Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place. I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse). I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures. Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe). Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building. Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.” Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”) Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed. Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic). Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.
Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever. They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith. They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians. Fine.
But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old? It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism. It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront. I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy. I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things. Language matters and every action teaches something. I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners. I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries. I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining. Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant? As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?
Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere. From where do the songs come? From where do the thoughts about the texts come? From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come? From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together? Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition? Of course not. But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church? I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing. If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.
[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences. If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]