Monday, April 12, 2010

FW: This is Embarrassing

A Lutheran on a non-Lutheran "review" of non-Lutheran "Lutheran" worship…


Feed: Stand Firm
Posted on: Tuesday, April 06, 2010 7:00 AM
Author: Scott Diekmann
Subject: This is Embarrassing



It's really embarrassing when it's left to a non-Lutheran to point out the less-than-Lutheran practices of a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation, but that's what's happened in this case.


I took a trip to Ship of Fools, a non-denominational website that includes a plethora of offerings in the way of things churchly. The Ship's editor, Simon Jenkins, states that "our aim is to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith." On board the ship are an online community, religious headlines, features and projects ranging from the satirical to the theological, regular columnist articles, and other miscellany including a "gadgets for god" section with items worthy of inclusion in The Museum of Idolatry.

Ship of Fools also has a feature called the "Mystery Worshipper," described thusly:

Since ancient times (ok, 1998), Ship of Fools has been sending Mystery Worshippers to churches worldwide. Travelling incognito, they ask those questions which go to the heart of church life: How long was the sermon? How hard the pew? How cold was the coffee? How warm the welcome?

They seem to have a large stable of Mystery Worshippers, all of whom answer the same set of questions about the church they've visited. I read through quite a few of the reviews, mostly reviews of Lutheran churches. I didn't detect any sort of agenda among the reviewers, and they generally offered matter-of-fact responses that were both insightful and sometimes humorous. First time visitors often offer observations and annoyances that the regular crowd no longer notices.

One of the Lutheran churches visited was an LCMS church in Troy, Michigan. This is a big church with "a splashy 1000 seat (plus) venue," "served by five ministers (all male) and a support staff of nearly 40 employees."

To set the stage, here are a few of non-Lutheran Mystery Worshipper Angel Unaware's comments on his or her visit to the "family life center":

How full was the building?
160 souls in the 1000 (plus) seat worship center.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one greeted me before or after the service. Mercifully, the service started almost as soon as I was seated.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfy and plush cineplex-style upholstered theater seats. They must have busted their budget for these beauties.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Empty. Three cameramen were practicing swiveling their cameras about. It was so abandoned that I consulted my bulletin twice to make sure I was at the correct place at the correct time for worship. Soon the praise band warmed up, and then vocalists began to sing the prelude – or rehearse for the service, I wasn't sure which.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Bible verses were projected up on a screen, as were all the songs, karaoke-style, over photos of seagulls, sunsets, ocean waves and bedewed roses. Even with such appealing graphics, though, no one around me participated in the singing.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano, digital keyboard, guitars, and two percussions sets (one encased in a plexiglas "fishbowl"). A large, amplified choir, all dressed in street clothes, stood behind the musicians.

Angel Unaware also reports that the pastor wore khakis and a silky, open-necked camp shirt. At this point I'm beginning to wonder if this is one of the mega-churches that the LCMS uses to discover its "best practices" for church growth. This is also where the story takes a really sordid swing to the non-Lutheran side of the tracks. Our reviewer continues:

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lutherans trying to be charismatic. Even though the sacrament of holy baptism was administered to an infant, the pastor chose to speak extemporaneously about the sacrament rather than follow any historic Lutheran liturgy. The rest of the service also followed this free-form, rambling model. The parents and godparents of the baptized infant had the good sense to be more appropriately dressed for the occasion than did the pastor.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – The pastor used amazingly dull, run-of-the-mill stuff for much of the sermon: the importance of passing the baton to today's youth (an opaque reference to the baptism?), a moral lesson about being optimistic in the face of challenges, another lesson about being patient – all of which was hard to argue with. The problem was that the sermon wasn't particularly robust, moving, or sharply focused. As my teenage son would say, "It was totally random." What is more, the message was completely disconnected from the scripture lesson. Ironically, the sermon was entitled "Help!" Indeed!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It began with a 30-second video introduction to a new 13 week sermon series. After the video clip, a bulletin insert of the sermon outline was projected to help us follow the flow of the sermon. We were invited to "fill in the blanks" on the insert as the pastor progressed through the sermon, even though the answers were flashed up on the screen. The sermon was a 36 minute recitation of random thoughts and clichés that could be summed up in two sentences: "God, in God's goodness, does not give us what we deserve. Therein is our hope." Most curious was the centerpiece of the sermon: a sort of intermission as a soloist sang the Beatles' hit song "Help." After this American Idol moment was over, the pastor concluded his talk and we went back to filling in our blanks!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Watching the parents gratefully bring their child to be baptized. The central stained-glassed window, depicting a cross, also helped me keep my focus through many distractions and confused moments.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That I was subjected to the "wisdom" of the Beatles as the main meat of a sermon in worship.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I can listen to the Beatles on my own, and be alone on my own.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
On my trek home, I felt inexplicably sad that another Lutheran church has all but abandoned its beautiful, historic liturgy and intellectual tradition in favor of a very bland ministry. Help!

Ouch! When the first time visitor is pointing out the non-Lutheran practices of an LCMS church, maybe it's time to trade those seeker-sensitive lenses in for something ground a little closer to the Church of the Augsburg Confession. Let's hope that the next week's sermon didn't include a rendition of the Beatles' "Let It Be." Enough said.

photo credit: obo-bobolina

View article...