Friday, June 11, 2010

Not So Different

One of the arguments I hear time and time again from those who abandon the historic liturgy and replace it with other forms of worship is that this is necessitated by the fact that we have so many different cultures within the boundaries of our country.  The historic liturgy may be appropriate in some places, but it simply doesn't play well in other places, or so the argument goes.  I don't buy this at all. 

I'm certainly not so naive or uninformed as to think that there are not some cultural differences from region to region here in America.  Surely there are.  But, these differences are not so great as to demand the employment of different forms of worship, as if the historic liturgy would be so utterly foreign and useless in this or that region that it simply must be abandoned.  Ba-lo-ney!  Those who make this argument are simply looking for a way to justify the use of the different forms of worship that they themselves desire.

I witnessed an example of this a couple of summers ago when I was visiting my kinfolk in "Almost Heaven" West Virginia.  I attended the nearest LCMS congregation on the Sunday I was there.  It turned out that this particular congregation (which is one of only three in the whole state of West Virginia) was currently without a pastor.  An LCMS Mission Executive was there that day to lead the Service.  I was thoroughly disappointed with what I witnessed.  I really don't even know how to describe it.  It was a hodge-podge of various liturgical elements, some familiar, others obviously made up, with several contemporary Christian "praise songs" interspersed throughout.  It was wholly informal and dependent upon a theology of worship inconsistent with our Lutheran confession of the faith.  I could have saved the gas I spent to travel the 45 minutes to this congregation and just drove a mile down the hollar to attend Lick Creek Community Church and got the same thing.

The worst part about this experience was that I learned that the decidedly un-Lutheran "style" of worship I suffered through there was completely intentional.  Rather than preaching a Law-Gospel sermon, the Mission Executive's "message" was a power-point presentation, the main purpose of which was to drive home the point that you simply cannot worship like Lutherans in West Virginia.  He repeatedly emphasized the idea that the "old ways" of doing mission and ministry do not work in places like West Virginia, which "has a completely different culture."  One of the lines still firmly entrenched into my memory bank was, "We can't come into West Virginia as Lutherans, but need to first establish ourselves as Christians."  Huh?  What in the world does that even mean?  Was he actually making the argument that Lutherans doing mission and ministry in West Virginia should refrain from being Lutherans?  Yep.  That's exactly the argument he made.  Lutheranism doesn't play in West Virginia.  Lutherans can't preach like Lutherans there.  Lutherans can't worship like Lutherans there.  Lutherans can't teach like Lutherans there.  Lutherans simply can't be Lutherans in West Virginia.  The culture is just too different for such a thing.  Lutherans have to forsake their confession of the faith and pretend to be the kind of Christians West Virginians are used to if they have any hope of being successful there.

I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Gee whiz, maybe we Lutherans should just stay the heck out of West Virginia then!"  I mean, why bother?  If the culture is so vastly different and Lutherans have to forsake their confession of the faith and alter their doctrine and practice to fit in, what's the point?  If we're not going to be bringing Lutheranism into West Virginia, we really shouldn't be doing mission work there.

But, hey, this Mission Executive had a plan.  He had recently spoken at length with the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, after all, and he was confident that he could sneak Lutheranism into West Virginia.  He would just have to pretend to be a Baptist to do so, that's all.  He was sure that Lutherans in West Virginia would be able to actually be Lutherans someday, but it would take many years (maybe even a few generations) of being Baptists before that would be possible.

I also learned during this presentation that the reason this congregation had not yet issued a call to a pastor was because they were having trouble finding a guy who would be comfortable with the approach that needed to be taken there.  The guys they had already interviewed were just too Lutheran.  They needed a guy who would be willing to forsake Lutheranism and embrace being a Baptist.  It was actually refreshing to my ears to hear that they were having trouble finding a guy like that, although I knew that they eventually would.

Anyway, back to the point.  Having been visiting my kinfolk in West Virginia since I was a baby, the one thing I am absolutely certain of is that the culture there is not so different from the culture in which I live here in Michigan.  There are differences, to be sure.  But, these differences pale greatly in comparison to the commonalities we share culturally.  And I would say that this holds true throughout our country.  From coast to coast, from our northern to our southern borders, we Americans share a common culture which far outweighs the subtle differences we find from region to region and place to place.  To claim that the culture of this or that region of our country is so vastly different from others is to deny this reality.  And, to do so for the sake of abandoning our Lutheran confession of the faith and altering our Lutheran doctrine and practice is completely absurd.  Of course, when we seek the advice of the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention and other non-Lutheran "church consultants" to guide us in our endeavors to do mission and ministry throughout our great land, it shouldn't surprise us to witness Lutherans buying into the fallacy that we just can't be Lutherans in this or that area.

The other thing I am absolutely sure of when it comes to my kinfolk in West Virginia is that what is needed in their region is the pure Gospel confessed and practiced in their midst.  Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that this is what is needed everywhere in our country and all over the world.  Lutherans should be doing Lutheran mission work wherever they go, wholly committed to presenting the pure Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in confession and practice, unwilling to compromise that in any way, for the saving of souls wherever they find themselves.  That requires a commitment to our confession of the faith, which flows from an unwavering confidence that our confession is true.  This, of course, is the hard way of doing things.  It is much easier to compromise and adapt to our surroundings in order to fit in.  But, this should not be an option for Lutherans, not if we actually believe in our confession.

Lastly, those who continue to make the argument that different cultures require us to abandon the historic liturgy and employ different worship forms would do well to remember that the historic liturgy of the Christian Church has been employed throughout the world, across actual cultural divides, for quite some time.  The theological principle employed in this regard by Christians throughout history has been that the Church has her own distinct culture which must be maintained wherever she finds herself.  Worldly cultures cannot be allowed to influence the Church's culture in such a way that her culture would be altered and no longer identifiable.  On the contrary, the Church's culture is to have an impact on the worldly culture, no matter how diverse it is from place to place, so that those who are drawn in from the world are drawn into a decidedly different culture from the one in which they live out their daily lives.  In other words, the Church must always remain distinct from the world.  That's a decidedly Biblical principle and one in which true Lutherans continue to confess to this day.

If the historic liturgy works among Lutherans in Africa and Haiti and Russia and Sweden and in many other parts of the world, where there really are vast differences between cultures, one wonders how any sane Lutheran can actually try to advance the argument that it won't play in this or that region of our own country, where we share a culture that is far more common than diverse.  The only plausible explanation for this is that such Lutherans simply don't like being Lutherans.  Or, am I missing something?      

5 comments:

Michael Paul 白霈德牧師 said...

No, you're not missing anything. You're right on (from someone who's been immersed in Chinese culture for most of the past 23 years).

Rev. Thomas C. Messer said...

Thanks, Michael. I pray all is well with you and yours. Any changes in your situation since we talked in February?

Michael Paul 白霈德牧師 said...

Thank you for your concern. No changes yet.

Robbie F. said...

Sounds to me like your district mission exec (DMX?) was trying to sell this concept to the congregation. Which, in yet another way, is really sad. To a certain extent, he was telling Lutherans who were already in WV that you can't go into WV as Lutherans. In their place I would have told DMX to butt the #@!! out.

IggyAntiochus said...

Just a few things:

1) Pr. Peters has a large, Bible-belt congregation that practices a full expression of Lutheranism.

2) To quote my friend Pr. Ben Eder, "We can't out-Baptist the Baptists!"

3) The last time I experienced one of these hybrid services in the LCMS, I noted, "I'd be more comfortable in a Baptist church right now." At least my expectations would be lower and I probably wouldn't have heard a sermon titled, "No Limit Hold-Em: Are You All-In?" I won't even go into the diatribe on women distributing the elements. Suffice to say, I did not commune.

But hey! These are just "practices," right? This has nothing to do with theology, right? Never mind that there was NO GOSPEL in that sermon. It doesn't count as the Gospel if you wrap sanctification around the cross in the same sentence.

Thanks for letting me vent!