Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Church Divided

The parishioners of St. John Lutheran Church in Kendallville, Indiana are blessed as they sing hymns during the Divine Service in their beautiful and ornate sanctuary – at the north end of the building. Concurrently, at the south end of the building, a different group of parishioners are singing praise songs in the “worship center.” They are a church divided.

St. John’s sounds a lot like a generic evangelical church-growth type church, similar to many other churches in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that have compromised their Lutheran identity in order to “church the unchurched.” According to their website, St. John’s is “here to give glory to God by using as many ways as possible to bring as many people as possible into:

• a life-long personal relationship with Christ;
• a life-long, growing commitment to Christ;
• and a lifetime of joyfully serving Christ.”

These goals mimic the evangelical church theology that has been imported along with the praise bands and Hawaiian shirts – they emphasize the Christian, not the Christ. By now you’re probably yawning – you’ve heard it all before. But wait! Now you can have the video to go along with the text, courtesy of YouTube. The following video’s music and lyrics were created by the Principal of the school at St. John’s. He’s an integral part of the congregation, having preached there (though he’s not a pastor), and is a member of their “worship team.” He takes “using as many ways as possible to bring as many people as possible” to a whole new level:

Woe is me. Our theology has become so poor and shallow that in a synod whose liturgical services begin in the name of the Triune God, we can now tuck a football under Jesus’ arm and contrast Him with sweaty smack-talking football players. While I assume the intent of the artist is to present a God-pleasing Gospel message, doesn’t this video rob Jesus of His honor, reducing Him to a cheesy quarterback? God incarnate, who created the universe, and the radiance of the glory of God, is assigned a place of honor a little higher than Peyton Manning, the MVP quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. In keeping with evangelicalism’s frequent theme, Jesus has become our spiritual cheerleader. Instead of singing “the Savior arose, and death, hell, and Satan He vanquished, His foes,” and “hail Him as thy matchless king through all eternity,” we’re singing “third and long he rose again” and “touchdowns all around got nothing on what God can do!” It’s a little like contrasting Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel to the fine art on the front of that Wheaties box that’s sitting in your pantry. The difference ought to be alarmingly obvious.

On a larger stage, isn’t this church emblematic of the LCMS as a whole? A sanctuary at one end, and a worship center at the other. At one end, the people humbly bow as the crucifix passes by. The chasuble-clothed pastor, gathered in the midst of the parishioners, speaks Christ’s salvific Word of the Gospel. At the other end, the people gaze at the screen as the polo-shirted pastor (or not), stands on stage and delivers today’s key Bible passage. Was there ever a more stark contrast in theology than this? Luther and Zwingli “got nothing” on this contradiction.

A long dark metaphorical corridor separates the sanctuary and the worship center. On the floor of the corridor is a string with a Dixie cup affixed to each end in case either side wants to speak to the other. Those Dixie cups have been laying there gathering dust for a long, long time. While the dust gathers, the lifeblood of the LCMS, the doctrine of Christ, slips between our fingers. We must close our hand to grasp the didache of Christ, before it entirely slips away. This isn’t a time for either “side” to sit smugly and point fingers at the other. It’s a time for repentance. Like Hilkiah’s rediscovery of the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22), we must, like King Josiah upon hearing its words, tear our clothes and repent of our own disobedience to the Word of the Lord. We must reaffirm that which we have sworn to confess, so that we may come before the Lord’s throne with boldness, receiving His good gifts and rightly proclaiming to the world what He has done.


Anonymous said...

This is called a throw-away hymn/song. It will have a perceived relevance and usefulness all the way up until the day of the Superbowl and then it will die an appropriate death--to be left on the dust heap of "modern" CGM hymnody.
Contrast this song with the hymn "Of The Father's Love begotten" (LSB 384) written by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens in the latter part of the 4th century. Real Lutherans still sing this hymn today around Christmas and beyond. It was written in response to heretical Arian hymns that were teaching a false Christology to the Christian saints of that day. Our fight against principalities and powers continues--and we do it with solid biblical theology taught in Bible classes, preached from pulpits and sung from the pew and in the home.
To understand how solid Lutheran hymnody kept Lutherans firm in the faith despite catholic persecution, you can read Christopher Boyd Brown's book, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. Read that book and your singing and listening to those theologically shallow songs will never be the same.

Anonymous said...

What are the LCMS seminaries teaching their students? Is St. John an ABLAZE! church, by any chance? Spiritual junk food?

Why do so many traditional LCMS churches appear to be losing members. Is the lure of contemporary worship services at other denominations in town simply irresistible? Do such people become good, faithful, lifelong members at their new church home, or are they just "passing through."

Why do non-denominational "mega-churches" appear to be doing so well. What are the long-term survival prospects of a church that relies on contemporary worship services in order to draw the crowds? Is such growth sustainable?

Scott Diekmann said...

I didn't see that St. John's is an Ablaze! church, at least not as far as mentioning it is concerned. If you'll go to the LCMS church locator page though, you'll find that Dr. Kent Hunter is a member of their staff:

Anonymous said...

I see Dr. Hunter earned a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, with a Doctor of Ministry in Church Growth.

And if the church service at St. John resembles a typical service at that non-denominational church down the street, then what would motivate a non-denominational church member to visit St. Johns. He is already getting his needs met by staying put. Does traditional Lutheran doctrine also get discarded with the introduction of contemporary services.

I don't get it. Are contemporary services the only way to "grow" a church. Can a church grow without allowing coffee in the sanctuary, light shows, praise bands in place of the altar, and video clips on the jumbo screen? Has anyone ever tried church growth methods without having to abandon the LSB in whole or in part?

Scott Diekmann said...

How to "grow" a church? People wrestle with that question all the time. I wonder if it's really the correct question to ask, since we aren't the ones responsible for growing the Church!