I make it my concern to continually observe the Church in America. I read the polls, visit different churches to speak week-by-week, and still talk to leaders continually. I try to read the various signs of life and change as best I know how. This is a part of my calling and thus my public ministry.
This weekend my wife and I visited a Lutheran Church---Missouri Synod (LCMS). The LCMS is much more conservative than the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), indeed it is rightly thought of as a faithful confessing church body. (There are several smaller Lutheran churches that are much more conservative than the LCMS by the way.) One of the problems that I always run into in an LCMS setting, when I do visit, is the practice of "closed communion." Some LCMS congregations try to get around this but it is the correct practice according to their official denominational stance. In the bulletin of the church we visited last evening these words appeared: "We believe Holy Communion as a confession of our faith. Anyone who has not been instructed regarding the Lutheran meaning of Holy Communion, anyone in doubt, or anyone whose beliefs differ from the LCMS, yet desires to receive the Lord's Supper, are requested to first speak with the Pastor or one of the elder." (Following are the texts of Matthew 5:23-24; 10:32-33; 18:15-20; 26:26-29 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.)
One should not judge such statements overmuch but this one really puts me off personally. "Anyone in doubt?" Man, I doubt. Should doubters not come to the Table? Of is the doubt meant to refer to doubt about the Lutheran view of the Supper? I am not quite sure. But if it is the latter then I am in doubt and could never take communion in such a congregation. I not only do not see this in the New Testament I see no good theological reason to support it in the present either. This stance is simple a major carry over from the Reformed and Lutheran polemics of the 16th century.
Now I have highest praise for my LCMS brothers and sisters on so many fronts, especially since there are so many who truly follow Christ in humble faith. But this statement completely misses the catholicity that I see in the early church and the ancient creeds. I find this language more than odd when we are told that we must be "instructed regarding the Lutheran meaning . . ." I do not know if it is still the case but at one time the LCMS also used the Apostles Creed, which was not said last night, and changed the words "holy catholic church" to say "holy Christian church," a word change which misses entirely the original meaning of the creed. To say the least it is a redundancy. Honestly, do we have to reject the word "catholic" simply because we do not like the connotations of the word given its association with Roman Catholicism?
There was something else we noted last evening. This LCMS gathering felt and worshiped much like most Bible churches that we know, except for saying the Lord's Prayer and reading one more Scripture text besides the text for the sermon. It felt much more like a good adult Sunday School class than a solid liturgy of worship. This was a great disappointment to us both, especially since we went for this very reason. The presiding leader, a gracious and wonderful deacon, as well as the people we met, were exceptionally gracious to us as visitors. We noted this with real gratitude.
Today I preached again at First Reformed Church in South Holland, where I will be preaching a great deal in coming months, at least until they get a new senior pastor. The bitterly cold weather cut the attendance down by a third from last week but the spirit of the church was warm and the response to the preaching was encouraging once again. This old church has dear become very dear to me. I am hoping for the wind of God's Spirit to blow through the people as they wait upon God and find a new shepherd. It was noteworthy, at least to me, that the Reformed Church was more "liturgical" today than the LCMS congregation last night. This shows, at least in this one instance, that you cannot judge things today by the name on the sign out front. I find Bible churches that are serious about worship, and sacramental life, while there are Lutheran churches that feel much more like they are moving away from this expression with every passing year. The real issue in the end is still life, life in the Spirit and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in the gathering, regardless of the forms being followed. I miss it desperately when I do not sense any hunger for God's manifest presence in either the prayers or the preaching.