Sitting in the Back Pews of Life
Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto hits another one out of the park with his well-placed salvo against Lutheran "minimalism." I share his frustration. The very things that Lutheranism have that make it stand out in the crowded "marketplace" of American denominationalism are the very things that so many non-Lutherans find attractive, while cradle Lutherans sometimes seem determined to minimize or ignore them! What are we so embarassed about? The incessant self-loathing and self-depricating attitudes we display toward the treasure of doctrine and practice that is historic, Biblical and faithful Lutheranism is truly distressing to observe. I’m taking Dr. Netto’s remarks a bit further than he does in this article, but he makes reference to this problem in passing with his comment about Lutheran music. Here are Dr. Netto’s thoughts:
(This commentary is scheduled to be published in the April 2007 issue of the Reporter)
Theologically, there is really nothing objectionable about the
idiosyncratic preference of many Lutherans for the back pews in church.
I am sure that God does not care one iota where you sit during the
Sunday service, as long as this does not reflect unchristian prejudices
or a lack of interest in worship. Perhaps the spiritual right-hand
kingdom provides us with a foretaste of life beyond time and space. So
stay in the rear if that’s where you want to be.
That said, does this principle also apply to the left-hand realm
where we live out our biological lives using natural reason to guide
us? Do we, who are called to engage this world, have the right to loll
on the back pews of our secular reality?
More to the point, what are we to think of the fact that in the
110th Congress our number [of Lutherans] has shrunk from 20 to 18? And
what does it tell us about America’s 2.5 million Missouri Synod
Lutherans that only two, Dave Reichert (R-WA) and John M. Shimkus
(R-IL), were elected to he House of Representatives last fall, and none
to the Senate?
Two congressmen – that puts us on a par with the Unitarians, of
whom there are only 217,000 inhabiting this country. Is there some
pogrom underway keeping the tenth largest denomination in the United
States from being duly represented in Washington, a conspiracy perhaps
marginalizing confessional Lutherans to the point that even in Missouri
no Missouri Synod Lutheran made it to D.C. this time?
But no, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, with a mere
400,000 members, has two of them in the federal legislature. Given that
statistic, it wouldn’t make much sense to whine about an alleged
anti-Lutheran bias in politics. Instead, I suspect that a significant
number of Lutherans might hold a bias against politics — and for that
matter, against work in the media as well.
Type “famous Lutheran journalists” into your Google search engine,
and what do you get? Nix! The only well-known Lutheran media
personality I can think of is the amusingly grumpy Jack Cafferty, who
reads viewers’ e-mails on CNN.
A recent New York Times headline announced: “Christian Right Labors
to Find ’08 Candidate.” This should have activated Lutheran reflexes
among LCMS, ELCA and WELS members alike. Certain types of conservative
evangelicals and liberal Protestants actually consider it their godly
mission to find a presidential candidate of their persuasion.
Lutherans, on the other hand, are blessed with a sounder theology for
how this world ought to be run.
“It is sufficient for the emperor to possess reason,” Martin Luther
wrote. Replace the term, “emperor,” with the word “President,” and you
get the drift.
At a time when America is at war, the sober Lutheran voice
stressing reason as the God-given operating system for the left-hand
kingdom is paramount.
Should America remain in Iraq or withdraw its forces, regardless of
the consequences? Should even larger troop contingents be sent there,
or should the U.S. presence be diminished and limited to certain
pockets? Should petroleum consumption in this country be reduced by
radical measures, or should we trust market forces?
These vital questions and so many others require unruffled rational
assessment rather than the ideologically motivated hyperbole plaguing
us today. This is where a much stronger presence of men and women
raised in the Lutheran ethos would be a blessing on both sides of the
aisle in Congress – and in the media. This is also why during a forum
at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, evangelicals and Catholics appealed
to Lutherans last fall to open their doctrinal treasure chest to this
confused postmodern America – for the benefit of all.
Why is it, then, that the ELCA, LCMS and WELS together are so
woefully underrepresented in the nation’s capital that the result seems
like an absurd joke? There are in the United States 2.2 million
Episcopalians, compared with nine million Lutherans. But 37 congressmen
and senators belong to The Episcopal Church (TEC), twice as many as to
the three largest Lutheran denominations put together. Why this
The answer lies perhaps in a phenomenon Henry V. Gerike, a pastor,
organist, and choirmaster in St. Louis, once called “Lutheran
minimalism.” Gerike was referring to a curious trend among Lutheran
congregations: “When the time comes for them to build a new sanctuary,
and they have a choice between installing a new organ befitting that
building or clinging to their old and by now incompatible instrument,
they would opt for the latter.”
The analogy is obvious. Lutherans have inherited the largest
treasure of sacred music of all Protestant denominations, but they are,
in Gerike’s words, too minimalist to splash for appropriate organs on
which these works can be properly played. Similarly, the Reformers have
handed down to today’s Lutherans theological gems that would
reintroduce sanity to public life. But no, today’s Lutherans prefer to
linger in the back pews of the left-hand kingdom eschewing these
Does nobody in American Lutheranism hear the sirens’ wail going
out to parishes, Lutheran schools, and universities? It alerts pastors,
teachers, and parents that the Lutheran kairos is here — meaning that
the opportune time has come for them to instruct students to roll up
their sleeves, move forward from their back pews, and fully engage this
dangerous world to which they have so much to contribute.
Not to do so would in the end reduce Lutherans to a species neither
Scriptures nor the Confessions want us to be, and few Americans like:
separatist fundamentalists selfishly dismissing this unredeemed world,
which is still God’s kingdom after all, if you don’t mind.
In rhetoric, the word kairos describes a passing instant that must
be grabbed swiftly and with determination if success is to be achieved.
This means that Lutherans can very well miss their moment in history if
they insist on remaining by the exit of their worldly existence where
all of us have a divine vocation.
Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is director of the Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation in St. Louis.