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Sunday, April 20, 2008 

More Ink On Our “United” Synod

From religion reporter Tim Townsend’s weekly column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writing on the whole Issues, Etc. debacle;

Lutheran radio program’s demise is a symptom of larger ills

When about 75 people gathered outside the international headquarters of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod this week, it was a rare display of public dissension among the members of a relatively quiet Christian denomination.

Catholics, Episcopalians and evangelicals have grabbed the headlines lately. Lutherans, even those of the more conservative Missouri-Synod stripe, have largely dealt with their differences internally. (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a separate Lutheran body, is considered more liberal.)

But that changed last month when church officials silenced one of its own public voices. When the church pulled the plug on its KFUO-AM program, “Issues, Etc.,” and fired its host and producer, the show’s fans turned up the volume.

“Issues, Etc.” aired from 3 to 6 p.m. daily locally and was available by podcast around the world. The show also aired Sunday evenings and was syndicated to 11 markets outside St. Louis. Tina Finch, 44, an audiologist from Ida Grove, Iowa, drove eight hours to be at Monday’s protest. She said 19 members of her family — spread out from Wyoming to South Carolina — had become Lutherans over the last decade primarily because of “Issues, Etc.”

The show had a conservative, traditionalist theological bent that stressed a strict adherence to the Book of Concord, the 16th-century work that defined the central doctrines of Lutheranism. Christians whose spiritual lives are guided strictly by that work are often called confessional Lutherans.

Reaction to the show’s cancellation has escalated in the last four weeks.

Bloggers have been particularly aggressive in pressing church officials to explain the surprise move.

An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal condemned the decision to pull the show and said the church was divided over how to attract new members. The denomination’s president, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, responded with a letter to the editor denying there is division.

But Kieschnick’s words, and a church statement explaining that the decision to cancel the show was largely an economic one, had anything but a calming effect on the unhappy, confused — and by this time angry — “Issues, Etc.” fans.

Earlier this week, 200 supporters from around the country met at a St. Louis church for fellowship, prayer and bratwurst, and the next day many staged the protest at the denomination’s headquarters in Kirkwood. Outside the church’s gleaming glass building, some of the show’s fans wore “I’ve got Issues, Etc. with the LCMS” T-shirts, sported “God made me a Christian. ‘Issues Etc.’ made me a Lutheran” buttons, and carried signs asking, simply, “Why?”

The church stuck to its earlier explanation that the show was canceled for “programmatic and business” reasons. In an interview earlier this week, David Strand, the executive director of the church’s communications board, said the station had lost $3.5 million in the last seven years.

Strand also said the program’s audience was too narrow. —”‘Issues’ was a strong show, but where we stand now in terms of listenership, it seems wise to try some news things to broaden our reach,” he said.

Critics say the church’s audience numbers don’t include the large number of people who listened to the show online via podcasts. Strand said that “Issues, Etc.” was downloaded more than any other KFUO-AM program, but that in order to succeed, the station needs “live listeners” and that “it’s not accurate to say every download translates to a listener.”

The church currently produces seven religious shows, one of which is a replacement for “Issues, Etc.” The new program, called “The Afternoon Show,” is different from “Issues, Etc.,” said Strand, in that “it doesn’t dwell largely on Lutheran apologetics at a sophisticated level. It still takes its Gospel proclamation seriously, but it finds new ways to capture attention.”

Despite Kieschnick’s message to the contrary, there is a disagreement among Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod factions that have differing visions for the church’s future.

“There is, and has been for some time, notable division in Synod on a number of issues,” said Korey Maas, a theology professor at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., which is affiliated with the church. “Though I don’t know if anyone can say definitively if these differences were the cause of the termination of ‘Issues, Etc.’”

Many of the protesters said the current administration is too focused on recent evangelical megachurch growth models instead of on traditional Lutheran doctrine. That, they say, is watering down 500 years of Lutheran history.

“This is a symptom of a much larger problem,” said the Rev. Charles Henrickson, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Mo. “This is about whether we retain our Lutheran identity or just blend in with American evangelicalism.”

Strand said politics had nothing to do with the decision to pull “Issues, Etc.” “This was a financial decision. All 2.5 million of our members would call themselves confessional Lutherans, so I’m not sure where this idea of division comes from,” he said. “Like most denominations, we have differences of opinion on things … but Dr. Kieschnick wants a deeper sense of peace throughout the church.”

That sense of peace would be much easier to attain, some say, if the denomination were on stronger financial footing.

“It’s no secret synod is not in great financial health,” said Maas.

Strand would not say whether the church is considering a sale of its stations (it also owns classical station KFUO-FM), but he did say they were in financial trouble and that —”‘Issues’ was the largest and most obvious cut at our disposal.”

That explanation is unlikely to satisfy the most vocal “Issues, Etc.” supporters who see something more than money in the reasons for its cancellation.

“The Missouri Synod is a highly volatile church body right now,” said the Rev. Frederic W. Baue, pastor of Bethany Evangelical Church in Fairview Heights.

“There is a definite split between those who favor the megachurch marketing approach to outreach ministry,” said Baue, “and those who trust the word of God and the sacraments to do the job of bringing people to the faith.”

So, David Strand thinks that to be an effective outreach ministry it’s a good thing that the Afternoon Show is different from Issues, Etc. in that “it doesn’t dwell largely on Lutheran apologetics at a sophisticated level”?

How is this an effective outreach to reach those who need to hear the Gospel of Jesus? Why are we trying to copy so many radio and television programs trying to reach the masses with fluffy material that more closely resembles the Dr. Phil show or the local glee club?

I’ve had the chance to listen to The Afternoon Show. It took the hosts almost twenty minutes to even mention Jesus! This is the way we are trying to reach people? This is what passes for outreach from a church? Apparently so.

As a side note, I certainly don't blame the hosts of The Afternoon Show for their program. They are in the impossible position of putting on a show that by design (decree) isn't meant to feed anyone but rather appeals to the masses of Scripturally starved Americanized Christianity. It's just a shame that at a time when we should be feeding those who would listen real meat and vegetables, we instead serve up deserts that offer up nothing of any nutritional value and call it outreach. What we should call it is spiritual waterboarding instead of any kind of missional outreach.

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