With the recent death of President Gerald Ford, there has been a lot of reminiscing about how it was "back then" when he was in Washington. Even though Ford came into a tumultuous state of affairs in those days with the resignation of Nixon on the heels of his pending impeachment, the brief years of his presidency are often pictured as times of calm and healing. Many children today do not remember Ford, so this has been a good history lesson for all. Sometimes it's healthy to pause and look back.
As we begin a new year I noticed that this is my 20th in the ministerium of the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. So, I thought it might be one of those occasions to look back myself. When I entered the ministry Dr. Ralph Bohlman was the president of the synod and Dr. Robert Preus was president of CTS-Ft. Wayne. I remember the notorious "fact finding committee" coming to the Fort my last year at sem at the behest of Bohlman, who it became much clearer later, was gunning to get Preus out. It seemed that he was looking for proof of dissension on campus, but I can honestly say that my 4th year (1986-1987) was one of my best. It was a good place to study theology and to prepared for ministry. Still, the rumblings of things to come were in the air....
My first call was to an established mission (meaning "subsidized by district") in a poor rural area of Michigan. I was the first full time called pastor. Being a pastor of a "mission" congregation kept me in contact with district for periodic gatherings, and it was then that I had my first introduction to "Church Growth" (CG). The Mich. district under John Heins and Michael Ruhl was pushing it hard already then, and I was somewhat naive. Seminary had sheltered me from this, and Preus' opposition to the movement was undoubtedly part of his clash with the 'powers that be.' Eventually the whole church growth thing began to depress me, and I was fortunate to rediscover the works of Herman Sasse and the theology of the cross. My church had "plateaued" as they say, and I was suffering through the introspective critical phase of every new pastorate. I was set up to think that all churches had to grow numerically.
While CG was pushing its way onto the scene, it did not seem that the impact on congregational worship was yet so obvious. I would watch it creep in over the next several years, and it would be the source of pain and strife in two of my parishes. While being "sheltered" from this movement doesn't bother me, I wonder now if we should have been more prepared to face the inevitable clash we would experience out there once the movement caught up with us. I was prepared to pastor a traditional Lutheran parish with a traditional Lutheran hymnal. The Other Song Book had not yet come to be, and I don't really remember anything in those days about Creative Worship, although it may have been on the CPH market.
Dr. Stephen Carter was president of CPH in those days, a former prof from CTS. Looking back at what they published, I think that we were fortunate to have him move on. Thinking that he once taught at Ft. Wayne one might have thought him to be more a friend of Lutheran theology. But it took Paul McCain to turn it back in the direction it should have been going. McCain's interim presidency is certainly a high point in many lows over the last 20 years.
Dr. Al Barry was a pleasant surprise to the presidency of the LCMS after I became a pastor, and turned out to be a real theologian-president. Unfortunately the liberal-evangelical undercurrent was already flowing strong, and his tenure, cut short by death, did not seem to effect any lasting change in the direction of the synod. Dr. Kieschnick has effectively erased as much of his influence as possible, and seems bent on taking the synod all the way into the Evangelical river.
Over the last 20 years I have been fortunate to be given opportunities to serve the church-at-large, and have felt a part of the denomination even at national levels. However, I have also had an increasing feeling of being an "outsider" over these last 20 years as I have watched the church drift way from the moorings to which I thought it was once securely attached. Our people have been poisoned much by evangelicalism these past number of years, and I credit the ascendancy of "religious radio" with a lot of harm to the Lutheran conviction of its laypeople. Religious radio has quietly infiltrated our people's homes and retaught them to think and talk like methobapticostals (as someone once penned this). I notice this today even in my oldest members. No, this is not our grandfather's church any more.
Where will the next 20 years take me? I don't' know. I suspect, though, that traditionally-minded confessional Lutheran pastors like myself will be under increased pressure to conform, and when we do not, we will be marginalized, as many have. However, I predict that these very pastors will one day be credited with keeping Lutheranism alive, but it will be the quiet catechesis in small cities and rural areas. A leaven to leaven the whole lump, I hope. We'll see.....
Well, there is more, but I must get back to work.