What the Church teaches and how she worships is utterly foreign to the world. Is that the way it is suposed to be?
by Peter Berg
If any people are predisposed to the lure of do-it-yourself religion and designer spirituality, it’s Americans. Our forefathers’ rugged American individualism, coupled with democratic ideals, led to a fierce sense of independence. Americans are also very much about choice. Today’s generation has an inviting number of choices when it comes to education and careers, automobiles and fashions. There are even choices in social matters, such as the abortion controversy and questions pertaining to human sexuality. From the bedroom to the shelves of the supermarket, we are confronted by choice.
Even more significant is the fact that “choice” is a part of the theological DNA of many Americans, since many early Europeans came from that segment of Protestantism that believed in the freedom of the will to make a decision to accept Christ as Savior. In view of all of this, it’s not surprising that people apply this to spirituality and that “organized religion” is not the spirituality of choice for many seekers. Taking bits and pieces from the buffet of world religions, people create their own religious entrees.
What does all this mean for those of us who are a part of “organized religion”? Perhaps the question should be rephrased: If any religion or set of ideals are acceptable to modern designer mentality, then why is orthodox Christianity the only one that appears to be unacceptable? In particular, why does it appear to some that our beliefs as Lutherans seem to be the least acceptable choice of all?
Numerically, American Lutheranism is in decline, which frustrates church executives and parish leaders. For those who expect the Church to grow, the answer to this question is even more frustrating and perplexing. But the truth is not supposed to be acceptable to those who do not believe, and we should not want it any other way. The Gospel that saves sinners is an offense to those same sinners. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:2224).
The message of Christianity is fundamentally shaped by these truths and is discordant with the philosophy of the world. The Church tells those who strive to put God in their debt that they have blasphemed. It tells those who help their neighbor in an attempt to save themselves that these deeds that are ultimately self-serving. The Church tells those who seek peace with the world that they are instead to bear the cross.
The Church tells those who seek wealth, health and happiness that God remains good, just and kind even when these prayers are denied. The Church tells those who believe that a good deed will come around that it may not, but to do good anyway. The Church tells those who seek the good life that they are to die daily to this life. The Church tells those who design their own spirituality that there is salvation in no one else than the crucified and resurrected Jesus, and that Jesus is found in His church, in its doctrine, preaching and Sacraments. These truths are not what the fallen world wants to hear, but they are the truths that the fallen world needs.
In view of this, it is unwise for the Church to attempt to determine the market preferences of the public and then tailor its message and manner of worship to suit these preferences. The market preferences of the unbeliever are the worst possible place to start. The Church should rather be content to be what it is: the Church.
The Church’s theology is utterly foreign to those who do not believe in Christ. That means that the Church’s worship will naturally be utterly foreign to them as well. After all, we worship as we believe because worship is a function of faith and not a style of doing things Sunday morning that can be traded for any other.
This means, too, that the Lutheran pastor will not act like or be a life coach or a cop, but he will serve more like a mugger who rolls unsuspecting visitors, taking from them self-determination and self-righteousness and replacing them with God’s Word and Christ’s righteousness. Visitors can and should come away from a Lutheran Divine Service saying, “I’ve never seen anything like that before. I’ve never heard that before. I was in another world!” The Lutheran message will be disarming, revelatory, transcendent and comforting. It will distress the comfortable and comfort those who are distressed, teaching them that the only way to live is in and by the grace of Christ.
God once erected a monument–the cross–to all that humanity is, does and has achieved, and then He nailed His Son to it and poured out His wrath upon His very own. Christ’s work on that cross gives form and shape and direction to all that the Church does and teaches and believes. What we confess and how we worship will not make sense to those who do not believe in Christ, but by God’s grace, His Gospel–found in the Scriptures, in our Lutheran Confessions and in church history–will put the focus on our merciful Lord, right where it should be.
Spirituality of the Cross
“I aimed the book partially at those people today who say they are spiritual’ but not religious,'” writes author Dr. Gene Edward Veith. “That is a huge cop-out, of course. But some of these folks are looking for something that they aren’t getting from much of the Christianity they encounter. Contemporary versions of Christianity have often drifted away from the depth, the complexities and the mysteries of the Christian faith. Christianity has its spirituality–not the vague, cloudy, idealistic mysticism that is usually associated with that word, but rather mysteries grounded in the Incarnation of God, His death on a bloody piece of wood, His physical resurrection, bread, wine, water and our own ordinary callings of everyday life. When people who are experimenting . . . encounter genuine Christian spirituality, they often see the difference and find the spirituality that is centered on Christ and His cross compelling.”
> Order Spirituality of the Cross at www.cph.org
> 29% of Americans say organized religion “should have more influence [in America today] and an identical percentage say it should have less” (Gallup).
About the Author: The Rev. Peter Berg serves St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Chicago, Ill.