When a DP Wants More Methods….

surveysaysWhile polling data1 may be useful there is an unintended side-effect of such data. It is panic and unbelief. We hear the fear in the voices of our leaders who out of worry scramble to find a fix for the bleeding out of congregations. I read some of that worry in the recent campaign circulars from the DPs of the Northwest and CNH districts. What are we going to do? Their answer? More Church Growth methods.

What that means is focus groups are called into action with the task of finding the causes behind “the problem” and to offer solutions. Leaders in the industry are sought after and their methodologies adopted. What works for Rick Warren might just work for us, it is thought. The truth be told, even the “mega churches” cannot retain their own members which resemble shifting seas of sand, “seas” of people moving from one church to another. The gurus of Church Growth churn out their ideas, but their fixes are like trying to repair a leaking hot water pipe with a bit of chewing gum. It doesn’t work. Indeed, church growth methodologies have been failing since the late 1950s when Donald McGavaran began selling his church Growth programs and books. The old news is that Christianity in America is in decline and we aren’t going to think or act our way out of this decline. There is no chance that anyone is going to get the glory of being the savior of the Church other than Christ.

Look around Lutheranism today and you will find the pragmatists frantically grasping at these methodologies which have had decade’s worth of failures. For all the books, seminars, and consultations sold we should expect something other than the empty church growth edifice towering over us, but there it is and its priests continue pointing at its decaying structure as a glory to behold.

I wasn’t always a Lutheran. I spent considerable time in Pentecostal and Baptist churches and can speak from experience that many of those fleeing Evangelical churches are worn out by the rampant sales tactics and gimmicks used by congregations to attract fresh members. They are tired of the constant law driven message of becoming a “better you” and “reproduce yourself spiritually.” If you haven’t seen some of these Church Growth gurus in action, think of an Amway salesman trying to reach diamond status. These people are absolutely driven for increasing the number of people in their downstream; it is what drives them to success. It is also one of the most unattractive features of their methodologies. It gets tiring just listening to the sales pitch. People are squeezed into a sociological type and a script is applied to them. If I talk such-and-such-a-way, then I know x-number of people will react positively. What I don’t count on is the fact that the same means, through which I sell people on my product, is the same method which ensures that most of those hearing me will not join Amway… or whatever it is I am peddling. Sure enough some people will be suckered into buying, but the “successful sale” isn’t lasting.

pentecostalsWhat drove me out of American Evangelicalism was the constant drum beating of the law; become a “better you” and save the lost! I am not alone; many are carried out the doors of their churches by the current of having to be relevant to the culture at all times and in all places. The little Baptist church I attended was helmed by a pastor eager to implement programs equipping congregants with the socio-psychological language of the day in order to be attractive. Given the time, we learned to speak a dialect of prosperity, security, and therapy. I don’t remember hearing the Gospel preached at any time. I do recall listening to many “sermons” on responsible Christian stewardship and how we can prosper the church if we become better at attracting people for Jesus. It is little wonder that when I became a member of this church I signed a contract promising to give no less than 10% of my income to the congregation; failure to do so could have been grounds for excommunication. Not surprisingly, when the luster of joining this hip looking community finally wore off, I was looking for a way out from under the boot of the law firmly planted on my neck. Not to mention that contract, too! I was in despair over my sins and was looking for a “break.” The reprieve I sought was quite drastic. I had learned to hate God, the lawgiver, and I didn’t know Christ, the Bread of Life2. I walked away from the Church and into atheism because I died in the padded chairs where each Lord’s Day Church Growth methods were fed to me and not Word and Sacrament.

Sadly I was not alone and today there are many more who breathe their last under the boot of the law driven church. Those who are looking for more methods through which they can adapt to and become even more relevant to the culture around us are in a large trap chained to a stake driven deep into the law. The only means which can free us from the trap are the Means of Grace given to us by the Bread of Life. Christ instituted Word and Sacrament as the only way through which He wants to bring life to us. Word and Sacrament are the means through which the Holy Spirit draws people to our Lord and through those same means He keeps us alive.

I have heard the excuses from the Church Growth followers as to why Word and Sacrament ministry doesn’t really work. Excuses such as we have to do everything we can to get the message out. Of course, “everything we can” meaning all their programs, methods, and “movements.” It isn’t enough that we work our vocations in the cultures we are part of and through our day to day interactions we can show the mercy of Christ to others. No, that will not do! The gurus of Church Growth want us to believe that the congregations practicing Word and Sacrament ministry, the traditional liturgy, are speaking an unintelligible language to those who aren’t the initiated. The question then becomes, if the Church Growth movement has the right language, then why are the Churches shrinking?

Some are so obsessed with “growth” that they have forgotten the centrality of Christ in the divine service. Instead of preaching the Gospel in its purity and rightly delivering the Sacraments (which are the marks of the Church), they have propped up a method of growth as their beacon on a hill for the world to see. The tactics of Warren, Hybels, McGavarn, and Wagner have replaced the altar. Christ crucified for you is too messy; while at the same time the hip pop-band churns out the occasional Rolling Stones tune to show just how cool the Church is to the baby boomers. It is little wonder that people are running from Evangelical Christianity. They don’t need churches for entertainment. What they do need is heard in the Words of Institution.

The problem isn’t communication, per se, but is the spirit of the age. The church image created by Warren and Hybels looks like it was cut from the same cloth as the therapeutic religion of Oprah Winfrey and a whole host of self-help psychologists plaguing the media today. Who needs to wake up Sunday morning and go hear the hipster looking preacher and his praise band when all one needs to do is roll out of bed long enough to grab a remote and tune into a very similar law driven, “better you,” message from Dr. Oz?

I am often asked by well-meaning Lutherans what it was the finally brought me back to Church. I tell them that it wasn’t the Church Growth initiatives found in the Northwest District of the LCMS (I live in Seattle and so can pick on this district). I never heard of an LCMS church before and had no idea of what Lutheranism was about until after meeting a Lutheran of a different denomination. After eighteen years of atheism it wasn’t a cutting edge movement that introduced me to Christ. I would have never set foot in one of the congregations with a praise band and a hipster preacher, because they didn’t look or sound like “church” to my atheistic eyes.

What brought me back to Church was the pure, unadulterated, word of God spoken to me by a layman out of her genuine concern and love for me. She didn’t have a nifty script she worked on me. She didn’t have a color coded bracelet and accompanying card to show me. She wasn’t “fanned into flame” and I wasn’t a number for her. No, she just showed me the mercy Christ showed to her Sunday morning at His table where she received the forgiveness of sins. She humbly read scriptures to me and prayed for me while out of a hardened heart I laughed at her and her message. Years later the Words of Christ were brought back to my memory and in an almost Nebuchadnezzar sort of way the sinner/wild man suddenly recalled the law and gospel spoken to him and I received the forgiveness of my sins.

keepcallawgospelOne layman dared to be Lutheran and show me the mercy Christ showed her. God worked faith in my heart through His written word spoken to me out of the love and concern of someone as she took time from her daily vocation to speak to me. How’s that for a program? Need we more?

As Lutherans we have been blessed by God with the message of His pure Gospel. We know the solution to the declining numbers in our parishes. Namely, it is not we who grow the Church daily, but it is the Holy Spirit working through the only means He has chosen through which to create faith and sustain it, His means of grace.

Let’s not listen to the worrying and fear of those scrambling to find more programs, methods, or wanting to create a new movement for growing the Church. Remember, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).




1)      Polls  such as this one from the Southern Baptists, indicate that the youth of many denominations leave their congregations upon reaching the age of eighteen. The not-so-new news is that mainline churches are hemorrhaging young adults, which is of great concern to most. No Christian wants to see their young ones flee from their churches, or to simply “take a break” as the aforementioned poll indicates many do once they hit early adulthood.

2)      Interestingly enough, while attending a Pentecostal/Prosperity Gospel church I ran into a Lutheran who was shocked that we didn’t have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. He wondered aloud how I could call myself a “Christian” and forsake the Supper (the Pentecostal church I attended had a memorial meal once per year).



When a DP Wants More Methods…. — 22 Comments

  1. Geez…Jim,

    I didn’t realize you were in my district! Where do you attend in Seattle and when do you want to get together to work on our anti-piety? I was confirmed at Our Savior Lutheran in North Seattle (Pastor David Blair/Pastor David Peterson) over 20 years ago and also attended Messiah Lutheran (Pastor Ernie Lassman). Your story is similar to mine. I appreciate it that the Lord “laid it on your heart” to share “Your testimony” with us. *chuckle*

  2. We know the solution to the declining numbers in our parishes.

    The question then becomes why are the Churches shrinking?

  3. @Robert Hoffman #3

    I attend Messiah Lutheran, Seattle. :) My email address is located off of the “About” page over at my old blog http://www.confessionalsbytes.com I would be happy to chat with you over a Lutheran beverage.

    #4Kitty :

    We know the solution to the declining numbers in our parishes.

    The question then becomes why are the Churches shrinking?

    Kitty, respectfully that is the wrong question. It will only provide answers which remove our focus off of Christ and place it upon our own methods. Besides, you must have missed this following sentence of mine:

    “Namely, it is not we who grow the Church daily, but it is the Holy Spirit working through the only means He has chosen through which to create faith and sustain it, His means of grace.”

    Christ has provided the means through which He brings people to faith. God grant us repentant hearts so that we trust in His working through the means He instituted.

  4. Jim,

    On this topic I recommend reading Chapter 5 in “Broken” by Pastor Jonathan Fisk. The rule he says to break in this chapter is “IfWeCanJust Churchology”. We will be covering this chapter Sunday at Messiah as I sub for the vacationing Pastor Lassman. Read ahead and maybe you can stump me with a good question/comment.

  5. @Harry Edmon #6

    Thanks Harry. That is a pertinent and good chapter from Pr. Fisk’s book. Btw, I finished reading his book a couple months ago. :) I highly recommend it to others.

  6. Jim –

    You wrote:

    “One layman dared to be Lutheran and show me the mercy Christ showed her. God worked faith in my heart through His written word spoken to me out of the love and concern of someone as she took time from her daily vocation to speak to me. How’s that for a program? Need we more?”

    ONE layman. Beautiful!

    Numbers have yet to be elevated to sacramental status by any but the sects, and their adherents.

    I have two former Presbys who constantly remark (and their works do follow them in a huge way!) who admit they always thought in terms of they had to do something/whatever – rather than realizing “whatever” was the work of Jesus.

    Jesus was not into methodology. Jesus offered Himself as the “face-to-face” solution – Rather, He says, as I will say in less than two days:

    “He understands that mercy has the face of a widow, a lame man, a prostitute, and a man possessed, the man possessed, the blind man, the paralytic, the thief on the Cross. He sought out those faces and he acted. ” There is the mercy and compassion. There is the Gospel.”

    Reducing Jesus to what we do (which is what is happening) to a methodology is rank heresy. It is a “If we only but do” mentality that is as far from the Gospel as day is from night.

    Church growth, as it were, was a plague when it began under “the Donald” in the ’50’s, and it bled and multiplied in an un-reprimanded, unrepentant degree in Corunna, Indiana in the ’80’s.

    We are dealing with the results. The opposition has become “smoother-than-smooth,” and it is depressing dealing with them. They have hijacked terminology, claimed “adiaphora” at every turn, and in general, tried to make a mockery of the faith once delivered to the saints.

    But as I said in an earlier post response made today – “But be of good cheer” . . . (John 16:33)

    Something must be happening the right way to get the devil so p’o’d. :-)

    Pax – jb

  7. “There is no chance that anyone is going to get the glory of being the savior of the Church other than Christ.”

    Nice Jim – Thanks for the article.

  8. Thank you for this article! Your story from evangelicalism to atheisim and then to Lutheranism is so similar to my husband’s. It took a long time and many questions before he finally joined our LCMS church and was baptized. It wasn’t until he started attending a weekly, pastor-led college bible study and church service that he began hearing pure unadulterated gospel, sacraments, and liturgy.
    We also loved rev fisk’s book and his YouTube “outreach ministry” was instrumental to my husbands conversion and decision to move us out to St Louis for seminary this fall.
    Thanks again

  9. Thanks Jim for your article. Everyone should listen to Mike, a former Evangelical, who has the Soundbite of the Week on Issues,etc. He is pleading with Lutheran pastors not to forsake the historic liturgy for the ‘happy/clappy’ of American Evangelicalism.

  10. Beautiful! “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. Luke 8:39. That pretty much sums it up for “methodology” in my book.

  11. Jim, thanks for the article, it should be required reading, with a test afterwards, for our DP, his staff, and all the others who are pursuing the “sirens of destruction.” To bad you are not in the Portland area or I would propose a get together at one of the several good brew pubs in the area.

  12. Thank you, Gene. Next time I am in Portland I’ll have to take you up on your offer!

  13. @Jim Pierce #5

    Thanks, Jim– one of the best things I’ve heard come out of our District in quite a while.

    By the way, I make my own Lutheran beverages… five gallons of Dopplebock are nearly ready to serve. 😉

  14. The overwhelming numbers of humans on Earth are really in the camp of the technocrats. That is to say, they believe that everything ailing our civilization stems from a “bad program.” They believe that some kind of better program or methodology will save us all.

  15. Fantastic article, Jim.

    Our paths are so very similar, right down to living in the same district.

    My family left our local evangelical church after being beaten down by the same law-based “life improvement” message as well. The rallying cry of the pastoral staff of “we don’t want to look like church”, the pre-packaged video series by the hip, young pastor with the cool, big church that has the best selling Christian book week after week was too much. I began to hate church and started to question my faith.

    I actually at one point was an employee of this particular church. One day at work I did a Google search for Christian Pirate Radio, an old CCM internet station. What came back from the search result was Pirate Christian Radio. That led to Fighting for the Faith, which led to Issues, Etc. and KFUO. How ironic, I worked at an evangelical church, but had to listen to Lutheran programs for solid teaching.

    I began looking into the LCMS, it’s history, and beliefs while still attending my old church. God is so good as to place our home next to an LCMS church. My family and I played hookey one Sunday and visited the LCMS church. The pastor greeted us, explained closed communion to us ( I had already researched it) and welcomed us, as did one of the Elders, who walked us through the Service Book. What an eye-opener for us. It was truly church!

    To make a long story short, the Lord blessed me with a different job. We left the evangelical church in October 2012. I met with the pastor and went down the laundry list of reasons for our leaving. He said we would be missed, but I know the Church Growth, vision-casting operating system of gladly getting rid of the “haters” in order to fulfill the pastor’s vision, so I took it with a grain of salt. We have been attending the LCMS since October, have been through Adult Catechism class, and will be confirmed soon. It is such a blessing to be attending a Confessional congregation.

    When I see what our DP is doing is quite disturbing to me, but I realize that the Lord has this under control. He will have His way! Perhaps the Church Growth-pimping DPs should listen to those who have come from the modern evangelical church and into the historic Christian faith and repent of their folly. But sadly, I won’t be holding my breath.

  16. @Rick Bryant #21

    Brother Rick, I thank God for you and your family that He has brought you to where you are at today. Thank you for sharing. I am always encouraged when I hear/read stories such as yours.

    @Brad #19

    Dopplebock sounds good to me! When is it beer-thirty? :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.