Lutherans Invade New York, Ignore Everyone

first-lutheran-service-in-brandenburg-1539
A contemporary Lutheran Divine Service. Contemporary if you lived in 1539.

That’s a joke about how insular Lutherans are reputed to be. You know, the only church plants most Lutherans are known for are the kind donated at Easter. Outreach is usually limited to that extra stretch when passing the offering plate to someone at the far end of the pew. Witnessing is something you do in court. Evangelization means not taking the Lord’s name in vain more than once a day. Ecumenism is wishing a WELS coworker a Merry Christmas.

But that was then. This is now. No, this  is now. No—this, this right  now, is now. Wait—this…dammit…

In any event, meet Matt Popovits, “lead pastor” of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Rego Park. That’s in Queens, the NYC borough no one talks about. (No, wait, that’s Staten Island.) Now the reason this church caught my eye was that I lived a stoner’s throw from OS back in the late 90s and again in 2006. In fact, when I came back to the Lutheran church in ’06*, that was one of the first churches I checked out, having  not darkened an LCMS door for a couple of decades.

I found that first Our Saviour experience very moving. In fact, after my very first divine service, I remember telling my wife, “We have to move.”

The service began with a puppet show, led by the senior pastor, who proceeded to walk up and down the aisle interacting with the congregation as if he were in flight attendant hustling cashews. There was nothing of the liturgy I had grown up with. I simply didn’t recognize this as a distinctively Lutheran church. It reminded me of more than a few evangelical churches, however.

I would have quite a few dispiriting experiences with NYC LCMS churches. I finally found one, Redeemer, out in Bayside (also Queens), that was solid: the old DS3 liturgy; the Revised Standard Version Bible (the one Jesus and the Apostles used); profound, resonant preaching; and Communion so closed, even the pastor wasn’t allowed to receive.

Of course, it was 2010 and I was just about to leave New York for good.

Listen to Pastor Popvits’s story here.** He tells about how he came to New York and “replanted” the Our Saviour church on 63rd Drive, which had been around for 90 years. Our Saviour now has a Midtown “parish,” too, that offers an evening service at Church for All Nations, on West 57th Street. (I attended services there also for a time. I’ll leave it at that.)

So I watched one of the OS Rego Park services that stream live and, frankly, was very disappointed to see that the liturgy was as nonexistent as a Baptist walking the Stations of the Cross. It’s a “contemporary” service (awful name—as if the liturgy were obsolete or archaic) with a band. A band. Like on The Tonight Show.  

The preaching is lively and Christ-focused, however. Pastor Popovits comes across as a congenial and engaging sort, and I have no doubt he will attract the yutes. I have no idea what happened to the “old” OS congregation—or the pastor, for that matter. They may all be dead or gone Episcopalian (same thing). There’s an 11am service coming to the Rego Park parish—will that provide a traditional liturgy?

Anyway, Popvitz & Co. are obviously seeking to provide a vital confessional Lutheran presence in a city that has seen Redeemer Presbyterian attract 5-6,000 attendees per Sunday—and that’s in Manhattan alone, not counting sister churches and church plants around the rest of the city, including Queens.

But this is not how I’d go about it. I would raise up a new generation of Lutherans soaked in the old Matins/Holy Communion liturgies such that they would be able to sing or recite them by heart on their lunch hour. Such a foundation links the generations, not only of Lutherans but also of Christians, as the old Lutheran liturgy retained elements dating back to the Middle Ages. It’s beautiful, rousing, and rife in biblical imagery. Why would you settle for an order of service that looks and sounds like a thousand others? You’re passing on the Italian White Alba Truffles and opting for dill pickles…

Ah, but what do I know… Perhaps this approach will prove a gateway drug to the heavy-duty stuff. I wish OS and Pastor Popovits well. (Follow him on the Twizzler here.) Perhaps I’ll stop in next time I’m in New York. I’ll be the guy yelling, “Divine Setting 3 or death!”

*Ignore the date on the FIRST THINGS post. It was originally written in June 2006. The date that graces the post now no doubt reflects when the third FT website went live and the post had all its paragraph breaks restored.

**Hat tip to Nathan Rinne for the link to the Daniel Emery Price site that played host to the Popovits interview.  Everybody got that?

 

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5 thoughts on “Lutherans Invade New York, Ignore Everyone

  1. I go to Christ Lutheran in Woodside, Queens. It’s very confessional – we use the liturgy right out of the LSB (although they do like setting four there, for some reason), closed communion, etc. Sometimes we will sing hymns I don’t particularly care for like “The Lamb” or “All You Works of God Bless the Lord,” but I feel like if musical tastes are the only things I have a problem with, I can definitely get over that in order to attend a faithful LCMS church every week.

    And it’s accessible via the subway, unlike Redeemer in Bayside. I live in Washington Heights, it’s hard enough for me to get out to Queens. Even harder when I have to take the LIRR. I did date a girl who lived in Bayside once, but I only went out to her neighborhood a few times. I walked by the church, but that’s as far as it went. I would like to go some day.

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    1. If I am not mistaken, I was baptized at Christ Lutheran. Frankly, I had forgotten all about it (the church, not my baptism) — or was under the impression it had gone ELCA (as did the church I was confirmed in).

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      1. Christ in Woodside is a GREAT congregation, and Pastor Hollmann is a model pastor. I took a youth group there a number of years ago for a servant event trip. We had an incredible experience serving the congregation and community, and the worship there was a heavenly experience. Where else are you going to hear the Divine Service prayed in five different languages? This was a great way for my kids to see that the DS is emphatically NOT a solely German Lutheran thing.

        Taking another group there this summer.

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  2. Baring winning the Lottery (come on power ball #23) and giving yourself a call (which probably trespasses some theology somewhere), most call committees in urban/suburban areas are split red-blue although not the red blue you think. Red = those who bought the LSB and actually want to use it. Blue = those who say LW is fine, Hymnals are passe, and don’t you just think our campfire music is so spiritually uplifting.

    Here is how the conversation goes:

    55+ band leader: But what do you say to the youngsters?
    30 (ok 40ish) pastor: nothing in particular, the liturgy actually tells them something, we actually believe this stuff
    BL: But everybody loves our service, its our growth
    P: How many have you added to that service in the last five years?
    BL: Oh, well, I don’t really know, but it is bigger than the liturgical one
    P: ok, what are the times, how many families attend that just because they fail at getting up at 6:30 AM?
    BL: Nah, can’t be it, it really connects with the teens
    P: How many people, usually dorky looking men, don’t attend because, well, Jesus as their boyfriend doesn’t seem all that compelling of a metaphor for justification? Or those asking where is Jesus, friend of sinners and those who can’t sing a syncopated rhythm and don’t know what a bridge is?
    BL: [Furiously scribbling]

    [After Interview]
    BL: That guy is off the list
    Red: Why?
    BL: You don’t want to split the congregation do you?
    Red: I guess not, so who is your pick?…

    I suppose I should add this is a (weak) comic depiction. Please don’t fire me. (C’mon #23).

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