Yesterday we discussed a possible move to having communion every Sunday. For those both on the outside (friends, family, etc) as well as those who are a part of the Messiah Lutheran family, I will say that to the best of my ability such a decision to make this change will be made when we as a congregation are ready and desire it so as not to turn the altar into a place of conflict. One question that was raised as we discussed this was: why is it that most Lutheran Churches, despite confessing “At the outset, we must again make this preliminary statement: we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals. The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other such things.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 24.1) and, “34 Because the Mass is for the purpose of giving the Sacrament, we have Communion every holy day, and if anyone desires the Sacrament, we also offer it on other days, when it is given to all who ask for it.” (Augsburg Confession, Article 24.34), many Lutheran Churches do not have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday (Lord’s Day).
There is a great deal of complex history, and a simple answer will not explain it. As with all things, many factors can lead to a certain habit or practice amongst congregations. Here are some factors that have led to this:
A Shortage of Pastors on the “Frontier” – When the Missouri Synod first began, there were far more congregations than pastors. “Circuit Riders” were pastors who would care for 3, 4, even as many as 8-10 congregations. Due to the distance between congregations and difficulty of travel on foot or horseback/horse drawn carriage, a pastor was often only able to be at one, maybe two congregations on a given Sunday. This meant that whenever the pastor was in town, the congregation would receive the Lord’s Supper. The other Sundays (anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months), the congregation would go without.
Unionism and Synchretism – The lack of pastors often led congregations to “hire” a pastor of another confession of faith. For instance, if a pastor was only able to make it to a congregation after the snow melted, a German speaking congregation would some times seek out a nearby Episcopalian or otherwise Reformed, German Speaking pastor. Depending on these pastors, the importance of the Lord’s Supper would be down played, and preaching became a larger focal point to the Sunday morning service (in contrast to the Old Lutherans who emphasized both the preached word and the Sacraments).
Poor Catechesis – With the waning popularity of Lutheran Day schools and high schools, religious instruction was often relegated to a midweek confirmation class and Sunday School. Even in Lutheran schools, there has been a broadening accommodation to non-Lutherans, where the “basics” (defined as those things which most Protestants agree) are emphasized and the Lutheran distinctiveness has been downplayed. In addition, as the Missouri Synod transitioned from German to English, many resources were borrowed from non-Lutheran sources in order to teach the faith. Some have suggested, we are still playing catch up. I would say, having seen what CPH has been producing lately, this last statement is not entirely true, and in some respects CPH is beginning to lead the way with the resources it is providing. In addition, in the 20th century a greater emphasis on congregational size brought about the lowering of the standards for religious instruction. Adults would go through a very quick period of instruction and children had fewer expectations placed on them (for instance in memory work).
Pietism – Pietism was a movement which emphasized: individual or small group Bible Study, the spiritual priesthood of all believers, conversion is to be followed by a change in behavior, sympathy and kindness is to be shown to the heterodox and to unbelievers, placing more importance on personal devotional life than formal religious education, a shift in the focus of preaching where the emphasis is on the sanctified life. Each of these emphases are not entirely off base as there is a kernel of orthodox Lutheran teaching in each. In Pietism the distinction between clergy and laity was blurred, the importance of the Sunday service was downplayed, more emphasis on our work was given than God’s work (ie putting sanctification at a higher place than justification), and a growing aversion to anything that looked too ceremonial or “Catholic” was injected into the Lutheran Church (such an idea was contrary to the beliefs of the early Lutherans). The result was that things like Baptism, Private Confession and Absolution with a pastor, and the Lord’s Supper were downplayed.
These factors just begin to scratch the surface as to how we got to where we are, and I admit that I have painted with quite large brushes and generalized many of these factors (for the sake of keeping an already long post somewhat concise). The big question, we as Lutherans must inquire of ourselves is in where do we wish to go? Should our teaching and practice be decided simply on the basis of our very brief and subjective experience of history? Or rather should we as Lutherans be looking once again, to Scripture and to our Lutheran Confessions to guide our teaching and practice as we engage the world we live in? If it is the former, then maybe we should in all honesty drop the “Lutheran Church” from our name (that is, if we are unwilling to move towards faithfulness to Scripture and the Confessions). If it is the latter the difficult thing may be to place ourselves under God’s Word and the Confession of the Church as our Rule and Norm (Scripture) and our Normed Authority (Confessions) as we indeed say we do.
Lastly, I would say this. There has never been an age of complete purity of doctrine and practice in the Lutheran Church. Furthermore, we do not live in the 1500s. The idea that we should do things exactly like they did 500 or even 2000 years ago is not even a possible goal. However, as part of the Church, which we confess has existed from the time of the Apostles onward, we would do well to remember our history, preserve that which is good and timeless and speak to a world where fads, flavors and ideas change with the season.