The latest trend in the American religious scene is the Emerging Church Movement. It is largely a reaction against the phoniness of the Church Growth Movement and a bucking of the trend toward the megachurch.
Missouri Synod leaders - especially those engaged in youth ministry - are intrigued by the movement, and are not only trying to co-opt Emerging approaches to evangelism and worship, they are actively seeking leaders of this movement from outside Lutheran circles to instruct LCMS pastors and laity as to how to implement these methods in a Lutheran context. This is happening at the synodical, district, and local levels of our church body.
The LCMS sponsored a Youth Ministry symposia featuring noted Emergent Church Movement guru Dan Kimball:
“EMERGING FROM WHAT? EXPLORING MINISTRY WITH YOUNG ADULTS.” This year’s symposium will take a serious look at how the church can be in ministry with the post-high school, twenty-something young adult. Why do we lose so many? And why does no one seem to care? How can we engage them in the life of a congregation? And what is this “thing” that has come to be known as the “emerging church?” Dan Kimball, author of “The Emerging Church,” “Emerging Worship,” and “They Like Jesus But Not the Church,” will be the featured speaker for the conference. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, Associate Director for the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations will lend his theological expertise. The conference is slated for January 4-6, 2008 at the J.W. Marriott Hotel at the Galleria in Houston, Texas. Conference registration is just $200 and includes three meals. Housing is available at the J.W. Marriott for only $89 per night. A registration brochure mailing will arrive in congregations the first week in September.
Rev. Dan Kimball's wrap-up of the event can be found here.
Kimball's "What Would Luther Do?" ponderings are really very interesting, especially in light of the fact that the early Lutherans had an Emerging Church Movement of its own during Luther's reformation - and it wasn't Luther. Rather it was Luther's friend and colleague at the University of Wittenberg, Andreas Karlstadt.
During Luther's 1521 exile to the Wartburg Castle, Karlstadt took temporary leadership of the reformation movement, and implemented many Emergent methods nearly five centuries before the current Emerging movement.
Karlstadt made radical changes to the cultural landscape of worship. He abolished the traditional vestments in favor of casual attire - which he wore while officiating over worship. He distanced himself from academic life, stressing his lived-out life among the ordinary people. He rejected being called "Reverend Father" and instead sought to be addressed more casually as "Brother Andreas." He made radical changes to the liturgy and music of the church. He removed the Apocryphal books from the Bible. He also rejected both infant baptism and a belief in the Real Presence in Holy Communion (both of which mirror the beliefs of the vast majority of modern day Emergents). Furthermore, Karlstadt certainly had his finger on the pulse of youth, given his marriage at the age of 38 to a 15-year old girl.
Karlstadt was really the father of the Emerging Church Movement in Lutheranism. So, What Did Luther Do?
Luther was so outraged, he returned from exile and removed Karlstadt from the ministry. Martin Luther was no radical, no revolutionary, no Emergent Leader.
Luther (and those who were later pinned with the name Lutheran) never abolished the Mass. They believe Jesus is physically present in the elements, that when the pastor consecrates the bread and wine, they are truly changed into the body and blood of Jesus. In fact, Luther condemned those who did not believe this as heretics - refusing even to consider them Christians! I don't agree with Luther on this, but I don't think Luther should be misrepresented by those he himself would have not considered to be fellow Christians.
Luther retained the traditional priestly vestments. He retained the traditional address of the pastor as "Father." In areas where it was politically and ecclesiastically possible, the Lutherans retained the bishop-priest-deacon division of the Office of the Holy Ministry - including the apostolic succession of bishops (as is the case to this day in Lutheran Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics, and Africa). Luther (and Lutherans) believe in baptismal regeneration (and thus infant baptism) and the pastor's authority to hear confessions and forgive sins by delegated authority of Jesus Himself.
Whereas Karlstadt eliminated the elevation of the consecrated host in the Mass, Luther restored it. Whereas Karlstadt called for the abolition of statues and traditional art and music in the church, Luther restored them. True enough, Luther translated the Mass into German (as well as the Bible) and wrote hymnody, but these hymns were not (as is often asserted by urban legend) drinking tunes or bawdy pop songs. Luther's hymnody is dignified and rich, to the point where Johann Sebastian Bach arranged many of his melodies.
And while Luther translated the Mass into German, Latin Masses were still being sung in Lutheran territories into the 18th century. Until American Lutherans began to speak English, Lutheran Bibles contained the Apocrypha. Lutherans (following Luther's example) were not anti-tradition. In fact, the Lutheran default position on tradition was to retain it wherever possible. The only time tradition was jettisoned was when such traditions were contrary to scripture and the Gospel. The Lutheran Mass was virtually identical to the Roman Mass - with the exception being the part of the Roman Mass known as the canon. Luther greatly simplified the canon for the sake of the Gospel. other than that, Luther retained the sign of the cross, genuflecting, bowing, and nearly every other traditional ceremony. The early Lutherans also retained the Hail Mary prayer, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and even belief in the immaculate conception. While these did not have the force of canon law among the Lutherans, it's simply a fact that the Lutheran fathers believed in these doctrines and taught them. Early portraits of Lutheran leaders show them clutching rosaries.
Finally, the very heart of the Emerging movement is an accommodation of postmodern epistemology. In other words, there is a great deal of subjectivity in the Emerging movement. It is often hostile to "denominationalism." Lutheranism, by definition, draws an objective boundary around the faith in terms of specific confessed doctrine. Lutherans, by definition, confess a particular collection of historic creeds and confessions known as the Book of Concord, and do so without reservation. Such confession is seen as terribly constraining by the Emerging movement, and we are told again and again that such "denominationalism" is a stumbling block to "reaching the youth."
In my own experience as a high school campus pastor, I was admonished by a school board member: "The kids don't need all that Book of Concord stuff. They just need to know that Jesus loves them." There is an increasing belief among Lutherans that confession and doctrine are antithetical to evangelizing young people.
For all of the current LCMS "Ablaze" rhetoric about "saving the lost" and the need to use innovations for the sake of people who are going to hell, there is a rather obvious elephant in the parlor. Many LCMS leaders (at synod and district levels) are almost panic stricken at the decline in numbers within the LCMS. Kimball cites that Terry Ditmer (the Youth Ministry leader of the Missouri Synod) opened the symposia by presenting numbers and statistics about teens in the LCMS. I believe the real underlying panic is not so much hellfire as it is a "brand loyalty" and "shrinking market" approach to Lutheranism, specifically the corporate entity known as the Missouri Synod. The LCMS is treated as though it were a corporation with a product to sell, and is in need of some serious changes in marketing philosophy in order to retain its place, let alone expand, in the market. This explains the increasing reliance on corporate strategies and the constant citations and endorsements of books about business marketing and CEO-style leadership being endorsed by LCMS officials. I believe this shows a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit as well as a flawed ecclesiology. The "market share" approach to evangelism always appeals to the whims and vagaries of the current culture.
But Christianity has always been counter-cultural. The early martyrs of the Christian faith were willing to die for their confession, their objective confession of Jesus Christ. They did not seek rapprochement with the larger culture - not even for the sake of making the Christian faith appeal to outsiders. They did not try to change the nature of Christian worship to appeal to Pagan teens, nor did they strive to reinvent the terrible and horrendous image of Christianity for the sake of marketing the faith to non-believers. Instead, they went to the stake and the arena singing countercultural hymns and dying faithfully to the bafflement of the non-believer. But look what happened. The Holy Spirit worked through these countercultural "martyral" Christians. Mission work was done by standing against the anti-Christian culture, not by making the Church look more and more Pagan, nor by watering down doctrine and practice into a subjective mush for the sake of marketing and appeal to youth.
I believe the Emerging Church Movement is completely contrary to the Lutheran tradition and confession of the catholic faith. The two are like oil and water. Lutheran leaders who see the "success" of the Emerging movement and strive to do the same things in our context will ultimately follow Karlstadt's path. What did Karlstadt do? He left the Lutheran confession of the faith and served as a Reformed minister who was quite open to many Anabaptist doctrines (Luther condemned the Reformed as not even Christian, while the Lutheran confessions explicitly condemn many Anabaptist doctrines as false).
I don't agree with Luther's position that those who confess Christ and yet deny the Real Presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar are not Christians. However, I do think a lot of Christians - including many in the Emerging Church Movement - are deluding themselves when they try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Martin Luther. I also believe Lutheran dabblers in Emergism are on a path away from the confession of the faith per our confessional symbols, and have chosen to embrace Karlstadt over Luther. I believe the Lutheran path is to stand for the Gospel, to cling to tradition where it does not contradict the Gospel, and to avoid the ebb and flow of an ever changing cultural landscape, instead clinging to the unchanging confession of the immutable Triune God, into whose name we have been regenerated through Baptism, and by whose grace we have communion with Him in the Mass.
Anything else is, by definition, not Lutheran.