On being an instituitional type

I am an institutional type. I love our Lutheran institutions. From our seminaries to our publishing house to our relief organizations to the churchwide structure itself, I appreciate their work and pray that they continue to be effective ministries pointing to and living out of the cross of Christ. Let us thank God for their work!

In some of the Emergent Church literature and websites I’ve been reading there is a persistent anti-institutional theme. To many in the Emergent movement, institutions represent the worst of the Modern World and Church. To them, institutions resist change, toil for their self preservation, lack a mission focus, and exist to serve only the interests of old, out-of-touch constituencies. Perhaps we all have seen these characteristics at work in failing institutions. But it would be unfair to paint all church institutions with this largely negative and simplistic brush.  I wonder if these critics don’t risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater . . .

Thanks to our church institutions, every three years 40,000 Lutheran youth and young adults attend the National Youth GatheringLutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response, church institutions both, are among the most respected and most effective humanitarian organizations in the world.  Thanks to our seminaries, thousands of congregations have theologically-trained pastors and lay leaders. Augsburg Fortress Publishers provides Sunday School materials through which hundreds of thousands of children learn about God.  Thrivent Financial for Lutherans gives millions of dollars each year to congregations and religious schools. And there is more that I could say about our church organizations.

Our church institutions are far from perfect. At times they represent the worst of the church by preserving unjust policies or failing to proclaim and live Good News among people outside the Middle-American Middle-Class. But at the same time, they can represent the best of our tradition and mission. Through these institutions we can live out the mission of the church to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the lowly. By banding together in broad organizations, the church can do what it cannot do as separate, isolated, go-it-alone communities.

Whole-sale rejection of church institutions is a grave mistake (and it is no better to reluctantly acknowledge the need for such instutions but simultaneously undermine them with our negative thoughts, words or deeds). Rather, I think we owe it to our institions to give them our whole-hearted support – to pray for them, to give money to them, to rebuke them when they go astray, and to lift them up when they excel in fulfilling the church’s mission. Afterall, we’re all part of the same church and we share the same mission.

Praise to the Holy Spirit for flowing through these organizations and using them to bless the world!

Alternative Worship

Karen over at Submergence wrote a great comment on her blog explaining to me the distinction between the Emergent and Alt Worship movements, in response to a comment I had left there. I wasn’t sure how to link straight to her comment, so I’ve copied and pasted the comment below. But to read her original post, my comment and other comments on the matter, click here. Karen’s words are right below. (note: when she writes "COTA" she’s referring to Church of the Apostles, the community she pastors in Seattle).

alt comes from a liturgical base with underlying mainline/catholic theology and sacramentality BUT with an emergent/pomo ethos and ‘native’ ability to navigate and speak into to today’s culture (and therein lies the BIG difference between alt emergent and modern mainline – the theology is not different, but is taken with radical seriousness and given radical practice for today’s culture, so alt emergent is ‘vatican III" whereas the modern mainline church is at vatican II or 1.5.
nota bena – giving ‘radical practice’ to catholic/mainline theology will be quite different in practice but not in theology (essence) so some modern mainlines will say ‘we are doing different theology,’ but our reply is that we are not doing different theology, we are just putting to radical practice the theology we have inherited.
for example, at cota i do not wear vestments. for us, vesture is ‘adiaphora’ (not required) yet dress is very important in all cultures. so i wear the ‘native dress’ of our seattle boho culture (jeans and t shirt or sweater) and also for us this ‘a’ way to radically express ‘priesthood of all believers,’ so priest and priestly people look/are the same. – we value the symbols of liturgical color and beauty, so we vest the space with radical color, fabric, art and media projections for the liturgical year, we just don’t vest me, as in our postmodern and secular culture here the more powerful symbol is not ‘priest set apart’, but ‘priest set among,’ which is communicated better in our context by me wearing the same clothes as our other apostles. however, we do ‘robe up’ for weddings when the couple decides on formal wear (tux and white dress…) so in this setting, having priests in formal wear is fine as we are at the same level of symbolic dress as those attending.
when it comes to the difference between alt/emergent and usa emergent, there is a difference in theological starting points. most usa emergent folk have started from free church evangelical theology and tradition (tending less ‘liturgical’ and less ‘sacramental’) wheras alt emergent starts from a mainline/catholic theology and traditions which tend more ‘liturgical’ and ‘sacramental,’ so both alt emergent and us emergent are ‘post,’ but post from different origins – one is post-evangelical and alt emergent is post-mainline, or mainline in the next stage of ‘morph.’ so the difference is not in essence but in ethos.
the mothership site for alt emergent is
alternative worship you can get lost in there, so enjoy the ride. cheers!

Worship A-Z

Click on the link above for the A-Z of "alt worship" (alternative worship – not a great name, but it’s what they call it). I see no reason why this should be alternative – how or why couldn’t these characteristics be present in all worship? Not sure if I’m on board with each and every jot and tittle (such as the smile/sacrament comment), but this list of what worship can and should be is a great place to begin a conversation about worship today. And in fact, I imagine that our more traditional sisters and brothers might resonate with much of what is said in that list . . .

I found a link to this list on submergence. Again, many thanks to Karen at Submergence and to Sue for bringing this list to light.

Why I am Lutheran

A few days ago I resolved to write a "Why I am Lutheran" post. Damn, that seemed so easy at the time. What follows is hardly comprehensive and probably filled with various heresies. But it is what comes to mind right now. I love being Lutheran, for better or for worse.

  • Because Lutherans know that God comes down the ladder. We are not able to climb up some ladder of righteousness or spirituality or piety or goodness to reach God and attain some status of holiness or purity. We are not able to climb up some ladder to achieve happiness, fulfillment, contentment. Though we constantly struggle to get up the ladder, to get above others, the ladders of our world just lead us further and further from reality. Rather, God comes down the ladder to us, blesses us, graces us, loves us. What did I do to deserve this? Nothing.
  • Because Lutherans know that God dwells where we least expect God to dwell. We know that God is most clearly seen in odd, out-of-the-way places such as the suffering on the cross, or the shame of the animal stable, or among the outcasts. Or with people who can’t climb a ladder to save their lives. When we humans draw lines, God is usually on the other side. And the Cross forces us to the other side of the line, the other side of the train tracks, the other side of life, to look at and experience God’s presence amidst suffering and brokenness.
  • Because Lutherans are serious about sin. In our liturgy many of our churches proclaim, "We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves." Lutherans admit that on our own we cannot escape the power of sin and do good works – from helping a neighbor to accepting Christ as savior. We do not have a free will – it is bound to sin. This explains a lot about human endeavor and our human experience. The Good News is that God comes down the ladder, freeing us from trying to get up it.
  • Because Lutherans are a simul kind of people. Simul – Latin for at the same time – reminds us that we live in a complex world that is many things at the same time. Our world and our worldview is not black and white, either/or, but rather a mucky, messy simul. Simul justus et pecador – we are at the same time sinner and saint. God’s Word is law and gospel at the same time. We live in two kingdoms – a kingdom of God and a kingdom of man – at the same time. By the grace of God we are free to live yet are bound to serve – at the same time. Lutherans can’t draw clear lines of either/or.
  • Because Lutheran preaching is about God. Preachers in our churches are called to proclaim the acts and comfort of God. Sermons, while addressing our human condition, do not proclaim (for example) 3 Steps to a Better Life or How to Have a Closer Relationship with God (that is, Lutheran preaching is emphatically not about us). Lutheran preachers proclaim God’s grace, love, compassion, presence . . .
  • Because Lutheranism embraces the common stuff of everyday life. Martin Luther valued daily life and the vocation of common people (once saying that it is more blessed to change a baby’s diaper than to be a priest). In the tangible things of daily life, Lutherans find God. Our spiritual life and encounter with God is daily – daily we die to sin and daily we rise with Christ. Church is not a Sunday recharging of the batteries that gets us through the week, because in the week itself we Lutherans acknowledge the blessedness of "ordinary" work that might not otherwise seem spiritual or important in the eyes of our world.
  • Because Lutheranism has such potential. For me, Lutheranism is less about traditional forms of worship or polity (though I greatly appreciate those things) and more about a theology and appreciation of the grace of God that speaks to humanity in many different ways. As such, I think Lutheranism has the potential to be the church in many different ways, proclaiming the Gospel/Good News and administering the Means of Grace – Baptism, Holy Communion, God’s Word – in creative and comforting ways at the dawn of the 21st century.

This post is what it is – why I am Lutheran. This isn’t a synopsis of Lutheran thought or a list of critical Lutheran Fundamentals. And it probably isn’t even very coherent or systematic. And I am probably missing some things that I really like about my tradition. But regardless, it’s getting late and on this day, at this time, this is why I am in love with the Lutheran tradition.

Post Script, September 24: I have filed a link to this post under the "Posts re: Emergent Church" heading because this is the theology by which and with which I engage the Emergent and Alternative Worship discussions. And as I’ve said in other posts, I see a lot of resonance between our Lutheran theology and the perspective of the Emergent movement . . .

The Relevance of Reformation-Era Theology

So I’m reading Brian McLaren’s book, a Generous Orthodoxy, in which he proposes a new way of being Christian for our post-modern era (some people more knowledgeable than I wonder if we’re really in a post-modern era). In a kind of cafeteria-style Christianity, he selectively lays claim to various Christians traditions. Actually, McLaren lays claim only to select elements of those traditions (not embracing the traditions in their entirety or even in large-part), and he often redefines those elements in the process. (Confusing? Yes. Let me recap: Claim a tradition, but really only embrace one aspect of that tradition, but then change the meaning of that aspect). What results, then, is a Christianity that may be hardly recognizable to an adherent of a tradition that McLaren claims.

For example, he claims that he is Charismatic, but the way in which he understands and defines the term is very different than the way that you or I might (he also claims to be Anabaptist, Anglican, Fundamentalist, etc. . . . but in each case he either carefully selects only one aspect of the tradition and/or he redefines the tradition itself).

Or again, McLaren claims to be both Fundamentalist and Calvinist, but he has little loyalty to the theology or principles of either tradition. McLaren calls himself a Fundamentalist, but he actually dismisses the five fundamentals that define Fundamentalism and redefines the fundamentals based on different principles (page 184). And so I ask, what is the point of calling yourself a Fundamentalist when you completely change the meaning of the word? He looks like no Fundamentalist you or I know.

He also calls himself a Calvinist, but from the nearly 500-year old Calvinist tradition McLaren only claims the "reforming principle of the tradition," (page 189) not any significant theology or set of beliefs. For McLaren, to be a Calvinist is to be a reforming Christian, but not much else. Thus McLaren can claim to be Calvinist without any reference to the theological insights or writings of John Calvin or his successors.

I run into this in the Lutheran Church, too. The church is filled with pastors and lay leaders for whom being Lutheran means little more than having a "reforming spirit." When I ask them how being Lutheran influences their ministry, a typical answer might be, "Luther was innovative and embraced the new technology and language of his day. That’s what we should do, too."

Although innovation in matters of church is admirable, being innovative or having a reforming principle in ministry doesn’t make one a Calvinist or a Lutheran (there are lots of reformers out there who can be admired – if it’s just a "reforming spirit" that you’re after, why not claim to be a follower of John Wesley, Pope John XXIII, Aimee Semple McPherson, Brian McLaren or Melancthon?). Maybe I’m just too modern and not sufficiently post-modern, but it seems to me that while we can be inspired by their example and we can be influenced by different Christian traditions, we can’t claim to be "Lutheran" or "Calvinist" or whatever without embracing some core set of beliefs in that tradition. And of course, the messy part is defining what those core set of beliefs are. Just ask different Lutherans or different Calvinists to define what it means to be part of that tradition and you’ll see the problem in coming up with a core set of beliefs . . . .

I know I’ve worked myself in a corner, and I don’t entirely believe everything I’ve just written. Actually, I see how it can be dangerous to clearly codify who’s in and who’s out of any tradition or community. But at the same time, isn’t it dangerous to claim a label that doesn’t reflect your identity in any clear way? (But at the same time, many of us Lutherans claim to be catholic, and that must annoy our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, just as the Mormon claim to be Christian annoys many traditional Christians).

And this also gets me to thinking that perhaps I need to write a "Why I am Lutheran" post, because all I can really say authoritatively about Lutheranism is my experience with and love for it. So there we have it. My assignment is to write a "Why I am Lutheran" post in the next few days. This will be fun.

More Proof that Brian McLaren is part Lutheran

As I make my way through Brian McLaren’s a Generous Orthodoxy, I see more and more proof that Mr. McLaren is at least part Lutheran, even though "Lutheran" fails to make it into his book’s paragraph-length subtitle. For one, he pays us Lutherans a nice complement:

If you want a feel for the richness of the phrase "Word of God," ask the Lutherans; it’s a secret that their own tradition seems to know without knowing what it means. – page 163

But I much prefer those hidden moments of unnamed Lutheranism, when he says something that is so darn Lutheran and yet he doesn’t name it as such. Perhaps he doesn’t know it is a Lutheran idea, or perhaps he’s in some sort of denial. Of course, there really isn’t any "Lutheran" idea at all – it all belongs to and comes from the Spirit, and these keen insights we apply to Luther and his followers are nothing more than Spirit-led insights into the Christian faith. (And such moments are not limited to Brian McLaren, of course. People of all stripes and creeds have such moments.) Well then, without further ado, here is yet another example of Brian McLaren’s Lutheran-ness:

But again, think about what truly biblical Christians . . . have done when they have understood the profitable purpose of Scripture. . . . [T]hey’ve done their work as teachers, farmers, bricklayers, nurses, scholars, mechanics, sellers, public servants, scientists, homemakers, cab drivers, and cooks with a special sense of purposes, love, and joy. Their "good works" included doing "good work" from day to day – whatever they did on the farm, in the office, in the home, in the classroom, or at the factory was seen as part of their holy, sacred vocation in God’s creation. – pages 165-166

In these words McLaren clearly summarizes Luther’s theology of vocation – an understanding of divine calling as something that happens daily and usually in (seemingly) ordinary ways, such as changing a baby’s diaper (Luther’s example).  It isn’t just the priests who have vocations, Luther argued, but all who are baptized have a calling and a vocation.

So anyway, it seems to be that Brian McLaren has some Lutheran influences, and that this whole emergent church way of embracing a blessed ambiguity and an authentic real-ness in daily life – this whole perspective just resonates in a deep way with our Lutheran tradition. . . .

The Emergent Mystique

This article, published in Christianity Today 1.5 years ago, reflects many of my observations and questions and admirations about the Emergent movement. It’s worth reading.

Most importantly, this article highlights for me the issue of culture – Emergent is culturally self-conscious in a major way. Many Emergent churches embrace a youth-oriented, techo-savvy culture. On websites of Emergent congregations, you see pictures of multiple projection screens, musicians using Apple iBooks to crank out electronic tunes, and lots of cool people who seem to be very style conscious. It’s like these people were ripped from the pages of some alternative music magazine or something (these folks don’t listen to Hillary Duff, I think).

But here’s my question. Is there a place in the Emergent church for me? I ask this because:

  • I don’t download music from the web.
  • I don’t own an iPod.
  • I don’t have an Apple iBook.
  • I don’t have cool hair.
  • I am not particularly fashionable.
  • I stopped trying to stay on top of good, new, alternative music some time between Lollapalooza and the Lillith Fair.
  • I mainly listen to NPR, BBC and ’80s New Wave (thank God for XM Satellite Radio!)

So is there a place for me in Emergent? Maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t. And maybe this isn’t the kind of church I want. I don’t know.

But the thing is this – I really resonate with the project Emergent has begun, which is a bold reimagining of the relationship of culture, tradition, certainty, mystery, faith, and divine promise (perhaps this is an overly simplistic summation of the Emergent cause?). And because of my admiration of the Emergent project, my second question is this – Can Emergent do this bold reimagination of church without being so culturally narrow in its approach?

I hear that Brian McLaren’s church in Maryland is not particularly techno-oriented, and perhaps a visit there would give me a broader perspective on diversity of the Emergent movement. Of course, the movement is not monolithic, and some wonder if it is even a movement at all (but it did just name a national coordinator . . .). Whatever it is, Emergent has become a force for renewal in the church and it is asking questions and doing things that many of us wish we’ve been asking and doing for a long time.

An Emerging Adolescent

Is the emergent church self-sufficient? Does it seek to be?

I ask this question because:

  • From what I can tell, several emergent church leaders have day jobs in traditional church settings (jobs outside of the emergent paradigm) or on the speaking/consulting/writing circuit that fund or enable their work with emergent;
  • I attended an emergent congregation and heard nothing regarding gifts/tithing, nor did I see an offering plate or place to leave a gift;
  • I noticed on an emergent congregation’s website an assurance that they are not "institutional types," and that their ties to a mainline denomination are just "helpful for the red tape part of life."

These are just snapshots, I know. One visit to one church. A look at a few websites. This is not representative, I’m sure (I hope).

But is it possible that the emergent movement is in denial about the extent to which it depends on traditional main line or evangelical Christian institutions? Many leaders in the emergent movement attended seminaries built and supported by denominations. Some of them are pastors whose pensions and health benefits are provided by denominations. Some of them engage in ministries that are funded in part or entirely through denominations or congregations affiliated with denominations.

Perhaps this is fine, especially if emergent is still in a start-up phase. But if emergent’s rhetoric is going to continue along an anti-denominational trajectory, then it seems to me that the emergent movement should emerge from the shadows and financial support of traditional Christianity and get on its own two feet. Perhaps with the naming of a national coordinator, the emergent movement will achieve this.

Alternatively, the emergent movement can more clearly articulate itself as a reform movement acting within existing denominational and evangelical parachurch structures, playing the role of reformer or loyal opposition (I think this might be a more constructive option, especially as a way to bring their creative and passionate mission-oriented ideas into the wider church). Perhaps that is what emergent is doing, in part, with its publishing partnership with Zondervan and Youth Specialties. But nonetheless, at this point and from my (limited) perspective, Emergent seems like an anxious adolescent who grumbles about parents and their rules but who nonetheless depends on them for daily emotional, physical and financial support.

I am sympathetic to the movement and what it seeks to achieve. Emergent intrigues me, and I think it raises important issues in the church today (it seeks to engage culture dynamically, engage tradition critically and imaginatively, and engage mission passionately, all things that we struggle to do in traditional churches). As a Lutheran, I recognize that it is a reform movement within Evangelical Christianity, but I also see that it has something to say to us in the Main Line, too. But I’m not sure that its disdain for structure and institutions will serve it well in the long run.

I look forward to watching this movement grow up.