Interest Time, LCEF News

Why Being Lutheran Still Matters

October 31, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

That we live in a consumer culture is an understatement. We have all the choices in the world. We are mobile and aware of what is going on—not just in the town down the highway—but in Houston, Lisbon, Caracas or Hanoi any time of the day. It doesn’t matter if we live in Portland or Druid Hills, Ky. We can also travel anywhere, work anywhere, wear, eat, watch or listen to anything we want.

While most of these things are prohibited to us if we don’t have the money, it, too, is within reach through an endless array of credit and loan options. It’s a world where nothing is good enough the way it is, and the pressure is always on to keep moving and performing and accumulating.

On the one hand, we are denied nothing. On the other hand, we are rootless and restless, never satisfied. Our options may be a mile wide, but their ability to satisfy is an inch deep.

This leaches into our families. What was once a long, stable line of heritage and unity and strength and comfort is now a shallow, temporary connection to the past. We rarely stay connected with our parents, let alone aunts, uncles, grandparents, traditions or anything of substance and objectivity.

In the midst of this lackluster, loose existence there is a deep desire for something beyond ourselves. A cause or dream or person or spirituality. In that realm, again, our choices are endless.

In this climate, Lutherans must ask themselves these questions: What does the oldest Protestant tradition bring to the table other faith traditions—particularly contemporary versions—can’t? Why should anyone choose to join or stay in a church tradition many view as stuffy, behind-the-times and boring?

Those are the questions we are going to tackle.

Why is this relevant?

A celebration like the anniversary of the Reformation is a cause for serious reflection. Here at Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), we take our historical roots seriously. We mean it when we say we want to “ensure the funds and services are available now and in the future” for the Church, as stated in our mission statement.

Some will ask why can’t we all just love Jesus? “We can,” says Rev. Dr. Hans Trinklein, career missionary in Seoul and professor at Luther Theological University, “but which Jesus?”

We all know people who claim to be a Christian. Some may believe Jesus is the Son of God; others may not. But they’d all still say they were Christian.

“How can you know that you are of one mind with a person,” Trinklein asks, “unless you know what they believe?” A denomination, he says, “or, more accurately, a confession is intended to be a rallying point—a flag on a hill—so that people who are like-minded can gather together encouraging, and being encouraged by each other.”

Deaconess Jeni Miller from Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Atlanta, Ga., added, “The word Christian doesn’t have the same meaning that it perhaps used to have, because so many other faith traditions have sprouted that have tried to rewrite the definition, even rewrite the Gospel, obscuring what it means to be a true Christian. If we want to be clear in what we believe, we have to also go after the purest, clearest form of the Gospel.” That clarity and concrete presentation of the Gospel is something people want to sink their teeth into. The overwhelming sentiment among Lutherans is that people need a place to stand that is solid and unchanging.

Our best-kept secret

“Our great confidence,” Dr. Rev. Kirk Clayton, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Mascoutah, Ill., said, “is that the love and grace of our Savior is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Clayton goes on to quote “Abide in Me,” the great hymn: “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me” (LSB 878). And this is the Lutheran’s strength.

Where others see a weakness in a selfish, rigid and narrow view of Christianity, Lutherans find no shame or weakness. In fact, it is a point of pride. “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) keeps Christ at the center and draws this truth of God’s Word as the only source of doctrine. Lutheranism brings this narrowly focused Christocentric view, rooted firmly in God’s Word, to the table. Lutheran theology leads us to lift our eyes from our own failings to find our hope in Christ alone,” Clayton said.

This position is the Lutherans’ best-kept secret. Because of our contemporary rootless nature, we are not tethered to any truth, but given the ability to invent our own truth. Lori Trinche, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Burr Ridge, Ill., said, “So many people have grown up without tradition. We have no roots, nothing to hold on, we almost make our own truth. Having that deep tradition, the confessions, they are so pure, so true. We must show how they are appropriate and germane to young people. We have such a great secret—let’s share it.”

LCMS Director of Worship and Chaplain Rev. William Weedon balked at the suggestion that we are the oldest Protestant tradition this side of Saturn: “We’ve been around for a long time. And I’m not just talking about 500 years!”

He went on to say, “To be a Lutheran Christian was to reject only that in the tradition which didn’t square with the Word of God, but to freely rejoice in the rest. That means Lutheran Christians hold to the ancient Catholic faith.” Lutherans confess creeds Christians have been confessing for over a thousand years. Lutherans sing hymns Christians have been singing for over a thousand years. “Lutherans bring a depth and stability and historical integrity that no other Protestant church can bring to match.”

The gift of community

Another reason why it’s not enough to simply love Jesus is that we need community. We are designed to be social.

“God calls His people together into local congregations so that we can see touch, hear, taste and feel that the Lord is good.” To drive his point home, Clayton shared a story of a pastor who visited a delinquent member. While sitting in front of a fire, without saying a word, the pastor demonstrated how an ember would go cold when it was removed from the flames, but burn brightly when it was returned. The delinquent member got the point and vowed to return to church. We cannot be solo. We cannot go alone. But a community is not enough.

This idea of community was something 26-year old Brian Sreniawski of Buffalo, N.Y., kept returning to.

“I don’t believe that people pick a denomination, they pick a church because of the people, staff, leadership, programming and opportunities to be part of the community. When they move to a new town, they might try their old denomination first, but the individual church is what gets people to stick around.”

Sreniawski grew up as a Lutheran and attended Lutheran schools from pre-K to 12th grade. On his mother’s side of the family is LCMS Lutheran since before his grandmother was born. LCMS blood, you might say, runs through Sreniawski’s veins. So, it would seem a natural fit that Sreniawski is the director of youth ministries at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Orchard Park, N.Y. However, he admits he picked the church because it felt like home.

“It felt like a community I could belong to and gladly put effort into being a part of.”

For Sreniawski, experience suggests there is no such thing as denominational loyalty. However, communities form around stated or unstated confessions and beliefs.

Confession-centered communities

Confessions are a concrete, stable pier driven deep into the bedrock of our souls. Confessions keep people grounded. They keep congregations centered upon the truth. We have all seen how communities, corporations, colleges and churches can drift from their origins. Sometimes they thrive, other times they collapse. Even the best communities are flawed by their very nature of being made up of broken sinners.

“That life binds us together,” Weedon said, “with sisters and brothers in Christ across the ages. To be a Christian is to rejoice in that unity across time and yet to always submit to correction from the Word of God, from the Bible. To be a Lutheran Christian confesses flat out that only God’s work in Christ saves us and that work does the job all by itself.”

This precise claim to who we are is seconded by Miller. “The LCMS gives its people grounding when life feels ever changing because Lutheran theology always points to the never-changing love of Jesus.”

This point, says Rev. Timothy N. Heinecke, pastor of New Life Church in Hugo, Minn., is not lost on other denominations. “They come to Concordia Publishing House for classroom materials because we have a history of standing on God’s Word and not changing.”

You don’t have to be a scholar to know that the meaning of the word Christian has drifted over the centuries. What began as a slur in the first century became a national designation under Constantine. Beneath Rome that designation morphed into an elite status one must earn. The Reformers like Luther challenged that definition and made the Christian faith popular and accessible among the masses. The notion flourished into the seventeenth century, only to be unmoored in the eighteenth until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the word Christian was obscured beyond recognition.

Even the meaning of the word Lutheran is fuzzy. A Lutheran Christian is still too broad. The designation LCMS Lutheran Christian communicates a very precise image centered on a very precise declaration of who Jesus is.

“For me,” Weedon said, “that’s the only reason to be a Lutheran Christian: because we uphold and teach the simple truth of God’s Word, where the accent is clearly on Jesus as the Father’s Son and this world’s savior.”

In the end, being Lutheran—particularly LCMS Lutheran—does matter. Without the clarity of our teachings, our vision blurs and our paths wander. As we defend and uphold that long-standing truth, Trinche asks, “How can we teach the confessions, the faith, that it becomes welcoming to people outside of the cradle Lutheran faith?”
That’s a good question, but the answer is simple: like John the Baptist, we point to Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.