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The Pew versus the Sanctuary
Don Matzat

Some are focusing on the pew while others are focusing on the sanctuary.

I do not think it is boastful on my part to suggest that I have a fairly decent grasp of what is happening in the church today. For two hours everyday I have the opportunity to interview noted authors and theologians. Many of my guests are pastors and theologians from within my own denomination. We interview those who contribute articles to The Lutheran Witness, Logia, Doctrine and Practice, Gottesdienst, Good News, For the Life of the World and the theological journals coming out of our two seminaries. We also find articles that appear on Lutheran or "confessional" websites on the internet.

Based on what I have heard and read, I think we have a major problem in the church that will have serious implications for the future.

The purpose of this article is not to level criticism but to primarily foster discussion. After you read it, perhaps you will agree that such discussion is necessary.

While the issues that I will be discussing cut across denominational lines, my primary experience is within the specific group known as The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod . It is out of this experience that I will be writing. Those of you within other church groups may be able to apply what I am saying to your experience as well.

Division in the Camp

One does not have to be a very astute observer of the church scene today to realize that there is division in the camp. In order to identify the division, it is not necessary to sit down and pick the brains of theologians and academics. It is only necessary to attend the Sunday morning worship services within a cross-section of the congregations that comprise the denomination.

In previous years, the worship content and style in most denominations were pretty well established. Today you will discover a wide diversity in preaching, hymnody, liturgy, and style. These diversities have produced divisions and controversies.

"So what!" you say. "There have always been divisions and controversies in the church. How is this any different?"

Well, for one thing, divisions and controversies in the past primarily involved the theologians and academics. The division today is of a far more practical nature. Everyone is involved from Grandma Schmidt to the youth group.

For another thing, this division has a different feel to it. As Jerry Lee Lewis put it, "there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on." In the past, most divisions were caused by a splintering. One group seemed to hold the ground while the other group seemed to be moving away from the orthodox position of the past. Today, it seems that there are two groups creating an ever widening gap and moving in different directions. There appears to be no hope for reconciliation.

The Problem

The primary cause of this ever-widening gap has been the intrusion of Evangelical style, Church Growth marketing principles, and contemporary Christian music into the ranks. But this is only half the problem. The other half is that many have chosen to react against this intrusion and are pushing the theological pendulum too far in the other direction.

I believe it is possible to understand the present crisis by thinking of the interior of your church building. There are pews and there is a sanctuary. The people sit in the pews and the pastor does his thing in the sanctuary. I believe that we can characterize the present controversy by suggesting that one group has focused upon the pews (or the people) while the other group has made an about-face and out of reaction has placed their focus on the sanctuary. Perhaps we might define the issue as simply the pew versus the sanctuary.

Focusing on the Pew

One of the primary tenets of the Church Growth Movement is the preeminence of the audience. Out of this emerges the notion of "seeker sensitivity." The Sunday morning experience is conducted with a view to the people in the pews. What will be relevant? What are people looking for? What are their "felt needs?" The church, after all, is a business, the Gospel is the product, and the pastor is the CEO.

Since the issue is success, "pew-focused" pastors and church leaders are pragmatists. Secular principles that will succeed in bringing more people into the pews are good and useful. Whether those principles are developed at Harvard Business School or are the enlightened insights of a Mormon elder such as Steven Covey makes little difference. After all, didn’t the Jews fleece the Egyptians?

Focusing on the pew demands that the people are not placed beneath the pastor. This pecking order does not engender self-esteem. While the pastor leads the organization, the ministry is in the hands of the people. Everyone should seek to discover his or her spiritual gift and exercise it within the church.

The worship of the church is geared to provide a meaningful experience for the people. Will the people "like" the church and the pastor? Will they enjoy the Sunday morning worship? Is it contemporary?

Within such a context, it seems that the people have as much right to determine truth as does the pastor. They also have the Holy Spirit. In Bible study, the opinions and ideas of the people are supreme. Everyone has his or her right to a privatized truth. If the people are seeking sound principles for living, this determines the content of the preaching.

A popular Lutheran pew-focused pastor has recently written a book on prayer from the perspective of the people. He seems to be suggesting that the standard for prayer is determined by how "the ordinary people" pray.

A Baby-Boomer Phenomenon

There is no doubt in my mind that the pew-focused, secularized innovations that have invaded the church are the products of a specific generation. I believe they are baby-boomer things. There are many astute observers of the church who have arrived at that same conclusion. As such, these changes are temporary. They will pass.

The baby-boomer generation generally includes those who were born between 1946 and 1964. It is a generation that has produced a powerful effect upon the culture, but historically, it has been a temporary effect.

A few years ago, at halftime of a high school basketball game, I browsed through the poster display of the graduating classes of that school from 1950 to 1995. Somewhere in the 70s’ a virus infects the student body. Hair and dress styles radically change. The baby-boomers were passing through. But, this was not a permanent change. The graduating class of 1995 did not look much different than the class of 1955. Somewhere in the 80’s things got back to normalcy.

Remember when the baby-boomers passed through major league baseball? If you have any old baseball cards, checkout the appearance of the players in the 70’s. Present hair and uniform styles and even new stadium designs take us back to the 50’s and 60’s.

We laugh at the 70’s. Entertainers are embarrassed when they see clips of themselves during the "virus years." Hollywood produces spoofs of the Brady Bunch. Laugh-in is funny, but not because of the jokes. Don’t you just long to see re-runs of the Mod Squad or The Partridge Family?

Today, the members of the baby-boom generation are largely in control of the church – and rightfully so. They have come of age and are in their most productive years. They are the executives, pastors in larger churches, and leaders on boards and committees.

It is not strange that, under the leadership of baby-boomers, the church has experienced drastic changes causing much controversy. This has been the pattern for the members of this generation – they do temporarily change institutions. According to history professor Doug Owran, "The baby-boomers have generated almost continuous controversy from the time Dr. Spock decided they should be treated gently." (1) As a generation, they have sufficient numbers to impose change. Millard Erickson writes: "their sheer numbers meant that they have been able to establish their ideas and values and in effect impose them on the society." (2)

Perhaps the baby-boomer innovations will have a long-range influence and forever change the face of the Christian Church, but in the light of history, I doubt it.

It is not my intention to put down this large group of people but to simply offer an objective, historical assessment of their influence in the culture and thus upon the church.

I believe that the Church Growth movement with the notion of "seeker sensitivity" is a temporary glitch in the 2000-year history of Christianity.

I think it is ludicrous to suggest that the writings of marketing expert George Barna will have a lasting impact upon the Holy Christian Church and that future pastors will want to be CEO’s.

Liturgical worship and traditional hymnody has characterized the worship of the church for generations past. Would anyone be so foolish to suggest that "Shine, Jesus, Shine" will forever change this heritage?

Focusing on the Sanctuary

On the other hand, there are many pastors and theologians who probably do not share my views. They consider these baby-boomer innovations to be a violent threat to their Lutheran identity. They want to be liturgical and confessional. They are very angry about the apparent secularization of the Church. Out of reaction to "pew-focused" pastors and congregations, they have determined to focus their attention upon the sanctuary where the pastor does his thing, where the liturgy is conducted, and where the Sacraments are administered.

As a result, for example, they have created a major flap over the Office of the Holy Ministry. It is the pastor, they affirm, not the people, who exercises the ministry of the church. Much silly hair-splitting has taken place over the definition of the word "minister." (Such discussion would be irrelevant in Canada where government officials are called "ministers" and various departments termed "ministries.") In fact, some suggest that the pastor, as the "minister," is the incarnate manifestation of Jesus himself and is a walking, talking "means of grace."

The "sanctuary-focused" pastors and theologians respond to the phenomenon of contemporary worship by emphasizing the historic liturgy and the style in which that liturgy is to be conducted. In discussing the subject of worship with sanctuary-focused pastors, you come away with the idea that they would like to see the specific content of the Gottesdienst or Divine Service included within the Lutheran Confessions. They promote a liturgical legalism.

Focusing upon the sanctuary is resurrecting the old issue that fueled debate within the LCMS in the 60’s – high church versus low church. This is rather unfortunate since it divides those who have, out of concern for the Gospel, questioned the notion of focusing upon the pews.

I imagine that the Church Growth pastors must be rather pleased to see the development of this "liturgical push" rising up in opposition to their contemporary services. If Missouri Synod Lutheran people are given the option of having a pastor who leads choruses with his guitar or a pastor who chants the liturgy, I contend, on the basis of experience, they would prefer the guitar-strummer.

While the pew-focused pastors sing the praises of culturally relevant Evangelicalism, the sanctuary-focused ones seem to be warming up to Rome or become enamored with Eastern Orthodoxy since both traditions offer a high view of the sanctuary.

This bellying-up to Rome or Orthodoxy has become a typical reaction. Numerous evangelicals with their original roots in the Calvinist tradition have recklessly reacted to the secularization of Evangelicalism by either joining Rome or embracing Orthodoxy. The rational business-mentality of today’s Evangelicalism has seemingly created a desire within them for a deeper spirituality and a longing to rediscover the numinous or mysterious aspects of the faith. Since a rich sacramental theology is lacking in Calvinism, the itch for mystery and deeper spirituality can only be scratched by changing traditions.

As a result, those jumping ship out of reaction have forsaken the Reformation. While their reaction has led them to embrace a richer Sacramental theology, in the process they have embraced a distorted view of the Gospel.

When you transfer this phenomenon into Lutheranism where a rich sacramental theology already exists, the intrusion of Evangelical secularism into the ranks produces an inordinate focus upon the sacramental life of the Church. While this focus begins with accurate definitions of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, it adds nuance upon nuance until you end up with something that no longer resembles what you discover in Scripture or in the Confessions.

Those focusing on the sanctuary may be well on their way to producing a liturgical and Sacramental Theology of Glory to rival tongue-speaking and promise-keeping. Do we now have a Lutheran "ladder of ascent?"

Responding with the Gospel

Any person who listens to my radio program or regularly reads this journal knows that I have been an outspoken critic of the "seeker sensitivity" of the Church Growth movement. My concern is over the Gospel. If we allow the culture to determine the agenda of the Church, the clear preaching of sin and grace will no longer be the focus. The culture is not interested in being made aware of their lost and sinful condition. The culture wants the church to focus upon their so-called "felt need," not what the Word of God defines as their real need for a Savior. (Be sure to read the next article: Marketing the Message.)

In addition, I believe that the focus upon "principles for living" is a distortion of the so-called "third use of the Law" and removes the power for living from the Gospel.

Because I am a critic of the Church Growth movement most certainly does not mean that I have joined forces with those who have chosen to focus on the sanctuary. I believe it is foolishness to allow the Church Growth movement to set the agenda for the Church. It is the Word of God and Lutheran Confessions as the true exposition of that Word that sets the agenda and establishes the priorities.

Because Church Growth pastors wear business suits doesn’t mean that I’m going to prance around all day in my clergy collar.

Because Church Growth pastors want to be CEO’s doesn’t mean that I’m going to inflate my understanding of the Office of the Holy Ministry.

Because Church Growth pastors have chosen to replace the liturgy with so called contemporary worship doesn’t turn me into a liturgical legalist or prompt me to take lessons in Gregorian chant.

Because Church Growth pastors feel that the pastor’s exercise of the Office of the Keys in forgiving sins is not "seeker sensitive" doesn’t motivate me to construct private confessionals.

Because the Church Growth movement has elevated the role of the laity doesn’t impel me to covet my own private pedestal.

Because the Church Growth movement has produced secularization in the Church doesn’t induce me to rush out and buy a bunch of icons and turn into a mystic.

If I did all those things, I believe I would be a fool!

The Real Threat

I have been a pastor in the Missouri Synod for nearly thirty-five years. I have seen movements come and go. In fact, for fifteen years I was an active participant in the Charismatic movement. I was convinced in the 70’s that this movement would forever change the face of the church. It didn’t. Today, for the most part, the Charismatic movement is a dead issue.

I believe that the theologians in my church properly responded to the claims of the Charismatic movement. They raised their concerns and for the most part, let it be.

The theological concerns they raised were focused upon the Gospel. The warning was: Don’t base what you believe on your experience. If you do, your forgiveness and salvation will be put in jeopardy.

While the worship style in Lutheran Charismatic congregation was far more subjective and experience-laden than anything this contemporary music trend has to offer, it was not the issue. The issue was the Gospel.

What if, out of reaction to the Charismatic emphasis on experience, pastors and theologians would have recklessly set out to remove any elements of subjectivity from the church? Today, while the Charismatic movement would still largely be a dead issue, we would be suffering the results of their reckless reaction.

I believe that we must raise some very serious concern about the Church Growth issue of "seeker sensitivity." If people attend the Sunday morning worship at "seeker sensitive" churches and do not hear the clear message of sin and grace, it is a travesty.

If Church Growth congregations follow the lead of Willow Creek and refuse to display a cross in their sanctuary, the Gospel is being diminished.

As I have already stated, I believe the Church Growth movement will fade away. What might remain to plague the church in the future will be the reckless reaction that is taking place against the Church Growth movement.

Table of References

1. Orwan, Doug, Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation, (University of Toronto Press: 1996), p. xi.

2. Erickson, Millard, Postmodernizing the Faith, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), p. 49.

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