Something Better – visit to an Evangelical Lutheran Synod church

I’m conflicted. I reported on a virtual visit to an LCMS contemporary service. Today I report on a confessional Lutheran service. It was virtual too; virtually mind blowing.

The contemporary LCMS congregation had more liturgy, better contemporary songs, more explicit references to Christ, and better law and gospel. But she also had open Communion. I couldn’t find a Communion statement on the ELS’s webpage, but I assume all ELS congregations have closed Communion.

Low church worship is still worship and is not necessarily contemporary. Luther had plans to develop a service for mature Christians that was basically Bible reading, prayers, and preaching. It’s interesting that he did have the plan; even more so that he never went through with it. The Geneva gown is not heretical, but it is an academic gown, and it fit here. The pastor’s sermon was a power point presentation. It contained charts on different types of coronavirus and a 2 or 3 minute clip from the CDC.

The sermon theme was “A Better Resurrection” and like the contemporary LCMS congregations who are following the trend-setting Evangelicals it was  part of a larger sermon series “Something Better.” The Gospel is Jesus promises something better. He reaches out with real answers. A better way to live is with faith in a bodily resurrection. This life can’t be all there is and God promises it’s not. The Covid-19 crisis is providing us with opportunities to share with people whose life has been turned upside down that there is something better.

The sermon abruptly shifts to a very moving video of Mary Magdalene telling Peter and John that the tomb is empty and them running to it while thoughts of Peter’s denial are running through his head. Video is the new preaching and something foundational has changed, and it is unforgiving. Video allows the receiver to take whatever meaning they want from a clip. People communicate in short memes because multiple seconds of video say too much. A picture is worth a 1,000 words, so better limit the picture. Watch this sermon – and make no mistakes it’s meant to be watched not heard – and the video hits you with a freight train of emotion that is neither law nor gospel. At best it’s hope. At worse, it’s the “Aww” reaction that garners multiple thumbs-up on social media.

Two of three songs were contemporary. The second song was “I can only Imagine.” It was in the genre of “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” Only this wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, just spiritual. It was contemporary in tone and tune and country in style. There wasn’t one word of Law or Gospel, but at lot about what I can and can’t imagine. The closing song “Bless the Lord” was contemporary and centered on what we’re doing. It was upbeat and up-tempo. It was paraphrasing Scripture but it was all about what the singer was doing.

In fairness, this was a virtual service. For all I know the pastor doesn’t stand in front of wooden altar with a 72 inch flatscreen TV above it which gives the impression that’s the object of worship. For all I know this was just stripped down order of service. However, he only mentioned in passing the Vicarious Atonement and the resurrection as the Father’s acceptance of the Son’s payment. But neither was the something better. The better was something more than life in a pandemic. And that to me is a “duh” point.

And what do we do with low church worship? Wearing an academic gown on purpose? Does Apology, XXVII help? “…the Mass is retained among 2] us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added 3] to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned 4] be taught [what they need to know of Christ].” I quote this not in reference to them not having the Sacrament because of Covid. Can we use this to understand this congregation’s use of contemporary songs, PowerPoint presentations, and videos as the denouement of the sermon? Are these the equivalent of our forefathers adding German hymns and endeavoring to teach the unlearned?

Second, since they are a Confessional Lutheran congregation does FC, SD, X, 31 apply: “Thus [According to this doctrine] the churches will not condemn one another because of dissimilarity of ceremonies when, in Christian liberty, one has less or more of them, provided they are otherwise agreed with one another in the doctrine and all its articles, also in the right use of the holy Sacraments, according to the well-known saying: Dissonantia ieiunii non dissolvit consonantiam fidei; “Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in the faith.” Does this means what is offensive in an cpen Communion church would not be in a closed Communion one?

I came away from this service at Abiding Shepperd, Cottage Grove, Wisconsin having been promised “Something Better” thinking in fact I got something worse. I came away thinking if this sort of worship is tolerated in the ELS they really are no better than the LCMS. Finally I came away thinking I owe Bethel, Bryan an apology.

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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