03 October 2007

Todd Wilken Banquet Address - SID Pastoral Conference

Your Grandfather, the LC-MS and a Teenaged Girl
by Todd Wilken

We Lutherans have believed what Garrison Keillor has been saying about us.

Garrison Keillor is the creator and host of the long-running radio program A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor, a one-time Lutheran himself, writes:

“We make fun of Lutherans for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese…. Lutherans believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud. Lutherans like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas. Lutherans usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their way of suffering for their sins. Lutherans feel that applauding for their children's choirs would make the kids too proud and conceited. Lutherans think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace. And finally, you know when you're a Lutheran when: You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can!”
(Garrison Keillor, “Singing with Lutherans.”)

Does it surprise you that Ben Witherington recently posted the very same piece on his blog, attributed to Keillor, but with the word “Methodist” substituted for “Lutheran”? You can also find versions of it on the Internet with the word “Episcopalian” substituted for “Lutheran.” It seems that self-effacing Lutheran humor works equally well regardless of your denomination.

Keillor even wrote and performed a song called “I’m a Lutheran”:
We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They're not invited back again.

If you come to church, don't expect to be hugged,
Don't expect your hand to be shook.
If we need to know who you are,
We can look in the visitors book.
I was raised to keep a lid on it,
Guard what you say or do.
A Mighty Fortress is our God
So he must be Lutheran too.
(Garrison Keillor, “I’m a Lutheran,” A Prairie Home Companion, Saturday, October 2, 1999.)

As a Lutheran, I DO believe that God is one too. I wouldn’t be a Lutheran if I weren’t convinced that God is a Lutheran.

Finally, Robert Fulford wrote in Canada’s National Post that for Garrison Keillor, Lutherans “are the people for whom the word ‘repressed’ was invented. Their life goals are modest. A sign outside a Lutheran church announces the topic of that week's sermon: ‘It could be worse.’" (Robert Fulford, “Can Garrison Keillor Make Lutherans Funny?” The National Post, February 5, 2002.)

The problem isn’t that Keillor has been saying these things about us. I happen to think that Keillor is a hoot. The problem isn’t that Keillor has been saying these things about us; the problem is that we have believed them.
We have accepted this humorous caricature as the truth about ourselves. Some of us have even taken the caricature of Lutherans as boring and repressed to be the essence of Lutheranism. These people have spent a lot of time trying to convince the rest of the world that we Lutherans aren’t what the jokes say we are. “We’re not boring and repressed! We’re fun! We’re hip!”

To convince others that they aren’t what the jokes say, some Lutherans have decided to act like Evangelicals. Not the high-minded serious evangelicals like Mark Noll or Os Guinness, but evangelicals of the most base sort. I call them pop-American evangelicals.

In some cases the Lutheran impulse to imitate evangelicals is well intended. After all, can’t we learn something from the Evangelicals about evangelism?

As I said, this impulse is well intended, but misguided. You see, today, Evangelicals (the real cutting edge kind) just aren’t that interested in evangelism anymore.

Now, they have been growing a lot of big churches, but growing a big church isn’t the same thing as doing evangelism, is it? If we define “doing evangelism” as preaching the Gospel, the latest trends in evangelical outreach call for doing as little evangelism as possible.

Listen to Brian McLaren of the Emergent (or Emerging) Church movement (I can never tell those two apart). McLaren is author of several books, including A Generous Orthodoxy, and is currently touring the country doing seminars (endorsed by Bill Hybels) under the theme “Everything Must Change.” McLaren has said:
“I’m raising the question of whether the salvation of individual souls to go to heaven after they die is the point of the Gospel… I don’t think the Bible thinks that way.”
“I actually have become convinced that the primary purpose of Jesus coming was not primarily about getting people into heaven versus hell. I think He was actually coming to proclaim the kingdom of God, which is God’s will being done on earth.”
(Brian McLaren, from a radio interview with Shane Rosenthal for The White Horse Inn and from The Associated Press Radio)

According to McLaren, everything must change, including the Gospel itself. You see, cutting edge evangelicals just aren’t that interested in evangelism anymore. Evangelism might have been the order of the day during Billy Graham era evangelicalism, but Billy’s out; Brian McLaren is in.

So the LC-MS’s desire to ape Evangelicalism’s enthusiasm for evangelism is really out of date and anachronistic.

In 1988 Oldsmobile introduced a new advertising campaign with the tag line, “This is not your father's Oldsmobile.” Oldsmobile’s goal was to appeal to a new generation by distancing itself from everything the company had stood for before. Rob Walker of Slate magazine observes:
“The problems with this, of course, were: a) It said what Olds wasn't, but not what it was, and b) it more or less informed a generation of Olds loyalists that their choice was now considered an embarrassment.”
(Rob Walker, “Oldsmobile: Victim of Its Own Brand” Slate Magazine, December 13 2000.)

The ad campaign didn’t only fail; it backfired. Walker writes: “This had the net effect not of reinventing the Olds brand identity but of carving it in stone.”

Nevertheless, the LC-MS couldn’t resist. Never ones to shy away from a failed idea, they borrowed the phrase and added a generation. I think it was a Great Commission Convocation in the early 90s that carried the theme, “This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Church.”

“This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Church.” Like Oldsmobile, this is an obvious attempt to distance the Church of today from the Church of the past. I think it’s just funny. Funnier still is the fact that many of those saying, “This isn’t your grandfather’s church” were (and are) grandparents.

Do we really want to tell a generation of Christians that they and their Church are an embarrassment to us today?
“This isn’t your grandfather’s church.” Does the LC-MS really want to send this message in an age of the perpetual adolescent? Diana West has just written a book, “The Death of the Grown-Up.” In it she shows how our society’s obsession with youth and hip-ness, has resulted in our arrested development. Just watch any sit-com. I know that the writers are full-grown adults. But the scripts could just as well have been written by a group of 14 –year old boys. West also shows how our society’s obsession with youth and hip-ness has rendered us unable to grapple with adult problems and challenges. Does the LC-MS want to follow society in that direction?

Several years ago, I had a shocking realization about the LC-MS. I realized that there were no grown-ups in charge.
Do you remember when you were a kid? When the kids were left on their own and things started getting out of hand, it was always comforting to know that sooner or later, an adult —a grown-up— would walk in, notice what was going on, put their foot down and straighten everything out. Several years ago I realized that in the LC-MS, there were no grow-ups in the next room, no adults to put their foot down. We are it, unless some of us grow up.
I look at my Dad. He’s 72. He’s a Grandfather too. But when he was growing up in the mid-1950s, he was cool. He had the dungarees, the T-shirt, and the hot rod (that’s how he snagged my mother). He was Jack Kerouac, James Dean and Fonzie all rolled into one. Alas! All that is past. For now he is a Grandfather.

I ask, what’s wrong with Grandfather? And what’s wrong with Grandfather’s Church? Nothing.
Granted, Grandfather is old. He has those thick glasses. He wears his pants too high. His dentures are loose and he smells like Old Spice. Yes, Grandfather was full of wisdom that only comes with years, but poor old Grandpa, he just wasn’t hip.

From Grandfathers to teenaged girls…
Is the LC-MS like a teenaged girl who wants so badly to be one of the popular kids? She tries so hard to be what they tell her she should be, that she forgets who she is.

I marvel at C.F.W. Walther’s ability, in his time, to anticipate the troubles of our time. In 1879, at the first meeting of the Iowa District, Walther spoke out against his own synod. He said,

“This is something the Missouri Synod needs to remember! It should prefer to go out of business rather than to let the Church suffer harm by its continued existence. Those who want to see the synod continue under all circumstances, regardless of whether that would harm the kingdom of Christ, are not to being led by the Spirit of Christ, but by the spirit of selfishness.”
(C.F.W. Walther, “The Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” The First Meeting of the Iowa District, August 20, 1879, in Essays for the Church, vol. 2, p. 62.)

The word that Walther used for “go out of business” is untergehen. It means to go down, sink, perish, founder or be destroyed. Dr. Noland told me that this word was commonly used to describe the burial of a dead body. Walther anticipates a circumstance when a denomination —his denomination— might need to go out of business. If our beloved synod’s continued existence undermines the Gospel, if push comes to shove between the LC-MS and the Gospel, then the Gospel must win and the LC-MS must go out of business. Do you think that this idea would win any support with the synodocrats of our denomination? Could a man with these kinds of ideas (not to mention his wild hair and toothless grin) be elected synodical president today? Not a chance.

The open secret is that the LC-MS is going out of business, but for the wrong reason. Synod Incorporated is in financial crisis —serious financial crisis. If the LC-MS goes out of business because we run out of money, that will be a tragedy. However, if the LC-MS goes out of business because we are hindering the Gospel, I will stand and cheer. And I think I will have Walther joining me.

We pray that we will never have to choose between the LC-MS and Gospel. May God forbid it! But as Walther said, if we do have to choose, we must choose the Gospel.

Think again about that teenaged girl staring longingly at the kids sitting at the popular kids table. She sees them. They’re hip, they’re attractive, and everyone wants into their circle. Our teenaged girl is trying so hard to be what they tell her she should be, that she has forgotten who she is.

Such girls seldom end well. They often end up desperate, sad, even promiscuous —with no idea of who they are or who they are supposed to be.

She needs to spend more time with her parents, don’t you think? That way she can learn who she is and where she comes from.

If the LC-MS is that teenaged girl, staring longingly at the evangelicals, then what? We see them. They’re hip, they’re attractive, and everyone wants into their circle. Are we going to let them tell us who we are supposed to be and forget who we are?

Such churches seldom end well. They end up desperate, sad, even promiscuous —with no idea of who they are or who they are supposed to be.

If the LC-MS is that teenaged girl, she needs to spend more time with her parents —maybe even with her Grandfather— don’t you think? That way she will learn again who she is and where she comes from.


Christopher Palo said...

God is a Lutheran according to Pr. Wilken? I thought that the faith was given to man because man needed it. Wow, if God can be summed up totally in the Lutheran Confessions and such then God is not the transcendent and ineffable entity that I have been praying to all my life.

Perhaps Pr. Wilken can clarify if God is an LCMS Lutheran?

William Weedon said...


I think you know what he meant, don't you? He just meant that the Lutheran Confession of the faith was true to God's revealed Word. Part of that confession is that God is beyond all our categories. As that wonderful passage in Deuteronomy puts it: "The hidden things belong to God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever."

Lutheran Lucciola said...

Hey, you saved all this up for days, did ya? ;-)
Well, I do hope that the Lutherans aren't mimicking Garrison. Because that would be silly.

And trying to be a fake, high energy, non-denominational "let's all feel good" type is not good. But maybe let the hair loose, and hit an Italian festival this weekend? It is ok to shake someones hand, have a smile, and laugh out loud. Or if you are pissed, get angry out loud. Do SOMETHING out loud!! ;-)

Alright, maybe it's not going to happen. I guess it's cultural. But you guys do get that way when your drunk on beer, now. I have SEEN it! Maybe just drink more? I don't know. I'll keep trying.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. It impresses on me even more how blessed we are in St. Paul's Chapel in Iowa City - we are the campus ministry at the Unniversity of Iowa. Despite being largely congregated by teenage girls (and guys) we have liturgy and Eucharist every Sunday. We may be grandfather's church, but we are thriving with the teenagers. Just goes to show that different isn't always more attractive!

PS - I didn't get a chance to reply on your "Where are you from?" post. We are from the Iowa City area and were blessed to share Christmas Eve services with your congregation last Christmas. My husband's family is from Edwardsville, so we will likely be back again. Thanks for both your blog and your church's website - they were fantastic help in finding a traditionally practicing Lutheran Church we could attend while away from home.

Randy Asburry said...

Good stuff from Pr. Wilken. I just wish he would have gone into more detail (Maybe time wouldn't permit, and I understand that too). He seemed to paint a fascinating and insightful...and quite accurate...look at the LCMS, but the brush strokes are pretty broad yet.

Jim Huffman said...

When I read this, I honestly thought of the hymn line "I'm but a stranger here."

Does anyone else feel out of place in Lutheranism? Nothing of the Garrison Keillor schtick rings true.

Likewise, the current pining for things evangelical. I grew up with that, and while there are some wonderful people in those circles, I can't fathom why people in the LCMS would want to be there. But they do.

And the reality is that the ones they are imitating are the most banal, shallow people imaginable. I especially appreciated Wilkens' quotes from Brian McLaren. Every Lutheran who has a hankering to be like these folks should go to an emerging church meeting, in order to see pure, unalloyed self-absorption at its best.

Christine said...

Well, I'm not a terribly ardent fan of Keillor. Since his jump from the Plymouth Brethren to Lutheran to the Episcopal church I keep a perpetually raised eyebrow. Some of his recent "humor" in regards to various religious bodies has been less than amusing in my eyes.

This post raises some very poignant issues. Makes me think back to the days of Dr. Alvin Barry and how faithfully he held up the evangelical catholic values of the LCMS.

The influence of the American evangelicalism is strong at a time in U.S. history when historical ignorance is unfortunately running high.

It's a tough battle in this culture.

The Unknown Lutheran said...

A couple of comments:

I have been thinking about it for a month or so and Wilken brings him up-Garrison Kiellor. I am seriously thinking of becoming the anti-Kiellor. I hate what he has to say about Lutherans. It's garbage. "Hey, he's talking about us!" Someone needs to take of the job of ridiculing him until our people see that we aren't something peculiar to midwestern culture or something Luther invented in the 1500's.

Secondly - I don't want my grandfather's church. Bad sermons (have you listened to any of the Lutheran Hour stuff from the 50's? Bishop Fulton Sheen does a better job at getting to the cross.) Infrequent communion. If you want private confession go across the street to the papists.

I know this isn't the church Wilken is talking about - but we need to be careful with the term.

Christine said...

Per unknown lutheran's comments, I don't know about Lutheran Hour sermons in the 50's (I will still pretty young then) but the ones I remember from the great Dr. Oswald Hoffmann and Pastor Wallace Schulz in the 60's and 70's were pretty solidly Lutheran and cross-centered.

And, ironically, although I consider myself a pretty conservative Catholic liturgically speaking, I'm not a big fan of Fulton Sheen.

Pastor Walter Wangerin back in the early days was also a wonderful Lutheran preacher, even though he was officially ELCA.

The infrequent Communion of days past was brought over to the U.S. by some Lutherans who experienced it in Europe. My mom certainly did. Her Lutheran congregation never celebrated Holy Communion every Sunday (a result of the lingering influence of the Prussian Union and fear of being too "Catholic" (as in Roman). And private confession? Never happened in her lifetime.

William Weedon said...


Amen about "grandfather's church" in that sense. But I don't think Todd was speaking about a golden age for the LCMS in the 50's or any such. Just the danger of cutting ourselves off from the insights and wisdoms of previous generations and acting like "we've got it all figured out now and don't need your help, thank you very much." The grandfathers would include great and great great and great, great, great etc.


I also have to confess to never having found Keilor funny. I have friends who think he's a hoot, but by and large, I yawn. He certainly doesn't describe the Lutherans I know.


I'm not even that big a fan of LH preaching under Ozzy - in those days there seemed to be a drive to soft-pedal things like baptismal regeneration so as not to offend the sensitivies of Baptist listeners. But I think Ozzy was my all time favorite speaker they've ever had.

Christine said...

But I think Ozzy was my all time favorite speaker they've ever had.

Ah Pastor, perhaps that's what I was remembering, his skills as a speaker. I recall meeting him once at a local presentation.

CaptainCatechism said...

Pr. Wilken gave a similar session at Concordia's Theological Symposium last month. I think it's important to know that he is the first to admit he makes a broad stroke in his generalizations, but that doesn't keep them from being true.
As for Keilor, I have never heard him, yet when I hear people laughing about his STUPID jokes, it makes me cringe. I liken it to the current media trend of painting men as idiots and bafoons. Men may laugh at it, but the shocking reality is it paints an image of them that goes much deeper and causes a lot of harm in the end.
Perhaps it's time to remind Keilor of the 8th Commandment. I think he has been breaking it long enough.


Anonymous said...

Keillor a one-time Lutheran? I knew he grew up Plymouth Brethren. Perhaps Pr. Wilken means that he attended a Lutheran church in New York City one time? {:-)


Good stuff. Thanks.

Don Kirchner