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.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this! Totally agree! This summarized a great Bible study we did on mega churches!

  2. Stumbled across your blog this evening from a suggested post on Facebook. I am currently a member of the LCMS church, after being raised ALC and attending an ELCA church for several years before returning to the synod of my father after he passed away.

    Thank you for your post. My daughter is an organist in our home church (and a substitute organist in other denominations as the need arises in our community). She also sings in a community choir hosted in an Episcopal church and helps out in the alto section of a local Catholic parish on occasion. She and I are both trying to find ways to help our congregational members learn more about the liturgy that we use weekly in the hopes of warding off a switch to contemporary worship. We saw our ELCA congregation go through great strife because of church-growth methods and an effort to greatly expand contemporary worship, despite the fact that the church owned a beautiful set of handbells and had just installed a new organ. It is encouraging to know that there are others out there who appreciate the traditional service.

  3. Thank you Jonathan. I fully agree with you and appreciate you taking the time to put this on your blog. I hope your message is heard by others in the WELS who also choose to focus on the numbers, and imitate the pandering, entertaining and manipulating by doing so.