Tag Archives: “youth ministry”

Episode 2: Higher Things—TOYOTA

It appears I chose a rather ripe topic for my debut here at The Cellar Door. (“A Dinitarian Higher Things Conference?”) I certainly did not realize that by laying a hand on the sacred rump of the Higher Things cow—not even tipping it, simply laying a hand on it!—I would elicit such spirited ire from some of its principals and organizational boosters. Given that I am but a lowly author who hath not the power of the sceptre on this blog, I didn’t immediately get the memo. Anyway, I’ve got it now: I am to put the new cover sheets on all TPS reports, mmkay?

No, but apparently I’ve rustled some feathers with what I wrote. Stanislas forwarded me some notification emails heralding comments from Greg Eilers (who writes under the pseudonym “Gina”), Rev. William Cwirla (who, I am told, bakes a lot of bread), and Rev. Christopher Rosebrough (who apparently owns a pirate ship—well, shiver me timbers!). Mr. Eilers’ comment was long, made no sense, and wasn’t funny. Rev. Cwirla’s comment was short, made sense, and was funny. Rev. Rosebrough’s comment was a duplication of a post on his blog. It was something else. But there are so many people who like to ride on his pirate ship (if you know what I mean) that we’ve been getting a lot of click-throughs to my post from his. Since I’m not sorry for having written what I wrote (not even a little bit), and since I cannot take anything that pompous muckraking fraud says with even an iota of seriousness, I’ll refrain from offering a sardonic “thanks, matey”, but will nonetheless express my approval of the fact that his website is directing so much traffic our way.

First of all, I thought that everyone thought Merovech was actually Trent Demerest, the Pseudepigraphus blogger. Now I’m told that I’m Trent Demerest. All this time, I’ve been living a lie, thinking I was someone else. The logic seems to be that if you indicate mild agreement with the Enfant Terrible of Lutheran bloggers, and you use a pseudonym, you become him. Rumor has it there’s even a betting pool. “Argh, mateys! Odds be five-to-one it’s me sworn enemy, Demerest! Argh!” I’d like to cash in for some of Captain Rosebrough’s seed-money booty that he pillaged from Creflo Dollar’s yacht.

If you’re betting on this, you’re just plain stupid. Go play internet poker. If you are unable to think of any good reasons someone might have for writing under a pseudonym, then you probably have spent too much time on the internet, specifically comment sections. Sort of a given for most of us these days, so don’t take it too hard.

Second…goodness gracious, I am getting absolutely smoked for having written “dinitarian” rather than “binitarian.” Check this out; here’s Cwirla:

First of all, the term is “binitarian” not “dinitarian.” If you’re going to charge someone with something, at least name it correctly.

The effect is better if you crane your neck way back, sneer, squint, and sort of speak through your nose as you read it aloud.

Here’s Rosebrough:

That’s hardly what one would expect from an organization that is drifting into Dinitarian [sic] Antinomianism (the correct theological word is Binitarian).

…and then he writes “Dinitarian [sic]” like eight times! This guy, with the signaling.

Alright, you two exceedingly sagacious men. You caught me. I’m not a theologian (then again, neither is Rosebrough). I’m an engineer. Give me a little credit for using “Pneumatomachians”, will you? I’ll go to sleep tonight rubbing my temples and chanting “Bi, not Di.” I sure hope my subconscious doesn’t do weird things with that; dreams will tell.

More distressing than my confusion over Latin prefixes, though, is the fact that neither of these men seems to know how to read. For Blackbeard, there’s some excuse—there’s little time for phonics on the high seas. But there is no excuse for Breadloaf, who I’m sure has at least read bread recipes.

I certainly did not accuse Higher Things of being binitarian, dynamite, or Pneumatomachian. And I quote myself:

Needless to say, I’m not truly worried that the folks who run Higher Things are Pneumatomachians.

I simply observed that Higher Things has become very sloppy. I also brought up the inconvenient truth that an increasing number of people have soured on the organization, and I gave examples of some reasons why. As a springboard for these observations, I made an intentionally overwrought observation of the fact that no mention was made of the Holy Spirit in an advert that seemed to start out with a creedal structure and sequence. The implication was that the things we do without thinking often are the most revealing of our habits and priorities.

Doesn’t matter. There be leaden plates lining yon pirate captain’s tri-cornered dunce-cap! Yargh!

In a recent blog post written by pseudonymous author John Philoponus which was posted at The Cellar-Door, Higher Things, an organization for which I sit on the Board of Directors, was charged with the very serious theological crime of being antinomian. The evidence that was put forth to substantiate the author’s charge was an advertising blurb for an upcoming Higher Things retreat. Below is my response to this slanderous and sinful blog post. (emphasis and high-dudgeon in original)

Theological crime! Somebody call Torquemada, and—just to be safe—Van Helsing.

Such keening is one reason why a rapidly diminishing number of people take this guy seriously.

Then this:

I strongly admonish the author of this post to repent, seek out their [sic] pastor to confess this sin and be absolved for it and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance by immediately publishing a retraction.

Make sure that your pronouns match their antecedents in number, Cap’n.

You’ll not be getting a retraction. The fact that Higher Things allows you to sit on its board should be sufficient to destroy any sane man’s confidence in the organization. Put that in your four-pounder and fire it, “matey.”

Then there’s Padre Breadloaf Headphones:

cwirly

Yes, well, I can call you a flaming arrogant (you carry your fair share of ignorance, too) jackass knowing exactly who you are. But I won’t. However, I will take your suggestion and waste no time, energy, or words addressing asininity. As such I won’t be responding to any more of your “feedback”, such as has made its way to me. As Jack Preus used to say, “Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk.”


I didn’t think that my little thinkpiece was going to cause such a firestorm. But if I’ve got the ear of “the public” or, more likely, “a handful of fellow Lutherans”, I suppose I’ll capitalize on my Joe the Plumber moment.

The thrust of my concern with Higher Things has less to do with the details of what they’re putting out, and more to do with the fact that big “Youth Gatherings” are root-and-branch the product of erroneous thinking regarding the Church, the Ministry, and the Christian home. Rev. Phillip Hoppe’s article was the buried lede of my whole piece. If all I did in my post was get more people to read and seriously consider what he wrote, then I will consider my first foray into Lutheran blogging a mild success.

Compare two admittedly caricatured genres of event:

  1. “Hey, you folks in the area, and others who may want to make the trip, come to our church for a thing. It’s for the whole family.”
  2. “Hey, youth everywhere! We, a group of Lutheran superstars, are going to travel the country and put on big things! The things we’ll be putting on will be so big that we might not be able to use church buildings for the services…but, boy-oh-boy will your heart just bleed at how beautiful (topically popular hymn/something besides the Common Service) sounds when we all sing it together! You’ll be overcome with togetherness and a feeling of transportive Lutheran solidarity! Hip and cool pastors whom you don’t know and who don’t know you will teach breakout sessions that will make your own pastor seem bland and forgettable! Afterwards you can friend them all on Facebook, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts…basically just hang onto every thought that surfaces in their craniums throughout the day. Anyway, be sure to find the big thing we’re doing nearest to you. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime the year, and you can mope and languish in come-down for months afterwards…UNTIL THE NEXT BIG THING! Be sure to stay in touch with us 24/7/365 via the internet, and buy some swag!”

^ High energy. Just a lot of energy there. Yuge.

It should be readily apparent that I’m doing more than summarizing Rev. Hoppe, who may not agree with my riffs on the points he made and should not be blamed for them.

I don’t think that genre #2—which includes both the National Youth Gathering and Higher Things—is a wise idea, or that it ever has been a wise idea. I will freely acknowledge, and applaud, the fact that Higher Things also sponsors events which fit under genre #1. Still, I wonder what the point is of branding them as “Higher Things” events.

Having an alternative to the National Youth Gathering was once a very attractive idea for us confessional types. From the late nineties through most of the aughts, we were very down. We felt like we were “losing the Synod.” Gerald Kieschnick and his church-growth hatchet-men were sauntering oily-shod over everything we loved and held dear. There was more finger-snapping going on than at a dress-rehearsal of West Side Story. All sorts of things were Ablaze that never even should have been exposed to sunlight. We were surly and we kicked the cat, sometimes twice a day.

Enter Higher Things, the organization that gave us hope. The organization that raged against the dying of the light, against the unionistic, mainline-wannabe, gutless LCMS of yesterdecade. Finally! A youth conference where Scripture, the Catechism, the Liturgy—in short, “Good Christ-Crucified For-You Lutheranism”—were front and center. Load up the conversion van!

We said it was for the kids, and it was. We do love our kids and we wanted what was best for them. But, really, it was also for us. We were so anxious about “The State of the Synod”, so tired of “losing”, etc., that we forgot that the real wellsprings of Christian faith and piety are the local church and the home altar, not youth gatherings. Our kids became pawns in that weirdly vicarious “battle for the institutions” that we in the Gen-X/young-boomer cohort can never seem to get free from.

The LCMS, Gerald Kieschnick, Ablaze!—these things actually had very little to do with our children. They were, all of them, tails wagging the dog. Or another part of the dog, right below the base of the tail. But they were not actually “the problem”, and our thinking that they were was a grand exercise in blame-displacement.

Bull-corn to English: Higher Things does not exist because “the LCMS” failed to produce a genuinely confessional Lutheran “youth gathering”, “youth organization”, “culture of youth ministry”, what have you. Higher Things exists because of failures at the level of the local church and the Christian home—failures which are more than catechetical, but which are largely and obviously catechetical. 

Even if all of Higher Things’s “content” were grade-A genuinely and confessionally Lutheran (it may have been at one point, but it sure isn’t anymore), that wouldn’t change the fact that the organization should be working to eliminate the need for its own existence (as President Reagan said of welfare). Instead it has become self-conscious, self-perpetuating, and expansionary. Like welfare.

Whatever will your youth do during those long periods of doldrums in between Higher Things conferences? Get them “plugged in” via the Higher Things blog, Higher Things online devotionals, Higher Things Facebook, Higher Things Twitter, Higher Things podcasts, and Higher Things Higher Things. Content! So much content! (Word on the street is that Higher Things will soon be available as an IV-drip.)

As with welfare, the very men whose dereliction has necessitated the rise of the alien institution (read: fathers) realize that Higher Things will continue to “do our job for us” if we let it (or so we think). So we begin to coast. Sure, our children don’t look up to us as their spiritual heads, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay for convenience. The local church and pastor get bypassed, too. Instead, children look at screens where Higher Things gurus (and gurinas) tell them all that they need to know (and, as it turns out, plenty of stuff that they don’t need to know and that you’d rather that they didn’t).

Fellow dads, don’t kid yourself: paying the Verizon bill does not amount to exercising spiritual headship.

“The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family,” George Gilder writes in Wealth & Poverty; “he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it.” True enough. Yet the other, more insidious reality is that some men are fine with, and even grow to like, feeling dispensable. Delegating the faith-formation of one’s children to a “youth organization” frees up a lot of time for important things like Facebook, fantasy football, and pursuing the American dream your vocation.

All of this has a detrimental effect on pastors, too. The virtuality, ubiquity, immediacy, and illocality of the internet all exacerbate the desire—latent in the heart of every pastor—to make himself into a para-minister, a celebrity, and a leader of men (or youth), someone who can be consulted for theological answers and even spiritual direction from a distance by a host of people who aren’t actually under his spiritual care. But parishioners are not the same as fans, and fans are not the same as parishioners. Being Lutheran doesn’t make one immune to this, and being “confessional” or “liturgical” is no inoculation. While this touches more than just Higher Things, they are still the prime example of Lutherans doing the para-ministry thing and pretending its something else.

When you get right down to it, Higher Things is a function of the same errant thinking which undergirds the “church growth” movement. “The youth” are treated like a clientele whose special spiritual needs are better met by some branded organizations that is neither the local church nor the family. Mercantile ministry. Same game, different team.


When I look back over the years, I really do think that we confessional refugees should have read the signs better back when Higher Things got started. We should have thought a little more deeply about how—indeed, whether—organizations of its kind actually help the confessional/ genuine/ historic Lutheran “cause.” More to the point, we should have realized that Lutheranism is not a cause at all.

We Lutherans claim that Lutheranism is the purest idiom of the catholic faith, thus Christianity, thus a religion. (No, it is not “just” a confession.) When it comes to religion there actually is quite a bit more to the thing than dumping GOOD-CHRIST-CRUCIFIED-FOR-YOU-LUTHERANISM!!! into the youth (or anyone) raw from the top at giant traveling filling stations.

There’s a radio advert that’s played on Issues Etc. periodically. I know you’ve heard it. This super enthusiastic voice (got to be Rev. George Borghardt—a genuinely nice guy) comes on over an organ motet: “If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth…put Good Christ-Crucified-For-You-Lutheranism IN YOUR YOUTH!!!” I don’t remember the wording exactly, and I’m not going to skip through an Issues, Etc. episode to find it right now. I know it’s not significantly different than that. But what is it even supposed to mean? Does anyone even know? We’re not talking about limes and coconuts here; we’re talking about human beings. Does anyone think this is actually how religion works, or how the human person works?

I have a better idea. If you want Good Christ-Crucified-For-You Lutheran Youth, you should get married, have kids, get them baptized, teach them to pray, teach them the Catechism, teach them the liturgy and our great hymns, get them educated, and have them learn a trade or profession from a young age that accords with their gifts so that they can serve their neighbor rather than melt their brains staring at an iPhone for eighteen hours a day. In fact, take away their iPhones, or their Galaxy Nexi, or their HTCs. Your child needs a smartphone like he needs a hole in the head. I should know—I build them. Smartphones, that is, not holes in the head.

If you want to be more serious about your family’s Lutheran piety, but you really get no support from your local church; if your pastor really is not doing his job; if Sunday morning really is a depressing stew of pathetically un-Lutheran garbage, &c… then you really should consider moving—either to another church or, if there is no better option, to another area, i.e., pack up the U-Haul and leave Ur of the Chaldees. Maybe it’s outside the realm of possibility for you for various reasons. But maybe it’s not. A truly reverent Lutheran liturgy should not be something you regard as a special event to be patronized on special occasions, like a theme park or some other diverting novelty. Quite the opposite—it should be one of the determining factors in where you choose to locate your family. I, for one, wish I had realized this much sooner.


At no point have I argued that Higher Things has never done any good. That would be a ridiculous claim. Maybe you were awakened from indifference at a Higher Things conference. Maybe you even came to faith because of the Word that was preached at one. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God that people have come to real saving faith during the time of the Great Awakening, or at a Billy Graham crusade, or after hearing a sermon in a Catholic church. That doesn’t negate the fact that the “Great Awakening” was propelled by pernicious sectarianism, that “decision theology” is formally heretical, and that the Roman Catholic Church officially anathematized the Gospel itself in 1563. That good effects have followed dubious enterprises is no argument on behalf of the dubious enterprises themselves. I know that you or your teenage son might get the opposite impression from reading any one of Rev. Riley’s many self-aggrandizing posts about his edgy past, but…no, it’s simply a reminder that God is merciful, and that He works all things together for good for His elect children. If He didn’t, I don’t know how any of us would ever be saved.

One final note…

Perhaps it will seem strange, but I have not written any of this in an effort to convince people who disagree with me. That’s not why I’m writing. I have a very limited purpose. I’m simply writing to let you know—no, not you, but you—that you are not crazy. A lot of us see what you see. You’re not the only one. Your doubts are well-founded. You are not a pietist, a wet blanket, overly scrupulous, weird, disconnected from reality, &c. If you are, in fact, behind the times, count yourself blessed, because the times are about to steamroll everyone currently skipping gaily ahead of them.

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