I was born into the LCMS, baptized not long after my birth. My dad was an LCMS pastor. I was in LCMS parochial schools through 8th grade, went to public high schools, and went to college at an LCMS university.
The teachings of the LCMS were in my veins, and they still are. I memorized parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, recited memory verses, and answered dozens of questions about the catechism when I was confirmed. I went to church weekly. I was involved in several activities within the church, such as being the president of the Youth Group at my church and class president in 8th grade at my LCMS school. I had and still have multiple settings of the liturgy memorized, and frequently sing them to calm myself down or just sing praise when they pop into my mind.
Many of my earliest memories involve being in church or church-related things. For example, I remember being at a children’s sermon (my dad was my pastor, as he was for my whole life until college) in which my dad held up a wood block with “JESUS” silhouetted on it. He asked if anyone knew what it said. Confidently, I raised my hand and said we couldn’t know because it was in a different language! I’d mistaken the raised wood for the letters and assumed it was Hebrew or another language my dad had studied–he loved languages. I can’t tell you the number of memories I have of being with my dad on pastoral visits, sitting and drawing Star Trek ships or sharks as he spoke with members. I went along to several funerals as well.
Whenever the group came through town, I participated in Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ (OAFC), an LCMS ministry group that worked to train Lutherans to share their faith with others. This included going door-to-door in my community and others nearby to tell people about Jesus and invite them to church. We hosted them at our church, and several of the leaders of the OAFC group would stay in our home. I remember a few nights where there’d be teenagers sprawled across multiple couches on the lower floor of the parsonage we lived in, and I’d stay up as late as I’d be allowed talking to the “cool kids” who were in my house. I wanted to be one of them.
I’d participated a few times in the youth group at my friend’s LCMS church. This was also where I went to middle school, as in the LCMS there is an emphasis on private schooling. They had a bigger group due to having a school and more populous community, and it was fun to connect with even more LCMS people my age and do things like the 30 Hour Famine, in which we fasted for 30 hours for solidarity with hungry people worldwide to raise money. These events had a different feel from much of my other church-related life, and for good reason. The events were sponsored by World Vision, a broadly evangelical service organization. It was one of the rare instances in which I participated in broader Christianity with a slightly different flavor from my own.
I went to the LCMS Youth Gathering the year I was eligible. This wasn’t some small event: the event attracted more than 30,000 youths from all over the country. It was an incredible experience at which I remember connecting to bands, meeting interesting people, and staying with a best friend. We’d sing songs, pray, praise, give thanks, and talk with other youths from all over the United States.
I also spent some time on forums debating theology and talking to other Christians. This was back when such things were pretty new. Instant messaging was pretty novel. I remember a relative proudly talking to church members about how I’d debate Lutheran theology with non-Lutherans in a chatroom. There was a darker side to it, though. I had an alarming experience with one of the adult members in the chatroom propositioning me, a minor. Nothing happened beyond that, but I was deeply shaken. It was the first real memory for me of a time in which I truly felt adults were unsafe. But it went beyond that. It was the first memory–an extremely vivid one–of when I discovered faith could be unsafe. It meant people could use an allegedly shared religion to try to go after a kid. Religion could be used, I’d discovered, for evil. I think I was about 10-11 years old. It’s a lesson I’d never forget.
In the first public high school I was at, it was a small town. There were many churches and it ended up that there were 4 other PKs (pastor’s kids) in my class. It was a small school and we’d frequently end up in classes together. I distinctly remember debating doctrine with some of these other PKs. One of them told some good friends of mine they were all going to hell. One of those friends came to me an asked what I thought. “J.W.,” he said, “am I going to hell because I smoke weed? Steve says I will.” I was taken aback for a moment. “No,” I answered. I had no interest in any kind of drugs or underage drinking. Like I said in the first post, I’m a people pleaser, but I’m also a major rule follower, and those things didn’t really have any appeal for me. “No,” I answered. “He’s just wrong.” Steve overheard this, because we were all in a free period and he was just across the classroom. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I know he challenged me back on it and ended up questioning my salvation, too, because I believed in infant baptism. It was all very serious, but I ended up laughing at that final note. I wasn’t laughing because it was silly to think someone would be going to hell for a different view of baptism (at the time, I wasn’t sure exactly how right you had to be to go to heaven, after all); no, it was silly because the other person was so obviously wrong. The LCMS just was right; it just was the true church; it just taught the true way to believe. At this point, of course, my group of friends was entirely forgotten. The discussion was on a level that only PKs or other theologically-interested people could follow. I wasn’t just right, though, I was righteous. It was a feeling that was engrained into me from hundreds of times I’d been taught that the LCMS doctrines just were facts. Everyone else was mistaken no matter what.
When I went to college, I initially thought I would be an LCMS teacher. While there, I started to get more involved in acting on my faith. I also became interested in Christian apologetics. But a major turning point was still coming. One night, I was praying out under the stars. It was a cold night, but I was outside all on my own with my coat near the river that ran alongside the campus, begging God to end some of the wrongs in the world. I had an intense religious experience. That night, I went back to my dorm, wrote about the experience, and discovered a new and total devotion to God. I already believed in God, and I already was committed to following Christ, but this experience had reinvigorated me and convinced me that God was there and listening. I still believe this was a genuine experience from God.
This experience led me to rethink some of my life. Around this time, my then-fiancée broke up with me. It wasn’t a great time, but it also led me to refocus my life. It was around Thanksgiving that it happened, and when I contemplated what I had to be thankful for on a weekend over which someone I thought I would marry broke up with me, I realized the answer was: a heckuva lot. I decided around then that I wanted to change what I was studying and be a pastor instead. The reason wasn’t because I was particularly enamored with being a pastor. Rather, it was because when I thought of the question “What can I do to dedicate my life to God?” the answer that came most quickly to my mind was “be a pastor.” Clearly, my sense of vocation wasn’t entirely developed at that point (shout out here to Lutherans who get this).
I kept my major and minor, but shifted to the pre-seminary program, enrolling in Hebrew, some theology classes, and Greek. It was a whole different experience, in several unexpected ways. Deciding to become a pre-seminary student may be marked as one of the most major turning points in my life. College featured a number of turning points. What I thought when I decided to become a pastor is that I’d find a group of like-minded men (yes, only men, because only men are allowed to be pastors in the LCMS; women may be deaconesses, but not preach or lead worship). I did find several like-minded men, but I also found some of the most inward-looking, doctrine-obsessed, orthodox-rabid, self-righteous, and, unfortunately, misogynistic people I’d ever run into. I was one of them for a while.
All of this is to say that I was not an incidental layperson within the LCMS. I was fully involved for the majority of my life. This is important, because I believe that it gives some credence to the critiques I will share, and it should also give pause to those who want to simply dismiss my story as someone on the margins of the LCMS. I was in the LCMS from birth through adulthood. I wanted to be an LCMS teacher or pastor. I debated doctrine in favor of the LCMS, working to convince others to join. But the reasons to doubt my convictions about the LCMS were there. It took until I was in college for me to finally depart, and it was then only because I was forced to truly examine what I believed.
It should also be clear that many of these memories are pleasant. Where they aren’t pleasant, many were formative in beneficial ways. Within the LCMS, I developed a love of the Bible and was encouraged to read it continually, a practice I continue and which I believe brings spiritual growth. I made many friends and was encouraged by many mentors, some of whom I still remain in contact with and whom I admire. But even at a young age, the occasional thing would strike me as “off” about the experience and my beliefs. It would take many of these points of fracture for me to consider leaving the LCMS.
Next in series: Points of Fracture.
 I’m unsure of when/how it became an official LCMS ministry, as it says they are on the website. It’s been quite a while, so my memory might be foggy, but I remember some discussion about whether or not this group was Lutheran (read: LCMS) enough for us to participate with. There was some skepticism that I remember hearing from more than one LCMS-employed person about their practices and expressions of faith. Looking back, the group as I experienced it 20+ years ago felt like the closest thing to what many describe in mainstream evangelical churches from youth programs. While there were no altar calls, for example, the canvassing of the community, reading other people’s names into John 3:16, asking whether people knew if they’d go to heaven or hell, and the like are all similar to what I’ve heard described in those settings.
 Name amended, as will pretty much all the names used in this series.
Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.
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What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I take a look at some of the issues I’ve found to be broadly true in apologetics-related circles.
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I can certainly relate (not least because my own story intersects with some of the same churches and with your dad—although my interactions with your dad and assisting with planting a Hispanic mission were very positive and something I remember fondly—may his memory be eternal). But I, too, attended a Concordia pre-seminary program because serving God had to be the most God-honoring vocation, right? This led me down many different paths (I’d love to grab a beer/coffee and chat / catch up if you’re ever in NWI again!). I love this quote from Aidan Kavanagh which hits a nerve on some of the later (post-LCMS, so-called “liberal” theological academia) experiences I had: https://qohelet.io/the-transmutation-of-faith-into-some-surrogate
Anyways, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your journey. I can relate to much of it.
Thanks for sharing! I haven’t really heard much about your own story apart from bits and pieces you’ve told me about. Thanks for the kind words about my dad; he was such a kind man. He is missed. I don’t know when I’ll be in NWI again, but I have a trip bringing me to Chicago in September. What’s the best way to contact you? I think I had your phone number a long time ago. If you still have my e-mail, shoot me a line.