April 21, 2014

Do This if You Want to Live

This Easter Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderfully Christ-centered worship service at our home church, Grace Lutheran in Seward. The hymns all were rich and powerful, the liturgy played a key role, and the sermon delivered law and gospel just as it should have. The choir did not overwhelm the service with special music. And with an attendance of about 70, the congregational singing was unusually boisterous for our small parish.

That will give you some perspective when I tell you about the conversation that took place at our table during the Easter brunch that followed. Some relatives of a parish member were visiting from Lincoln, and the husband could not seem to contain his pride in his church. You see, about eight years ago their church was doing very poorly; membership was declining, and it looked as though the end was in sight. But then they got a new, energetic pastor, and everything changed. They started a new, "very contemporary" service, and now the church is bursting at the seams. Now it seems that they cannot find enough parking space, and even their brand new facility proved to be too small. Well, you see, it is quite obvious that God is blessing this church.

Or so this visitor boldly claimed. I asked him which church it was that he was talking about, and he informed me that it was Christ Lutheran in Lincoln. So afterwards, I looked it up. Christ Lutheran apparently grew so large that its contemporary service split off into its own church, called Room211.  It seems this guy was not the only one who was proud of the church's rags-to-riches story. The Christ Lutheran website flaunts their attendance records online (while burying their LC-MS affiliation), and with numbers topping 1000 for Good Friday and 3000 on Easter Sunday, it's enough to make your average Lutheran church envious. Like maybe they're doing something right.

And that's what this visitor to Grace thought, too. He was laying it on pretty thick that our little church with a weekly attendance of less than 50 needs to get with the program. He stopped just short of saying, "Here's what you're doing wrong: your traditional hymns, liturgy, and law-gospel preaching are a death sentence. If you want to grow, do what we do."

What exactly do they do? The Room211 solution is to have gourmet coffee and cookies, a praise band, "multisensory worship," huge projection screens, videos, drama performances, fog machines, and sermons based on Pixar Movies. Is it possible to judge the success of a church's ministry from a distance? True, we can't judge hearts, but consider the following:
  1. The 5 minute intro video on the home page only mentions Jesus one time—with the word "freak" appended to it. No cross. Just stories about alcoholism and depression and needing to belong.
  2. The pages and pages of testimonials on the Room211 site mention "Jesus" a total of three times, and "Christ" only ten times, six of which refer to the parent church's name.
  3. Nowhere does Room211 list its affiliation with the LC-MS. Even the word "Lutheran" is only mentioned in connection with its parent church.
  4. Nowhere does Room211 have a statement of beliefs, or even a link to a statement of beliefs.
  5. Read any of the archived sermons about Despicable Me, Duck Dynasty, the Princess Bride, or Michael Jackson, and see if you can find one with both law and gospel in it. (I couldn't. But I suppose if you have enough patience, you might find a couple.)

So am I envious of this church's success? Not in the least. Because there was never any doubt that if you give people whatever they want, you'll fill your church every Sunday. We could stand at the doors and hand out free birth control, and that would sure bring 'em in. But the question is, how can we best minister to souls in need of a Savior? Room211 is not ministering. If hand-picked testimonials only produce heart-warming stories about wanting to belong, and being moved to tears by the music, and finding the messages to be super relevant, and feeling like you can trust the people around you even though you don't know any of them—this is not ministering. If not one of those enthusiastic re-churched members can boast in the cross of Christ, then they are not being ministered to. This is pandering, entertaining, and manipulating. Why would we want to imitate this? For the numbers? Is that how God measures success?

Kyrie Eleison.

April 14, 2014

He is Weak, But He is Strong

My two-year-old son has been learning "Jesus loves me, this I know," and because it's one of the only songs he knows, he sings it all the time. I noticed the other day that he keeps getting one of the lyrics wrong. The original goes, "Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong." In Gabriel's version, it gets changed to "He be weak, but he is strong."

I don't have the heart to correct him, because the version he sings is also true. When we think about Christ this Lenten season, it is not in the context of some lamentable tragedy. Jesus was not the helpless victim, but the willing sacrifice. When we see Jesus being nailed, beaten and bloody, to a cross, it is easy to see his weakness. It is hard to see his strength. It is hard to see the God whose "strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).

"Crucifixion of Jesus" by TangDa

The very idea of an omnipotent God going willingly to this kind of death is absurd in the extreme. It's incomprehensible. It's foolishness. Christians must recognize this, especially since the Apostle Paul even calls it such. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18).

You've probably seen this meme floating around the internet. It shows a muscle-bound Jesus defiantly snapping the arms off the cross. It reads like a deleted scene from "The Last Temptation of Christ," in which Jesus decides your sins are not worth it and uses his power to do exactly what his tormentors demand. It's meant to satirize the absurdity of the central article of Christian faith.

The atheist thinks he is telling us something new. Like if we really thought about it hard, we'd come to the conclusion that the Atonement is too ridiculous a concept for it to actually be true. For the Christian, it is pointless to deny the absurdity. We embrace it, and point them to 1 Cor 1:18. We thank God for his reckless love, that though he was
"in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." — Philippians 1:6-11