Credo, Get Behind Me

Perhaps I’ve been worshiping with the Anglicans too long, but Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi looks better and better, especially when confessional churches are abandoning their confessions. The “Get thee behind me, Satan” reading from Sunday really got me thinking. I went back to my bible and started reading just a couple of verses before the section read in church. Here’s what I found:

27 And Iesus went out, and his disciples, into the townes of Cesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying vnto them, Whom doe men say that I am? 28 And they answered, Iohn the Baptist: but some say, Elias: & others, one of the Prophets. 29 And hee saith vnto them, But whom say yee that I am? And Peter answereth and saith vnto him, Thou art the Christ.

“I believe you are the Christ!” Plain, simple, a statement of belief.

While I was trolling about on-line, I came across this: Circling the Drain: is your church among the walking dead? The author, Gregg Burch, has a decent point to make when he says “Instead of focusing on how to revive discipleship across the denomination, ELCA leaders have instead chosen to fight for the last decade over issues of sexuality, causing a rift within the denomination.” Aber etwas fehlt. He concludes his argument with an indictment of a Church that “cling[s] to forms, even as the life slips away.” It’s not that I don’t think the Church taking a stand on sexuality as they did on women’s ordination is not important. It is, but it’s not what’s going to get people in the door, nor is it what will drive people away to the extent that church leaders think it will. Neither does the the “Get them in the door, dazzle them, and they will join” strategy work. As Burch says, “This strategy reinforces a culture of consumerism, and research shows that it is not [sic] longer working effectively.”

Congregations build exorbitantly expensive new buildings, worship spaces, in hopes that people will come to a sleeker, shinier, more contemporary looking church: a church that is up with the times.  But what does that say about the Church and what the Church believes? If it is a Lutheran church, how does this sleek, shiny, contemporary church project thing reflect our timeless confession of the faith, our uniquely Lutheran Christian vision?  Or is the Lutheran church, like Peter, denying what must, inevitably, be faced: that it is our traditions that teach us how to go about the work of discipleship here and now; the work that makes us spiritually mature, able to meet the times in which we live and imagine a great big beautiful tomorrow that is more than a pipe dream is fundamentally grounded in ancient tradition.

I am an huge proponent of the Athanasian Creed. I read it often. In fact, I read it more often than prescribed in the rubrics of the Church. I advocated rather heavily for its inclusion in the service on Trinity Sunday at my old Lutheran congregation, but it was not to happen. I remember talking to one of the pastors about it, and rather than saying that it goes contrary to the rubric  to substitute the Athanasian Creed for the Nicene Creed (which it does, unless it’s used as a tract or canticle, perhaps an offertory) she simply said, “It’s too long and confusing. People wouldn’t understand it.”  Isn’t that the pastor’s job, though?  To explain such things to their flock?  To catechize them?  To ground them in their tradition, empowering and preparing them for ministry thereby?

Burch notes that “90% of ELCA Lutheran churches are on plateau or in decline. In most of them, there is no clear vision of the future, nor is there a clear path to discipleship and spiritual maturity.” I’d suggest that discipleship grows out of spiritual maturity. Part of becoming spiritually mature is to know what you believe, and not be distracted, like a magpie, by the fashionable bobble sparkling on the jumbo-tron over the stage of the local mega-church. Sorry, that wasn’t a bobble. It was a new praise song that we’re all going to have memorized just in time to memorize the next PowerPoint-projected fad never to sing the former again. It’s difficult to say what the leaders of the ELCA believe, as even the Creed is adiaphora in the new hymnal.

Talking to a pastor friend recently, I was surprised that the clergy of the New York Synod of the ELCA had been told, when a Creed was desired, to use the Apostle’s Creed instead of the Nicene Creed during Ordinary Time. This contrary to centuries of tradition. The Apostle’s Creed is customarily used in the Daily Office or when Baptism is celebrated in conjunction with the Eucharist; but the Nicene Creed is the Creed of the Eucharistic celebration.  However, the reason given for the New York Synod directive was that church leaders were worried that the people were forgetting the Apostle’s Creed. Never mind that most of the people in the pews in the Lutheran Church today have never heard of the Athanasian Creed, have never read the Small Catechism, have no idea what the Augsburg Confession is. I even have doubts as to whether most of the clergy have even glanced at the Book of Concord after leaving seminary. Peter clearly knew what he believed: “You are the Christ.” Sure, he didn’t quite grasp what that really meant just a couple of verses later, but there was some strong leadership to set him back on course. Burch asks us to “imagine Jesus asking the disciples for a vote on whether he should go to the cross.” When Peter tried to put it to a vote? “Satan, get thee behind me!”

I fear that pastors are not up to the challenge of catechizing the youth let alone the adults in their flocks. When my brother and sister were preparing for confirmation they had to memorize the Small Catechism. Only fifteen years later, all I had to memorize was the Ten Commandments and their meanings. It makes me wonder what kind of exposure confirmands have to the confessions of the Lutheran faith today. It was only when I started really reading the Book of Concord that I realized how much I’d been missing of my confessional tradition, but also how much of it had been ingrained in me through traditional forms of Lutheran worship, preaching, and study.

I reject being called Post-Modern. I am a docent at the New Museum in New York. The New Museum is a museum dedicated to contemporary art. The exhibit that is up now is their triennial. One of the themes I’ve noticed running through the art in this show is Romanticism. If we who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s are anything it’s Way-Post Romantic. We’re starved for structure and tradition, for a real connection to our history, our culture, our faith. For a place with roots that go deeper than the contemporary sod. We’re looking to the past for an identity. The things that are damaging mainline churches are not the traditions. It is not the “systems that have been experiencing entropy since the early ‘60s.” It is the wholesale abandonment of those systems. It is not ossification, but decay brought on by the spiritual equivalent of a self-indulgent sugar-only diet that says: Oh, no, Jesus you can’t go to the cross, you can’t possibly expect us to deal with that. We might feel bad. I do believe that the church to come is the “ancient/future church” as Burch calls it. It is one steeped in meaningful tradition, one that connects us, unsentimentally, to the past through all of our senses; not fearing the hard stuff like the creeds; not fearing to say “Here I stand.” It’s one thing to be welcoming, but people coming to church are looking for more than an easy, pandering welcome. An un-churched stranger needs to be shown the mysteries and invited to understand them, difficult as they may be. They need spiritual milk, but also the promise that spiritual meat will be given when they’re ready for it. It’s like the real, physical grip that Lutherans of previous generations had on the hymnal: three fingers mark the hymns, and the thumb marks the liturgy. Now we have PowerPoint and light shows.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I now attend an Anglo-Catholic church, although I am still an Evangelical Catholic, a Lutheran with a confessional tradition. As the ELCA and the Episcopal church are in communion, perhaps there is something to be learned from the idea of “as we pray, so we believe.” The Anglo-Catholic church I attend is growing, not crumbling from within. Other Anglo-Catholic congregations are growing simply because they maintain traditions. The pictures I’ve used in this post are advertizements for an Anglo-Catholic congregation in New Haven. They too are growing, and have had some measure of success with these posters. The kids love them!

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4 thoughts on “Credo, Get Behind Me

  1. I appreciate your thoughts in response to my blog post. We may differ a little on the discipleship journey. Robert Wuthnow, in his book, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950’s, speaks of a pendulum swing from Spirituality of Place and Spirituality of Journey that began with Moses taking the people out of Egypt. I wrote about this in another post: http://godsfaintpath.com/place-vs-journey. His point is that for the last 50 years of the 20th century, the American church was in the mode of spirituality of place: God is in the building on Sunday morning. The postmoderns, Wuthnow claims, are a journey people. The idea that God only shows up in a church on Sunday morning is an anathema to them.

    I worked for two years with 15 ELCA churches around Ohio. These pastors spent a year trying to get their people to understand the concept of a spiritual journey. Across the ELCA, Natural Church Development surveys show the lowest characteristic of the eight health factors they measure, passionate spirituality is consistently the lowest factor. I have seen 15-20 ELCA churches results from the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, and they all measured more than a full standard deviation below the norm on Spiritual Maturity.

    Until we begin to commit to a discipleship journey, spiritual maturity won’t happen. I think spiritual maturity flows out of a discipleship journey, not the other way around. Many Lutherans sitting in the pews have not grown spiritually since their teenage years. As you said, biblical literacy, understanding of the small catechism, the creeds, etc, are at an all time low in our lay people.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, and I hope you also look at the five themes of healthy community that precede my rant on circling the drain. Peace, Gregg Burch

    • I must admit that I’m not quite sure what you mean by discipleship. It seems to be a cypher for mystagogy: a deepening of our life in the Word. If that is true it is very much the spiritual journey of the initiated, or the spiritually literate. It seems to me that the way in which you are using Discipleship and spiritual maturity may also be compared to faith and works. Spiritual maturity is faith, discipleship, empowerment to do good works in faith. Once again I would say that faith comes before works and works without faith are nothing but dirty rags. Perhaps that’s not me saying that, but…

      Although I don’t particularly like the term postmoderns, the reason for which is in the post, I do agree that people are looking for a relationship with God that goes beyond the church edifice, but I think that traditional religious forms do that.

      Didn’t Rome adopt a more evangelical approach to worship with Vatican II, and didn’t it see a decline in attendance? At about that same time and for about as long the Lutheran Church has seen a decline in attendance. Both churches have been experimenting with contemporary services, guitar masses, and other new forms of worship. The Lutheran church does studies of this problem and produces surveys that only support the position of those already convinced that innovation is the answer. Any survey produced by any bureaucracy will only result in an affirmation of a preconceived notion: We must innovate! And continue to innovate they do, in ways that move farther and farther away from the Church of the Augsburg Confession. Rome, in a similar situation, has begun to look to the things it has set aside to reinvigorate attendance. I look around and see on one hand a church (Lutheran) abandoning it’s traditions, including a tradition of catechists; on the other hand the Romans are are returning to more traditional forms, both in their new translation of the mass (that reads more like the old Lutheran or Anglican translations) or in the re-emphasizing of the extraordinary form of the Mass as a desirable form of worship. Not that Missouri is any better than the ELCA (Here’s an exception.) as I see more and more “praise bands” in their services too, but they did produce an excellent, albeit rather poorly titled Treasury of Daily Prayer, book that encourages the reader to participate in the prayers of the church. My partner calls it my Lutheran Breviary.

      Perhaps people forget that the un-churched are simply that: un-churched. It’s like Tim Burton remaking Alice in Wonderland. There’s a lot to inspire a film maker in that book. there’s a lot that has inspired film makers over the years. But it seems that Burton’s vision was one of:

      Golly, I love the imagination in these stories, but I’ve seen so many versions. I’m so familiar with the material. What can I do to make it fresh?

      He, or perhaps, the producers don’t realize that the 6 year old in the theater doesn’t have 40 plus years of experience with these characters. Lewis Carrol is fresh! Burton is jaded, even cynical. Why another Lorax? The original cartoon was poignant and charming, and would be to a generation who has not yet experienced it. Isn’t it the same for Church traditions?

  2. As an attendee of an ELCA church, and as someone who grew up in that church it is difficult for me to swallow the frustration I have felt with the denomination. We are well meaning in our efforts to be the Body of Christ for everyone, but our focus is in the wrong the place. This summer my church has suffered the lowest attendance we’ve had in years, not to mention the financial woes that many ELCA churches face. But what is everyone worried about? The financial situation, of course, but not in the way you would expect. Instead of holding fast to tradition and going out into the community (of which there are many unchurched people, I am sure), we sit cloistered in our pews and hope that everyone who actually attends church is going to shell out enough money to keep us open another week. It’s ridiculous, especially considering the answer is staring us in the face. In the 70s, when my church first opened its doors the pastor (at the time) went from door to door in the surrounding neighborhoods passing out fliers and inviting people to worship. Five years ago we were a thriving community of at least 300-350 parishioners per Sunday. The church complains that our members are being “stolen away” by the local megachurch down the road. While that may be partially true, I can only ask, whose fault is that? I can only hope that people of my generation make a move in the next decade or so to change the Lutheran church for the better or I’m afraid it will perish. And then I suppose I’ll be making the jump to Anglicanism myself.

  3. Pingback: Why Young People Leave the Church « Uncle Frog

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