Church for Dummies – Visit to A Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church

Like those yellow books with big black letter titles on all things PC, not political correctness but personal computers, this Wisconsin Evangelical Synod church was church for dummies, or more PC (here politically correct) “church simplified”. It was definitely Christian, certainly not distinctively Lutheran, and definitely not identifiable as confessional Lutheran. The Christianity that definitely was here wasn’t even the milk of Christianity. It was more like powdered milk.

What was clearly in evidence was another PC: Popular culture. From the meet and greet icebreaker that began the service, to the walkabout preacher, to the twin big screens, to being able to text your offering, to the Connection Card which was explained on the big screen: “Place the Connection Card in the offering plate – because we care.” Aww.

I could participate in this service because there were hymns, a real confession of sins, and a real absolution, so my wife had no indication what I was thinking when I asked, “So what did you think?” She said, “I was profoundly saddened. It was mostly law. When he finally got to Jesus, there was something off [It wasn’t explicitly Jesus for us keeping the Law or suffering and dying for sins and sinners], and he spoke more of God than Jesus and referred several times to Jesus as a or the ‘son of a carpenter’, and he equated Solomon and a TV host with Jesus.”

If you know my wife, that was a tremendous amount for her to talk in one stretch and very strident for her. But she was spot on. The pastor was making the point that Natural Knowledge can get as high as the Golden Rule. But those who follow it in this world aren’t rewarded and a randomness which is meaningless seems to rule all. You have to break the glass ceiling, go above everything under the sun, and the means of doing that is Jesus. I have said it much clearer than the pastor. He spoke in very polished, measured tones but he was more millennial than oratorial.

Typical of all Bronze Age Missouri pastors and many Wisconsin Synod moderns, he ended on the twin peaks of Third Use of the Law and evangelism. Here is his conclusion verbatim. “Your purpose is to fear, trust, and share God in this meaningless world.” He ends right back where he started with what Natural Law could know.

I too noted the speaker’s propensity to speak of ‘God’ not ‘Jesus.’ His opening illustration was about him asking an atheist friend, “So, what do you think about God?” Jesus, you’ll remember, asks, “What do you think about Me?” And you don’t get to the true God without going through the Man Jesus. Pastor Mack of the United Lutherans in Mission Association notes that people involved in contemporary worship speak most of the time about ‘God’ rarely about ‘Jesus.’

I refer to the pastor who ‘preached’ as the ‘speaker’ because he didn’t preach. The “liturgist”, who was the senior pastor, did the preaching. Each reading was preceded by a Midrash by him. (I thought these went out of favor in the late 80s.)The General Prayer was more preaching to us than praying to God. I don’t know if he is ex-military, but he followed the Army’s theory of teaching. You tell them what you’re going to teach them. This he did prior to the meet and greet. You teach them. This is what the speaker did. And then you tell them what you taught them. This is what the senior pastor did after the benediction.

The Children’s Message – which remember I was guilty of for 17 years – was done by the senior pastor. It felt like such a throwback. It won’t be long before they are children’s churching these kids as they do at their Pflugerville campus. Referencing divine things using secular nomenclature is done for a reason, and that reason may or may not be divine. More later.

Back to the entertainment portion of the service. Ten to twelve kids came forward to hear a lesson on being happy and sad. The congregation loved it when some kids were sad to go to church, to go to bed, or to read. It brought back shades of Art Linkletter. What was troubling, other than interrupting what little liturgical flow of the service there was, was the pastor’s summation. “God wants you to be happy at whatever age you are.” That was funny in the sense that meat that smells funny is bad and will harm you. It was also funny in the sense that over 30 years ago I read an article by a Wisconsin Synod pastor on marriage and divorce which said that because people today believe personal happiness is the bedrock of human existence and that God wants them to be happy, when they find themselves unhappy in marriage they conclude God wants them to get a divorce (Ehike, “The Death of Romance”, Northwestern Lutheran, October 15, 1985).

Having said all the above, you’re going to be surprised by my conclusion. Could it be that what Holy Word, Austin, Texas is doing is the equivalent of what a German Lutheran Church circa 1913 was doing when they started English services? Are they merely trying to speak in the langue of today, and to speak theological things you must water them down to the point of powdered milk? When I went to Detroit in 1987 I concluded that and tried it. Then liturgical, sacramental Christianity bit me when a now long-sainted pastor challenged me on whether I not I really subscribed to the Lutheran Confessions.

In any event, I believe that is what Holy Word is trying to do. In the end, at best, I think what they will succeed in doing is giving birth to another non-denominational Christian Church that no one actually catechized in Luther’s Small Catechism would recognize or want to be a part of. At worst, they will have with Dr. Frankenstein created something that will destroy them.

I visited on 31 December 2017.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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