Got an unusual press release last week. It began: “On Sunday, December 13, 2009, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in La Mesa, Calif., held a legally called and conducted meeting to take its second and final vote to sever ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).... St. Luke’s is now affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.”
“Emphatically, it’s not the gay issue,” said church council president Richard Floegel when I referred to the ELCA’s recent decision to allow openly homosexual pastors. “The belief of this congregation is that the ELCA has been moving away from the core tenets of being Lutheran” and undergoing “a fundamental shift toward following social programs as opposed to ministries and Biblical spirituality.... It’s a general loss of focus on what a church is supposed to be. A church is there to prepare people to meet Christ at the time of their death, to live a spiritual life, and to serve the community — in that order.”
Pastor Menacher agreed that the break was not about sexuality. “Members of the congregation who were concerned about the sex issue all left some time ago.” (Menacher arrived after the exodus). “The folks here...knew that things were not right. I was able to provide them with information about what exactly is going wrong. They could read my research for themselves, and it confirmed their suspicions.” Menacher argued that the ELCA was willing to “deliberately twist the Lutheran statements of faith to make an ecumenical agreement come through.” He cited as examples an attempt to adopt Episcopalian structures of Episcopal succession and a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that “by and large has Lutherans signing up for a Roman Catholic understanding of justification.”
Menacher, who holds a doctorate in historical and systematic theology, hopes to replace this ecumenical overreaching with “a positive understanding of Luther’s desire to share the Gospel” as he understood it. “Part of their calling me to be pastor was a desire to redevelop what we’re calling ‘genuine Lutheranism.’”
But all this is theology. Though it might drive a church to sever a connection for the sake of cleaving to the truth, none of it means that Menacher and his flock have no truck with their fellow travelers. Sunday’s “Song of the Ages” liturgy featured the combined talents of St. Luke’s and Pacific Beach Presbyterian (plus a small orchestra of unknown affiliation), singing carols from the days when the Roman Catholic Church was the only game in town. “Twice a year,” explained Menacher at the outset, “we combine our choirs to provide a sound of praise and worship that we cannot make on our own.”
The music covered a huge swath of territory, from a modern arrangement of the first-century ode “A Great Day Has Shined Upon Us” to Gregorian Chant to Bach to Saint-Saëns to the highly contemporary “Heart of Worship.” Plus traditional carols — “Joy to the World,” etc.
“Our hope is the same, regardless of time and circumstances,” declared the reader. “The message of Christ bringing salvation is the same.” To manifest the point, the songs were intercut with both Scripture’s amazing claims — “And the Word was made flesh” — and a sermon from the fourth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo. “For him, Christmas was the central mystery of the faith,” she explained. “The glorious paradox of the Incarnation.”
And Augustine hammered that paradox home: “You would have suffered eternal death had he not been born in time,” cried a second lector. “Filling the universe, He lies in a manger. Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom. He is both great in the nature of God and small in the form of a servant, but His greatness is not diminished by His smallness, nor His smallness overwhelmed by His greatness.... Man’s maker was made man, that the truth might be accused by false witnesses...justice be sentenced by the unjust, the strength be made weak, the healer be wounded, and that life might die. Wake up, o human being! For it was for you that God was made man! Rise up and realize, it was all for you!”
What happens when we die?
“A life as we know it comes to an end,” said Menacher. “What happens beyond that is where our faith comes into play. Scripture gives us a promise, particularly in Romans 8, that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ Jesus, including death itself.”
5150 Wilson Street, La Mesa
Denomination: Fellowship of Evangelical Lutheran Churches
Founded locally: 1950
Senior pastor: Mark Menacher
Congregation size: 150
Staff size: 4
Sunday school enrollment: 16–20
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: around $500,000
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: almost entirely Caucasian
Sunday worship: 9 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes