Quo Vadis, LCMS?

Calvary_Lutheran_Church_near_Bradley,_South_Dakota

That’s the title of a presentation I offered this past week at the Best Practices for Ministry Conference in Phoenix. Hosted by Christ Church Lutheran (that’s their correct name), this conference is now the largest single conference in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Christ Church provides the venue, meals, atmosphere, and opportunity for over 2,200 people, pastors and educators to gather and to share ideas and best practices for mission and ministry.

My presentation, subtitled: Wine, Women, Worship, Witness, Warfare, was based on the question “Where are you going, LCMS?” Here are a few excerpts:

Introduction: During the past 52 years I’ve served The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in numerous capacities. Throughout those years I’ve experienced its strength, beauty, and weakness. Today I share my heartfelt perspectives on matters that hinder the health and growth of our beloved synod. I pray this offering will stimulate healthy, responsible, evangelical conversation among us, to the glory of God and the building of his Church on earth.

Wine: [In our Synod] the Lord’s Supper has become a source of division and offense rather than the expression of unity and powerful force for conversion and spiritual sustenance it is intended to be. Unless and until we resolve the issue of what is called “close” or “closed” communion among us, the LCMS will continue to be seen as a group of separatistic sectarians and will continue to bring unnecessary offense to repentant Christian sinners who hunger and thirst after the miraculous and life giving blessings offered in this precious gift of God.

Women: I’m not arguing for a de facto reversal of our Synod’s position against ordination of women. I’m simply saying that women in Holy Scripture appear to have been entrusted with greater responsibility than our Synod has given to women today, e.g., the role of prophetess. We cannot ignore the exodus from our church body of spiritually gifted women who see our position of limiting the role of women as, at best, not clearly supported by Scripture and, at worst, misogynistic.

Worship: Some in our Synod maintain that the only true and pure worship must come exclusively from officially approved Synod hymnals. Others obviously disagree. Congregations utilizing a variety of worship formats are experiencing an amazingly high percentage of all new adult confirmations in the Synod. The implications of such objective facts cannot be ignored.

Witness: There must be no compromise, no apology, no confusion about our Christian witness whenever we have the opportunity to share it by “offering prayers, speaking, and reading Scripture” in public gatherings. Unless and until we in the LCMS get over our reticence and reluctance to give witness to Christ anytime, anywhere, under any circumstance, using testimony, dialog, prayer, preaching, or any other means of communication, we will fail to demonstrate the boldness and compassion so desperately needed by people in our country and world who live in darkness, desperation, and despair.

Warfare: When the unbelieving world sees and hears how disrespectfully we treat one another, they want nothing to do with us. All the insistence in the world about pure doctrine pales into insignificance when outsiders fail to see what we proclaim … that we love one another.

My Best Practices presentation was a slightly revised version of an article published by Lutheran Society for Missiology in the May 2017 edition of Lutheran Mission Matters, available at https://www.lsfm.global/LMM-5-17.html.

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Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves

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Because of the great response to last week’s article Grammatical Pet Peeves I thought I might as well continue the general topic. So this week’s focus is Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves.

Essentially, I’m writing this week about matters that are distracting or otherwise detrimental to the Christian worship experience. I pray and trust these comments will be read and received in the same spirit of constructive but non-judgmental criticism in which they are offered.

Here are a few of my Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves:

Outside and in the parking lot:

  • Un-mowed grass, un-trimmed bushes, outdated church sign, poorly maintained facilities
  • Non-existent or unclear directions for visiting, elderly or physically challenged worshipers to convenient parking spots
  • Poorly marked parking spaces or spaces too narrow for the average vehicle
  • No parking lot attendants to provide information and assistance, especially for seniors and in times of inclement weather

In the worship service:

  • Absence of friendly, outgoing, well-groomed, trained greeters to welcome worshipers
  • Lack of properly trained ushers to assist latecomers in finding a seat in the sanctuary or to invite latecomers to wait in the narthex until a natural and appropriate time to enter
  • Printed orders of confession of sin that put what may not be accurately self-descriptive words in the mouths of worshipers
  • Responsive readings that are pedantic and unrelated to the life experience of worshipers expected to speak those words
  • Selection of hymns or songs that are very difficult, if not nearly impossible to sing
  • Projecting on a screen the words of unfamiliar hymns or songs without the musical score
  • Requiring worshipers to stand and sit, stand and sit, repetitively or unnecessarily—three times in one worship service should be sufficient
  • Requiring worshipers to stand during a several minute prayer or for an unusually lengthy Scripture reading, even if it is the gospel lesson for the day—I can listen or pray to our Lord with greater devotion while remaining comfortably seated than if having to stand again after being seated only moments or sometimes even seconds earlier

In speaking or preaching:

  • Absence of a friendly word of welcome by the pastor or other church leader that briefly explains the reason for worship and the central theme of the day’s worship service
  • Reading of Scripture lessons by the pastor or other person without clear and distinct pronunciation or without the emotion demanded by the text itself
  • Service leaders who pay little if any attention to personal appearance
    • Shoes freshly shined
    • Hair neatly trimmed
    • Face cleanly shaved or, if you insist, beard/goatee/mustache neatly trimmed—Note to clergy and other public worship leaders: Compare the most recent photo of the motorcycle shooting participants in Waco or Mexican drug cartel leaders with a photo of the Fortune 500 CEOs or all but nine of the 44 U.S. presidents and see which group you most nearly resemble—I’m just sayin’ …
  • Lack of explanation regarding the reason and purpose for gathering of offerings
  • Non-existent practice of explaining in simple, evangelical and understandable words the reason for the sacrament of Holy Communion and what the Bible says about proper reception of this wonderful means of God’s grace
  • Speaking or preaching in a manner that makes it difficult for people of all ages to hear and understand what is being said
    • Slow down, you speak too fast
    • Speed it up, you talk too slow
    • Speak up, don’t whisper, we can’t hear you, you’re speaking to a crowd, not an individual
    • Speak naturally, lose the pulpit tone

That’s enough for now. I’m fairly certain this list omits some personal peeves that you could readily add. I’m also fairly certain some will agree and others will disagree with what I’ve written. I’m always interested in hearing what you think about stuff I write, even when it’s not possible for me to reply to all the responses, suggestions, criticisms and adulations I receive.

One final thought in the interest of full disclosure. It’s right and proper for you to know that at one point or another in my own ministry it’s very likely that I fanned the flame by participating in some of these peevish matters myself and sometimes that happens still today. Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

What’s the bottom line? If you’re in charge of anything ecclesiastical, pay close attention to what goes on around you and do what you can to make the worship experience as worshipful and meaningful as possible. Even when that happens Satan will try to disturb and distract.

People assemble to worship our Lord in spirit and in truth. Do everything you can as an ecclesiastical leader to help that happen!

Traditional Hymns vs. Contemporary Praise Choruses

HymnalRecently a college classmate friend of mine and I were discussing the positives and negatives of traditional worship and contemporary worship. Our conversation reminded me of this story:

Old Farmer Joe went to the big city one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was.

“Well,” said the farmer. “It was good. They did something different, though. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”

“Praise choruses?” she asked. “What are those?”

“Oh, they’re OK,” said the farmer. “They’re sort of like hymns, only different.”

“What’s the difference?” said his wife.

“Well,” said the farmer, “If I said, ‘the cows are in the corn,’ that would be a hymn. But if I were to say to you,

‘Martha, Martha, Martha, O Martha, Martha, Martha,
The cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the black and white cows,
The COWS, COWS, COWS are in the CORN, CORN, CORN!
They’re in the corn, they’re in the corn, they’re in the CORN, CORN, CORN!’

….and if I were to repeat the whole thing four or five times, then that would be a praise chorus.”

The next weekend his nephew, a young Christian from the big city, came to visit his Uncle Joe and Aunt Martha. He attended their local church in the small town. When he went home his mother asked him how it was.

“Well,” he said, “it was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of praise choruses.”

“Hymns?” asked his mother. “What are those?”

The young man said, “Well, it’s like this. If Uncle Joe were to say to Aunt Martha, ‘the cows are in the corn,’ then that would be a praise chorus. But if he were to say:

‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, oh hear thou my cry; inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thine whole wondrous ear by and by, to the righteous, inimitable, glorious truth.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broken free from their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night,

They all my mild Chilliwak sweet corn have eschewed!’

And if he were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change in the last verse, then that would be a hymn.”

Seriously, folks, this exaggerated illustration is obviously overstated. The ongoing conversation regarding personal preferences in worship style or format could be summarized in many ways, not the least of which is simply this: So long as the words are Christ centered, biblically based and faith strengthening, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My contention has always been simple. If we’re going to do traditional worship, let’s pick hymns that are easily and joyfully sung. If we’re going to do contemporary worship, let’s pick songs or praise choruses that are easily and joyfully sung, especially by groups and not just by soloists.

In both cases the objective is to aid and assist worshipers in singing praises from their hearts to our great and gracious God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Amen? Amen!

Preaching and Praying

Pulpit 1Having attended many worship services in my lifetime, I’ve come to appreciate the challenge of planning and leading meaningful worship. Combining elements of worship in a spiritually stimulating manner, week in and week out, is not as easy as some might think. Two specific elements of worship come to mind—preaching and praying.

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the awesome task of preaching. It’s not easy to find and to fashion a timely topic based on a biblical text that truly touches the hearts of the vastly diverse audience in most Christian congregations every Sunday.

Public prayers in worship bring to Almighty God the praises, thanksgivings, confessions, needs, thoughts, longings, hopes, doubts and fears of young and old alike. What a blessing it is for a pastor to pray for, with and on behalf of his people!

Most preachers and other people have a few pet peeves when it comes to preaching and praying. So do I. Here are a few bothersome matters and mannerisms that can be very distracting:

  • Failing to translate theological concepts and truths into practical life application.
  • Saying “Uh” and “Um” unnecessarily and habitually in sermons and prayers.
  • Repeatedly and predictably using colloquial expressions when praying and preaching.
  • Praying in a manner that sounds more like a speech than a conversation with God.

There are many more, but this short list is enough for now. Suffice it to say that the work of those who are called to preach and to pray is not only very important but also quite difficult. I have great respect for those called by God to this noble task!

To those on the pulpit side of the sanctuary I offer encouragement to continue to take seriously and endeavor faithfully to accomplish the monumental task to which you have been called.

To those on the pew side of the sanctuary I encourage praying for and supporting your pastor, freely and frequently offering positive encouragement for his most significant responsibilities.

The desired result is pastor and people working together to the glory of God in fulfilling his purpose of making known the love of Christ in our churches, communities and world!

Worship Service of the Future?

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

Not sure where I got it, but in my file I found a prophetic prognostication (with obviously a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor intended) of what a church service of the future might look like. The service is posted below.

Please hear this disclaimer: I am not recommending this approach to worship!

Full disclosure: I do use a variety of very handy, nifty, free, resourceful iPhone apps to read Holy Scripture during Bible class and worship services. One of those apps provides the original Greek language. Most have search capabilities, enabling the user to locate specific passages quickly. I can also readily and easily compare different translations of the same passage. Very helpful!

In addition, Terry and I recently began submitting our weekly offering by electronic bank transfer. We still put in the offering plate an envelope with the amount and “electronic” written on the outside. Doing so makes me feel less conspicuous or guilty than I would feel if the person in the pew beside me were to notice that I simply passed the plate but put nothing in it. It’s also a blessing to know that when we’re out of town and miss worship at our home congregation, our offering is automatically transferred to Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas.

Worship is a matter Terry and I take very seriously, yet joyfully! I hope that’s true for you also!

God bless you and have a wonderful week!

Worship Service of the Future?

PASTOR: Praise the Lord!

CONGREGATION: Hallelujah!

PASTOR: Please turn on your tablet, PC, iPad, cellphone and Kindle Bibles to 1 Cor. 13:13. And please switch on your Bluetooth to download the sermon.

(Silence while worshipers listen to narrated Scripture and view the sermon on YouTube.)

PASTOR: Now let us pray, committing this week into God’s hands. Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook and chat with God.

(Silence while congregation prays. At this point the reader must presume that if God can hear a silent prayer, he must also be able to receive prayers submitted via other methods/media.)

PASTOR: As we receive our Sunday tithes and offerings, please have your credit and debit cards ready. You can log on to the church Wi-Fi using the password Lord909887.

  • Ushers will circulate mobile card swipe machines among the worshipers.
  • Those who prefer to make electronic funds transfers are directed to computers and laptops at the rear of the church.
  • Those who prefer to use iPads, flip them open.
  • Those who prefer telephone banking, take out your cellphones to transfer your contributions to the church account.

(Note: The holy atmosphere of the church becomes truly electrified as all the cellphones, iPads, PCs and laptops beep and flicker!)

PASTOR: Final Blessing and Closing Announcements

  • This week’s ministry cell meetings will be held on the various Facebook group pages, where the usual group chatting takes place. Please log in and don’t miss out.
  • Thursday’s Bible study will be held live on Skype at 7:00 p.m. Please don’t miss out.
  • You can follow your Pastor on Twitter this weekend for counseling and prayers.

Why Men Have Stopped Singing in Church

Credit:  Tolga Kostak

Credit: Tolga Kostak

Before getting to this topic, here’s a brief update on my great-grand-nieces Emma and Anna, surviving triplets born four months prematurely on Christmas Day 2013:

  • Emma is still in the hospital. She was due to come home about ten days ago, but was delayed in doing so. Her chest X-Ray looked better last week, but she has a urinary infection. They’re supplementing her formula with rice cereal, but are having trouble getting it through the feeding tube. The latest prognosis is that she will need to spend about one more month in NICU.
  • Anna underwent successful surgery last week for pyloric stenosis, which is a narrowing or restriction of the pylorus, the opening at the lower part of the stomach through which food and other stomach contents must pass to enter the small intestine. She’s back home, looks healthy, is eating well and does not seem to be worse for wear from the surgery.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers for these two precious little babies!

Now let’s get to the topic for today. This past week I posted on my Facebook page an article I discovered that gets to the heart of the growing and disappointing phenomenon of why men have stopped singing in church. To read the entire article, go to: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/churchformen/2013/05/why-men-have-stopped-singing-in-church/

Responders to the article were mostly in agreement with its basic premise that men (and some women also, for that matter) don’t sing nearly as much as they used to because the songs and/or hymns selected for the worship service are unknown and/or difficult to sing. I strongly agree!

A primary focus of the article is the difficulty experienced when worship leaders do not select familiar songs or hymns that lend themselves readily to group singing. In addition, individuals experience difficulty in trying to sing something clearly intended for performance by a soloist or small vocal group and quickly feel no motivation for trying to do so. While this is particularly true with contemporary songs, praise bands and song leaders, traditional but unfamiliar or hard to sing hymns produce the same result.

For the most part, music and singing in worship are intended to be participatory, not simply observatory. Exceptions include solos, duets, choirs or other choral group presentations, as well as instrumental offerings. When such participation becomes difficult, worshipers quickly move from sincere desire to participate to frustration in not being able to do so.

What’s the bottom line? “Praise the Lord! It is good to sing praises to our God!” (Psalm 147:1)