The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has 2.4 million members, a vigorous Christ-centered theology, and the largest Protestant network of Christian schools. And yet much of Christendom and the secular culture hardly knows it exists. So a hallmark of synodical president Gerald Kieschnick's administration has been the "Ablaze" program, focusing on personal witnessing, church planting, and evangelism.
So why did that administration suddenly eliminate what may be its best known, most respected, and most effective vehicle for evangelizing the lost, interacting with other Christians, and bringing Lutheranism into the public square?
Issues, Etc. was a radio talk show hosted by Todd Wilken, a pastor who combined wit, charm, and theological substance. The show's producer, Jeff Schwarz, arranged conversations with theological heavyweights (Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright) and lightweights (Bishop Spong, Jesus Seminar members). He also put together discussions of movies, politics, and contemporary cultural issues. (Disclosure: I belong to the LCMS and was a guest on the show.)
Much of the show's content appealed to Christians of all stripes, but it was also distinctly Lutheran. Many people reported becoming converted to Christianity through Issues, Etc. Many listeners became Lutherans.
Then on March 18, Wilken and Schwarz were called to LCMS headquarters in St. Louis. David Strand, executive director of the Board for Communication Services, told them they were fired. According to an official statement from the LCMS, the show was canceled because it was too expensive to operate and did not reach a big enough audience.
Fans of the show suspected another reason: The mode of outreach the current LCMS administration favors comes from the church growth movement, which Issues, Etc. consistently criticized.
Under church growth methodology, traditional worship styles, theological rigor, and denominational distinctives can be "obstacles" to church growth. Being "negative," as in theological polemics of the sort that Issues, Etc. was known for, "turns people off."
Though Issues, Etc. was careful to avoid intra-LCMS controversies, recent programs included hard-hitting critiques of Islam, women's ordination, and superstar preacher Joel Osteen. Such treatments could only be embarrassing for officials wanting to project a kinder, gentler Lutheranism.
But when news of the cancellation came out, the blogosphere erupted. An online petition to bring back the show collected over 7,000 signatures. Congregations and entire denominational districts registered their disapproval.
The last time grassroots Missouri Synod Lutherans got this angry was in the "Battle for the Bible" of the 1970s. Then the issue was whether the LCMS would reject biblical authority to join mainline liberal Protestantism. Now the issue is whether the denomination will reject its theological identity to join generic megachurch Protestantism.
And those are "Issues" not just for Lutherans, but for the Reformed, Baptists, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and every other Christian tradition.
Comments? Email Ed Veith at firstname.lastname@example.org.