Curating Worship, Culture, and the Church

It has become common to think about worship styles as merely a matter of taste or preference, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about our worship. After all, most of the language we use to describe worship styles invites more questions than it answers. For example, take the common designations “contemporary” and “traditional.” Traditional? Which tradition do you mean? The historic liturgy? Which one and whose history? Contemporary? Contemporary compared to what? What happens when “contemporary worship” is a thirty-year-old movement? A closer look at recent trends in worship practice reveals that there are actually whole families of responses to contemporary global culture.

The Lord founded the Church upon truth and dedicated it to truth, both of the Law and of the Gospel (Exodus 20:6; John 14:6). It cannot thrive on falsehood. For this reason, practices such as mobbing are particularly damaging to churches and those who serve in them. In the past few days, knowledge of this devastating affliction in churches has grown considerably, which is simply the first step toward addressing the problem. Some of you are clamoring for more information. It’s coming—the persons stepping forward to report the widespread and devastating effects of mobbing are supplementing my over-long 10,000 word essay. I wrote about the Machine (this term was used by proponents in St. Louis). Others are describing similar practices from other parties in the synod. This is helpful for seeing the extent of the issue.

Mobbing: Organized Spiritual Abuse in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod

In 1987 a group of students sat together at the dining hall in Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, sharing stories about church life. One of the students described events at a congregation near his home. He set the story in the tense times surrounding the Walkout from Concordia Seminary (1974). Members of a congregation suspected their pastor of being a liberal/moderate. Instead of dealing with their concerns in a straightforward way, they began to antagonize their pastor by repeating certain clandestine activities. For example, when the pastor was not present, they would remove a rollaway pulpit and put it in a closet. They would enter his office to remove certain books from his library. When the pastor returned these items to where they should be, again and again members of the congregation would move them in an effort to confuse and discourage the pastor. As the student finished this story, those around the table wondered at the bizarre behavior of those in the congregation.

When, Why, and How to Baptize Mormons

I never planned on doubting Mormonism. But a crisis of faith arose anyway, spurred by the collision of my hypersensitive conscience with Mormonism’s high-demand, works-based theology. The Book of Mormon teaches that we are saved by grace “after all we can do” (II Nephi 25:12), a passage that is commonly interpreted to mean that we must perform our very best before God’s grace kicks in to make up for what we lack. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I was in the throes of crippling despair over the realization that I would never be able to say I’d done “all” I could and incessantly anxious about the state of my eternal soul. But then something unexpected happened: I heard the gospel…

The Church and Happiness

Eleven and a half years ago, I introduced myself as the new editor of Lutheran Forum. In preparing to say words of farewell in this, my final issue, I re-read that article and discovered that I have been thinking the exact same thoughts all these years. I’m not sure whether I should be commended for fidelity to my vision or criticized for the narrowness of my range!

That first editorial was entitled “Church Breaks Your Heart”—and that was back in 2007. Since then, plenty of a heartbreaking nature has taken place in the church (locally, denominationally, ecumenically, globally), even more heartbreaking than I could have foreseen at the time. Meanwhile, our wider society appears to have entered into competition with the church to prove itself even more fractured, disputatious, and heartbreaking.

The Book of Esther and God Hidden and Revealed

I suppose the first thing to say about the book of Esther is that Martin Luther hated it. He absolutely hated it. He called Esther “less worthy of being held canonical” than any other writing of the Old Testament, and he put it on a list with II Maccabees for books that “Judaize too much and contain much pagan naughtiness. Luther may have been uniquely vocal and vitriolic on the matter, but he is far from alone among Esther’s critics, particularly her Christian ones. A robust treatment of Esther’s defects would surely include the book’s famed failure to mention the name of God or to recognize divine providence…

Putting the Advents Back into Advent

A serious misconception concerning Advent has taken hold among Lutherans. This misconception insists on seeing Advent as a season of preparation. In many churches we hear what we are supposed to do during Advent, rather than what God does for us in the past, present, and future advents (arrivals or comings) of Christ. Human actions have become the focal point. Whether phrased in inviting motivational language or harsher command language, listeners are told that they must “prepare” for the coming of Christ at Christmas and now have a wonderful opportunity (four weeks!) to do so. The preparatory works recommended may be psychological (clearing one’s mind of distractions) or spiritual (repentance, meditation, remembering, or “holy waiting”) or social (works for others, even helping others prepare for Christmas)…

One Thousand Years of Catholics, Lutherans, and Revolutionaries in Strasbourg’s Cathedral

Floating down the Rhine from Basel, a medieval bargeman would have seen few monuments of any size. Fishermen and ferries would ply their trade; smoke would rise from forest huts. At Briesach he could admire the grand St. Stephan’s church upon the hill, skirted by that fortress city’s walls. Some vineyards and some fields would show on distant slopes. But mostly he would float, the dark line of the Black Forest rising to the east, the Vosges Mountains its mirror image to the west. 

Nearing Strasbourg he would spy a different sight, something angular and unnatural, a dusky smudge erupting up from the plain, the only sign of the great city teeming below. And at last, off the Rhine and through the tollhouse of the river Ill, he would raise his eyes and see that spindly mass of heaven-piercing height, the Cathedral of Our Lady.

Shall Christians Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?

What is the place of the imprecatory Psalms in Christian prayer? They are uncomfortable to pray—until you need them. They use language that shocks—until those words express exactly what you are feeling. How do the imprecatory Psalms fit within a tradition that also strives to obey Jesus’ commands to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Aren’t these commands of Jesus directly opposed to the language of the imprecatory Psalms?…

Lutheran Commentary on the American Political Scene

Editor’s note: The Attached PDF contains four short articles for your reflection regarding Lutheran commentary on the American political scene. These were originally printed shortly following Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States in 2017. We offer them again to you ahead of next week’s midterm elections. The article printed below on this website is the first of these articles in the attached pdf.

Meyer v. Nebraska, A Lutheran Contribution to Constitutional Law

One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important civil liberties decisions arose out of a case that began in a one-room Lutheran schoolhouse in rural Nebraska. On a May afternoon in 1920, Robert T. Meyer, a teacher at Zion Lutheran Church’s elementary school near Hampton, Nebraska, boldly continued teaching German in defiance of state law when the Hamilton County attorney entered his classroom. Meyer, a forty-two-year-old father of six, knew that this elected official did not want to offend the area’s large German-American community. “I had my choice,” Meyer later told his lawyer. “If I changed into English, he would say nothing. If I went on in German, he would arrest me…”

After Schism

Why do I stay? I am asked that question regularly, including by readers of the first draft of this essay. I struggle to answer. My conscience troubles me. I worry that I stay because my spouse and I have been treated well in an “intact” synod, if I may borrow admittedly strong language from the Church Struggle in Germany in the 1930s for those regional Lutheran churches not taken over by the pro-Nazi German Christian party…

Whose Flannery?

Like so many others, I was first exposed to Flannery O’Connor in high school when assigned her infamous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in English class. My English teacher told the class with obvious delight that the point of the story is that all religious people are hypocrites who will do whatever they can to save their own skin because God sure won’t. I didn’t think much of that and decided to avoid Flannery O’Connor in the future…

Thou Shalt Not Cheat Prospective Lutherans

It was out of simple curiosity that I attended the classes. They were three one-hour sessions offered to non-Lutheran adults desiring church membership at the congregation that was my home church during my senior year of seminary. The classes weren’t taught by either of the pastors but by a young parish worker. The first week’s topic was baptism, the second week’s was communion, and the final week was stewardship. By the end of the second week, I had concluded that the teacher may not have been listening very carefully during her confirmation class days when the sacraments were being taught…

Simul Lutheran Et Charismatic In Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) has never thought of the charismatic movement as being incompatible with its Lutheran identity. Instead, it acknowledges that it owes its missional achievements to the charismatic movement that arose and spread throughout its congregations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The EECMY’s rapid numerical growth—from about two hundred thousand in the mid-1970s to over eight million today—resulted from the Spirit’s bringing people to faith and helping them grow through the church’s mission of proclaiming the word of God to all nations…

St. Gudina Tumsa

The son of Obbo Tumsa Silga, Gudina Tumsa was born in 1929 at Boji in Karkaro, in the present administrative region of Mirab Welega in Ethiopia. Although Christianity was introduced to the community three decades before Gudina Tumsa’s birth, his nuclear as well as his extended family did not accept Christ as their personal savior until Gudina went to school in 1938. There he was converted to Christianity and started to preach the good news to his family as well as the surrounding community. Gudina’s first reaction to the traditional religion—the tradition that his parents had observed for many years—was to cut down the ritual Hommi Tree, a tree considered sacred by his parents and others who worshiped it…

Things We Never Preach About: Sexual Abuse

Most congregations realize that occasionally they have to set their jaws, tighten their haunches,  and listen to a sermon on divorce. It shows up in the three-year lectionary at least once, and while leery pastors might try to sneak around it, both they and their flocks will know, leaving a silence far more awkward than God’s gracious will for marriage and those who fail at it. Better to address the subject than to suggest that we are embarrassed by the good things that our Lord has said…

Review of "Martin Luther's Legacy" by Mark Ellingsen

The subject matter of this book is very dear to my heart. I have spent my academic and pastoral vocations in finding ways to make Luther relevant for our times. Mark Ellingsen’s focus in this book follows in the same path. I am grateful to Ellingsen’s scholarly and pastoral wisdom in reading Luther from a “pastoral-contextual paradigm.” Ellingsen establishes why he prefers to read Luther from a “pastoral-contextual model” rather than reading Luther as a systematic theologian. As the author notes and I agree, to read Luther as a systematic theologian does not do justice to the richness of his thought and the paradoxical character of his theology…