Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do We Worship Hundreds?

In the latest Lutheran Witness, there is an article written about church planting.

Part of the article consists of a pastor's bragging about how many people attend his congregation, including one instance where 500 showed up for a "baptism bash" and another "community celebration" that boasts of "more than 1,000" in attendance. But the most interesting boast involves how many come to church on Sunday now as opposed to the ten families he started out with in 2005. The author of the article says this congregation "now worships as many as 600 on Sunday."

I believe this is a case where grammar imitates life.

This is a sort-of Freudian slip. "Worship" in this sentence is acting as a transitive verb - which means it takes a direct object. We worship something or someone. We may worship money, we may worship Zeus, we may worship the Holy Trinity. We may worship the one true God, or we may worship the ground our children walk on. We may worship the Chicago Bears or Elvis Presley or Barack Obama or Glenn Beck.

We may worship our parishioners. Or, maybe more accurately, we may worship the number of parishioners.

It is not only grammatically wrong to say we worship the number of people in the pews. It is the very heart of the problem with numbers-driven, seeker-sensitive, church-growth thinking. It is the idolatry of the Ablaze!(tm) program, movement, initiative, or whatever the bureaucratic word of the day is.

Unless we are pagans, we do not, never have, nor ever shall "worship as many as 600."

The Athanasian Creed sums it up nicely:

"And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity." The Triune God must always be the direct object of our worship.

A numbers-driven person might accurately say: "We worship Three in One and One in Three." A Christian should never say: "we worship 600." For what is the direct object of the active verb "to worship"?

Again, this common grammatical misconstruction belies a faulty theology in the church-growth movement. The primary purpose of the worship service is not evangelism. This is not to say evangelism is a bad thing. But the primary purpose for which we Christians have been created is to worship the Triune God. Evangelism is not only good, but necessary. But it is simply poor evangelism to turn numbers into an idol and shift the focus of the Divine Service from the worship of the Holy Trinity and turn it into the worship of the multiplicity of parishioners.

As Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his tribute to Arthur Carl Piepkorn:
"We do not worship in order to assist, to facilitate, to serve any other end, no matter how honorable or urgent that end may be. We worship God because God is to be worshiped. Worship is as close as we come here on earth to discovering an end in itself, for it is our end eternally."
When we forget this, worship is curved in on itself and becomes idolatry.


brokenbeaker said...

if only this could be printed in a letter to the editor.

Past Elder said...

I completely agree.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before something happened to "worship" as a verb similar to what has happened to "grow".

Maybe we should quit calling it worship. Our "worship" is really no act on our part but God serving us his Word and Sacrament, hence the term Divine Service. Us getting off on how we just wanna give him glory, now that's an act of worship on our part!

He's got all the glory he needs, but we don't have a thing apart from him.

Jonathan said...

It does sound a bit like a McDonald's(tm) sign: "Billions and Billions served"

Paul said...

Will the Lutheran Witness publish an official retraction and/or apology and/or theological clarification?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Paul and Brokenbeaker:

I think that the use of "worship" in this way has become so common, and the preference for these kinds of congregations has become so ingrained in the LCMS leadership that I doubt that there would be any retraction or editorial change in policy.

I may blog about this later, but the entire article carries a loud and clear underlying message: "traditional is bad." There is also a patronizing appeal to the "race card" and a message that if your congregation is not ethnically mixed, you are inferior.

The reality is that most churches of all denominations in the U.S. are fairly ethnically homogeneous. There isn't necessarily anything sinister about this. In fact, the LCMS *encourages* racial separation (which I completely oppose) in having special boards and special ministry tracks for minorities. Personally, I can't see how such things are not patronizing and racist.

The implication is that traditional and/or white = bad.

Also, if your church's name is Zion or St. Paul or Holy Cross, you are somehow inferior. The really "cool" churches have compound names (e.g. CrossPointe, LakePoint, WhatsThePoint?, etc. - [the last one is a joke]) or something obviously vetted by marketing experts that shun tradition and anything that could be seen as "denominational" (e.g. Living Water).

I find the open war on traditionalism and the appeal to "white guilt" to be even worse than the abuse of the word "worship."

And then the synodical apparatus presses us to send money to synod and support the Ablaze!(tm) War on Traditionalism(tm). Why in God's name would we give a penny to those who are openly hostile to us, who are seeking to change us?

In the interest of full disclosure, my congregation is traditional. We only use the chanted liturgy with traditional vestments. We have no praise band or big screens.

Ethnically, we are mostly white, but have a great deal of diversity: including blacks, Hispanics, and racially mixed people reflecting the "bowl of gumbo" ethnicity of New Orleans. In our congregation, we have more people of French and Cajun extraction than German, and in some families where my parishioners grew up, they literally spoke German, French, and Spanish (all of them!) alongside of English.

None of this makes us better or worse Christians. Some neighborhoods are ethnically mixed, others less so. Neither "diversity" nor how many former crack addicts one has in the parish should be paraded about like a badge of honor or wielded like a club against congregations - be they black, white, or Hispanic - that tend toward more homogeneity.

This adolescent push to turn us into community and entertainment centers is antithetical to the Gospel. I believe the synod will continue to struggle financially as long as they continue to give the finger to the silent majority of traditional churches that they treat as the enemy.

My message to the synod: Satan is the enemy. Attack him. Stop attacking the liturgy, and stop demanding money from liturgical congregations to do it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Father H, Been reading your blog for a while. I enjoy reading what you have to say.

Would you rather these congregations not exist?

What if they're reaching people for Jesus who wouldn't be reached otherwise? Aren't they accomplishing what Jesus told us to do?

I read the article you posted and it didn't sound hostile towards liturgy, unless there's some more background in it that I don't see. (and there might be, since I don't know the whole story).

I know both men who Pastor two of the churches mentioned in that article, and they are men that seek the Lord and their passion is to seek out people who don't know Jesus. I think that's an excellent thing to be doing and to have a passion for.

Like I said, I like reading your blog, just wanted to share my thoughts with you. Thanks for writing.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ryan:

Let me take the part about the hostility to liturgy first.

In all of these articles highlighting the kinds of congregations we are supposed to be emulating as part of the Ablaze!(tm) vision, they stress innovation, contemporary worship styles, rock bands, big screens, etc. Sometimes, this takes the form of dancing girls, skits, gimmick billboards, and even sexual innuendo - all in the name of "outreach."

But you never read about, for example, the congregation of one of my classmates who left the DELTO program to become a regular Master's degree seminarian, who started a mission church, and against all the pressure from the district (who was bankrolling the mission), shunned the guitars and big screens, opting instead for the traditional Western Mass, and has been going strong for several years now, bringing in lots of new people with the traditional approach to evangelism and worship.

Instead, this article highlights congregations that "don't sound like 'typical' LCMS congregations" because it "takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people" (a pithy platitude which isn't true at all, by the way).

The article treats people like stamps in a collection, almost to the point of saying: "Do you need any blacks? I'll trade a Jew and a meth addict for a family of Hispanics in you throw in a lesbian..." I find this attitude toward people patronizing and objectifying.

A friend of mine actually attended a conference in which an LCMS pastor (one of those highlighted) excitedly boasted: "We have members with tattoos and piercings!" Kind of like bragging rights to a rare stamp from New Guinea or something. And, BTW, having members with tats and piercings just isn't all that exotic - but then again, I'm from Nwahluns, dawlin. ;-)

And what pastor in any church doesn't have gays and lesbians under his care? Just because we don't *brag* about it doesn't mean we don't have them, love them, and are counseling them to live a life of repentance, not marketing to them and trying to make them "feel comfortable."

The article plays up one congregation that "offers a worship style unique in its community - a blend of the liturgy and classic hymns wit contemporary songs. An electronic keyboard leads the music, accompanied by a bassist, rhythm guitarists, and drummer." And again, this kind of "innovation" has become so common as to almost be bourgeois. But it is seen as superior to anything traditional.

Another congregation in the article "favor[s] a contemporary 'praise' style [No way! What a shock!] using a PowerPoint presentation instead of hymnal." It cites a congregant who "grew up in a 'traditional Lutheran church' in Germany and attended 'a traditional Lutheran church" when she moved to Florida. Now she enjoys worshiping with people from a variety of cultures..."

How else can a traditionalist read that other than to be insulted? The bad old way has been replaced by the exciting and new way.

In the pictures, none of these pastors is wearing clerical garb. Two of the three are called by their first names. The implication is this is what "works" and if your church doesn't have PowerPoint, drums, and a young pastor with plucked eyebrows, jeans, an untucked shirt, or Tina Fey glasses, you're doing it wrong.

In the entire magazine, there are (by my count) eleven pastors photographed - and the only picture of a pastor in a clerical collar is President Kieschnick at the very end.

I'm just tired of traditional churches being marginalized, mocked, and then marketed to for money. This is why I put Gottesdienst in the narthex and discourage my parishioners from reading Lutheran Witness, Reporter, or any other anti-traditionalist propaganda no matter where it comes from.

I'll address the other fine points you raise later on. I do appreciate your writing and the opportunity for dialogue!

Anonymous said...

"But you never read about..."

-Faithful Pastors and Congregations in shrinking and aging rural and small towns who struggle to keep the doors open.

-Churches that use the traditional Liturgy to reach out to evangelicals and others looking for substance.

-innovative ministries like the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, Issues Etc, Higher Things, various Blogs and Podcasts, etc... that bring "traditionalist" Lutheranism to whole new audiences.

-the need for good solid theologically trained church musicians and organists to help us keep our ties to the past strong, to keep our musical bearings in an age of throw away music

Shall I go on... Why must I have to go around/outside official channels to be in the know about the above? Why not at least equal time?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ryan (in Cali...):

You ask:

"Would you rather these congregations not exist? What if they're reaching people for Jesus who wouldn't be reached otherwise? Aren't they accomplishing what Jesus told us to do?"

The question presents a false dichotomy of two choices: exist without liturgy, or don't exist at all.

There are other options:

1) Exist using the historic liturgy (as we are bound to do in our confessions)

2) Exist outside of the Lutheran confession.

By ditching the liturgy, they are not only turning worship into entertainment (which does not facilitate worship of Jesus but rather worship of self), they are offending others of our communion (I was so scandalized that I nearly left the Lutheran Church as a layman when I saw my first "contemporary" service), and sowing the seeds of discord and disunity (e.g. "worship wars").

What good is it to win converts (and these types of churches are notorious in their high rates of turnover) while chasing away others? It's a terribly counter-productive method, even from the viewpoint of the church-growth movement's sterile emphasis on numbers.

There are plenty of non-denominational churches that have scrapped the liturgy and severed their ties from the traditions we have all pledged ourselves to in the Book of Concord. Why not just leave the LCMS and function under another umbrella? That would be more honest.

It is dishonest to swear at one's ordination "In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc." and then turn around and abolish those same "traditional liturgical forms."

It is a lie, and Satan is the father of lies. Can we expect not to be judged for this?

If we base our entire ministry upon a lie, it is no different than pledging fidelity to one's spouse at the altar with the intention of being unfaithful all along. Our candidates ought not take vows that they can't keep as pastors.

If the members of these entertainment-driven churches were to actually read the Book of Concord, they would be shocked. They would either figure their pastor is a charlatan and a liar, or they would believe the Book of Concord is a lie.

If I were to believe the pope is the head of the Church and offer Masses to release souls from Purgatory, why would I even want to call myself a Lutheran? And how much integrity would a Lutheran Church body have in allowing me to make a mockery of the Lutheran confessions in this way?

On the other hand, if I were to abolish the Mass, get rid of "traditional liturgical forms," make use of worship practices that are "frivolous" which cause "offense" - why would I want to call myself a Lutheran? And how much integrity would a Lutheran Church body have in allowing me to make a mockery of the Lutheran confessions in this way?

And, besides, the same appeal could be made for, say, ordaining women. If they are "reaching people for Jesus," why not let them do it? Such an approach is a kind of "gospel reductionism" that says anything goes as long as the "gospel" is preached. But I think it is an illusion. Women preachers don't "reach people for Jesus" and I think entertainment preachers are preaching a "buddy Jesus" from the movie Dogma instead of Christ crucified. And when they violate their vows, they are not acting with integrity.

God will not be mocked. And I think we condone such things at our own peril.

Pastor Zip said...

Ah, Father Beane. For several years I have often followed up the comment -- and I've heard it even at Society of the Holy Trinity Retreats some pretty strong Evangelical Catholic types -- "We worship 283 on a weekend..." with, "Hmm. At Zion we worship one. Well, I suppose you could say, 'We worship three.' All 45 of us who are there" (I probably should add to that, "with the heavenly host").

But that's really the only choice: one God, three Persons. And in a "me" centered North American culture, no, make that a "me" centered North American church culture, we need to be clear about that. Because what should terrify us, especially well-educated Lutheran clergy, is not so much that "grammar imitates life," but that people believe what we say. (Life follows grammar, so to speak.) For -- and I know this sounds "judgmental," but I've been set apart to make such judgments -- when I hear a churchman say, "We worship 383," all too often, I think he really means it. More imortanly, though, if just one person accidentally believes that way, it's one person too many to mislead by grammatical laziness.

Oh, there's another abuse of the word "worship" that seems to be gaining ground, too, especially among those who propagate "relevant worship" (as opposed to the hopeless "traditional" liturgy where worshipers actually hold an LBW in their hands) in the ELCA -- though I've heard it from some non-denominationalists, too.

"We have three worships every weekend" (often in a smug tone that's saying, "I have to craft 3 different worships every weekend; I barely have time to do anything else). "Worships" as a plural noun? AAARGH!

Maybe the folks at Issues, Etc. can come up with a series of quick ads. I can hear it now, Elvis Costello shouting, "I want my LSB!"

Christe eleison, Steven+

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Fr. Steven:

"Worships" as a plural noun? Gads! That's a new one on me. Are we doing more violence to the English language or to the Christian faith?

Thanks for writing! And I highly recommend your blog to all three of my readers... ;-)


+ Larry

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Congratulations for IE Blog Post of the Week!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Dan:

That's very cool! Welcome to all guests forwarded here from Issues, Etc. I'll put on an extra pot of coffee, and if need be, will make a beer run.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Grats on the Blog of the Week as well - Fort Wayne, 04 represent!