I found myself in far away from home and no specific church assignment awaiting me for ministry. I searched the Yellow Pages and picked out a church to attend. I knew I did not want to go to a church where everything depended on whether the sermon was good or bad. Chances were, based on what I discovered in the phone book, much of the preaching would have probably left a great deal to be desired. I opted for liturgy, thinking as I did, “At least we will likely read Scripture, say some significant congregational prayers, and remain rooted in the Trinity,” I reasoned as I made the choice to attend a Lutheran Church (ELCA) congregation. This particular church had served in the old downtown area for more than 150 years. The place simply breathed history and community. I loved it.

I was not disappointed about the liturgy on the whole. It was rich and followed the basic patterns of Christian worship for centuries. We renounced evil, professed faith, Said the Apostle’s Creed together. We even witnessed a baptism that was quite well done. The prayer of the day was solid and the Scripture readings were from Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8. We even sang Psalm 8!

But the sermon, that was another story. The pastor preached for about ten minutes, if you could call it preaching. There wasn’t a shred of gospel in his message. Come to think of it there was no law either. It was an appeal to the flock to turn in their “talent inventories” for service to the church in the coming year. The sermon was about “expectations.” The only Scripture cited was Hebrews 10:24, (“provoke one another”) and that in an oft-handed way. What you check today is more than a job to be done, it is about building up the community in the love of Jesus. The pastor told us the cure for exhaustion was “wholeheartedness.” I’m still not sure what he meant but it could be me. I am pretty wholehearted myself but I am also exhausted far too often for my own spiritual good. Not much help in this “bit of wisdom” he called it. We were also told to “listen to what excites you” and respond accordingly. But when I listen to what excites me I get into more exhaustion. I guess I missed that point too. All in all it was a bleak experience.

So what did I learn from my visit to a mainline Lutheran church as a guest unawares? First, without liturgy most of the people would get absolutely nothing at all. At least the theology and the prayers are still there. That is more than I can say for some “red-hot” conservative churches that talk about just about everything but the Father and the Son. Second, that these churches are dying is precisely because they don’t preach the gospel. They also fail to teach people the Bible with any passion at all. Isn’t that obvious? Apparently not to most of those who still attend such churches. (By the way not one person said “Boo” to me and I almost begged them to greet me with my frequent attempts at eye contact and my smiles, etc. Even in the men’s room there was no informal “hello.” I wonder if the talent survey had a category for friendly greeters on it?)

By the way, the “glossary” that explained the various ministries that people were urged to sign up did list evangelism as one option. Here was the definition: “This committee is concerned with welcoming, educating and bonding new members in a large congregation where visitors are hard to identify.” No wonder they missed me as a visitor. Maybe they should rethink evangelism but then if you don’t preach the gospel what on earth are you using to evangelize?

While conservative churches have tended to worship more and more like the culture, with less and less theological fabric in their liturgy, mainline churches retain some liturgy but give up preaching the gospel in many cases. I actually think my labors for renewal are more important after my visit than I did before. Maybe that was the greatest benefit of the experience.

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  1. Jeff Richard Young December 14, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    Dear Brother John,
    Thanks for the great article. I had a similar experience recently. The liturgical worship service was great, but the 8-minute sermonette was vaguely on patience. May God help us to preach the Word and also worship well.
    Love in Christ,

  2. Helen December 15, 2006 at 9:23 am

    I have several reasons why I’m not currently going to church. Some of my reasons are not shared by other people, but a big one for me which I would hope others could understand is: lack of safety/proper accountability.
    If you raise a concern in an independent church what guarantee is there that you will not be labelled a trouble-maker from then on? none.
    What come-back to you have when leaders assert with certainty “God says you must do this” (either based on ‘revelation’ (in charismatic churches) or their interpretation of the Bible)? none
    If they decide you are not qualified to be a member or serve in a particular ministry, what can you do? nothing
    If you have an issue with a leader is there a mediator you can go to who you can trust to be fair and impartial rather than giving the leader more benefit of the doubt than you? no
    We only have to read news sources to see that this is true. I have yet to read about a case where there was a genuine problem with a leader in an independent church, where the first people brave enough to raise the issue were listened to seriously rather than branded as trouble-makers. The leaders are given way more benefit of the doubt than the church members and attenders in my experience.
    I would love to see independent churches taking this problem seriously and addressing it. Until they do the idea of putting myself under their authority again is way too scary.

  3. John H. Armstrong December 15, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks Helen for this insightful comment. Sadly, I have to agree with your general analysis and concern. Independent Christianity is generally accountable to no one except the strong pastor or leaders who account to no one else. It is the worst sort of leadership and in many cases leaves singles, women and non-white people in vulnerable positions. Wise leaders in such churches should hear your concerns and take strong actions to counteract these tendencies. It is ironic that independent churches and leaders often attack episcopacy in Catholic and Orthodox Churches, for example, but the alternative is often tyranny through leadersship with far less spiritual sensitivity and accountability. Connectionalism of some sort is always better in my view.

  4. Helen December 16, 2006 at 6:42 am

    Thanks John.
    My guess is that independent church leadership teams assume that their commitment to doing God’s will and God’s power at work in them will protect them from abuse of power (deliberate or inadvertent). But the nature of the problem means that if it does arise in a church, the problem itself prevents people who notice it having an effective way of pointing it out.
    In view of this I think it would be wise if all independent churches figured out how to set up some system to collect honest feedback which parallelled their monetary donation collecting system. Just as leaders do not know what individuals give financially, so no-one is judged based on their individual contributions, the same protection could be given to individual feedback. And just as churches are very public about aggregate contributions, they could share aggregate feedback, so all church members know how the church is doing in meeting member goals as well as leadership financial goals. If it can be done with money why not with feedback?
    I was a member of an independent church when the potential problems I wrote about in my previous comment occurred to me. I would have loved to have the opportunity to discuss them with the leadership. On the other hand, I wanted to avoid any appearance of personally attacking the leadership there. I was concerned that if I did try to raise the issue that is what I might have been perceived as doing. So I decided not to try.
    By the way, I am going to write about your Lutheran church visit on Monday on Off The Map’s Church Rater blog: http://www.churchrater.com. The mission of that blog is to facilitate discussion about how we ‘do church’. One way we seek to do that is by posting peoples’ comments about churches they visited. So what you wrote here is right in line with what we like to share on there.

  5. Greg December 16, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    John, what I can’t figure out is why more lost people aren’t interested in coming to our churches? What’s wrong with them?!! Sure, they might not find us the friendliest, most considerate people they’ve ever met, but then again, just wait till they hear us sing! “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place … there are sweet expressions on each face!” And, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Oh, well! Maybe seeking God for renewal isn’t such a bad idea!

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