While 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.
What 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.
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?
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).