My grandfather has congestive heart failure. I hate to say it, but I probably won’t see him this time next year. “Gramp,” as I’ve called him since I can remember, taught me how to shoot and hunt, taught me how to change the oil, taught me how to drive a truck, taught me how to run a trot line and how to shake a catalpa tree for worms. He helped me buy a hotrod and a Fender strat. His daddy’s gun sits by my bed, and I have paper money from Okinawa that he brought back from the War. For half of my life, we lived in the same house. I named a son (Carl) after him.
I sometimes wish he would have joined me in going over to the Lutheran church, but Gramp is a hardcore Baptist and just never was interested in learning why we do all of that standing up and sitting down, why we say some of the same words every week. (“The Lord be with you. / And with thy spirit.”) On the other hand, had he joined me in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I wonder what he would have made of LCMS President Gerald B. Kieschnick’s signature slogan: “This is not your grandfather’s church.”
It was on the basis of that breathtaking statement that President Kieschnick launched Ablaze!™ in 2004—a “missions movement” designed to “share the Good News of Jesus with 100 million unreached or uncommitted people by . . . 2017.” From the get-go this business of counting “critical events,” as Kieschnick puts it, seemed very un-Lutheran. Tallying up decisions for Christ makes sense after a Billy Graham Crusade, but it does not square with the Augsburg Confession—a document once known in a Church that respected Her grandfathers.
“When one person gives a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to another person,” says the Ablaze!™ website, “so that there is an opportunity for that person to respond, this activity ‘counts’ toward the 100 million goal.” But how is one to know whether he has participated in an activity that fits the bill? Here is some helpful guidance:
A congregation puts 1,500 flyers in the local paper. The 1,500 flyers do not count. But, any inquiries that came as a result of the flyers and opened the door for the congregation to share the Good News with an unreached or uncommitted person will count toward the 100 million goal.
Another thing that did not count was a long-running and surprisingly popular radio program called Issues, Etc.—“Talk radio for the thinking Christian.” Every weekday from three to six in the afternoon, and for two hours during a nationally syndicated broadcast on Sunday evenings, the Rev. Todd Wilken talked about current events, politics (Srdja Trifkovic was often interviewed on foreign affairs), popular culture, and—above all else—Lutheran theology. As Lutheran theology has something to do with “the Good News”—Lutheran churches were first called “evangelische”—it should come as no surprise that, quite often during Issues, Etc., the Gospel was “shared.” And while it is really impossible to “count” the work of the Holy Spirit, it is safe to say that the program produced results. An ever-growing audience testified to this. Countless lifelong Lutherans discovered their own Church’s doctrine and learned why we say those same words every week. Unbelievers called in with questions, and many became catechumens in Lutheran congregations. Issues, Etc. live broadcasts from parish halls across the heartland reflected the excitement of the faithful who had a renewed sense of their own identity.
When David Strand, a layman and the chairman of the LCMS Board of Communication Services, fired the Rev. Wilken and his veteran producer, Jeff Schwarz, on March 18 (Holy Tuesday), there was an immediate backlash. Over 7,500 signed a petition, and several districts (dioceses) issued formal complaints. President Clinton . . . er, Kieschnick was quick to declare that the decision “transpired with my awareness but neither by my order nor at my direction.” Soon thereafter, fellow LCMSer Mollie Hemingway wrote critically of the “Holy Tuesday Treachery” in the Wall Street Journal, tying this “critical event” to the theological aberrations of Ablaze!™. (As a regular guest on Issues, Etc., I was always cautioned never to speak ill of Ablaze!™ on the air.) President Kieschnick fired back a letter to the WSJ editor, explaining in carefully selected detail that this decision was all about money and denouncing Hemingway for suggesting that our synod is “deeply divided.” (How ridiculous!)
Speaking of money, even as the plan to ax Issues, Etc. was entering President Kieschnick’s “awareness,” one new LCMS congregation was using $25,000 in Ablaze!™ dollars to pay for billboards around suburban St. Louis that read, for example, “JeffersonHills Church sucks.” As KSDK NewsChannel 5 in St. Louis reported, “Beneath those messages is a hyphen, followed by ‘Satan,’ as if it’s a note from the biblical Prince of Darkness.”
“I seen that thing and I about fell over,” one passerby told KSDK. “I just thought maybe some atheist group might have put it up, or something,” said another. “We’re getting a lot of responses,” said “Lead Pastor Steve Benke.”
Actually, I think President Kieschnick is right. This is not my grandfather’s church.
[Update: Issues, Etc. is back on the air as an independent program, 3-5 P.M. Central, thanks in part to the efforts of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. Check out the program’s website, or subscribe via iTunes.]
Aaron D. Wolf is Chronicles‘ associate editor.
This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.