The Lutheran Witness

Five Things the Church Wishes the Culture Understood

Comments (30)
  1. Avatar Steve says:

    Great article Pastor Niles! I think every Orwellian, Mega-Church/Self-Help Guru needs to read this along with their followers.

    1. Avatar Sonja says:

      My heart exactly. The reasons I remain active in church life- not to be entertained, but to worship- and to hold the door open for others.

    2. Avatar Tim Koemel says:

      You made me think. You made me smile. Thank you for writing this article. 🙂

  2. Avatar Denny and Paulette says:

    Beautifully and understandably written!

  3. Avatar Cindy Blake says:

    Well said.

  4. Avatar Dan Hall says:

    Yes, very well stated. However, not all of us who are concerned about the church in the world today limit our concerns to these things. I’m sure you don’t mean this, I can tell, but I sense in many an attitude that, “We are here in our churches. If anyone wants to come, I guess that’s fine, but learn to do it our way. If you don’t come, that’s okay with us too.” I have heard statements from Lutherans, even Lutheran pastors that effectively say just that. Jesus’ last words to the disciples, and the Church has taught them as words to us all, started with “Go…” In many ways, we have changed it to “Stay.” And then, if some happen to come, we’ll help them fit in. In the process, many churches do the critical stuff, just as you’ve stated so well, but the zeal to go into all the world and make disciples, is being lost.

    All the “culturally relevant” discussion is important, not that we need to change the Gospel to fit it to the culture, but we need to speak the language of the culture so that people can hear the Gospel. Jargon IS a problem. Building relationships always involves learning on both sides, so we don’t have to sacrifice all our “churchy” words to save souls. We should teach the words, Gospel, sacrifice, redemption, sanctification, Trinity, etc., but there are some things we could update if only for the sake of communication: nave, narthex, Latin words in the liturgy, etc. (These are examples, not my hit-list.)

    Like you, I’ve had these conversations so many times. What I’ve learned to ask is, “Do you do your services and preach the Word in English (assuming we’re talking to an American here)? Why?” “Do we translate the Bible into the language of the people? Why?” Being culturally relevant doesn’t change the Gospel. It speaks the Gospel now to people now.

    When we go to a foreign culture that doesn’t know Jesus, that doesn’t have a Bible in their language, we learn the culture, the language, and build relationships with people. Then we learn how best to communicate God’s Word in a way they will understand. After a church is established in a culture, there is still a need for adjustments to the language and cultural understandings of the message because culture is constantly changing. The concern many of us have about the Church in America is that America is becoming culturally foreign to the established congregations because many have not adjusted along the way.

    Obviously, this is a life-time conversation, and as you’ve said so well, we are sinners so we’ll never get it perfectly right, but part of “Go”ing is loving people enough to learn to speak their language. You’re right, the Church will always be here, but the question I regularly ask myself and others, is, “Do I love people enough to be used by God to learn to speak their language in a way that they will hear and understand the Gospel, or do I have preferences and comforts that I am unwilling to adjust so that other’s have a better chance to hear?” I’m usually convicted in my sin when I answer this honestly. I’m sure we can all do better for the sake of Christ and the eternal destiny of others.

    1. Dan,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your insightful comments. I believe that being accessible to the culture while not allowing the culture to take over is a tightrope with which the church will always be struggling. In my experience, very few people are turned off by the use of words like Kyrie, nave, sacristy, narthex, et al. if the church takes time to teach them what is meant by those words. I am of the opinion that it is part of our duty as the people of God to help acclimate and assimilate the unfamiliar into the family of God. The family of God that has its own history, language, and aesthetics. We are part of the Church that has existed since the beginning of creation. This is the family into which every new member is baptized and catechized.

      With that being said, foreign mission fields are a bit different. This was not the context in which the spirit of debate of the article was meant to be carried out.

      Once again, thanks for you thoughts.

      1. Avatar Dan Hall says:

        Thanks for your quick reply. This is a very important discussion, and I see it is well on its way. As I said about the words, (nave, etc.) they were just examples, and each congregation will have to see how that works in their specific setting, but I do agree that we have some really great words to teach people, and really should. But if we are so jargon-laden that we are not understood, then we need to make adjustments and learn to speak the language of our setting.

        I understand that foreign missions was not the intended setting of this discussion, but my point was that without cultural and language adjustments to best communicate God’s Word, the changing culture around the congregations gradually becomes more like a foreign mission. The church has made these adjustments for centuries, as one pointed out, with updated language, new instruments, varieties of worship expressions, stained glass, use of microphones, and other new technology. These things will always be resisted by some who feel uncomfortable with change (tough for us mid-westerners :)), but when we understand the context of change — that it’s not just to add something new, exciting and different — but to better communicate in our current context, our intentional change is done to remove stumbling blocks, and focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

        And we do all of this because God has called us to go into all the world, because He loves the world, and our love for others will be in and through all of this as we learn by the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate Him.

        1. Avatar Rev. J. Patrick Niles says:


          No doubt. As followers of Christ and at the end of every worship service, we are sent out into the world to be lights of Christ. Yes, in the words of Paul, in the world, we are to be all things to all people so that we might win some.

          However, this something that is distinct from the worship service. Worship is where God distributes His good gifts of grace, life and forgiveness amongst a gathering of His people. That context has its own language and its own culture.

          We seek to provide an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have. But we do not let the culture drive the bus on what is edifying, good, right and salutary within the context.

          I realize that many will disagree with this, but this is the way our church has historically articulated our theology of worship. Thanks for the comments.

    2. Avatar Felicia says:

      I would hope that after we learn how to communicate in the language of the foreign mission, we would teach them “our” church language…the language of Christ’s love from the cross…the language of forgiveness from Him and through Him. Otherwise, why are we there? And as Reverend Niles stated in his reply, this was not the focus of his article.
      The problem seems to be we think we need to accomodate the world to bring the world our message. What we need to do is show the world it’s need for our message and then catechize the world so the message resonates with the world’s fallen condition. We as the church are connected to all the saints of the church, past and present, and the language of the past IS the language of the present and the future in Christ. Rock bands, overhead screens and “jive talk” wont’ impart what is needed to for the salvation of lost souls. It is merely superficial “bait” that leaves the soul even more hungry.

    3. Avatar Barb says:

      I have struggled with this personally in my life to the extent that I sought God in different Christian religions, Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, and probably a few others. I soon realized something that I think most people miss – I had to look at the doctrine and teachings of the church. The thought that hit me the most is that the church is not God, the pastor, the elders, the church leaders are not God. As you stated we are all sinners, however, somewhere in there sometimes Lutherans forget that. (And the topic of Lutheran leaders, principals, pastors etc. who sin against their own has to be addressed).

      I do believe the Lutheran doctrine is the soundest base for my learning, praise, worship and church life. However, we need lessons in humility, humbleness, love and caring for the downtrodden, acceptance of those different from us and the poor and needy, as well as those who outrightly defy what we see as the ‘right’ way to do things in life. As someone posted, we are missing the ‘go’ out into the world. Our churches are losing people to the churches that show love and acceptance instead of a haughty, holier than thou attitude which I see often in Lutheran churches and abhor it. I struggled as a single mom in a Lutheran church that doesn’t accept singleness, divorce, and those who don’t fit in. I kept going to church because I believed Jesus loved me, even though the person next to me was judging me for being a single mom. After I remarried, I was ‘acceptable’ again.

      How can we grow in a society that is turning away from God? How can the holier than thou attitude be changed? How will we reach out, go into the world that is right here in our own backyard?

  5. Avatar Carla Wiesner says:

    Yes! I appreciate this discussion. It is something that is on my heart and I am very passionate about. I recently had a conversation with someone about church hopping (shopping) and said much the same thing as Rev. Niles. However, this is so counter-cultural that they didn’t seem to get it. I think this is an educational matter. We need to teach our people what the church is and isn’t, and help them see it in the greater context of God’s Church.
    I also agree with, Dan. It is imperative that we work to speak the language of the people. It is what Paul did throughout his time as a follower of Christ. Taking the message, and translating it to something the people could understand and relate to. The method of sharing the message changes over time; the message does not change.
    I also think it’s imperative that we do our best in providing quality worship, education, outreach, discipleship, etc. Not so that we look good, but so that we honor God and do our very best to point people to Him.
    Thanks for the sharing the blog and for the conversation.

  6. Avatar Tracy Rognstad says:

    Thank you! I have been trying to say this to family. You said it much better! Thank you. I will be sharing this .

  7. Avatar Lois says:

    I appreciated this insight from Pastor Niles. This subject has weighed heavily on my heart for a long time.

    I love our liturgical services and the meaningful old hymns, etc. with which I was trained and grew up to love. Over the years, even over history, things change. In the Old Testament days, worship was done around altars (outside with no buildings) by individuals, in the beautiful temple with a priest interceding for the people. Remember how David worshipped God out in the open? Remember Miriam singing AND dancing offering praise to God? (I got to experience via a national LWML Convention the beauty of seeing dancing used during a worship service. It was awesome.) People lived and spoke differently—cultures changed throughout the years. We see this as read through the books of the Old Testament.

    The New Testament brings more changes in how people lived; Jesus came into the world and when He died on the cross the curtain in the temple was ripped apart—we now can go directly to God with prayer, thanksgiving, and supplications. . Where and how did the people worship then? In the temple, homes, etc. What music was used throughout the years? Various instruments as pianos and organs were unheard of at that time. Jesus met the people were they were by sharing parables/stories of things familiar to them so he could be at their level of understanding. He hung out and ate with “sinners”. We don’t speak to our little children as though they are adults. At a Billy Graham Crusade I participated in, he made a good point. We build bridges of friendship to reach out to others and meet them where they are at. It doesn’t mean we live their lives but rather we are to be a light, a beacon of God’s love shining with hope and the Good News of Jesus. We can be a witness wherever we are—-in a restaurant, vacationing, hospital, one on one to an acquaintance, friend or family member, or complete stranger.

    I hear “the new songs are repetitive—make no sense”. Many are verses from the Bible. I can’t say I enjoy all of the but even in our hymnals there were some songs I found difficult to sing and enjoy.

    Truth be known, I do have problems with some of the mega churches and how worship is done, etc. I agree that often the messages are of social concerns, personal accomplishments, a guest speaker is brought in, etc. and I would miss the the personal relationships had in not such large congregations.

    I think a lot is due to the many different cultures (due to immigrants from all over the world) we have in our country today. The people are looking for something that’s similar to what they had back “home.” And somehow to reach them, things get “watered down”—coffee hour during worship service, the Word, Holy Communion, music, prayers, etc.

    This probably makes no sense but I wanted to share a few of my concerns. I agree we need to educate our members about the things we do and why in our worship services. People who become members and come from homes w/o any background or knowledge of Jesus need our help on how to read and study the Bible, what are and how to have devotions with their families, etc. What an awesome task we have before us!

  8. Avatar Leslie Flatt says:

    Good article. I have heard the term ‘disenfranchised” used before but I don’t know what that means in connection to ‘church’. Could someone please explain. Thanks.

    1. Avatar Jason Nota says:

      I don’t know if this will answer your question Leslie, but I have come across several non-denomination churches who has a motto of: “A church for those who don’t like church.” I guess that means that they are disenfranchised with the historical Christian Church. So if you go to their church you can fellowship and be disenfranchised together.

      1. Avatar Leslie Flatt says:

        Thanks Jason. (I’m a member of LCMS congregation in Michigan although was baptized at, confirmed a member, of an LCA congregation many years ago.) As a matter of fact, I heard a statement about – or prayer for – ‘disenfranchised’ people at LCA / ELCA church in the late 1980’s. I looked the word up in the dictionary and found out that it had something to do with voting rights but that definition didn’t seem to fit in. I should have asked the pastor what it meant at the time. As I’m in my late 50’s I’m not up on the ‘pop’ or slang others use for certain things now anymore than I was in the 1980’s and it can be confusing.

  9. Avatar Otto Hottendorf says:

    Thank you Pastor Niles for this article. Well stated and concise. I have sent the link to a number of friends. Some believers, some not.
    I also enjoyed reading the comments and appreciate that everyone brings a different perspective to a discussion of this type. I would like to throw up a caution flag when I hear phrases like Dan used about “changing the language of the church” especially when they point to reaching “seekers”. I live in Northern California, the heart of the mission field and one of the epicenters of cultural change. I have to respectfully ask questions when I hear this type of phrase. It’s too often in my experience associated with a drifting Church that lets go of The Cross in order to reach out to “the seeker”. I think I am distrustful of slogans like “changing the language” because I can’t tell what the speaker is trying to say based on that phrase. Does it mean that we start using modern english translations of the Bible like the ESV? Great I’m on board. Does it mean that we support “vision casting leaders” to plant churches under the direction of “Sacramental Entrepreneurs” outside of the eclesiastical supervision of the church? I hope not.

    Christ did tell us to “Go” and every congregation that I have ever been a member of and every Lutheran that I’ve ever known (including myself) could and should do a better job of living our lives,in our Vocations as Christians in the world around us, giving the world reason to ask about the Joy that we hold and being prepared to show them Christ. And we should do this in a “language” that they understand. Certainly without any judgement or false Pietism. Christ dined with “the sinners and the tax collectors didn’t he. Here I hope that we can all have concord.

    Where I fear the application of phrases like “changng the language” or even the word “seeker” is when we start to use it in association with The Divine Service. The Language of the church is related to the Practice of the church and along with the Practice of the Church, reinforces the Theology of the church. If we start to make changes in the “language” and the ‘practice” we run the risk of losing the proper doistinction between Law and Gospel. We begin, within our sinful selves to drift away from The Gospel about what Christ has done for us, our flesh turns to The Law and what we can do for God.

    I guess….

    1. Avatar Dan Hall says:

      I just re-read what I wrote, and I did not say “change the language of the Church,” at least I couldn’t find where I did, and I certainly didn’t mean that. My point is simply that if we care about the people who live in the culture where our congregation is, and we care that they hear and understand the Gospel, we need to communicate it in their language. This is the quote you may be referring to: “I do agree that we have some really great words to teach people, and really should. But if we are so jargon-laden that we are not understood, then we need to make adjustments and learn to speak the language of our setting.” I come back to my original question, “Do you conduct your services in English? Why?” It’s the language of the people of our culture. Language and culture is constantly changing, and we need to pay attention to that if we truly desire to communicate the Gospel effectively.

  10. Great article. In a turbulent society, the beauty of abiding Faith is lost. How sweet the feeling to go into the peace of worship! Life is jarring enough without having a super-charged fandango as seen in the current mega-church on Sunday. I need Christ crucified, not a sugary feel-good high!

  11. Lois said something that resonated with me. “Watered Down” church/worship is a real concern to me. I know and believe that the way that we reach out to the unchurched must be at their level. We meet our sisters and brothers where they are. That’s the only way that we can welcome them. We show our interest in their needs. We try to meet their immediate needs before we introduce how the church is run, delivered, etc. But just as it is in any institution there are patterns, rules, guidelines. It is incumbent on each of us to help teach new members how and why we worship as we do. We are not a club that evolves and changes rules in order to accommodate members. Life has rules! One of the pressing issues of our time is our loss of morals and value system. Why? So that everyone can do their own thing. As a result children are growing up hearing mixed messages. Church should be a place that maintains a steady course. The language should be the vernacular. Beyond that church is a place of refuge with an unchanging message. Jesus died and rose again. He has offered us His grace. We respond by living a Christian life in the full sense of the word. We are a joyful, imperfect, loving and sometimes it is difficult to accommodate our life to His plan. We do it day by day sometimes failing but also succeeding because He loved us first.

  12. Going to church involves worshiping God, but also a way to strengthen your faith. The best way to strengthen your faith is to participate in much of what they have to offer. I belong to a very large church that has 5 services (contemporary, traditional, interactive, and blended services). They all preach from the same sermon series, but in different ways. You just have to try them all and find the one you’re most comfortable with. If you are a small congregation without all these choices, you can always go on line because we and a lot of other Lutheran churches also stream their services. Since Lutheran churches each choose the series they want to preach on you might even get two or more different topics being preached this way. I go to church twice each Sunday this way and often during the week just turn on a sermon that was streamed. Also it’s important to keep searching and learning, to keep strengthening your faith by attending Bible classes and organizations of the church. I’m a graduate of Valparaiso University. Does that mean I know enough and don’t have to learn more. . . not by a long shot! I go to Senior Bible Class each week (one and a half hours of study) and regularly learn more and more. I belong to the Ladies Aide also (more Bible Study). But also besides constantly attending and participating in their fellowship and Bible Study. . .well you might say it just keeps me mindful of and enlightens my faith more and more. We’re like God’s little flowers, we constantly need to be fed, watered, and taken care of so we can bloom beautifully bringing joy and inspiration by the example to others. A good study Bible is important too. I lost my Bible and was devastate, but God works in mysterious ways! I got a Lutheran Study Bible from Concordia Publishing House. What a blessing. I’d recommend a good study Bible for everybody. I’ve also gotten other reading material from them. . . good sight to visit. I guess this is enough! I hope this brings you God’s peace and the understanding of His great love for you. After all He died on the cross so you can be with him for eternity! Now doesn’t that sound like the best of the two options you have. Peace be with you.
    P.S. Our church is kind of new at streaming and just stream the Blended Service, but there are churches that Stream a Traditional Service that some of you seem to prefer.

    1. Avatar Peggy says:

      Nancy, the problem with 4 different varied services is that now you have 4 congregations, not one unified congregation. We get that somewhat with an 8 or10:30 service BUT our members are not choosing services because of worship style- some just want to sleep. 🙂

  13. Avatar Paul says:

    I am glad that some changes have happened over the years. It is important to be relevant to modern ways and modern people. The liturgy (that had been perfectly good for 400 years) was changed long ago already. But I still miss it. I guess there is no room for old dinosaurs like me. Welcome the new and improved. But I do miss the liturgy I remember

  14. Avatar Philip McNiel says:

    There will be discussions of whether the Church should adapt based on the surrounding culture, and if so, how. There should be! But I think the part that is critically important at this moment in the history of Lutheranism (particularly American Lutheranism) is the foundational step: A practical, working awareness of how we SOUND to people within our culture. We need to be aware of how we are understood, and how we need to communicate so as to get the intended message across.

    One critical area is the definition of words. We need to make sure that when we speak to people in the surrounding culture, we aren’t using words to mean one thing when they understand them to mean something else. I see this a lot in communication among people of various Christian denominations, and it has even, at times, led to the existence of “phantom theological differences,” if you will, where two churches think that they disagree with each other when they actually believe the same thing on a particular point of doctrine.

    I think that after that starting point, one good place to go from there would be to look at our church’s beliefs, traditions, and values, and learn to identify which of them we got from Scripture, and which of them we got from German cultural heritage. I’m not saying that preserving various traditions from German culture is bad, but there are times when we need to prioritize that which we preserve based on its grounding in Scripture.

  15. Avatar Linda Nance says:

    What a wonderful message, I thought I would just gloss over the this, but then I stopped and read every word. I’m glad I did. Time to share with all who know me, and start sharing the messages. Thank you so much.

  16. Avatar Stacy Travis says:

    This very subject has been weighing on my heart heavily lately and just as I was going to write something about it, someone else did. Thank you!

  17. Avatar Rev. David V. Dissen says:

    March 5, 2015

    A very well thought out and meaningful article. It will be a blessing to those who read it with an open and understanding mind.
    As Christians, we are to become all things to all people so that we might by all means see people saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
    This does not mean that we have permission to change the content of God’s Word in reaching out to people with God’s Word. It is God’s Word. It is not ours to do with as we please.
    Yes, we need to reach out “in love” to others by getting to know them and by having the opportunity to speak the life-changing, life-saving and life-preserving Word of God to them.
    This does not mean that we have to change the language of the church or the language of our worship for people. Instead, we need to explain it to them so that they, with us, will learn to understand and treasure it along with us.
    My 55 years plus of ministry have given me the opportunity to do in my foreign vicarage in Cuba and also in my different parishes in the U.S. I have had a good number of people thank me for taking the time to teach them so that they now treasure the language of the church and our worship.

    Rev. David V. Dissen
    (Retired – Emeritus)

  18. Avatar Anne says:

    Pastor Niles, please comment on Dan’s message of “Go”! That is central to the ministry of the LCMS Church I belong to in Colorado. In fact we just hired a new “Minister to Seniors”. His job description? Mobilize the retired folks in the Church to go into the community to bring folks in! How refreshing!

  19. Avatar Harold says:

    Pastor Niles,

    The Church, I am confident, will weather the cultural storm. God would not permit otherwise.

    One of the cultural issues that confronts the church is the individualism that pervades American culture. The reason people seek churches that conform to their own agendas is simply that we are taught to seek those things above all else. Marketing, advertising, education, much that surrounds daily life is about what we, personally, want to have and to be. The notion that all that we are and have are gifts given, not a rights possessed, things earned, or something chosen. The success of mega-churches is that they point to the believer and not to Christ. Our scriptural response to the culture needs to address the aspects of culture that contradict the notion of church in the proper sense. This does not change our message, just our emphasis and approach.

    But, there are internal cultural issues, as well, that we need to be aware of as simply that, cultural issues. There is a tendency for many Lutherans to be quite satisfied that the time devoted in church is sufficient. We are not alone among other Christians in other traditional denominations. I really like reading Luther in the Large Catechism when he breaks down the Third Commandment and speak of every day in the life of a Christian being a holy day and the practicality of setting aside Sunday, not a command to set aside Sunday. Offering more times and possibilities for the Body of Christ to gather and be in Church is one possible solution to external cultural challenges. What does this mean? It bringing the Church to people who did not grow up with setting time aside or do not feel any need to set time aside. It also means understanding tradition vs. doctrine in a way that many Lutherans do not. Why? Because Church is not about you and I having our traditional ways.

    This culture of Sunday church being sufficient keeps many from actually taking the Word out into the community and making it part of daily life. Our congregation has experienced a surge in visitors and new membership based on what we’ve gone out into the community and done for them, for their friends, for their neighbors. Receiving the gifts of God in church is not simply to pave our way to Heaven but to gather the strength and resources to go out into the world with God in our hearts and lives to “save others by snatching them from the fire.” We need to be aware that seekers and unbelievers who are seeking a church that matches up to them might be following our example of keeping church about “me” and “my salvation.” This does not counter the self-centered individualism of the culture.

    Coming out of church, do we need to tell people we are Christian or can they see it? Do we bring our devotions to work and spend our lunch times in prayer and meditation or just flow with everyone else? Is there a bible in the car (or purse, or on the desk)? Is it openly used? How do we convey that something special happens in our lives and stays with us? How do we treat others? Where do we volunteer? How do we spend our free time? What’s so special about what we do in church that we carry Christ with us? If we bear witness to something other than the preconceptions that people have, they will come in, as they are called.

    On a personal note, I embrace the old liturgy of page 15 as a wonderful encapsulation of our faith, a great witness to any visitor. Where I attend, “traditional” is the more contemporary LW forms and the “contemporary” takes a one-dimensional (in my opinion) praise direction. If anything, it is mostly preferred by people older than I am who are tired and jaded by traditional worship than it is by younger people. It also appeals to the many who have come to us from diverse faith backgrounds. So, we vary things, make compromises.

    What remains uncompromised in our worship is confession/ absolution, Word, prayer, and sacrament. We are very aware that the Church has survived many liturgies, traditions, and rites and that, form its earliest days, has had to address issues of culture, internally and externally, in order that these most important parts, the core of doctrine, survive.