When someone posted the above video of the Texas District that was shown at the Texas District Convention, I responded on social media in a tongue-in-cheek manner, saying that Lutherans would do well to have such polished productions as this obviously non-denominational presentation.
I thought about responding here at Gottesblog with satire, sarcasm, and gallows humor. After all, the jokes do just write themselves. The Texas District logo not only appears to depict three martinis, they get increasingly out of proportion and dizzying as you navigate from the first to the third. This could not have been by accident. Some graphic designer was obviously being cheeky. For in a very real sense, this illustrates a practical way to deal with the district - especially at convention. Although the genuine Texas beverage might be a 64 ounce bucket of margaritas, I don’t know how well that would translate to a logo. So the three-martini motif will just have to do.
I thought about comparing the entertainment-based music and emotional imagery in this video - rooted in the spoken word of vague non-sequiturs instead of the incarnational reality of Christ coming to us to forgive us and transform us for eternity by means of His physical presence. And this is manifest not only in His historic enfleshment, His birth, cross, death, and resurrection, but also in His ongoing sacramental presence with us in the miracles of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist - two themes that, though central to the faith, are pushed to the margins in this video. Instead, this objective ground of faith is jettisoned in favor of emotion and slick production. In this, the comparison to the Texas-sized Neo-Evangelical megachurches of the highways and byways of the Lonestar State - where indeed everything is Bigger - is unavoidable. It is no accident that the Reverend Father Joel Osteen is a Texas pastor with a Texas-sized church that is the envy of Church Growth Movement moguls everywhere. Indeed, the lust of our baby-boomer CGM experts for Bigness and the reduction of individual human souls to a Big number in a ledger or on an annual statistics form is insatiable. No Cialis needed for this passion.
I thought about performing a Rick-roll-like trick by inviting my reader to click on the link to the Texas District highlights, but replace it with the magnificent satirical video called “Contemporvent” or perhaps “The Worship Song Song.” Both make the point well.
I also thought about all the angles I could play because it is Texas. And I do love Texas. I love the history and heritage, the independent streak of the people, the sense of Bigness in everything, a zest for life, the unique foods and cultures and byways. Texas is a quintessential part of the South, which I hold dear. And Texas is (along with South Carolina) a state where you are just as likely to see the state flag as the US flag - and it may well even be flying on a pole of the same height as Old Glory. It is a state where people, following the observation of President Obama, “cling to their guns” and “religion,” not to mention to their Whataburger, beef brisket barbecue, and big honking belt buckles.
When I once traveled to Texas on business in my former life a long time ago, being on a company per diem, I ate a one-pound T-bone for lunch, and a two-pound T-bone for supper. You can get away with such things when you’re in your twenties. I also bought myself some cowboy boots. I did not buy a cowboy hat, but did wear my boots up north. My Texan friend who lives in North Carolina always brought his pregnant wife to Texas to give birth many times in the Lone Star State, thus assuring the transmission of his Republic of Texas citizenship to posterity. And I think that is a good and noble thing. It is part of what makes Texas unique.
These delightful quirks of Texas and Texans could have provided fodder for explaining the quirkiness of the LCMS in the Republic. Lutheranism has a long history in Texas - both in its German and Slovak heritages. But sadly, there is nothing endearing in the modern context about jettisoning the liturgy and our rich theology that are truly evangelical, and trading them for the pottage of non-denominational Christianity.
Besides, those accents in the video suggest that there is a lot of carpetbagging going on.
But after considering all of these angles, I decided to take a different tack. I’m still a big fan of dark humor and throwing stones at the dragon, for if nothing else, it breaks up the monotony, and sometimes gets other guys hurling a pebble or two. And who knows, there might even be a David out there whose stone hits the beast in the right spot. And even if it doesn’t put the monster out of our Missouri, the encounter could end up in a viral Steve Inman video for entertainment purposes. And that’s not for nothin’.
But there is also something very serious and sad about this video.
It shows that Pietism is still very much alive and well in our synod: the ginning up of emotion and the downplaying of the sacraments, the transformation of worship into entertainment instead of the Church’s timeless participation in the eternal liturgy that binds heaven and earth together - that unites the Church Militant with the Church Triumphant, offering a sacrifice of praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the sacrificial Lamb whose blood saves us and who breathes the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, into us. And this is not a metaphor, but rather a flesh-and-blood reality by means of the ongoing miracle of God performing signs and wonders in our midst because His Word is still sounding forth, still creating, still redeeming, still sanctifying - still reconstituting the universe, and still drawing us into the incense-filled inner-sanctum of the very throne-room of God, where Isaiah once lay prostrate in fear, but where he was comforted by the purification delivered to his lips by a messenger bearing a burning coal from the holy altar.
Of course, to the Pietist, this is just boring stuff from an old book. That’s our grandfather’s church. To them, we need music, really exciting, awesome, fist-pumping, epic music - guitars and drums and emoting vocalists and a guy running a sound-board. And that music should be repetitive, it should cause one’s heart to skip a beat, it should tug at the heartstrings, it should induce dopamine so that a proper decision for Christ can be made. It should be the kind of music that fills the modular interlocking church seats the same way that stadiums are filled - thus also paying homage to the CGM Fetish of Bigness.
This is Texas, after all.
According to Pietism, we need pastors dressed just like us, who are excitable, who are dynamic, who are not stuffy and reverent and catholic. We need awesome vision-casting, leadership, leadership, leadership, and apps. We need high-tech. We need screens and PowerPoint. We need passion and programs and fun. Did I mention excitable pastors? We need to use the word “amazing” a lot - and new turns of phrase, like “on ramps for Jesus” (which is perhaps a Texas response to Oklahoman Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”). We need to de-emphasize “what goes on in these four walls” and focus on drawing people into the church from the world by not only going into the world, but by looking like the world.
The centrality of the Sacrament and the traditional liturgy really just get in the way of being “missional.”
The video had a lot to say about mission work, but it lacked authenticity. It just looked like well-heeled Texas suburbanites getting together with other well-heeled Texas suburbanites for brisket and music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not really “missions.” Being missional is a big buzzword, but real mission work doesn’t much resemble watching NFL games while scooping peanuts from a tin bucket at a Texas Roadhouse. One fellow brought up the topic of Christian worship during communism and compared it to using Zoom during the pandemic. As the kids say, “Yeah, no.”
In fact, authentic Lutheran mission work is being done in the former Soviet Union. Here is a video showing how this missionary endeavor is carried out in Siberia, and how it is done in an authentically Lutheran way:
Note the Christological and sacramental focus of Siberian mission work. (Let’s just keep this between us girls, but Siberia is even bigger than Texas). As a bonus, here is a video of Siberian Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin speaking at a faithful Texas congregation, Faith Lutheran Church in Plano. This is quite the contrast to the Texas District video of the Cult of Bigness and the desire to adopt Neo-Evangelical worship.
Sadly, I often hear from faithful confessional Lutherans, seeking authentic Lutheran worship using the hymnal, who drive sometimes up to a hundred miles on Sunday morning, passing a wasteland of non-liturgical LCMS congregations, all in order to find a church that is liturgical, confessional, and reverent. It is a huge sacrifice, but it is worth it - especially to young families who want their children learning the catechism and being formed by the miraculous presence of Christ instead of being molded by vacuous entertainment. Sometimes, people have to face hard choices of either finding a Wisconsin Synod congregation (and promising to break prayer fellowship with the rest of the family and be subjected to a low view of the office of the ministry), or even attending Masses of a continuing Anglican tradition and forgoing the Holy Sacrament for a while. As I noted earlier, this desert of decent LCMS congregations in some places has led some of our laity - often young families with children - to physically move to where the liturgical parishes are. As my colleague Fr. David Petersen advises, there is another option: to start a new church. We need faithful lay people to consider such a drastic step - even if it means foregoing the Bigness and suburban wealth of the Texas-sized LCMS church up the road. For this isn’t about everything being Bigger - in Texas or elsewhere - it is about fidelity to Word and Sacrament, in doctrine and ceremonies. It is about teaching the people what they need to know about Christ.
And even Osteen’s Texas megachurch began very small - as did most of our LCMS church plants. In hostile districts, a confessional and liturgical congregation may well get snubbed by the districtocracy, even as money flows like the mighty Mississippi to church plants that downplay authentic Lutheranism and instead employ gimmicks. But remember, that the confession of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” is located within the third article of the Creed - as the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life.” It is not mammon or district bureaucracy that quickens the church. It is not gimmicks or marketing that grows the church. For God Himself “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Man does not live by District alone, and in fact, in our Lutheran tradition, both its history and its confessional writings, church bureaucracy is sometimes a hindrance to the Gospel. And when it is, it is best ignored. Certainly, our sixteenth century ancestors, who were attacked and harried by the worldwide, rich, and powerful church bureaucracy of the day, knew what it was to oppose them and stand as a “little flock” being implored to “fear not the foe.”
The adoption of Neo-Evangelical practices indeed leads to Neo-Evangelical doctrine. Lex Ordandi, Lex Credendi is not just a tee-shirt slogan for seminarians and geeky pastors. It is an ancient and wise observation that bears out our Lutheran forbears’ retention of the ancient ceremonies rather than throwing caution to the wind in search of something new. That is why Article 24 begins with the bold statement:
Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned be taught [what they need to know of Christ].
One thing that is hammered home by this video is that we are two synods (at least). Can you even imagine one of the pastors in the above video standing in the pulpit and reading the above quote from our confessions to his parishioners? Or how about the Texas District President reminding his congregations that they are committed to this confession.
We can lie to ourselves that we are actually united as a synod. It just isn’t so. There is no way that I would visit and commune at the kinds of LCMS churches shown in this video. Nor would my parishioners. They would be scandalized. And there is no way that most of those folks would ever commune from my hand at the altar that I serve. We have a paper fellowship, at best, and a tenuous unity and koinonia based not on doctrine and ceremonies, but on a common bureaucracy and shared employment benefits. And as more and more congregations jettison Concordia Plan Services, even that link is being weakened. In some cases, the only thing holding the synod together is a sense of nostalgia and branding.
The Rev. Prof. Kurt Marquart of blessed memory suggested that we need a divorce in our synod. That would certainly be more honest than what we have now. And as painful as “The Walkout” and the subsequent breakup of the LCMS was in the 1970s, it was the honest thing to do.
But maybe there is another way that we could order ourselves more honestly. Perhaps what we need is to abolish the districts and circuits as they exist (as they reflect 19th century technological limitations). But why must our districts be geographical today? Why not reorder ourselves according to what we have in common - especially in matters of worship. And if we have two or three, or even five or six, subdivisions of synod, so what?
We currently have two non-geographical districts. We could have non-geographical “districts” where there is genuine agreement in doctrine and practice, and we could all keep the name and the benefits package. And if, down the road, it would be better to actually cut our ties, it would be easier to do in such a system. For right now what we have is not unlike what we have in the United States. Instead of federalism, we now have nationalism. And so US elections become a “winner take all” endeavor. And the losing side, which is typically very near fifty percent of the population - is held hostage to the faction that is bigger by only a percent or two (if that). Instead, we could decentralize our synod and let congregations have closer ties with other congregations that share their doctrine and practice - not unlike the situation in 19th century America, where small synods went into fellowship with one another.
One “district” may specify that only the ordo and hymns in the hymnal may be used. Another “district” may make it all optional. Yet another “district” might compile its own requirements as to what is permissible. Our “district” conventions would be much less the way of power struggles, and the Divine Services at the same would not be places of protest, either against the services with guitars and streamers, or with chasubles and incense. Such a scheme would provide homogeneity in matters of doctrine and practice, while allowing the synod branding and employment benefits to be shared by all. In such a structure, synod would not dictate from above, and “districts” could recognize fellowship with other “districts” based on their own criteria.
There are certainly dangers in such a polity. And there are likely unintended consequences. But what we have now is not working. We are engaging in a Mister Rogers style Land of Make-Believe fantasy that we are not in a state of impaired fellowship, and we are not involved in a power struggle between at least two opposing factions. By decentralizing the conflict, we can encourage church plants by “districts” without regard to geography, and our “district” mission funds could actually go to new congregations that reflect our confession and worship - whether Pietistic or confessional, whether normed by guitar or organ.
For what we have now is 35 civil wars and games of one-upsmanship - where the winners are determined by political means: running for office, navigating parliamentary procedure, and engaging in backroom arm-twisting of the kind we see in the secular political world.
At any rate, though we in The Gottesdienst Crowd are often marginalized and mocked by our Bigger brethren in synod (and sometimes that is a matter of the waistline and not only the waste-land), though our churches are generally smaller and often face financial struggles, let us not lose heart. Let us continue to be normed by the Bible and the Book of Concord, and let us continue to confess in Word and deed not only what Jesus has done for us, but what He continues to do for us in the Divine Service, where He comes to us in a literal and miraculous way that needs no distraction by entertainment or some Big New Awesomer Way of Doing Church.
We don’t need a new way of doing church. We need Jesus. We don’t need entertainment. We need authentic worship. We don’t need gimmicks. We need faith. And for you, dear reader, both layman and pastor, the following video (Have you seen the video?), produced by Gottesdienst, thanks to a grant from the LCMS, is an example of how “ceremonies teach the people what they need to know about Christ,” and how our bureaucracy can indeed teach the ceremonies to the pastors and laity alike. Instead of “contemporvence” grounded in entertainment, you will find reverence grounded in the reality that Jesus continues to join us in the miracle of the Holy Sacrament.
And that reality is even bigger than Texas.
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Host: Fr. Jason Braaten