Lutherans with Issues

TownsendAsburryI had an intriguing GetReligion-related experience last week. A religion reporter wrote about a news story that I'm personally involved in. As a reporter, it is always interesting to watch another reporter in action. But when you actually care about the story involved, everything is taken to a new level. The reporter in question was one we've discussed many times here -- Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And he did a fantastic job, working efficiently to get to the bottom of an incredibly complex story. It was humbling to watch. I'll let Townsend handle the background, which he did in his first story on the matter a week ago:

About 75 protesters gathered Monday outside the world headquarters of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, many holding signs that asked simply, "Why?"

The question was directed at church leaders who, during Holy Week last month, pulled the plug on a popular radio program on the denomination's KFUO-AM station called "Issues, Etc."

The host, the Rev. Todd Wilken, and producer, Jeff Schwarz, were fired without warning, and all reference to the show was taken off KFUO's website. Fans were left confused and angry.

The following day, a statement went up on the church's website explaining that "Issues, Etc." had been canceled for "programmatic and business" reasons but offered no specifics.

More than 200 fans of the program also attended Evening Prayer at a local St. Louis church the night before the demonstration to pray for Wilken and Schwarz. Our demonstration in front of the church headquarters was a rather quiet and calm affair. For example, my offer to shout "No Justice, No Peace!" while wearing a Martin Luther costume was roundly frowned upon.

So I had a chance to watch Townsend in action. He conducted in-depth interviews with well over a dozen people there and really took the time to understand their concerns:

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."

Because he interviewed so many people, he was able to explain how the cancellation of this radio program was symptomatic of the larger divisions in my church body. When I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about the cancellation of Issues, Etc., the president of the LCMS condemned it in a letter to the editor and denied that there was any division in the church body. His letter was followed by four others from folks who felt otherwise. Anyway, for his news analysis column that runs on Saturdays, Townsend mentioned President Gerald Kieschnick's letter and wrote:

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."

Lutherans Townsend also did a great job interviewing synodical officials. Though most of my requests for answers have been met with walls of stony silence, Townsend was able to get them to publicly admit they didn't like the show:

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 [David Strand, the executive director of the church's communications board], 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."

It seems to me that reporters frequently treat stories about conflict in church bodies with a heavy hand. They either give an excess of credence to the bureaucratic institutions striving to perpetuate power or they give too much weight to the laypeople or priests who disagree with the changes being made by the institution's leadership.

I appreciate that Townsend let both sides speak for themselves. The synodical officials gave institutional answers and the people who were upset gave theological answers. But both sides were able to make their case the way they wanted to.

The first photo, by the way, shows Townsend in action at the demonstration. The second is our band of merry Lutherans demonstrating in front of church headquarters.

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