” of the service.  In fact, this (ELCA) pastor says precisely that.  He thinks you can have Pentecostal worship and people will figure out that the congregation is Lutheran by, well, default.  Seriously?  Do we have a default faith that people will pick up on because there’s nothing else it could be?  (By the way, re: Luther quotes, Luther also said that he didn’t care if people didn’t call themselves Lutheran, but if they denied Luther, they could very well be denying his doctrine.)  Is there really no connection between what we believe and how we worship?  Does it really make no difference to the form of the service whether we believe Christ’s Body and Blood are present or not?  No difference if new life begins at Baptism, or at my decision for Jesus?  No difference if we believe we gather primarily for God to serve us in Jesus Christ or for us to serve God with our praise?  It says nothing about our worship if the band is up front where most people are reduced to observers or if the choir is in back, guiding the people of God to sing out their praise?  There’s no difference if the music is intended to drum up (pun intended) the emotion and the adrenaline, or if it’s intended to support the words?  Really?  Isn’t there something not quite right when there is very, very little to distinguish a Lutheran gathering from any given Baptist mega-church?  (I’m not knocking Baptists; at least they realize that the liturgy doesn’t fit with their confession.) 

I’m not arguing against feelings and emotions; God has created us with them.  But is the music intended, by its beat and rhythm, to create emotion and feeling, or do the feelings and emotions come as a result of the Word of God doing its work?  But here’s the rub: what if feelings and emotions do not come?  Is God still working?  Is it really true that if I don’t feel anything, God has done nothing?  How faithless!  As if God needed our good feelings to do His work.  As if God’s forgiving work did not happen just because we did not have the right emotions.  God is not impotent simply because we are easily distracted, or suffering, or being attacked by the devil.  (And, incidentally, although I like the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah,” I’m not sure it’s appropriate for pre-service music.)

Finally, I have to wonder about the mass event presenters.  What does it say to 20,000 of our teenagers when you have pastors speaking on three of the nights (one of which was the worship service), and then on the other two you have a woman and a DCE, who, for all appearances, are doing exactly the same thing as the pastors?  No one is going to say that the woman and the DCE were preaching (well, one should never say “never”), but where is the difference between what they were doing and what the pastors were doing?  I have multiple qualms about criticizing the female presenter, since she was basically telling about her experience of losing a daughter in a car accident.  Her presentation (devotion? testimony?) was about her grief, and I am in no way denigrating that.  That part of it was pretty powerful.  But false doctrine cannot have a pass just because it comes from a grieving parent, especially when she is speaking to a captive audience of thousands of Lutherans.  She went on to make application to the experiences of the youth, but I had the feeling she forgot about Jesus.  She talked a lot about how God knows what we’re going through, and that He knows our questions and our doubts, and He loves us no less because of them.  She talked about how God has a plan for each of us.  But I’m not sure any of that is really comforting without Jesus.  God may know our questions and doubts, and He may love us, but has He actually done anything about it?  God may have a plan for us, but who knows what it is?  How does that help, unless His plan for us is in Jesus only?  

But the worst of it was that when she talked about her daughter being in heaven, she said it was because she had given her life to the Lord.  (Could it be that Baptist worship leads to a Baptist theology of conversion?  Just asking.)  Frankly, that’s simply not true.  Her daughter is not in heaven because she gave her life to the Lord; she is in heaven because Jesus gave His life for her.  That’s not just semantics; it’s the difference between heaven and hell, comfort and despair, life and death.  It matters how we talk, and if we do not recognize how foreign the thought of “giving our life to Jesus” is to “grace alone,” then we have ceased to be Lutheran.  And that’s fine–if you don’t want to be Lutheran.  But how is it acceptable for a Lutheran woman, married to a Lutheran pastor, to say things like that to teenagers who have friends who believe that salvation happens exactly how she worded it?  It matters how we talk, because, ultimately, we will think and believe the same as what we say.  Ask a liturgical scholar how many times the liturgy changed before the doctrine.  It’s not my personal bias, it’s a fact.

I want my kids to grow up in the Lutheran church because I believe it’s the catholic Church.  If it ceases to be that, I’ll be looking for the Church where it is truly catholic.  If I didn’t believe the Lutheran church was where Christ’s Word was purely taught, or where His Sacraments were administered according to His institution, then I would cease to be a Lutheran pastor.  And there is, of course, no guarantee that we will hold to our heritage (which is God’s Word, as the hymn has it).  I’m just begging for us to think a little more seriously about what we’re doing and where we’re leading our youth.  If we can’t do that, we might just as well send them to the non-denominational or the Baptist churches now–because, if things continue like this, that’s where they’re going eventually.

Timotheos