What to look for in a Lutheran congregation

Here is something I have been working on for a while. Suggestions are invited.

1. The church uses doctrinally pure hymn books and service books for worship.

It has become a widespread practice of Lutheran congregations and pastors to create their own services each week or to borrow from non-Lutheran sources and to use songs that are not doctrinally rich like those found in our hymnals. Usually, those who do this see very little connection between the doctrine of the Church and the forms of her worship. Churches that abandon the historic Lutheran liturgical rites and ceremonies or try to blend them with songs and ceremonies that resemble those found in non-denominational churches cannot be trusted to provide doctrinally pure worship for the congregation.

2. The pastor conducts the service, reads the lessons, preaches the sermon, and presides at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

All Christians are called to bear witness to Christ in their daily life (1 Peter 2:9; Romans 10:9), but the Scriptures make it clear that God wants only those who have been legitimately called to publicly preach and teach His Word and administer the Sacraments. For example, St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11 show that not every Christian is a minister of the Gospel: “He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…” (emphasis mine) The same Apostle writes in Romans 10:15: “How can they preach unless they are sent?” The following words of the Augsburg Confession show that the practice of the Reformers was in line with these Scriptural teachings: “Our churches teach that no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments without a regular call” (AC XIV). The Bible is full of examples where God condemns those who “sent themselves” to preach rather than being sent by God. The Lord says through His prophet Jeremiah: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21). Unfortunately, the practice of having laymen preach and administer the sacraments has become a widespread practice, especially since 1989 when the Synod at Convention officially approved Lay Ministry for churches that could not support a full time pastor. Congregations that ask laymen to preach or preside at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper are not being faithful to the Bible or the Lutheran Confessions.

3. The church practices closed communion.

Closed communion is a biblical, loving, and God-pleasing practice. However, more and more congregations today are abandoning this practice in favor of a more “open” communion policy. “If you believe in Jesus, then you can receive Holy Communion.” Churches that practice closed communion recognize three important truths: 1) The body and blood of Christ are truly present in the bread and wine after the consecration and are received by the mouth of every communicant, regardless of what one believes (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 10:16). 2) The Lord’s Supper can be spiritually harmful to those who receive it unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29). 3) By participating in Holy Communion one publicly declares his agreement with the teaching of that church. For this reason, instruction in the chief articles of the Gospel is necessary before one is admitted to the altar for Holy Communion. A responsible Christian would want to ask the pastor of an unfamiliar congregation whether or not this was practiced faithfully before receiving Holy Communion.

4. All services deal with the problem of man’s sin before God as well as God’s grace and mercy toward sinners in Christ Jesus.

This should be self-evident. However, it is becoming more and more popular for churches to remove language that focuses on the sin of its members in order to make church more inviting to the newcomer. After all, people think, who is going to come back to a church that tells them that they are sinful and unclean? As a result, the preaching of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus is weakened, since there is nothing for which to be forgiven. A healthy and mature Lutheran congregation teaches through word and song both the sinful condition of mankind and the boundless grace of God in the suffering and death of Jesus.

5. The Lord’s Supper is offered every Sunday and on festivals.

The Lutheran Reformers were strong proponents of weekly communion not only because Christ said “Do this” but also because of the example set by the Apostles (Acts 2:42) and because of the many promises and blessings that are attached to it by the Word of God (Matthew 26:28; John 6:54). However, for various reasons later generations of Lutherans saw a decline in the frequency of the Lord’s Supper so that by the mid-20th century the average frequency of Holy Communion in many LC-MS parishes had been reduced to four times/year. In recent years, due to a renewed appreciation for the benefits of the Sacrament, the practice of weekly communion is being renewed by many Lutheran pastors and congregations. Where this is not currently the practice at a Lutheran parish, it certainly could not hurt to encourage the pastor to offer it every Lord’s Day. Lutheran pastors who understand the benefits of Holy Communion will strive to instruct the people in the benefits of the Supper in view of offering it weekly in the future.

6. There is a healthy balance between God’s action in the service and man’s response in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

One of the beautiful things about the historic Lutheran liturgy is that it maintains the proper balance between the giving of God’s gifts through Word and Sacrament, and the church’s response to these gifts in praise and thanksgiving. This distinction is almost non-existent in most non-denominational churches, where the main focus of the service is praise and man’s feelings about God. The Lutheran service is so ordered that God first speaks to us in His Word, and only then do we respond to His gifts with praise and thanksgiving. God’s self-giving for our benefit is the chief thing in every service. Our response in faith is secondary. As Jesus Himself says, “[…] the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

7. The Pastor does not seek to draw attention to himself or his person.

Pulpits and vestments, while not expressly commanded by Christ in the Scriptures, nevertheless serve to extol the preached Word of God and to hide the preacher as much as possible so that it is clear that the word he is speaking is not his own but Christ’s. Whether they realize it or not, pastors draw attention to themselves when they wander around the chancel or the nave during the sermon rather than preach from the pulpit. Another way that pastors draw undue attention to themselves is when, out of ignorance of the rubrics that govern the conduct of the service or simply out of lack of fore planning, they are sloppy or careless in their movements and actions during the service. Pastors who take the Word of God and their role as messengers of the divine Word seriously will preach from the pulpit and wear suitable vestments. They will also be diligent in learning the rubrics of the Lutheran service so that their words and movements will be deliberate. The words of St. Paul apply here: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).

8. The pastor follows a lectionary when preparing sermons and services rather than selecting texts arbitrarily.

Lectionaries keep pastors from beating their theological hobby horses week after week. They also provide the church with a full treatment of the chief doctrines of the Bible year after year so that nothing is left out. The Bible does not dictate to the Church the precise ordering of the lessons or the church year. It does, however, assume that the whole counsel of God will be presented to the Church and not just bits and pieces (Matthew 28:20).

9. Sermons are not just a string of stories tied together around a common theme but actually teach and proclaim God’s Word in its truth and purity.

What often passes for preaching today is not preaching at all, but story-telling. Jesus did not command His disciples to “tell stories” when He sent them out but He commanded them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything which I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Likewise, Jesus told His disciples “that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all generations” (Luke 24:47). Personal stories, anecdotes, and illustrations should be kept to a minimum.

10. The service is used in its entirety.

Some churches find it convenient to omit parts of the service in order to save time. This practice reflects a weak understanding of the significance of each part of the service. For example, let’s say that in order to shorten the service the Nunc Dimittis (Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…) is omitted after Holy Communion. These words after communion bear witness to the wondrous truth that in Holy Communion, “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the face of every people,” namely, Jesus Christ! Take these words out of the mouths of the communicants and you take away a marvelous confession of faith. Churches/pastors who understand the unique significance of each part of the service will not be so quick to omit them.

11. The church is able to use the wide variety of services provided in the hymnal (e.g. Divine Service I & II, Matins, Vespers, Compline).

Most congregations are able to use at least one of the services in the hymnal. Many pastors and congregations, however, are learning to use Matins and Vespers for daily services after the example of the Lutheran Reformers, who regularly prayed Matins (morning prayer) and Vespers (evening prayer) throughout the week. It is a bonus to find a church that makes full use of the historic Lutheran services like this.

12. Private Confession and Absolution is not only taught but offered for the congregation.

There is a section in the Small Catechism on the Office of the Keys and Confession. Although this is taught by every Lutheran pastor, it is rarely practiced. A mature congregation has been taught the benefits of private confession and absolution, and recognizes the centrality of the forgiveness of sins in the life of the Church. This does not mean that everyone in the church makes use of it, but it is at least offered to its members by the Pastor.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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31 Responses to What to look for in a Lutheran congregation

  1. Rev. Todd Peperkorn says:

    Have you made this into an actual brochure? If not, would you be opposed to the idea?

  2. Pastor Beisel says:

    I had thought about it. It was actually Ben Mayes’ idea. I posted it here so that I could get some additional thoughts on what would characterize a “good” Lutheran congregation. Ben was looking for more Bible verses to go along with it too, which would strengthen it.

  3. Stan says:

    FWIW, while I appreciate, “All services deal with the problem of man’s sin before God as well as God’s grace and mercy toward sinners in Christ Jesus.” The reality is that there is a lack of a pure preaching of the Gospel in most Lutheran Congregations, and often tendency to revert to a purely legalistic, nearly “nomian” style of proclamation which cheapens the Gospel and the meritorious work of Christ just as much as the preacher who isn’t faithful to the doctrine of sin. Forgiveness is what the church exists to deliver, and thus it is the proper work of the church, yet it’s also the hardest to find. Perhaps somehow a “gifting” of the grace of God deserves to be in your list.

    Also, out of curiosity… are these in order by priority? Or are they random? I fear they are in order of priority…

    Pax Christi,
    – Stan

  4. Rev Loree Jr says:

    I would love to see this in some type of brochure format.

  5. Rebellious Pastor's Wife says:

    A very excellent post!

    You (and our revered reformers) wrote:
    “Our churches teach that no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments without a regular call” (AC XIV). The Bible is full of examples where God condemns those who “sent themselves” to preach rather than being sent by God.

    Would you include vicars and fieldworkers who are under a pastor’s supervision (not vicars who are going into fill vacancies)?

  6. Richard says:

    Are Sunday school teachers and Bible study leaders included in the “Our churches teach that no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments without a regular call” (AC XIV).

  7. Anonymous says:

    Stan’s been reading Dr. Nagel, I would gather…

    I’ve been working on very similar articles here for our Sunday bulletins and have lately (read gradually) been expanding them for brochures to be available for visitors etc. Keep up the good work. You’ve gotten at the issues concisely and well.

    It has struck me as I’ve been working on my own little project that the issue of liberalism is always one of guilt. Political liberals feel guilty for the prosperity of this nation. So what is the result? They decry everything that America does, be it right or wrong, simply because America did it. I think in some respect the same thing happens in the church. In some weird way the liberal bent in the LCMS comes from a perceived guilt over exclusionary practices like closed communion. And just as political liberals would sympathize with insurgents in Iraq, so theological liberals would do the same with heterodox bodies, decrying pure doctrine that gives them the feel of a lack of love. (No, I’m not likening liberals to terrorists.)

    Permit me a personal story. Being Confessional where I have been called makes a guy rather lonely. That’s just the way things are here, unfortunately. One thing that I have been doing lately, however, has been to take my adult class through the Large Catechism (they don’t realize that this is their stepping stone to the Augsburg Confession). In dealing with the sacraments we came at them by way of Apol. XIII, which got us talking about the heterodox. This went for a while until one of my parishioners raised her hand and suggested, “Wow. We should really be praying for these churches, shouldn’t we?”

    I went home singing the Te Deum dad-gum Laudamus!

    Keep posting, brother.

    (TKB)

  8. OSC says:

    Nicely done. Very helpful. I look forward to more. I think you’ve hit on the big ones.

    The problem, of course, is that the Gospel Reductionist camp doesn’t see worship as a big deal. That is, the DS is not viewed as anything transformative. Thus, this kind of thing totally misses those who need to hear it the most.

  9. Petersen says:

    I like the concept for a brochure. I think it could use some sort of caveat, though. Something along the lines of: “If the church you find doesn’t have these things: ask.” There are churches where the pastors and others are working very hard to strengthen the practice but they have not yet arrived to all of your ideals (every Sunday communion, lay lectors, etc.) We wouldn’t want to discourage pious, confessional lay people away from those churches. We want them there.

    Good blog. Love the name!

  10. Pastor Beisel says:

    Stan,

    I’m not sure how to reply directly underneath your comment (if that is even possible on here), but the answer is no, they are not in order of priority. And you are right–these are certainly ideals but that is the point. The idea is to try to describe a healthy, mature Lutheran congregation. It is admittedly difficult. And it is a work in progress. Thanks for the comments.

  11. Pastor Beisel says:

    Richard asked about Sunday School teachers and Bible Study leaders. Sunday School teachers are doing the work of parents so I do not think that this is a problem. The Bible should be taught to adults by a pastor, in my opinion, or by a father in the home. Bible study did not really come into vogue until the Pietistic movement. I’m not saying it is wrong, but in many places it resulted in a lay person teaching it to other lay people.

  12. Pastor Beisel says:

    Rebellious Pastor’s Wife asked about vicars and field workers and their relationship to Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession which states that no one should publicly preach, teach, or administer the sacraments without a regular call. I suppose you could look at Matthew 10. Jesus authorized the Twelve to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom and to do signs before His ascension and before Pentecost. Was this a full “ordination/Call” or was it limited in some way? They were only to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and only later are they commissioned to go make disciples of “all nations.” In the Gospel of John, the disciples of Jesus were even said to be baptizing before Jesus breathed the Spirit on them. I do not think our practice of allowing vicars and field workers to preach in the church under the supervision of the pastor violates the Gospel or Article XIV. Others may disagree with me. What does violate it is when people who have no intention of obtaining a legitimate call from the Church into the Ministry are carrying out the functions not only of preaching, but also celebrating the Lord’s Supper. That is the clearest violation. Good question. and I hope my answer helps.

  13. Chris Jones says:

    Pr Beisel,

    This is a good post, and I agree with the substance of it. But I have some questions.

    A guide to “what to look for” suggests that there is a variety of things to choose from, and the “guide” helps by giving the criteria by which one may choose the best one. But what if there is no variety of things from which to choose? Where I live there are very few Lutheran congregations of any Synodical affiliation, and none of them meets more than one or two of your criteria. What is a layman who desires to be an orthodox, evangelical Catholic, Lutheran to do if no such congregation exists?

    Second: Doesn’t the existence of a variety of congregations from which to choose suggest that the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace is more illusory than real in the Missouri Synod? If what held our congregations together really were a common confession of the Catholic faith, would that not be evident in something much closer to a common practice? Or (to put the question the other way around) doesn’t the fact that so many Lutheran congregations fail to meet your criteria strongly suggest that those congregations don’t really teach and confess the same faith as congregations that do meet them?

    And what does it mean that congregations that differ so widely in practice (and very possibly in doctrine) continue in full altar and pulpit fellowship with one another?

  14. Pastor Beisel says:

    Chris,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. This guide assumes that not every congregation bearing the name “Lutheran” is actually that. That is it’s purpose.

    It is truly lamentable that such a lack of unity exists in the LC-MS today that such a guide would be necessary.

    What I have provided is a list of things I think characterize a mature congregation. Not every congregation practices weekly communion, and some pastors use stupid stories in their sermons, but Christ is still preached and given in the Sacraments.

    You’re right though. The fact that there is such diversity in practice definitely reflects a lack of unity in confession, and I think that in the near future we will begin to see the fall out from years of disunity. It is going to be a hard pill to swallow, indeed. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I look forward to hearing more from everyone. This is fun.

  15. This Pastor's Wife says:

    I just want to be cautious also, adding something along the lines of Pastor Petersen’s comment earlier. Where there are concerns one should speak with the Pastor.

    My husband was called here from the seminary. There were lay readers (male and female), open communion, non Lutheran Sunday school materials, a push for contempory worship, etc. etc. There have been many changes in his 2.5 years here, but there remains much catechisis to be done.

  16. Pastor Beisel says:

    Caroline,

    Your comment is well taken. Certainly complete reform cannot take place over night. These are things for which to strive.

    The truth about all this, of course, is that there is no perfectly orthodox congregation. I think there are individual pastors that come pretty close to getting it right all the time, but this side of glory there will always be imperfection of some sort. That does not mean we just give up. That would be like saying, “Since I cannot keep God’s Law perfectly, I’m just not going to try at all.”

    The point is, while I think that it is a valuable exercise to identify things that characterize mature Lutheran congregations, we should not forget that what is ideal may not be obtainable in this life. A pastor will only succeed at making his congregation completely orthodox when everyone has died.

  17. Rebellious Pastor's Wife says:

    Thank you Pastor. I appreciate your perspective. Living close to the seminary and having field workers at our church, I’ve noticed that the issue of how article XIV applies to seminarians seems to be one that they are wrestling with more and more. I like the tie in to Matthew 10. I wouldn’t have put that together, but I do think it applies.

    While I do appreciate the work that you did in putting together a list of criteria for judging an orthodox congregation, there is an aspect that concerns me. It is the issue of the “consumer confessional.” We saw a lot of that in California. There were a whole lot of people who graced the doors of our little church (30 communicant members) with their mental checklists of “meet our standards and we might come here to be fed,” with no awareness of what Communion of the Saints truly means…that when we kneel at the altar together and partake of Christ’s Body and Blood, that we are one in Him. My neighbor’s problems become my problems, their joys become my joys, as Luther would put it. Instead, it was an “audition” and many times, because there was no Sunday School (as you said, a substitute for the parents’ responsibility to train their children) or youth group. They took the perspective that by attending a church that lacked social interaction with peers, their kids would suffer, rather than learn what was truly important about worship and their beliefs.

    Caroline made a very good point. When a person attends a church and sees the Word of God being preached in its truth, and the Sacraments being administered rightly, or even signs that it is headed in that direction, the layman who is looking for a congregation needs to talk with the pastor. The congregation that is moving in the confessional direction desperately needs laymen who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work to make struggling, isolated churches orthodox. I’ve heard the exact same people who are not willing to attend such churches complain that there aren’t any good confessional churches. They need to be willing to have their kids be the youth group, to have their kids be the Sunday School or teach the Sunday School (or do without and catechize their kids at home, and come to church to be fed by God’s Word and to receive the Sacraments), ….to be the bodies in the pews when other visitors come…to build up the body of Christ…to stand by the pastor in the voters meetings, not show up and say “okay, I’m here, meet my needs.” Any brochure that shows what to look for in a Lutheran congregation needs to have one next to it on “How to Be a Better Lutheran,” too (3rd Use of the Law context).
    A lot of these churches are racking their brains trying to figure out how to get other Lutherans who are not happy with their congregations how to come into their doors….only to be spurned by reasons that have nothing to do with their confessional theology. I don’t think people know the pain that it causes their brethren, or how it can hurt our church body in general.

  18. Pastor Beisel says:

    I certainly don’t want to advocate “church shopping” in the negative sense. People should rejoice when they find a faithful pastor and should do what they can to support the ministry in that place, even if it does not “measure up” in every respect to their particular standards. I completely resonate with your frustrations. You’ll notice, however, that most of the points in this brochure deal specifically with the ministry in a particular place. Some people will avoid or leave a congregation where the ministry is faithful, but the people do not seem very loving or outgoing, or where the youth group is not “thriving”. These are not, in my opinion, good reasons to look elsewhere.

    Luther believed that even where the congregation members were hypocrites, as long as the “christological center” (as Dr. Jonathan Trigg puts it in his book on Luther’s baptismal theology) was intact (i.e. the Minstry is faithful), it is still to be considered a true, orthodox church.

  19. Favorite Apron says:

    Another good sign that I find myself looking for is properrespectful handling of the remaining communion elements.

  20. Pastor Beisel says:

    Polly,

    Good point. I should add something like that.

  21. Pastor Beisel says:

    Here is a thought: What does a typical lay person look for in a parish? I’ve never been a typical layperson, meaning that I have never actually been an active member of a congregation (outside of being a pastor) as an adult. Will someone give me a reality check?

  22. sam says:

    Pastor,
    How would you word an additional statement regarding the handling of the remaining elements of the Lord’s Supper? Thanks!
    Sam

  23. Steve B says:

    Dear Friends, Rev Greg Sahlstrom has similar info in a Brochure entitled A “church shoppers” guide. You might check it out and see if you can edit it with your additional thoughts. You can find it at http://www.southlake.stormlash.net. Click on the “more information” link”

  24. Pastor Beisel says:

    I read the brochure you were talking about by Greg Salhstrom. It looks like something I might give to a non-member who was checking out local churches of varying denominations, and therefore a handy resource. Thanks for showing that. I think what I put together is aimed more at my members who are either travelling or moving to another area and want to find a confessional Lutheran congregation.

  25. Steve B says:

    Pastor no problem. How about a letter for our members who are moving or on vacation to show/give to the pastor/elders of the church they are visiting? The early church had such introductory letters, would it benefit us to do the same?

    A sample?:
    To the Pastor, Elders, Brothers and Sisters of ___________________________________

    Dear Friends in Christ,
    I, as Pastor of _______ Lutheran Church commend to you,________________________________ as (a) faithful member(s) of our congregation. _______________________ will be visiting your congregation from _______
    through _________. _______________________ participate(s) regularly in worship and faithfully support(s) the ministry of our Savior here at Zion. As a fellow laborer of our Lord, I ask that you would show ____________ due care and consideration, welcome them in worship, admit them to the Lord’s table and support them in any physical or material needs.
    I thank you for your consideration, and praise Him for His work among you.

    In Labor for the Lord,

  26. Pastor Beisel says:

    Steve,

    I am totally in favor of the idea of which you have written. And I like the sample letter you have provided. Maybe I’ll write something about it in a separate post at a later date.

  27. Steve B says:

    Thanks, sorry to diverge from your topic though.

  28. Orycteropus Afer says:

    Brother Paul, please accept this Golden Aardvark Aaward on behalf of a grateful confessional Lutheran blogosphere.

    BTW, as you continue blogging, you may notice a lot of computer generated comment spam. If you go to the comments section in your settings, you can turn on Word Verification and significantly cut its volume.

  29. Pastor Mike says:

    Paul,
    I am an ELCA Pastor that has a young adult bible study. I found your information on closed communion, and I was wondering if you would be willing to share any more specifics of this practice. I found your listing quite insiteful in helping me to understand my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I do not agree with you on every issue I find it helpful to dialogue with others. On common question I get from lay members is on our differences. I generally start by pointing to our practice of historical criticism which your understanding of scripture tries to avoid. This I feel helps them see why women are not in the pulpit. To this i’ve always felt very much that I completely understand our differences. In other words though I disagree with your stance, I see that your theological stance has integrity. However personally i’ve never come to understand completely closed communion. What you have written in this blog has been as helpful as anything I have seen for me… any other pointers, or could you point me in some direction to find what I am looking for.

    I believe one of the most important parts of our faiths is that our people know who we are. I believe that God uses a great cloud of witness to testify to Christ Jesus. One thing I’m sure by reading this list you’ll agree with is that the rise in “non-denominational” churches is troubling because in a sense they either stand for “white-washing” the gospel or the leadership is not being honest with it’s membership on what their denominational background is.

    Any response would be great… my church e-mail is michael@our-saviours.org

  30. Pastor Mike says:

    After reading what i wrote i see i am a bit scattered in my response. Please forgive my grammatical errors, and unexplained tangents.

  31. Pastor Beisel says:

    Pastor Mike,

    Don’t apologize. I enjoyed reading your remarks. I’m glad that what I wrote was helpful for you in getting a better grasp on our stance on this. I’ll email you.

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