Monday, June 28, 2010

From Generation to Generation - A Response

Lois Meyer Voeltz at The Creator's Tapestry posed a question based loosely on Psalm 145: Why are some stories and studies in the LCMS simply passed on unchanged "generation after generation"? Specifically she referenced the Synod's stance on the role of women in the church, a subject she and others would much like to see thoroughly overhauled. The premise behind her question invokes what she claims are the many studies already completed which support a change in the church's longstanding practice and teaching.

Ironically, her question utilizes the psalmist's words in a way that would have been unrecognizable to the author. His concern was the passing on of the great and unchangeable truths of the Word, not how we might challenge, once more, the interpretation of those Words. Forgive me, but I am struggling with the need of some to constantly challenge, "generation after generation," the time-honored teachings of my church body. If some people need and desire a practice where women are in leadership roles within a church body all the way to the ordained level, why is it so necessary to change the longstanding practice of a denomination that seems not to want to change? After all these "generations" of no change, why would one not simply "shake the dust from one's feet" and move on to a place more accommodating (or start a denomination to suit your views)? Or could it be that those seeking change feel that others have 'high jacked' their church body and imposed a minority opinion on the majority, a travesty they desperately need to rectify?

Personally I feel that the church has spoken enough and studied sufficiently this issue as to finally put it to rest (That is why the latest CTCR document she references produced nothing substantially new over what it has stated over the last two decades.) However, the need to question and challenge what we do not like will always exist in the church militant. It is hard to accept truth as absolute, especially in our postmodern culture. I am certainly not opposed to ongoing study of the truths of Holy Scripture. We will learn new insights until the end of time. Scripture is a well from which we can always draw new and refreshing water. That said, however, the recitation of the creeds each Lord's Day testifies to the fact that the church rests on unchangeable truths that can be known, accepted, and passed on without the need to question, challenge and change. With regard to the role of women, why is it that the greatest challenge to its historic position came only within about the last 100 years or so? Were the apostles and great fathers of the Early Church not in touch with the will of God as to accurately transmit in to future generations? Why, in our time, have we become so much more enlightened than our forefathers?

It is too bad that so many must remain so deeply frustrated within the LCMS, always seeking the new day of change, and always seeing it slip from their grasp with each released study and each convention. If Creator's Tapestry (both the blog and the official web site) exists as a sign that a new wave of protest and pressure is rising that will finally establish sufficient momentum to move mother Synod from her lethargic apathy on this topic, I fail to see it. Unless, of course, the momentum is largely behind the scenes away from the risk of exposure through the transparency of the comments section.

At any rate, the answer to her question is simple: These truths are passed on generation after generation because they are true, and they are true because they are based on the clear witness of Holy Scripture and the venerable practice of the historic church catholic. I think that's enough.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Limits of Technology in the Church

Recently AP reported that the Rev. Paolo Padrini, an Italian priest, developed an application (or "ap" as my iPod savvy son would call it) that will allow Catholic clerics to celebrate the Mass via their iPad on the altar in place of the usual printed Roman missal. For some this development will undoubtedly feel odd and perhaps even improper as technology makes yet another intrusion into our lives. It did, however, make me think about the place technology plays in the worship of the church, and what, if any, limits one might want to impose. For the mega churches with their gargantuan video screens and auditorium sanctuaries (there's an oxymoron), technology in this case already displaced all that was once familiar within the church, or much of it. Lutherans, always a bit behind the trend curve, are slowly catching up as they transform their own sanctuaries into "worship spaces" with cutting edge equipment brought straight from the world of entertainment.

Having just updated our own sanctuary with a brand new sound system (complete with those nifty Madonna headset units), it should be known that I am certainly not anti-technology. In the last year I have even incorporated Powerpoint into my instructional repertoire (although I still need my son's expertise for those cool animation things!). That having been said, I do believe there are limits to the use and implementation of technology in the church.

Pastor Tim Rossow over at the Brothers of John the Steadfast put into an economy of words what I believe I wanted to say. He noted that we "use new media where it does not get in the way of the Gospel and also keep from letting the media becomes the message." So how do we put this into actual practice? Consider the point of worship itself, to proclaim Christ and deliver the gifts of God. Worship does not fulfill this goal when it attempts to entertain and amuse, which, unfortunately, I believe the use of too much media does. Attention is taken away from Christ and, as Rossow points out, the "media becomes the message." Our new sound system was needed in large part because the purpose of worship is to make sure people hear the living Word of Christ. Those iPads on Catholic altars may seem odd and out of place at first, but I suspect that done right, they probably won't be seen by too many from their vantage point in the pews and thus should not detract from the hallowed nature of the service.

Technology should always serve the Gospel. Now I know that many will argue that the transformation of churches from those old stodgy medieval sanctuaries into the bright new media worship centers brought a breath of fresh life into the old bones. Young people relate to this, they will will argue. Yet my fear is that the trip to church will seem, in the end, little different than the trip to the local mall or theater. Where do we find the "other worldliness" that long characterized worship and pulled our gaze heavenward and our mediation deep within the mysteries of the faith? Entering church should feel a bit uncomfortable in the sense of traveling from one world to another. Time in the presence of God as revealed in Word and Sacrament brings us to the hidden edge between heaven and earth. I'm sorry, but a slide show of pictures downloaded from Google images or a video clip from a recent movie fails to capture this mystery.

Technology remains, therefore, a mere handmaiden to the Gospel. In light of that if CPH should develop an "ap" for the Lutheran Service Book and I'm lucky enough to acquire an iPad, I'll seriously consider the possibility of adapting - maybe. Let me think a little more about this.....

Monday, June 14, 2010

Are Denominations Dead?

Are denominations dead? According to Ed Stetzer in a special article for the June issue of Christianity Today, the answer, for now, remains "not yet." Mr. Stetzer offers an honest and seemingly balanced appraisal of the current health and future viability of denominations. He notes the tensions with the megachurches which see denominational affiliation as a detriment to their growth (as they shed the denominational identity from their signs along the way) and the usual frustration with the bureaucratic wastefulness and arrogant leadership and the perpetual infighting. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the better-known churches in America today, according to Stetzer, possess no denominational affiliation. A 2009 study of the 100 largest congregations in the US conducted by LifeWay Research for Outreach magazine discovered that half of these parishes refer to themselves as "non-denominational." He goes on to note that two of the three largest churches in America remain unconnected to any denomination: Lakewood Church in Houston and Willow Creek Community Church.

Yet despite all this, Stetzer continues to defend the future usefulness of denominational affiliation. One chief strength concerns missions, but from my vantage point within the LCMS, I was particularly interested in his last point: theological stability. Stetzer writes:

A denominational church in crisis has a relational network, experience, and a support system on which to draw. For example, if a dispute arises in a Presbyterian congregation between the pastor and the session (the governing board), it has an entire denominational structure filled with leaders to help guild a redemptive process. Not so with an independent congregation.

Denominations and their leaders have weathered many storms. That's not to say their member churches always survive, but it's more likely that they will. For our youth-obsessed evangelicalism, this is a hard truth. But where some expect to see age, decay, and obsolescence in denominations, you are more likely to find longevity, maturity, and wisdom.

He goes on to observe that "Evangelical denominations often are stalwarts of orthodoxy, while independent congregations more easily shift in their theology...." Now one could certainly argue this point given the drift of such mainline groups as the ELCA and the Episcopalians. However, Stetzer would also remind us that "the reality is that these do not represent the majority of denominational congregations or the majority of American churchgoers."

Coming closer to my Lutheran home base, Stetzer then writes: "Orthodoxy is more likely to remain established in denominations with clear faith statements. Confessional anchors have prevented drift in such denominations as the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Free Church." From an historical point of view, his observation holds especially true when looking back to the turbulent 70's during the infamous "walk out" at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. At that time we were clearly an exception to the rule of seminaries drifting headlong into the abyss of liberal European theology.

Nevertheless, many within the LCMS will debate the point of whether this denomination has experienced any real "drift" in the years since. Personally, I think a case could be made for legitimate concern. On the one hand we remain relatively solid on paper (with some exceptions, of course). Our basic confessional documents continue to hold as moorings, as also our documented position on certain other areas such as close communion (which has been a great help to me.) It is in the area of practice were we are weakening. Discipline will always be a tricky area for any denomination as it is for a congregation. We can speak convincingly on something only to turn a blind eye when it is openly violated. After a while one wonders whether what remains on paper holds any validity if we refuse to honor it in practice.

That said, the viability of denominational structure still remains of value from where I stand. As a circuit counselor, charged with working with congregations through the call process and in times of crisis, the structure can be a tremendous comfort and blessing. Sometimes churches need a structure outside of themselves to accomplish things they are unable to do so within their own limited resources.

Perhaps Stetzer's last sentence is a good place to end here as well: "A healthy denomination ultimately gives us strength. It's home, not a prison. It allows us to share specific theological convictions, practice expressions of ministry relevant to our communities, and serve a common mission in the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Accountability in the Body of Christ

When Helen Thomas made those remarks about Israel recently that led to her abrupt retirement, she discovered that even for established veterans of the media corps, some accountability remains. Her fellow reporters demanded a standard of conduct and held her to it. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her remarks is another issue. My point here concerns accountability.

Which, in my opinion, often seems lacking in the church. Now I am not referring here to the clergy, which is a separate subject to my purposes. I am referring to the idea among many that what they believe and how they live is no ones business but their own. They answer only to Jesus. In my ministry this attitude has impacted two areas in particular: sexual behavior before marriage and fellowship at the altar. Over the span of two decades I have encountered many who have believed that their involvement in the church was similar to that of any other club, minus the fact that there are any mandatory dues. Answering to their fellow members and pastor for what they believe and how they live their lives is clearly an 'over the top' expectation. Thus, when confronted with the unacceptability of cohabitation prior to marriage, some couples simply move the ceremony elsewhere or join another church. They have no interest in abiding by what God's Word may say.

When it comes to the Sacrament of the Holy Communion the altar easily becomes akin to a fast food establishment. You have food, I am hungry, you must feed me, no questions asked. Period. You don't need to know what I believe or how I live. That's my business. Between me and God, so keep out! How foreign such an attitude is to the Bible and the practice of the Early Church. How far we have drifted from these convictions, where the doors of the church would literally be closed to the unbaptized prior to the Communion liturgy. Instead of holding people accountable so that they might live genuine lives of repentance and forgiveness in Christ, we ignore sin, explain it away by justifying it, and duck from any confrontation. As a pastor I stand indicted myself for a failure to truly hold up my end of this responsibility as faithfully as I am required to do so.

If the church today is to find renewal it must rediscover accountability under the Word of Christ. Anything less will simply be 'playing church.'