One of the benefits of my sabbatical was attending a great variety of churches:

  • National Community Church—Kingstowne Theater location (Alexandria, VA)
  • Redeemer Lutheran (Fort Wayne, IN)
  • Holy Cross Lutheran (Kansas City, MO)
  • International House of Prayer (Kansas City, MO)
  • Ebenezer Lutheran (Greensboro, NC)
  • Glory of Christ Lutheran (Plymouth, MN)
  • Lutheran Church of Christ the King (Duluth, MN)
  • University Lutheran Chapel (in exile, St. Paul, MN)
  • McLean Bible Church (Tyson’s Corner, VA)
  • St Nicholas (Orthodox) Cathedral (Washington, DC)
  • Larry Rast Traveling Bus Ministry (somewhere in Germany)

The most interesting juxtaposition and strange convergence came on the two consecutive Sundays I attended McLean Bible Church (Tyson’s Corner) and St Nicholas Cathedral (Orthodox Church in America) in Washington, D.C. McLean Bible Church (hereafter MBC) is an impressive operation. It reminds me of visiting DisneyWorld or the Anheuser Busch Brewery in St. Louis – clean, organized, methodical: a place for everything, and everything in its place. An army of volunteers guides you from driving into the multilevel parking garage (yes, they have a garage that rivals that of some shopping malls) to your arrival at one of many possible entrances to what seemed like dozens of classes and childcare areas. The auditorium is nicely appointed, with one cross on each side a pleasant surprise. The stage lighting can change the color of the entire auditorium, and the sound was phenomenal. The band was well-rehearsed; I’d be surprised if they’re not professionals. There were no mistakes in the music, nor in the people running sound or the transitions on the large screens visible throughout. The name of JESUS wasn’t uttered at all until 14 minutes into the service. After the singing, Lon Solomon (an institution in the Washington, D.C. area evangelical community) came out for what appeared to be an annual presentation of Bibles to 2nd graders. He made a joke about being able to tell the children’s names by their name tags, which seemed so very sad to me: a pastor should know the names of the children in his church! At such a megachurch, it is impossible for him to know the names of most of the people there.

Throughout the sermon, there was no mention of Jesus, no talk of sin or grace, forgiveness or redemption, death or resurrection. There was very little that could identify the church as Christian.

The sermon was a combination of dispensationalism and a rallying of support for the United Nations-created State of Israel. He taught that God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures are fulfilled in the creation of the modern state of Israel, for which God worked five “miracles,” including the support of Woodrow Wilson. Solomon’s schtick is to bring his message to a head with his “big question: SO WHAT?” And the “so what” of all this is, he said, the “most important thing to believe as a Christian: God is sovereign.” Yes, in essence that is his article by which the church stands or falls: the sovereignty of God. Throughout the sermon, there was no mention of Jesus, no talk of sin or grace, forgiveness or redemption, death or resurrection. There was very little that could identify the church as Christian in the end, save for those two crosses on the sides of the auditorium. Despite “Bible” in the name, the Bible was never opened for readings, although Solomon did reference a few snippets of Bible passages in his message. Ripped from their context, they were displayed on the big screen.

Throughout the singing and sermon, the people were remarkably well-behaved. There was no chatting among the people, no getting up and leaving and then returning, no checking phones. There were infants and older children there, but they did not make a peep except for one baby that briefly whimpered. The people paid rapt attention. I would give a great deal to learn how to get a congregation to pay that much attention to sound preaching and decent hymnody.

Afterward we went to the newcomer’s orientation session, where we saw a video about the many programs at MBC. The very nice man who then gave an oral presentation told us that Baptism was a special thing that we might want to consider—but, he hastened to add, it was in no way necessary. We then stopped by the bookstore where we could have purchased many of Solomon’s sermons on CD (only $5 each!), and books and charts on dispensationalism, with a heavy emphasis on Dallas Theological Seminary. There was a coffee bar and a cafe, where one could purchase beverages and lunch. I was in awe of the scope of the operation and how thoroughly organized it was; at the same time I despaired that there was so little recognizably Christian about the worship or teaching.

How can they be Christians if they do not hear about Jesus, sin, forgiveness?

Kassie and I had a good discussion on the way home about what we saw. At first we summarized, “Well, at least they’re Christian.” But then the thought continued: But if that’s what they hear week in and week out … are they? How can they be Christians if they do not hear about Jesus, sin, forgiveness? And would Christians put up with a pastor who doesn’t preach Jesus to them, much less exalt him as they do? I do not mean to impugn the motives of the people there: they are clearly doing good social ministry, and are very friendly and well-meaning. But the teaching and worship is so utterly devoid of Christian content that it seems fair to question how long, if at all, such people can really be considered Christians. I sincerely hope I am wrong and that the Sunday I attended was a great anomaly.

On the next Sunday I attended St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C. St. Nicholas is part of the Orthodox Church in America. The newly elected Metropolitan Tikhon was presiding, with the service in both Slavonic and English. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom was the liturgy for the day. I arrived about fifteen minutes before the Liturgy, and there was already a kind of Matins taking place (I believe it is called Orthros, but that may be a term only the Greeks use – I get these things confused). Two men were vested and chanting/reading very rapidly. From the place where I stood (everyone stands, except for the elderly, who sit on a few chairs placed on the sides) I could only make out about every third or fourth word, so it wasn’t very edifying. I was fascinated to watch the people make their way around to the various icons, kiss them and do a strange kind of genuflection where their right hand touches the ground, typically at the knuckles. As people came in they purchased candles from a booth in the back, then placed them in stands of sand placed throughout the nave. The people milled about, sometimes greeting each other with kisses. To my Western eyes it seemed disorganized, but I later observed it to be simply an alien church culture.

There was a bulletin, but I had to go find it myself – no one was handing them out. The first one I picked up was in Russian; I went back and found an English one in a different pile. The readings were in there and some of the Propers (probably not the right term) for the day, but no order of service. A few people had prayer books, but mostly the people were observers to to the liturgy carried on by the priests, deacons, and choir, crossing themselves and bowing profoundly at the Glory be to the Father…, of which there were a great many repetitions. The thuribles had bells, and seemed constantly in motion. The clouds of incense were plentiful, and it was an utterly pleasing aroma, always filling me with joy and connecting me to the worship of our Christian and Hebrew fathers.

With only the slightest alterations, the sermon could have been heard in any Baptist or Methodist church.

And then, there was the travesty of the sermon. I was excited to hear Metropolitan Tikhon preach; I don’t know the circumstances surrounding his election, but had heard of the scandal and tumult of the removal of Metropolitan Jonah, of whom I had heard good things from a spiritual perspective, if not organizational. To begin, the manner of delivery was timid, which I hoped would bring with it a message of humility and simplicity in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He preached, very briefly, on the Gospel for the day, Luke 12:16-21, the parable of the rich man who tore down his barns to build bigger barns. The essence of the sermon was on self-improvement by trying harder to make room in one’s heart to be “rich toward God.” He spoke about the need to fight against the passions, which I of course needed to hear. And he invoked Psalm 51 (50 by their numbering), David’s prayer of repentance. But like Lon Solomon at McLean Bible Church, there was nothing about forgiveness, nothing about the atonement, nothing about Jesus’ work or attitude toward me. The word “grace” was used, but only as a kind of power for which I need to make room in my heart, not as an absolving heart of God favorably disposed. With only the slightest alterations, the sermon could have been heard in any Baptist or Methodist church.

I was grateful for the liturgy, because I heard there God’s Word, filled with mercy and grace – but was left by the Metropolitan’s message with the same thought as at McLean Bible Church: there is no Good News for me here.

I was in awe of the organization, money, screens, facilities, and volunteer power at McLean Bible Church. I was filled with joy by the beautiful choir, chants, incense, icons, and sense of culture at St. Nicholas. But in neither place did I hear a single word of Gospel preached.

In neither place did I hear a single word of Gospel preached.

I wouldn’t trade Lutheranism in general or Immanuel in particular—despite all the problems which it would take volumes to list—for the treasures of those places. The Word of God lives at St. Nicholas on account of the liturgy. I trust that the people at MBC are, to some extent, reading the Scriptures. But one of the things this sabbatical reenforced for me is how wonderful it is to be part of the Missouri Synod, where for all her hideous warts and defects the Gospel still is preached.

UPDATE: Please see the response from Lon Solomon, Pastor of MBC, in the comments below.