These Are the Generations
A week or so ago my home congregation installed a new senior pastor. That is hardly unique, though it is momentous in the life of any congregation. But if not unique, there were some distinct and memorable factors. This was only the second installation of a senior pastor in the congregation’s 65+ year history, and the first since 1981, 33 years ago. That is a long tenure, and a good generation’s worth of pastoral ministry and leadership. Our new senior pastor, a 2005 graduate of Concordia Seminary, has matured from his initial call as “youth missionary” to senior pastor of a multi-generational congregation. And that is the key. He represents the link between our grandfather’s church and our grandchildren’s church. Some things will be different, not so much because of pastoral “style” but because of a different, “next generation” perspective on church, ministry, and mission. Some things will not be different, nor should they be.
It’s about the ministry, but if I may get a little bit personal, it’s in his blood. He is a sixth generation pastor, which for any and every PK is a reminder of what it means to cast Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha in a personal and familial way. The percentage of “PK’s” that make up a seminary student body has declined sharply over the past generation, and all “PK” stories and jokes aside, it does raise the question of what’s changed. That’s for another discussion, but it was a delight to have a “reverend father” preach for his son’s installation. Not to get too personal, but I had a little lump in my own throat as I recalled my own father’s sermon at my ordination.
Then came the blessing from brother clergy, and I used a passage that I suspect has never been used for such an occasion. “These are the generations,” in Hebrew, ‘eleh hattoledoth. This is the introductory formula to the genealogies in the book of Genesis, what we used to call, back in the King James days, the “begats,” and usually skipped over. In fact, these lists give structure to the historical narrative, sometimes functioning as a “fast forward.” But they serve as a reminder to the fundamental way in which God’s history moves on: through family and children, and the next generation. The noun is from the verbal root, “to bear a child,” and it is probably the closest concept in biblical vocabulary to a sense of “history.” And so God’s people move forward, from generation to generation, cf. Ps. 79:13, “from generation to generation (ldor wdor), we will recount your praise.”
There are days when the future of the church seems quite insecure, at least from our human perspective. The generational change from a “churched” to a dominantly “unchurched” cultural bias is well known and documented. We can continue to argue about specific statistics, discuss the significance of the fact that the USA is still very religious, debate the distinctions between religion and spirituality and between the church as organization and organism, and defend or denounce the importance of worship forms as a connection to the church catholic, both in space and in time. But certainly the world, the context and the culture in which we are the body of Christ is not the same as that of my “grandfather’s church” – or even my father’s church, or even the church of my youth.
And then there is our distinctive LCMS internal foment: searching, staggering, and sloganeering between false alternatives, instead of keeping our balance in a proper tension between our “grandfather’s church” and our “grandchildren’s church.” Of course we all want our grandfather’s church to be our grandchildren’s church, I think. It may look a bit different, as did our church from our grandfather’s. But we want our children to carry on, and the numbers say we are not doing all that well.
So we have those who would save the church by all but abandoning its historic Lutheran, evangelical, and properly catholic identity. They may stray into Evangelicalism, on the one hand, or into Romanizing tendencies, on the other. Neither of these was my grandfather’s church. This is the problem of changing too much, as though it’s only our grandchildren’s church, without a strong sense of connection to the past, whether a good sense of history or an understanding of the church catholic.
And we have those who would save the church by repristinating a day-gone-by, as though if only we could recapture whatever we were or were destined to be in the days of Luther, Walther, or a generation ago, then we will preserve “Confessional Lutheranism.” This is the problem of changing too little, or simply holding on to what is often a romantic view of the past, as though it’s only our grandfather’s church.
HOW this is both continuous with the past and adopted and, yes, adapted to the next generation is the question that continues to vex and sometimes choke our dear synod. Lutheran theology has a rich history of maintaining its identity as it addresses changes in the incarnational inculturation that moves the church along through both space and time. To stay the same is to change in our relationship to the world and culture around us, because that world in which we give witness to the kingdom of God is changing. To be sure, the basics of sin and grace, of Word and Sacrament, are constant in every generation, which is why the Word of God must never change, et manet in aeternum.
But we have adapted to an American context, and we are even fairly theologically competent now in English. We have experimented with some varieties in worship sounds and styles while struggling to maintain a catholic understanding of worship as that which belongs to the whole church, not to any and every local congregation or culture group. We have experimented with new models of seminary education. We celebrate, honor, and engage the gifts of all God’s people, men and women, pastors and people. We have welcomed Sanchez and Gonzalez, Vo and Vang, Kim and Wu, Mengsteab and Mapur, Raj and Rethinasamy, Cohen and Khan into this fellowship of Schmidts and Meyers and Schneiders and Schultz’s. It is an exciting time to be about our Lord’s Kingdom, to all nations, and even to our children in another generation. We do well to connect the past to the future, and the future to the past, lest we have a future without a past, or, even worse, a past without a future.