A Tale of Two Churches
Imagine you visit two different churches.
The first church has an old wooden sign with “LUTHERAN” in big old letters. As you walk to the front door you pass by the cornerstone which has the establishment date engraved into it. It’s been weathered down over the years so it’s hard to read. It’s an old date to be sure. Inside you’re struck by the bold stained-glass windows, images of Jesus and the evangelists, and a few Luther’s roses for good measure. Up front there’s a big bloody crucifix. The paraments (in the correct liturgical color of course) are adorned with images pointing to the word and the sacraments. Then you start to smell something. Is that incense?
As the service starts, the organ plays loud and strong, sending vibrations through the pews. The organist pulls out all the stops as everyone stands up for the last verse of the hymn; that’s what that little triangle means, you realize. It was a ten-verse hymn and they sang every last verse. The pastor is up front vested and chanting. When he preaches, he doesn’t mince words. He’s not afraid to use words like “sin,” “repentance,” and “judgment.” He uses other words you’re not used to hearing in sermons, like “absolution,” “propitiation,” and “vicarious penal substitutionary atonement.” He even uses Latin phrases like simul justus et peccator and lex orendi lex credendi. At various points he literally points up to the crucifix hanging on the wall. When it comes time for the sacrament, he puts on the chasuble (a liturgical poncho) and does all the proper genuflecting and such.
Afterwards, you walk out into the church lobby there are a few portraits of Martin Luther, the O.G. Lutheran, hanging up on the walls. You open up the bulletin. It’s thin since the church follows the service straight out of the hymnal. Inside you see the bible studies going on currently and a few that are coming up. They sound very serious, somewhat academic even. There’s one on Romans. Another on the distinctives of Lutheranism and the main Sunday morning bible study is on the Augsburg Confession. You’re impressed. Serious stuff.
The second church is different. It’s quite a bit bigger than the first one. The sign is large and made of brick with an electronic marquee sign that cycles through different events going on at the church. You walk into the lobby. It’s open and spacious. People are milling about, chatting. Children’s artwork from the day school hangs up on the walls. The sanctuary is different. It’s wider and rounder. The pews are in more of a semicircle, rather than all facing forward. To the side the musicians are warming up. It seems to be a mixture of teenagers and middle-aged dads. There are a few guitars, a piano, a small drum set even. You look up at the dual projector screens. They cycle through various announcements. They seem to have a group for everyone. A high school group, a seniors’ group, a men’s group, a women’s group, a college group and others. There are also small groups meeting throughout the week. The bible studies here sound less academic and more practical. There’s one on a book by a popular Christian author, another on relationships, and another on what it means to follow Jesus.
You follow the service from the projector screens. It’s similar to the one at the last church, but there are a few things different. The pastor isn’t vested. He’s not even wearing a collar. When he preaches, he walks around. He even walks up and down the aisle. He doesn’t use any Latin, but he tells a few stories. They’re stories from his own life or the lives of people he knows. He likes to use words like “relationship,” “community,” and “authentic.”
After the service there’s a group of people getting together to go volunteer at the local food bank that the church is helping to sponsor. There’s a lot of talk about engaging the community and serving the community here.
Maybe you’ve been to churches like these. Maybe your church is like one of these. Perhaps there are elements from each that sound familiar to you.
But regardless of all that, which church do you think has the better theology? Which church preaches a stronger, purer gospel?
The first church with all the smells and bells or the second church with the screens and guitars?
Maybe you’re inclined to go with the church that sounds like what your most familiar with. I know my gut reaction would be to say the first church. But that reveals my own preferences, biases, and experiences.
You’ll notice that I focused on mostly aesthetic details: architecture, music, clothing, language, etc. I didn’t say much of anything about what was preached or taught directly at either church. It could very well be that both, either, or neither of the churches preaches a strong and pure gospel.
Now, I’m not at all saying that the aesthetic elements are insignificant. Not in the slightest. They do a lot of teaching and formation in the background, silently. However, it is indirect teaching. Which is to say that there is not a 1:1 correlation between aesthetic features and implied/indirect teaching.
In other words, a church might have a pastor that wears distinct dress such as a collar and vestments as a way of confessing that the pastor occupies a special God-ordained office in which he is there to speak God’s word of Law and Gospel to the people there. He is not merely the CEO of the congregation or something like that. However, this does not mean that the church that eschews collars and vestments denies this. They might. But the difference in practice does not necessarily mean that they do.
Or conversely, a church might make sure to use contemporary instrumentation rather than pipe organ as a way of confessing that message of the gospel is not bound by certain cultural forms and expressions, but speaks to every people, nation, language, and culture. Yet, the church that uses pipe organ does not necessarily deny this at all.
My main concern in all of this is that there seem to be many who equate these external practices or aesthetic features with being theologically conservative, confessional, or orthodox. Some seem to go out of their way to have all of the correct forms so that they can demonstrate how orthodox they really are. After all, only the most orthodox Lutherans chant and the more that can be chanted the better. Only the most orthodox use Latin phrases. Only the most orthodox wear chasubles. The list goes on. We quickly become more interested in looking orthodox than in actually being orthodox.
And the same is true for people on the other side. There are those who refuse to wear collars, refuse to chant just to make sure they’re not associated with those other people. It’s still all about external appearances.
Of course, I have nothing against any of these things. Personally, I love chanting and chasubles and the occasional Latin phrase. And we all know that God loves the smell of incense. My point is that these things should be used as they are helpful in a given context. They should never be used as a way of demonstrating that someone is part of one group (the more orthodox) and not another (those heretics over there). Because in the end we end up focusing more on these more external features instead of the actual content of the gospel. We forget what, or perhaps who, all this is supposed to be pointing to: Christ.
Again, I’m not advocating some kind of “anything goes” approach to practice and aesthetic. These things are not neutral. They do matter. A whole lot. That’s why people fight over them, after all. But they are not the main thing. And they should never be used as the basis for judging another person’s faithfulness. I’ve seen too many instances where someone assumes that just because someone’s church has a more “contemporary” aesthetic that they’re soft on theology. Or the reverse, that just because someone uses the liturgy with organ and hymnal that they don’t care about reaching those outside the church. It’s easy to make assumptions, but they’re often wrong. And they’re almost never helpful.
There are people whose theology is less than orthodox and there are people who don’t care about preaching the gospel outside the walls of the church. But you can’t identify them by what clothes they wear or how they worship or what buzzwords they use. You have to actually look at what they teach, fairly and honestly. It’s easier to use these quick external identifiers, but it’s not accurate and not helpful. It distracts us from the main thing. So, let’s keep the main thing the main thing:
Jesus. For sinners.