By Joe Isenhower Jr.
Response from participants in the Synod’s Jan. 11-13 Model Theological Conference on Worship has been largely positive, based on comments several of them have shared with Reporter and according to conference planners.
The goal of the conference — co-sponsored by the LCMS Commission on Worship and the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) — was to “build greater understanding of our theology of worship and foster further discussion of worship practices that are consistent with that theology.” The goal is from resolutions of the 2004 and 2007 Synod conventions.
Completely funded with a $200,000 grant from the Thrivent Financial for Lutherans Foundation, the conference drew about 260 participants to sessions at a St. Louis airport hotel and at Concordia Lutheran Church, about a mile from the Synod’s International Center in Kirkwood, Mo.
Among registrants were up to five parish representatives nominated by each district president, chaplains from LCMS colleges and seminaries, executives of Synod boards and commissions, and members of the two sponsoring commissions.
This was the fourth synodwide theological conference and the third model theological conference in the Synod since 2001, when Synod President Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick originally called for such conferences.
Already, conference organizers say they are aware of plans among several districts to hold similar theological conferences on worship.
The model conference’s theme was “Toward a Theology of Worship That Is … .” Six individual presentations on five topics completed the theme.
Basically, the conference agenda included those presentations from theologians and pastors; responses from Synod seminary and university faculty members, musicians, and pastors; table talks and other opportunities for discussion; traditional and contemporary worship services; and opportunity for individual and corporate confession and absolution.
The five covered topics were:
- “… Scriptural and Confessional,” with the opening presentation by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, professor of Exegetical Theology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
- “… Pastoral and Sacramental,” by Rev. Larry Vogel, CTCR associate executive director.
- “… Personal and Contextual,” by Dr. Dien Taylor, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bronx, N.Y.
- “… Missional and Vocational,” by Rev. Mason Beecroft, senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Tulsa, Okla., and Rev. Jeffrey Cloeter, pastor of Reliant Church, an urban ministry in St. Louis.
- “… Practical and Theological,” by Dr. Charles Arand, professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Responders included Dr. Steve Arnold, professor emeritus of education and chaplain at Concordia University, St. Paul, Minn.; Dr. Paul Grime, dean of the chapel and associate professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne; Dr. Arthur A. Just Jr., professor of Exegetical Theology, director of Deaconess Studies, and co-director of The Good Shepherd Institute at the Fort Wayne seminary; and Dr. James Waddell, graduate instructor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.
As the conference drew to a close, CTCR Executive Director Dr. Joel Lehenbauer told the assembly that he had already heard words of appreciation “from many of you, especially for the theological presentations, the quality of worship, and opportunities for discussion and fellowship.”
Lehenbauer said he had also heard “a few words of constructive criticism” that practical questions about diversity of worship had not been adequately addressed.
“This conference was intentionally put together as a theological conference,” he continued, “meant to build greater understanding about our theology of worship. It is our hope and intention that as we move toward consensus on the theology of worship, we also will work toward consensus on issues related to diversity of practice.”
Lehenbauer and Rev. David Johnson, executive director of the Commission on Worship, said that all six major theological presentations will be made available as podcasts on the Web sites of the two Synod commissions.
Johnson said that an online evaluation where about half of those attending had registered their impressions in the week following the conference indicated a “satisfaction rate” of between 70 and 90 percent for each of the major presentations.
“Largely, the response to this conference has been enormously favorable,” Johnson told Reporter.
He added that its design “was to steep us into theological thought and discourse, moderating our differences, seeking reconciliation and concord.”
He also said that “more practical issues” regarding music, preaching, and presiding at worship will be considered during the worship commission’s Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music in 2011.
Ted Kober, president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation and moderator for this model conference, said that “overall, I believe that [it] met the objectives described in the  convention resolution. Those involved in planning did not expect that the conference would solve all the issues that affect our disagreements on worship. On the other hand, [they] did hope that the conference would provide an opportunity to begin such a process and help people learn how to discuss important issues that affect our walk together in Synod. I believe that this purpose was achieved, and I pray that people will continue the work that began in these short three days.”
Kober also observed that conference participants engaged in “Christ-like dialogue.” He said that “many shared with me that they appreciated that the conference tone was established when we as a group established ground rules reminding us of what Scripture teaches [and that] we also discussed how to separate ‘theological issues’ from ‘relationship issues.’ “
“One of the main objectives of the resolution that called for this conference was achieved because people learned how to discuss difficult issues in a God-honoring way,” Kober said.
Two first-time attendees at a Synod model theological conference also offered their thoughts regarding this conference — Rev. James Travis, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church, Sioux City, Iowa, and Charles Craig, a lay deacon from Lincoln, Ala., who is a member of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Ala.
In addition to planning his congregation’s worship services, Travis has helped teach local Lay Leadership Institute classes in the history of music in the Lutheran church. After studying organ at Concordia University, Ann Arbor, he went to the St. Louis seminary, where he served as organist for chapel services.
Travis said the conference “did well at engaging us in conversation” that he said proved “helpful in that it did not begin with practice, but with theology — the reason we do worship.” And he said its “best aspects” were the question-and-answer sessions and worship — especially “seeing good contemporary and traditional Lutheran worship.”
Travis also said that the conference had helped him realize that concerning traditional and contemporary worship practices, “it is not about preference, but about Jesus and keeping Him at the center.”
Craig said that he found conference presenters “were very prepared” in presenting “unique” topics with “information that I think we could all take back [and use in] our congregations.”
Craig said he feels that “bringing together [leaders] of the Synod, seminaries, and universities” with laity “to refocus our attention on the true worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ [was] a step in the right direction. … It gave each of us a chance to dialogue, learn, hear, and focus on the thoughts of others … on an equal basis.”
Rev. Terry Forke, president of the LCMS Montana District, agreed that the conference was “a valuable first step,” especially “by inviting various perspectives and tilting each presentation ‘Toward a Theology of Worship.’ “
When it comes to worship, “emotions run deep,” Forke wrote to Reporter, “so I would not expect to see substantial changes in practice immediately. However, the Word of God is powerful. By bringing leaders together to discuss what the Word of God has to say about worship, we have done the best that can be done to effect corrections where they are needed, understanding where it is needed, and forgiveness where it is needed.
“I hope that the conversations that were begun … will continue in the districts, congregations, and homes of the participants,” Forke stated. “We dare not think that we can settle this matter with one conference.”
Rev. Joel A. Hoelter, president of the LCMS North Wisconsin District, addressed the conference in his column for the March issue of the district’s “Messenger” insert to The Lutheran Witness, as follows:
“Discussions about worship tend to revolve around the labels ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary.’ Often they express preference and nothing else. The conference offered an additional description — ‘sacramental’ and ‘non-sacramental’ — to remind us that worship is something that includes both Word and Sacrament. This is more in keeping with our Lutheran confession of the Christian faith.
“Another positive and helpful reminder received was not to let preconceptions shape our attitude toward others. We will work intentionally so the conference our district conducts is one at which each person can speak freely and openly without being labeled or judged.
“We are brothers and sisters in the faith and we are to build one another up in Christ,” Hoelter wrote.
Synod President Kieschnick shared in an e-mail to Reporter that his “overall impression” of the conference “is very positive, as has been the case with all previous model theological conferences.
“While no conference is perfect and every conference is limited by time and cost constraints,” Kieschnick observed, “our beloved Synod is blessed when brothers and sisters in Christ gather to worship, work, dialogue, and pray together. Relationships are formed and strengthened, stereotypes are dismantled, and sensitivities to perceived or real positions of others regarding doctrine and practice are heightened.”
He stated that his impressions of the conference were in line with a statement the LCMS Council of Presidents adopted in 2002 and amended two years later, in which the council committed itself to “leading the Synod in seeking peace and harmony in the Synod.”
Kieschnick indicated that his “main objective” in calling for model theological conferences “has been to encourage thoughtful study of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, in the context of serious dialogue, by pastors and lay leaders across the Synod.
“These conferences provide a safe place for such study and discussion in an effort to work toward agreement in doctrine and practice regarding matters on which our Synod is not in complete agreement,” he wrote. “Only through such serious study and reflection on controverted matters will we be able to achieve the harmony and unity we all desire.”
“I’m not aware of anyone who came away from this experience convinced that all disagreements in our Synod regarding worship were resolved by this conference,” Kieschnick sated. “But I believe it was a significant step in the right direction and further pray for the Lord’s blessings on subsequent conferences that will be held in districts throughout the Synod.”
Posted Jan. 27, 2010