Big Yellow Cultural Taxis

Counting Crows brought 1970 forward to 2002 when they covered the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.”  I remember hearing that song all over pop radio.  The lines stick in your brain (as they must have done for Bob Dylan and Amy Grant, who covered the song as well): “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot/Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Which lyric, by the way, reminds me of this gem of pop Christian music.)

Don’t it always seem to go that way?  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Something psychological happens when you take something or someone for granted and then, all of a sudden, the thing or the person is gone.  Mostly we think of family, whether lovers, spouses, parents, or children, but I happen to be thinking of the liturgy.  There is so much pressure on pastors and churches to give up the liturgy in favor of more user-friendly or missional “worship styles” and many have capitulated.  Even those who don’t give in feel the imposed guilt and perhaps begin to question whether something else might indeed better serve people’s needs.  This in spite of the fact that nearly the entire argument for doing something other than the liturgy is emotivistic.  That doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional, although the emotions are often involved.  It means that every single argument over what a congregation’s gathering ought to look like is reduced to how someone feels.  It is the equivalent of saying “murder is wrong” because “I don’t like murder.”  So: “the liturgy is good or bad” = “I like or don’t like the liturgy.”  The entire quarrel (and that is what it often is) is reduced to gut-reactions and only then framed by some semblance of a rationality.

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New Traditions and Old

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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.]


Exhortation to Communion

Dear Friends: The Lord hath instituted His Holy Supper to be desired and received by His disciples. Therefore, also, the Church was formerly obedient to Him, and celebrated the Communion ever Lord’s day. Not only one or two individuals would then receive, but the whole congregation; even the sick always communed, the elements being carried from the altar to their homes. In our day, however, many of our members cannot be persuaded to come frequently to the Table of the Lord, nevertheless it should not often occur that the Communion is altogether omitted from the Morning Service; and much less should any refuse to come after the gracious invitation has been given, as has recently happened among us. The command of our Lord Jesus Christ: “This do, as oft as ye do it, in remembrance of me,” the heed of your souls while in this troublesome world, and the precious promise of the forgiveness of sins, should move all of us to desire this Bread and this Cup. But now we say, We are rich, and increased with goods, and we have need of nothing [Rev. 3:17]; therefore we do not receive what He offers, nor come when He invites. Hence it is not surprising that we are wretched, poor, blind and naked [Rev. 3:17], full of sin, burdened with an evil conscience, and without desire to do good. And the longer you delay, the worse your condition becomes, so that we must all exceedingly fear God’s wrath. I therefore exhort and beseech you, dearly beloved brethren, that you be more circumspect in the future, consider more earnestly the things that belong to your peace [Luke 19:42], and receive grace from the fullness of Christ. For He is rich toward all who seek Him, and those who come to His Table shall be satisfied with the abundance of His House. Nor ought any one to say that the frequent celebration serves to bring the Sacrament into contempt, for those who are rightly prepared will always hunger for this Bread and thirst for this Drink; and the more frequently they commune, the firmer becomes the persuasion that all of the earthly life is only a preparation for the celebration of the great Supper on high. “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house, they shall still be praising Thee; Selah [Psalm 84:4].” God be merciful to you, and supplant your lukewarmness with heavenly earnestness. Amen.

Exhortation to the Sacrament, to be given especially on Sundays when the Lord’s Supper is not received, or when Communion had been announced the previous Sunday and none or very few come to receive it.  From Wilhelm Loehe’s “Liturgy for Lutheran Congregations.”


Come To A Common Decision About These External Matters

Now even though external rites and orders—such as masses, singing, reading, baptizing—add nothing to salvation, yet it is un-Christian to quarrel over such things and thereby to confuse the common people. We should consider the edification of the lay folk more important than our own ideas and opinions. Therefore, I pray all of you, my dear sirs, let each one surrender his own opinions and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder—one thing being done here and another there—lest the common people get confused and discouraged.
For even though from the viewpoint of faith, the external orders are free and can without scruples be changed by anyone at any time, yet from the viewpoint of love, you are not free to use this liberty, but bound to consider the edification of the common people, as St. Paul says, I Corinthians 14 [:40], “All things should be done to edify,” and I Corinthians 6 [:12], “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful,” and I Corinthians 8 [:1], “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Think also of what he says there about those who have a knowledge of faith and of freedom, but who do not know how to use it; for they use it not for the edification of the people but for their own vainglory.
Now when your people are confused and offended by your lack of uniform order, you cannot plead, “Externals are free. Here in my own place I am going to do as I please.” But you are bound to consider the effect of your attitude on others. By faith be free in your conscience toward God, but by love be bound to serve your neighbor’s edification, as also St. Paul says, Romans 14 [15:2], “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.” For we should not please ourselves, since Christ also pleased not himself, but us all.
But at the same time a preacher must watch and diligently instruct the people lest they take such uniform practices as divinely appointed and absolutely binding laws. He must explain that this is done for their own good so that the unity of Christian people may also find expression in externals which in themselves are irrelevant. Since the ceremonies or rites are not needed for the conscience or for salvation and yet are useful and necessary to govern the people externally, one must not enforce or have them accepted for any other reason except to maintain peace and unity between men. For between God and men it is faith that procures peace and unity.
This I said to the preachers so that they may consider love and their obligation toward the people, dealing with the people not in faith’s freedom but in love’s submission and service, preserving the freedom of faith before God. Therefore, when you hold mass, sing and read uniformly, according to a common order—the same in one place as in another—because you see that the people want and need it and you wish to edify rather than confuse them. For you are there for their edification, as St. Paul says, “We have received authority not to destroy but to build up” [II Cor. 10:8]. If for yourselves you have no need of such uniformity, thank God. But the people need it. And what are you but servants of the people, as St. Paul says, II Corinthians 2 [1:24], “We are not lords over your faith, but rather your servants for the sake of Jesus Christ.” [Luther, “A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians,” LW (AE) 53:47-48

Actions and Words, Again

[See here for the first part]

So it seems that many people do not care that the treasures of the liturgy and the hymns are lost, and along with them any sustained relevance in the lives of sinners who, essentially, are exactly the same as sinners, say, 1700 years ago.

(Aside: It seems to me, in fact, that our current cultural situation is very near the situation of people like Ambrose and Augustine, following the legalization and then the State sponsorship of Christianity: i.e., very soon–if not already–there will be an influx of people into the Church or the sphere of those who belong to the Church, who have been pagans their entire lives.  They will not have been baptized and they will be approaching the Church from a position of nearly complete ignorance.  What will we do with them?  Will we pretend we can dumb down the Gospel to the level of unbelief, and that this will somehow appeal to them enough that they will gladly join Christian congregations?  Or will we be secure enough in our liturgical and apostolic heritage to assimilate them into the life of the Church, with the fullness of its ancient doctrine and practices (see Acts 2:42)?  This will obviously require much more work than what we’re currently doing, and a complete reworking of our present process of catechesis.  We will be starting at the ground floor, hoping to make life-long Christians.  That cannot happen in six weeks, or even two years.  Perhaps the early catechumenate, mutatis mutandis, can help us here if we are willing.)

But for those who do think the liturgy has something to offer, if only as a vestigial memory from childhood, what can we do?  I do not pretend to have the answers to a problem that has been in the making for probably 300+ years.  However, I will offer some tentative ideas, to begin or continue a discussion, especially in the LCMS (since that is my context).

  1. Parents, as I said in the first part of this, must be committed to what happens on the Lord’s Day.  Not only those who are parents of those particular children, but other members of the congregation who also have a vested interest in whether children grow up in the fear and instruction of the Lord.  Sunday School teachers cannot teach a class, and then absent themselves from the Divine Service without a very compelling reason.  Even if you think people don’t notice, it sends a strong message to children not to see their Sunday School teachers in the Divine Service.  It says you’re only putting in your time, and no more.  The other members of the congregation, surrounding the children, cannot sing and say everything half-heartedly or no-heartedly.
  2. When you are present in the Divine Service, and when you are at home, you must be willing to teach your children about the various parts of the liturgy (e.g., show them where things are in the hymnal), and connect the liturgy to the various concerns that arise in day to day life.  The Nunc Dimittis, for example, is especially appropriate for night time singing before bed.  (If you don’t know how it connects, ask your pastor!  He, if he’s anything like me, would love to tell you, almost more than anything.)  In the Service itself, you have to participate yourself and help your children to do so according to their ages.  Children will memorize the words if they hear the people around them singing them.  They do it with everything else you say; why not with the Divine Service?  Participate and sing the hymns, even if you don’t like that particular one!
  3. Related to that, realizing that the words are pure Gospel, sing them like you mean them.  If your children see you mumbling the words, or sitting there without your hymnal open, or glazedly looking out the window, they will quickly realize that these things are not important.  Guess where they won’t want to be next week?
  4. This presence and this participation will not only impact your children.  Here, we’ve come back around to unbelievers.  Imagine, first, this scenario: someone who is not a member of a congregation, who maybe has no connection with a congregation, who finds the Divine Service foreign, visits your congregation.  This person sits in a pew, sees people socializing right up until the beginning of the second stanza of the opening hymn, and singing the liturgy and reading the responses as if they were reading a manual on how to correctly install the flush mechanism of a modern toilet.  The hymns sound how Lutherans are always accused of sounding: like funeral dirges, not necessarily musically, but in the manner and appearance of the people singing them.  Death cometh, hopefully sooner rather than later.   At least, that’s what I’d be thinking.  Now, ask yourself this question: why in the world would that person ever want to return to your congregation for a Divine Service?  The fact is, we are the cause of the things we complain about.  The pastor can only do so much to speak and sing his parts with passion (especially if he’s an introvert like me); the people have to do a little work.  And if they do: if they sing with joy, if they appear to actually believe what they are singing and saying, might that not cause someone to take a second look at what appears at first to be an hour completely removed from the twenty-first century?  Maybe there’s something more here than meets my first glance.  Maybe still waters run deep.  Maybe…

Now, obviously none of these things, or anyone else’s ideas, will guarantee that churches will stop shrinking, that kids will start to love and treasure the liturgy more than their parents, that we can reverse a decades-long trend of apathy toward the liturgy that the Christian Church has developed over 2000 years.  Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb–the way things generally go–not a promise.  But the guarantee of continued falling away from God’s promises in baptism is much more likely if parents do not carry out their God-given responsibilities and bring their children to the services of the Lord’s House, teach them the stories of God’s salvation in Christ, and sing to them the songs that the Church has sanctified by long use.

On the other hand, if you want your children to keep looking for a church that will “fit their needs” and give them what they think they want, eventually they will just do what they always wanted anyway, and treat the Lord’s Day as just another day in the weekend.  If that’s what you want, I’d suggest we all just keep doing what we’re doing and kill off the liturgy, and with it the Faith that it instills.  I’m not willing to give up just yet.


Actions and Words

I know this is going to sound harsher than I mean it but, believe me, this is more a lament than a rant.

I often hear worried words and see much hand-wringing over the fact that “young people” are not going to church anymore.  That is usually connected to the worry about the “unchurched” and I’m sure it comes up often in evangelism or outreach committees.  We worry and we cast our anxious looks around at empty pews, but I’m not sure we really believe what we say; or if we do believe it, our actions don’t bear out our confession.

Let me put it this way: if we were really worried about youth and unbelievers, what are the sorts of things we would do?  Do we want them to go to church on Sunday to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts, and not just as an obligation or as a burden of the Law (there is that pesky Third Commandment)?  What would show that?  Maybe going to the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day and whenever else the services of the Lord’s House are held?  Not just when we don’t have anything else going on, but every single week (barring sickness or death).  We would make it clear from the very beginning of their baptismal life that the Lord’s House is where the Lord’s people are found on the Lord’s Day.  Full stop.  Yes, you can play sports; yes, you can have friends over.  But believe this: those things, and all things, will give way to the Word of God given to us for our forgiveness and edification.

If not, the exception swiftly becomes the rule.  In fact, it takes about three generations, as far as I can tell.  The first generation attends the Divine Service weekly, even if they are farmers and it’s a nice day for plowing or spraying the fields.  There are no exceptions to this, or if there are, they come about once every ten years.  That’s just how it is.  The second generation learned this from their parents, and by mere force of habit they follow this pattern–pretty much.  But maybe they’re not so happy with some pastor or the way the service always stays the same.  So even though they go every week, or at least twice a month, their children hear them complain about various aspects of church.  Their children also see them become a little more lax about when they go, and when they make their children go.  Because they want their children to go “for the right reasons, not because they have to, like I did.”  The problem is that the little sinners often don’t want to go.  They’d rather travel with their sports team or stay overnight with their non-church-going friend on Saturday night.  And the parents find themselves, in spite of their better desires, not wanting to “deprive” their children of those experiences.  And, anyway, what does it hurt not to go to church every single Sunday?  I mean, it’s not like going to church makes you a Christian, or that everyone who goes to church is a Christian.  Sure, they want their children to be Christians and to go to church–at least, they know they’re supposed to want that–and they still want them to do their confirmation homework and go to Sunday School (though they drop them off and don’t go to Bible study).  Finally, their children learn their lessons better than their parents teach it: church is something we should do, probably, but it’s not something absolutely necessary, so if we have “better” things to do, we will do them.  And we’ll still put in our appearances once a month or so.  We’re still Christians, because we say we believe in God (though we’re not quite sure who that God is, or how he/she/it is different from the Muslim’s or the Jew’s or the Mormon’s god), and we believe that Jesus died for our sins (though we’re not quite sure why we need that, or what it means to believe it).

So we come to the third generation, the members of which know that their parents think going to church is important, and their grandparents thought it was really important, but have a lot of trouble coming up with even one good reason why it’s important for them (except, maybe, when they have children, and the pressure from the parents becomes a little more intense, especially about baptism).  And they essentially, and consciously, don’t think being in the Lord’s House is any more important than the atheist down the street thinks it is.  (Of course, they don’t really know any atheists, because in small, rural communities everyone is a member of some church.  Right?  Aren’t they?  Well, they were baptized there, at least.)  And when they do come to the Divine Service, they find it irrelevant and boring.  Which is sort of like saying it’s irrelevant and boring to weed your garden when the weeds have already killed off all the flowers and vegetables.

Sort of bleak, isn’t it?  But the quicker we realize that this is our situation in at least the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the better off we’ll be.  As Charlie Peacock put it in a song, “Cheer up Church/you’re worse off than you think.”

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of parents (despite what they say) with their children for 20 or 30 years has been teaching them that what happens on the Lord’s Day is unimportant, irrelevant, boring, and unrealistic.  Why are we surprised when they believe it?  And then, once we’ve thoroughly inculcated in them this apathy toward the liturgy, we complain that it’s not meeting their needs and we need to do something else.  So maybe the Baby Boomers got their way after all, not by actively teaching the destruction of the liturgy, but by the inertia of the sinful nature.

I’d like to offer some possibilities toward a solution to this problem and how we might recover the beauty and the pure Gospel power of the liturgy, even without proficient cantors and choirs and instrumentalists, even in a rural congregation, but I’m beginning to think, even as I write this, that that’s just not what people want.  They don’t want to discover the depths of the catholic Divine Service, as it’s been handed down and refined through the centuries.  They’ve already convinced themselves that the liturgy, along with the strong, orthodox hymns, have outlived their usefulness.  So then: damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead (into faddishness–which will certainly mean irrelevance, not after 2000 years, but as quickly as worship innovators sense any new, cutting-edge entertainment to engage the cynical and jaded “youth”)!

But if you’re interested….hold on….


Body and Blood; Body and Soul

In Lutheran Service Book, the most recent hymnal in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the prescribed (suggested?) dismissal from the Lord’s Altar runs like this: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.  Depart + in peace” (LSB 164, 181, 199, 210, 218).  This is significant because the previous LCMS hymnal had this form: “The body and blood of our Lord strengthen and preserve you steadfast in the truth faith to life everlasting.  Go in peace” (Lutheran Worship 152, 173).  Lutheran Book of Worship (primarily used in the ELCA, but used by some LCMS congregations) had a shorter (and lamer) dismissal: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and keep you in his grace” (LBW 72, 92, 115).  The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) had the dismissal in a sort of split form: “May this [body or blood] strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting!” and then: “Depart in peace” (The Lutheran Liturgy 24).  But theEvangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1931 ed.), published by Concordia Publishing House, had “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ and His precious Blood strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto everlasting life” (14).  This seems to be a word-for-word translation of the dismissal in the Kirchenbuch I have (for which I don’t have a publisher or date, since those pages are missing; if anyone can check, it’s a black book with “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” on the front).

I do this exercise simply to point out the seeming novelty of the LSB dismissal.  Whatever their differences, none of the other hymnals have anything like the “in body and soul” of LSB.  (Although, interestingly, the modern Finnish Lutheran Mass has: “May the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve our spirit, soul and body [, the entire being of each of us,] [sic] until eternal life.”)  The question is, what does the novelty (and every novelty should be extensively interrogated) do?  I have heard one pastor oppose it based on the fact that my body is still dying, still subject to disease, still dealing with physical ailments after I receive the Supper.  Thus, the Supper applies to me only spiritually and not physically.

With (admittedly minor) apologies to that pastor, who wants to take seriously what we experience in this world and life, such a view raises a number of troubling questions: is salvation (and the Body and Blood of Christ can be nothing else) only for souls now, and for bodies only later?  What does it mean for Christ’s Body and Blood to preserve us unto life everlasting?  Do the Body and Blood of Christ, which we believe are actually and really eaten and drunk, only affect “half” of us?  How is that possible?  Is Jesus Himself present only according to His human spirit (or even His divine Spirit)?

The answers to all of those questions go to the heart of what it means to eat this Body and Blood and to be saved by this Christ.  And the LSB dismissal (whatever its provenance; someone with more resources at hand will have to see if it truly is a novelty in the Lutheran Divine Service) acknowledges what I take to be the serious implications of actually eating and drinking the fully divine, fully human Christ’s actual Body and Blood.

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More Paulson–On What Worship Is For

[T]he “essence” of worship lies in the act of proclaiming. To say it doctrinally, justification by faith alone is the center of true worship. Christ, his divinity, humanity, death, resurrection, and Lordship of a new kingdom are to be given presently to his betrayers. They are to be given to the ungodly, who are already dead in their sins by God’s own judgment. What the dead need is resurrection, which is no less than the specific forgiveness of their sin of rebellion against the Creator in the killing of the Son.To the great dismay of most, this makes Christian worship repetitive—almost without end. Worship’s greatest temptation is satiety, whose voice says, “We’ve done that before; couldn’t we do something else?”

Christian worship is for the forgiveness of sins. People need this day in and day out for their vocations in life, which otherwise become sheer bondages that carry the weight of making ourselves and others righteous. Forgiveness is needed in order to be raised from the dead—daily. Worship is for the justification of the ungodly, day in and day out. It does this by means of a preacher proclaiming God’s words of law and gospel. By this means the dead are cured of their blindness and they are raised to new life. God has seen to it that these words are put in things (objects of the old world) so that faith has specific, historical, personal, communal, concrete “somethings” in which the word is put so that hearers may have something to believe in. So, worship concerns giving the proclamation in what the tradition has come to call word and sacrament. …

It is good to remember that theological enthusiasm is finally the same thing under different liturgical guises: the search for better words than God has given us, in particular the words that bestow the forgiveness of sins to actual sinners here and now—in bread, wine, water—and the public, verbal announcement of the gospel. Worship wars are not about different tastes or conservative versus progressive social groups, nor are such wars the mere result of generational differences in musical styles. Worship wars have one common goal: the desire to get rid of the forgiveness of sins and the cross of Christ and subsequently the cross each person must bear. Unfortunately, trading cross for glory rids worship of the gospel. Then, all that remains is a grand fight to the death over who has the better piety. …

Worship in the evangelical sense must mean that these promises are the free gifts of Christ to sinners for the forgiveness of sins, or to say the same thing, they are the benefits given to those dead in their sins in order to raise them from the dead. When these words go out they make hearers (even among those who are lacking in individual and communal piety) who assemble and want to listen again and again—daily, weekly, and throughout the year. That means that in each of the promises we find the same forgiveness of sins repeatedly being given, yet given in different ways appropriate for making faith. It would be better never to meet if you do not preach the word that is read out publicly. When you believe in the promises given there, you believe in none other than Christ himself, clothed in his word for you. After receiving such a gift, you will pray by way of giving thanks and asking freely for what is needed in the world and in the church, for ourselves and for our neighbors. So we confess and absolve, baptize whenever possible, give the Lord’s Supper as needed, read Scripture and preach from it, and pray by way of thankful response, despite our experiences and feelings to the contrary—especially in great hymns that bring the word deep into the heart and express our deepest need and thanks. This is true worship of the preached God, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Steven Paulson, “What is Essential in Lutheran Worship?” Word and World 26:2 (Spr 2006), 156, 158, 161)

Why Refuse the Lord’s Gifts?

I try as hard as I can to understand where people are coming from with whom I disagree.  I really do (most of the time) want to know why they hold the positions they do and how they came to hold them.  But I have a difficult time understanding why people would not want to receive the Lord’s Supper every time they gather for the Divine Service (i.e., on Sundays and feast days, at the least).  I find it even harder to understand why pastors in previous generations (and we’re probably going back 150-200 years) decided to withhold the Supper from their people.  I mean, simply read the Small Catechism, and Luther’s Christian Questions (let alone the book of Acts, esp. 2:42!) and I find it hard to see how anyone could think that having the Lord’s Supper less often was a good idea.  And today, there’s simply no excuse, when Presbyterians put Lutherans to shame with their weekly communions. 

What reasons could people possibly have to say ‘no, thanks’ when the Lord would offer His own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith in Him and our love toward other people?  Here are some possibilities:

  • They don’t really believe it’s the Lord’s Body and Blood.  If it’s just a remembrance ceremony, no matter how special, then it can’t be as important as hearing the sermon or gathering with other Christians. 
  • They think they’ve had enough forgiveness.  You hear statements like this: why do I need to take the Lord’s Supper when I just received the absolution?  The answer is that they have not yet realized the depth of their own sinfulness.  Sin is not just the bad actions you do, it is who you are outside of Christ, and the battle between the Holy Spirit and your sinful nature can still go to your sinful nature.  And because we are completely sinful, though completely righteous before God in Christ, there is not a moment that goes by where we cease to be sinful.  Hence, St. Ambrose: “Because I always sin, I ought always to take the medicine.”  (cf. Augsburg Confession XXIV:33 [Latin])  Or, hear Luther: “If you could see how many daggers, spears, and arrows are aimed at you every moment [by the devil], you would be glad to come to the sacrament [of the Altar] as often as you can.  The only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the devil” (LC V:82). 
  • It will make the Lord’s Supper “less special” to take it more often.  People seriously need to think before they say this.  They are implying that a gift of Jesus Christ Himself can be made less special, less significant by how we treat it.  What they may be saying is that they would treat it as less special, but there the problem is, as always, not with the gift but with the sinner.  The gifts of the Lord cannot be made less special the more He gives them out.  They are not like having the same holiday every year, which would render the holiday irrelevant.  The logical conclusion of this thinking is fairly obvious to me: why does no one ever suggest having the sermon only twice a month?  Then: why not have the services of the Lord’s House twice a month?  Then: you know, it would be really special if we only did the whole thing once a year.  No one says such things.  To use an analogy, no one would says it would make the times you kiss your wife or tell her you love her really special if you only did it once in a while.  Nor does anyone say that meals would be really special if we had them only once a day, or once a week.  On the contrary, the more the Lord gives us His gifts, the more we learn to treasure them, because they are as necessary as love and food.  Those who say that having the Supper more often will make it less special have not yet recognized the depth of their sin, nor the greatness of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Supper.
  • I think the most common, though unspoken, objection is that it simply takes too much time.  People like the shorter services, because they view the services of the Lord’s House as a chore to be completed, rather than the occasion of the Lord’s visitation to His people.  If we really believed that God Himself was present in Jesus Christ to deliver His Word and Sacraments every week, we would….  Finish that sentence, and you have the foundation of a very good theology of the Divine Service.   

Those are the ones I can think of.  I find none of them even remotely convincing.  That is not to insult you if you have one of those reasons for not wanting the Lord’s Supper more often, but I think you should reconsider, and maybe confess.  When we use unscriptural and anti-theological arguments as reasons for not having the Lord’s Supper as often as His people gather around Jesus and His means of forgiveness, we are not only harming ourselves, but anyone who may need that medicine that day.  We deprive them of the gifts Jesus wants to give.  If you, for whatever reason, don’t want to receive the gifts He wants to give you, don’t, please, deny others the chance to receive them. 


Dumb Liturgical Americans

Imagine, if you will, the Ultimate Dumb American. You know, the big, loud guy in a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts, with black socks and sandals. Now imagine the UDA in a foreign, non-western country such as Japan, where he does not know the language or the culture, and he doesn’t care to learn them either. He travels to Japan and the trouble begins as soon as he’s off the plane (or before, if it’s a Japanese airline). He expects everyone to speak English, to have burgers and fries or pizza at every restaurant, and to have gigantic, American-size everything: hotel rooms, Big Gulps, etc.

Now imagine that the Japanese oblige the UDA. They learn English, they take on Western/American “customs,” they give him everything he wants in the way he wants it and on his schedule. If you can imagine this (admittedly crazy) scenario, you can imagine the state of (formerly) liturgical congregations in the United States.

The culture of the Church is a culture unto itself. Of course, like every culture, it is not static or unchanged by outside influences. But it does not take unreflectingly (or shouldn’t–why do I have to qualify every assertion in light of the American situation?) from the surrounding cultures, nor does it automatically morph into a clone of the surrounding culture. The culture of the Church is not a gecko.

The culture of the Church has its own language, customs, appropriate behaviors, expectations, and base of knowledge–all of which can be difficult to understand for someone unfamiliar with the culture. Some of these who are unfamiliar with the culture will politely observe, attempting to gain a handle on the often foreign culture into which they have entered. But many, many others–and often those who should be familiar with the culture of the Church are the worst offenders–are the equivalent of the stereotypical dumb American: they are Dumb Liturgical Americans (DLAs). These DLAs come into the foreign culture of the Church (and let’s admit that the culture of the Church is nearly as foreign to most people as Japan would be to me) and they expect it to mirror the culture to which they are already accustomed. They want everything as it would be “back home.” They want the Church to cater to them as individuals. They want the Church to speak their idiom and common language, rather than them learning the language of the Church. They want the Church to put up with their customs (shorts and Hawaiian shirts in the presence of the Almighty?). They want to be served the Food of the Church when and how they want, or they’ll get upset. If you are a professor of the culture of the Church and you do not serve DLAs at the Lord’s Table, even if they have no idea what it’s for or why they come, you will experience their loud wrath and snide comments.

Where is the politeness in a foreign culture and an unwillingness to assume that one’s own ways are better than the long- and battle-tested ways of the culture one enters? The arrogance of DLAs is everywhere, and it infects not only visitors and members; often it is exhibited by the very ones entrusted with the care and propagation of the culture. Ignorant pastors are worse than ignorant visitors. Where is the humility that takes for granted that an individual cannot just go anywhere he wants and demand to be accommodated in the exact manner to which he is accustomed? How juvenile to demand to be given the holy Food, no matter what the individual believes, as if it were hot dogs and apple pie!

The fact that the Church has a culture at all is unknown to our modern DLAs, and the concept is as foreign as learning Japanese to the UDA. So congregations adopt cultural idioms foreign to their essence and theology and expect their essence and theology to remain unchanged. But that is impossible. Would Japan be Japan if they spoke perfect English and served American food and did everything the way that Americans do things?

The solution to this clash of cultures is not to change the language and culture of the Church to make foreigners feel comfortable. That would be as absurd as the Japanese accommodating the UDA. Rather, it is necessary for those foreign to the culture of the Church to learn humbly and patiently those things that make the Church what it is. And it is up to those versed in the culture not to assume that everyone will know what is going on and to arrogantly refuse to help the uninitiated. Rather, those who are at home in the culture should humbly and patiently bring the foreigners in, to answer their questions, and to help them when they need it.

This process of cultural immersion will be sometimes uncomfortable and even shocking. It will take time and it will be challenging to those who are culturally illiterate–just as challenging as getting off a plane by yourself in a foreign country, not knowing anyone else and not knowing the language. But such a thought is perhaps beyond most people who are at home in a culture of instant gratification. Our ADD society may be unwilling to do what it takes to be assimilated into a new culture. That is why you see churches adopting every custom and idiom of surrounding cultures, however base they may be. That is why you see churches looking like K-Marts, like restaurants, like shopping malls. They have taken the worst consumerism of the American cultural milieu and made it their own. But they should not expect that the foundational culture of the Church, which is meant to support and uphold the essence and theology of the Church, to be unaffected and unchanged.

Churches are allowed to do whatever they want. But let them do it fully aware that they are changing the essence of the distinctly Christian culture. Let there be no tolerance for DLAs.