Saturday, March 24, 2007

From the Seminarian Hollywood Archives...

Before Father Hollywood was a cranky old smart-alec pastor, he was a cranky old smart-alec seminarian. I wrote the following back in 2001 B.B. (Before Blogging) and e-mailed it to a few people. Apparently, it made the rounds, and just today, a colleague in the ministry contacted me and asked me if he could send this on to someone else.

And yes, Peter, if you're reading, I imagine you scolded me then for being sarcastic and caustic, and I suspect you will again - but daggone it, I don't like being jerked around!

Anyway, here is my six-year-old rant that I think is probably still relatively current.

Fr. H.

Subject: Church Growth and our Synod

Dear Friends:

We were recently graced with a visit from a synodical official who was sharing his ideas regarding evangelism with us [seminarians]. In the course of his presentation, he suggested that we should modify the Divine Service so as to include "testimonials" from congregation members explaining what Jesus means to them.

I asked this gentleman how we might practically insert such a rubric into the liturgy of the Western Church.

He replied that we need not lock ourselves into liturgical worship, that to do so would be to "make the gospel into a law."


Anyway, I noted that the fastest growing Christian body in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church. For all of the goofiness that indeed goes on in Roman parishes since Vatican II, they don't have testimonials in the Mass. They do have a liturgical form. They don't mimic freeform worship styles of neo-evangelicalism in their Sunday service. They don't change the words of their worship service every Sunday or recite things like "Christmas Creeds" which were written in the 1960s.

The synodical official disputed my claim that the Roman Catholic Church was the fastest growing church body, claiming that the Assemblies of God is actually the fastest growing. So, I dug up the numbers from the 2001 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Here is what I found on page 12 - which is a listing of the 10 largest denominations in the U.S. along with membership statistics:

In terms of raw percentages, the Assemblies of God did indeed grow the fastest: 1.9% - compared to the .6% growth rate of the Roman Church. This says to me that the synodical official is familiar with these statistics. However, percentages do not tell the whole story. In fact, percentages can be deceiving. For example, if you declare yourself to be the pope of the new Me Myself and I Christian Church(tm), and next year persuade five people to join, you will have increased by 500% - roughly at a rate 250 times faster than the Assemblies of God in the United States. Get the picture?

Here's the rest of the story using real numbers:

In 1999 (the most recent year with such statistics in the 2001 yearbook), the Roman Catholic Church gained 373,048 members. The second greatest number in terms of growth came from the Southern Baptist Church, with 122,400. The Assemblies of God came in with a positive growth of 48,719 - which is less than 8% of the Roman Church's growth. When the stats from 1996 thru 1999 are compiled, the picture really starts to gel: The Roman Church grew by 2,466,885 - not a lot less than the total membership in the entire LCMS! By comparison, the Assemblies of God grew by: 186,549. So, between 1996 and 1999, the Roman Church increased in membership by 13 times as much as the Assemblies of God. There are today 2.2 million more Catholics than AOG members than there were back in 1996. That paints a little different picture, doesn't it?

Now, the church growth people tell us we need to emulate the worship practices of the churches that are growing. The big elephant in the parlor that no-one wants to acknowledge is the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Yes, we Lutherans have our theological differences with Rome - and they are not to be minimized. However, Wittenberg is a direct scion of Rome. We are Western Christians in the tradition of Aquinas, Gregory, and Augustine. We have more in common with the sacramental theology of historic Christendom than we do the heretical, Montanistic worship style of Pentecostalists. We are not Arminians, and so have no reason for a mourning bench and subjective testimonials. We are not Calvinists, and hence we recognize the physical presence of Christ in our midst - and should conduct ourselves accordingly in public worship (that is, unless we no longer believe in the Real Presence...)

I don't accept the premise of the church growthers. I don't think we should alter our worship practices based on the Barna studies and Gallup polls du jour. However, the church growthers are being fundamentally dishonest with us when they ignore the growth of the Roman Catholic Church - as well as the smaller, but significant numbers being posted by Eastern Orthodox Christians. They tell us we need TV screens, theater seats, praise bands, and happy-clappy worship (the alternative is to "make the gospel a law..."). If their own premise is true, maybe what we need more of are vestments, candles, crucifixes, and centuries-old ceremony.

Some seminarians raised valid concerns with the direction Rome has been going since Vatican II regarding their worship practices. These are valid issues. However, the charismatic movement in Rome is still small; the parishes that experiment with happy-clappy music, balloons, and TV screens are likewise not the norm. And even in those cases, the liturgy is preserved, such as it is, by canon law. No Roman Catholic pastor writes his own Sunday Mass. There are no celebrations of Sunday services in which the Eucharist is not offered in Roman parishes. There is no place - even in the Novus Ordo Mass - for "testimonials." The reality is that Roman churches are more liturgical than LCMS parishes - and certainly more liturgical than the Assemblies of God churches - and they are outgrowing the pants off of both! Why don't the bean counters ever suggest incense and chasubles? It would be consistent with their stated goal of increasing numbers.

Finally, someone else brought up the point that immigration has brought numbers into the Catholic Church. Well, if we are to reach immigrants with the Gospel, what works? Immigrants - especially those from Roman Catholic countries - wouldn't recognize the services in many LCMS parishes as even remotely Christian - our common historical ties to the Western rite notwithstanding. If we are going to preach to immigrants, should we give them the liturgical forms they can pick up through repetition (in spite of the language barrier), forms they may recognize from their own worship back home, and ceremonies which they may find comforting and familiar - or are we going to give them words which change every week and a service that seems crassly commercial and unchurchly? One also has to wonder about the current conventional wisdom that says we must use happy-clappy worship in foreign missionary endeavors. If this is true, why has immigration resulted in explosive growth of the Roman Church?

Again, brethren, I don't accept the numbers game. Numbers go up, numbers go down. Our job is simply to sow the seeds and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. There is no mention of a bean-counter in the Parable of the Sower. But by the same token, I bitterly resent being lied to by "experts" intent on abolishing the liturgy and turning the Gospel into a mockery.

If LCMS officials want testimonials and hand-waving, there's a Baptist or Pentecostal Church near you. Like we say in Georgia, "Delta's ready when you are!"

Larry Beane

PS: The LCMS - with all of its church growth experimentation in recent years - lost 11,964 members in 1999. We have lost 12,115 members in the same period that Rome gained 2,466,885 in the United States.


Past Elder said...

Your six year old rant is right on the money, and the latest numbers could be plugged right into it!

You know what? The only thing I don't like about being 56 is that most of these clowns hiring clowns are about my age, with their Chamber of Commerce haircuts on their now greying hair no sign of lessening of their 60s mindset, and I will probably die off with them before they are gone and the church passes into the hands of your generation.

I note that to a man, I think, and that's generic including some females, every one of the confessional bloggers I read is a good ten to twenty, and in some cases thirty or more, years older than I am. I'm going to wish myself an EO "Many years" (and no, I ain't swimming nowhere, having made it out of the Tiber to Lake Superior to the Mississippi if you get my drift) to live long enough to keep up with you kids.

If I weren't so bloody old I'd think about heading to seminary myself, but tackling Hebrew and Greek only to get my first call when other guys are in their last probaby isn't the best use of time better spent on someone who'll be around for a while.

For that matter, I probably won't have to change my screen name to Elder from Past Elder anytime soon either, having cast the one Nay vote for certain slate of candidates at the last Voter's meeting and saying something about when did Rick Warren become a Doctor of the Church on leaving a recent service.

Carry on soldier! (General Scuttlebutt hasn't posted in a while so I'm stepping up to the plate.)

Past Elder said...

Did I say years older? Meant years younger. I'll pass that off not as age but fatigue from posting all over on Scheutz' blog earlier this morning. Gotta his Preview before Publish more!

Pastor Daniel Skillman said...

Fr. H.,
Your article is not sarcastic at all. It is a straight ahead approach, written with passion. I want to see you submit it to the Lutheran Witness (if not as an article, then maybe a letter to the editor?).
In Christ,
Fr. Daniel

Pastor Beisel said...

I wonder if birth rate has anything to do with it. :)

micha said...

Your point about the physical presence of our Lord in the Host as a reason for decorum during the liturgy is persuasive, and I'll be incorporating it in my debates with people pressing for change-i.e., Woodstock on Sundays.

Thank you.
Michaelk Borussia

Father Hollywood said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all.

The only thing I have to add is that I just got my latest issue of Chronicles Magazine (truly a "desert island" item...) in which LCMS lay theologian and social commentator Aaron Wolf addresses some of the same points (though much better researched and polished than my old rant) - and the numerical trend still seems to be the same today. Aaron's piece does address the point Fr. Beisel makes - and draws some convincing conclusions.

If anyone is unfamiliar with Aaron's work, you need to introduce yourself to his writings in Chronicles. He is Lutheranism's G.K. Chesterton.

Yes, I admit it. I am a Wolfaholic - and you should be too!