Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Does Membership Matter?

Does membership in a local congregation really matter? And if it does, what implications exist in issues such as participation in Holy Communion? In my ongoing discussions of Close(d) Communion in my parish, church membership is one area I have emphasized. It seems odd that we would make so many demands on prospective members - demands of fidelity to their confession and a commitment to support the church - only to wave all of them at the altar where unity and spiritual intimacy are so great. Yet, many LCMS parishes practice a minimalistic approach to communion fellowship requiring only a basic assent to faith in Jesus and the real presence, standards far below what they expect of their members in general. Why place so much stress on communicant membership when in practice our only interest is their future involvement in congregational meetings? Is voting on the annual budget and next year's council officers of greater importance than what occurs in this blessed Sacrament and in the fellowship of the faithful?

Unfortunately we treat the Sacrament in practice similar to a consumable product and little more. The idea is that by virtue of my implied faith in Jesus and agreement to the doctrine of the real presence, it is my inalienable right to now eat what is here offered. How did the Supper descend to levels barely above what we expect of those attending the local fast food establishment? If fellowship is important in the church, why do we care so little for it at the Table? A disconnect of huge proportions exists between the sacramental life of the church and its understanding of fellowship. Even Baptism is too often viewed as a consumable product to secure with no implications of any future commitment. How often are requests made for a baby to be baptized and yet the parents show no intent or interest to return to church or make any effort to raise their children in the context of the church's ongoing life of Word and Sacrament?

The Early Church understood Table Fellowship far better than the church does today. Membership took on implications as reconciliation occurred before reception of the elements, and before this in a bold confession of the faith at the font, not in a formal inclusion on some arbitrary list. We need to reexamine what membership means in the church, especially as it relates to the Sacrament, before all we have is another club united by the regular collection of annual dues.

Do Nominations Really Mean Anything?

Recently results for presidential and vice presidential nominations were announced for the upcoming synodical convention. In a surprise turn Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care surpassed the incumbent president, Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, by 577 nominations (See all nomination results here). Since his election almost a decade ago, President Kieschnick has always received a majority of nominations from congregations. According to one site the number of nominations this time around represents the lowest ever for an incumbent, while Harrison's represents the highest ever for a non-incumbent. To many observers this nomination turn around appeared to show a certain level of dissatisfaction with the current administration and a desire for change.

When the numbers were released I was most curious to know how Jesus First would interpret the results. This group more than any other has been a true political reelection organization for Kieschnick. I distinctly remember their efforts at the 2004 convention in St. Louis which left no doubt of their single-minded intentions that year. Well, their reactions are now on line. Predictably, their interpretation is that such nominations are not at all representative of how the Synod thinks. In fact, they are quick to point out that a mere fraction of the congregations of Synod actually sent in a nominations, and on top of this a concerted effort was made to push nominations in many of those places. By contrast, Jesus First made no real push and their candidates still easily made the cut.

That being said, one might well note that only in a few cases, historically speaking, has an incumbent received less than the majority of nominations, and in many of those cases (if not all!) it spelled the end of his presidency in the election at that convention. Note well the transition from Bohlman to Barry, or Harms to Preus. They may wish to 'spin' this in a way favorable to their wishes, but history often speaks louder. The end result, of course, will not be known until this summer in Houston when the actual delegates speak with their votes. However, I would venture to say that the nominations already give a sizable hint of what may be coming just over the horizon!

Side note: One of the Jesus First writers decried the negativism and lack of proper decorum of those who called for Kieschnick's defeat as synodical president. The impression given is that Jesus First is, by contrast, always above board and never negative about others in Synod, whether it be individuals or groups - certainly never of our elected leadership! To evaluate that seeming claim, one might want to look carefully at the archive of their articles over the last decade and assess whether they have always been so peaceful and uncritical of others in the Synod. One glaring example that ought to be reread in this context is the article by Dr. Stephen J. Carter, entitled "A Time for War and a Time for Peace," posted seven years ago this month. In this article Dr. Carter spares no words in his sharp criticism of those within Synod he sees as abusive and seemingly downright evil. His self-righteous anger comes through with a clear call-to-arms of a holy war against the enemy at hand. -- Along these lines one should also consider their criticism of members of the Board of Directors with whom they disagreed ("Synod's Board of Directors Far Afield" - June 2003), Concordia Publishing House and its leadership ("CPH Goes Out of Step with Mission Word in LCMS" - May 2002, or "What Is Happening at CPH?" - May 2002), or even Dr. Wallace Schulz, then Second Vice President of the Synod in his actions regarding the suspension of Dr. Benke ("Reactions to Suspension Reflects Real LCMS" - August 2002). When one approves of the current office holders it is easy to be supportive. Yet when those "in power" act in ways they disagree, the public chastisements certainly are not held back. Before one criticizes the opposition to the current presidency too harshly, it might be helpful to take stock of the actions of your own household!

Graduates Not Receiving Calls - What Does It Mean?

As with years in the past, reports surfaced that some of our graduates neglected to receive calls at the recent placement service. Remembering the excitement of that day now nearly 23 years ago, my heart goes out to any who must now wait. Reports of how many graduates did not receive calls from each seminary seem a bit sketchy at present, but the initial report indicated the possibility of a disproportion of delayed calls from Concordia - Ft. Wayne. Naturally attempted explanations fly freely at this point, with all of it being laced with a certain amount of conjecture. The dilemma in many minds is the seeming disparity between the ongoing claim of a pastor shortage in Synod versus the seeming unwillingness of some congregations to utilize a seminary graduate. So what explanations might I be willing to volunteer?

First of all it seems overly simplistic to offer a single answer to cover what certainly amounts to a multifaceted situation. Being a Ft. Wayne grad I am naturally tempted to jump to a "there is a bias against Ft. Wayne" as my first shot at the issue. While making such a blanket assessment seems even to me a bit overgeneralized, it does, as with all assessments, contain a possible element of truth to be explored. Being a circuit counselor who is involved in the call process out here in the field, I can tell you that there is a "Ft. Wayne bias" to some degree. Where this bias exists - and here I offer no real survey of reliable statistics - it is no doubt informed as much by rumor and innuendo as by any semblance of fact. Over the years it seems that the picture of "The Fort" as a place of Eastern Orthodox leaning high churchmen with a rigid "Herr Pastor" mentality that only divides perfectly good congregations persists in too many minds. Turning such thinking around proves difficult every time a Ft. Wayne graduate fails and becomes the poster boy for this reasoning. I hope someone may be able to provide a truly informed and honest explanation for any disparity between the placements from the seminaries, if some a disparity continues to exists.

That being said, might other explanations be offered for the delays? One recently offered by a district president concerns an issue near and dear to us all: finances. As costs rise, especially health care costs, congregations struggle through each budge cycle trying valiantly to find a way to keep a reasonable salary and benefit package for its called worker(s) while still still remaining realistically solvent. As I have observed in the past, the time is quickly arriving when we must look seriously at having more of our parishes return back to shared arrangements with other parishes. I am concerned that some churches, in an effort to control costs, will look instead to employing more lay workers or turn increasingly to alternate route programs which provide less training but a cheaper product. My fear remains that such alternatives will become, in time, the norm rather than the exception, and in the process our seminary training and level of training overall in the church will suffer.

One interesting option to explore might be the idea of the "worker priest." Unfortunately the Missouri Synod is currently ill equipped to use this concept with few pastors even in a position to realistically explore this. We encourage our young men to go straight through the system with the single goal of a pastoral vocation, which is right and proper. Yet might another route be explored alongside this with men who are able to balance two vocations in the interest of the Gospel?

Clearly the shortages tell us all something about the future of the church and how we will continue to staff them. As potential customers ultimately vote their preferences with their feet and pocketbooks, as they say, so too our congregations appear to be telling us something by their hesitance to call our graduates. They are voting, as it were, by their silence. At the very least we need to be talking with them to find the reasons for their reluctance to look to our seminaries for their future pastors. Only then might we have more concrete material to better analyze and with which we might then plan more effectively for the future.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day of Prayer Ruled Illegal

According to Todd Richmond of the Associated Press, "A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstituti9onal Thursday, saying the day amounts to a call for religious rights. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the government can no more enact laws supporting a day of prayer than it can encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue or practice magic. 'In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray,' Crabb wrote.

Congress established the National Day of Prayer back in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations calling on Americans to pray. According to Richmond, The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison-based group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2008 saying that the day violated the separation of church and state.

Interesting to note is that President Barak Obama's administration has stated against this that the statute simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States. Obama issued his own proclamation last year just as his predecessors had done since the 50's.

Judge Crabb, did, however, write that her particular ruling should not be considered a bar to any prayer days until all appeals are exhausted. President Obama plans to issue a proclamation for this year as he did last.

The tension between church and state in our country provides an ongoing debate about what role, if any, religion should play in our society. President Obama is right in saying that such a proclamation merely acknowledges that historically religion has played a significant role in our country. Our public universities, funded with state tax dollars, provide professors and classes for religious studies courses. Our military and other governmental agencies provide chaplains for the sake of our public servants who often find themselves under the kind of stress that only matters of faith can provide healing answers. As much as some might want, we cannot legislate religion out of the American consciousness, pretending that we are faith-neutral in matters of public national interest involving government agencies. In the same way, we cannot ask our public servants to shed their religious identity at the door in such a way that they are not allowed to integrate it with a faithful and responsible service to their country.

I predict that this judgment will ultimately fail to find judicial support if it should arise again to the highest court in the land. There are limits where we will go in trying to officially neuter this country of its religious nature. I am hopeful that this conviction will keep such unnecessary rulings mere footnotes in courthouse record books.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who Would Jesus Invite to the Supper?

When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper he invited only the Twelve. He had expressed a desire to eat the Passover with His closest followers one last time before His death, and Passover was essentially a family meal. So it makes sense that He included this small, intimate group. In our own time it is not uncommon for some to theorize about who Jesus would invite to the Supper in our current celebrations, the intended result being to show that common restrictions to the meal stemming from fellowship are inappropriate. After all, Jesus was all-inclusive, right? How could He willingly exclude any who professed a belief in Him?

Answering the question of "Who would Jesus invite?" thankfully is taken care of in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. We can trust, I believe, that Paul knew the mind of Christ on this matter, so we need not conjecture on this issue in a vacuum. Using 1 Corinthians as a template for our inquiry, we can deduce the following:
1.) Paul was concerned about divisions in the Church and looked for unity of confession and practice. He addressed the party spirit in Corinth that separated people into groups, some of which were counter to Christ (chapters 1 & 3).
2.) Paul was concerned about the morality and spiritual life of the members and whether they were repentant (chapters 5, 6, 7). His call for discipline on the unrepentant is clear and firm.
3.) Paul was concerned about fidelity to the Faith and the inappropriateness of attempting to serve more than one religious conviction (chapter 10).
4.) Paul was clear about the real presence of Christ in the Supper and the need for those who communed to recognize and believe this (10:16; 11:29).
5.) Paul understood the need to come to the Supper with a truly repentant heart (11:28).
6.) Paul recognized that the church is a body where equal concern for all was important (chapter 12).
7.) Paul understood that doctrine is important and that the various teachings of the church are related. For example, he understood that a denial of the Resurrection of the dead was ultimately a denial of Jesus (chapter 15.)

Given these brief observations, what might Paul then say to the question of "Who would Jesus invite to the Supper?"?

He would stress, as we have long done so, that those who commune together should come with a true faith in Christ, a clear understanding of His real presence, a repentant heart, and unified in a common confession. Would Jesus be pleased to see those who came to the Supper kneeling together with an indifference to the Truth? One would hardly think so, yet many do. In fact, there exists a kind of "Gospel reductionism," of sorts, when it comes to the Supper. Belief in Jesus is necessary, some might say, but beyond that we shouldn't be too particular. Baptismal regeneration? Infant faith? Sanctity of the life of the unborn? Are such issues critically related to true faith in Jesus? Or are they incidental?

All doctrines of the Bible are ultimately related to Christ. Take one apart and you end up denying something about the truth of Christ. Yet herein lies a stumbling block for the wider world of Christendom today. And until that is solved, issues of fellowship will be problematic and divisive and the question of "Who would Jesus invite to the Supper?" will continue to generate a variety of different and competing answers.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Experiment That Failed?

In the Spring issue of the Day Star Journal, Pastor Gene Brueggemann contributes his article "The Experiment That Failed," as an examination of how the LCMS missed a golden opportunity to celebrate the liberty of the church through its own constitutional structure. He writes at the end of the article:

Rather than trusting the Holy Spirit to work within the congregations, the conferences and the theological faculties of the Synod to create a consensus on doctrinal issues in an evangelical spirit, the new preeminent authority in Synod, President J.A.O. Preus who was more in the Stephan than the Walther/Pieper mold, skillfully and powerfully led the Synod along a new path, the path of power politics, control of the synodical conventions, and resolving doctrinal controversies by convention resolutions, that is, by tools of the law. It has been downhill ever since for those who work and pray for the primacy of the gospel in the teaching, mission and ministry of the Synod, whose conventions were designed to celebrate, not fashion, doctrinal unity.

Some key points to note in this quote are:
-We need to 'trust' that the Holy Spirit working though the church will arrive as the truth through consensus.
-Power politics where doctrinal unity is attempted through conventions is counterproductive.

It is true that "power politics" is not an effective means to achieve lasting unity and fellowship in the church, not to mention doctrinal unity. However, unity remains important to the overall witness of the church, and striving for a unified voice is always good for the church's voice to the world. Simply "trusting" that people will always get it right, or that whatever they come up with should be tolerated in the spirit of Gospel freedom and liberty, bears no resemblance to the earliest history of the church that fought hard to a common voice and confession. Reading the Day Star Journal and its newly published book, we would do well to develop a healthy skepticism about where this freedom ultimately leads. Claiming that Evolution is a teaching compatible with Holy Scripture, campaigning for women's ordination, and trying to arrive at the truth with substandard tools of Biblical interpretation (Higher Criticism), remains a continued relic from the past that didn't work then and doesn't work now for the good of the Gospel

Liberty is a part of healthy Christian work in the church, but unrestrained liberty - liberty without careful boundaries and guides - descends ultimately into license. This will only damage the church's witness in the long run. A careful look at the ELCA is sufficient warning here.

"Thoughts on Youth Ministry" Sure to Cause More Local Discent

The recent April Lutheran Witness features a couple of articles on youth work in the church that bear careful attention. It is the second one, however, entitled "Thoughts on Youth Ministry in a Postmodern Culture," that causes me concern, especially when read by laypeople already convinced that catering to youth will turn around shrinking congregations. Now in all fairness one can find some helpful information. The implication that too much of youth ministry is about "entertaining" the youth certainly offers a pause for thought. The National Youth Gathering held every three years should be examined under this suggestion.

The article is written in the style of a generic youth member offering a series of six suggestions to the church for change in the way youth ministry is conducted. I would like to highlight two that cause me the most concern:

1 - "Please ask the pastor to 'get real.'" -The anonymous youth then indicts the pastor for saying things like "You know we are all good Germans" in his sermon, as well as talking about his recent pastor's conference, something the 'youth' simply can't understand. I'm not sure where this caricature comes from, but it is clearly unfair to most LCMS clergy who endeavor each week to preach Christ and apply that Gospel to the lives of their people. I thoroughly believe that the pastor should work to know his youth and their unique struggles, which certainly many LCMS pastors do. This indictment, however, makes it sound as if most pastors are clueless about their youth and need to completely change the way they preach.

6 - "About the 'old liturgy'" - Here the anonymous youth takes aim at recent claims that "youth my age like the ancient liturgy - the more transcendent feel." The author clearly wants to pass along his view that this is shortsighted and has the 'youth' say: "Don't assume your 'old liturgy' is enough," and then goes on to say that the youth need to participate in the liturgy in such a way that their unique "gifts" are utilized. In the case of this youth it was drawing, and he wants to draw a picture and then have the pastor discuss with the youth what he has drawn. He claims that youth today are experiential in their approach to worship and need to have that aspect incorporated to make it meaningful.

Once more the message I hear is: "You must change what you do on Sunday morning or risk not reaching people, especially the youth." The message also includes the ongoing indictment that many Lutheran pastors today just don't get it and simply can't connect with people. They are lost in another time and place. Again, I stress that I support the fact that pastors should apply the Gospel to real life situations and that presenting a sermon that is no more than a glorified "Bible study" is not helpful. People want and need to know how the Word intersects with their lives. But the Word must always prevail. Personal whims and demands are not the engine driving worship. We worship and preach with the goal of proclaiming the Gospel and delivering the gifts of God, not to entertain or mold the experience to suit current tastes.

I could only wish that this article was not soiled with such a negative slant, but could have celebrated the good that pastors are doing, and acknowledged that not all youth in a post-modern culture embrace all these views.