The Transforming Churches Network: Part 3, Eliminating Regressive Attitudes, by Scott Diekmann

(Scott’s posts are archived on the Regular Columns page under the title “Apologetics: Apply Liberally.” This is the  third post  in a series on the TCN program. It is also posted on his website Stand Firm.)


The Transforming Churches Network: Part 3, Eliminating Regressive Attitudes


The base assumption that drives the Transforming Churches Network (TCN) and the revitalization “process” is that a church that is not growing is an “unhealthy” church:

It has been estimated that 80% of the congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are plateaued or declining in Sunday worship attendance. While a great deal of excellent ministry occurs in many of these congregations, the lack of growth is a constant concern. Typically such congregations are preoccupied with issues of institutional survival which is counterproductive to outreach. By making the needs of unbelieving people and the lifestyle outreach of church members the focus of the ministry, many of the regressive attitudes and disabling circumstances so prevalent in the institution will give way to hope, new life and new members.  (online reference)


Dan Southerland, another Church Growth Movement (CGM) expert, states “According to recent studies, 80 percent of churches in North America are plateaued or in decline” (Transitioning: Leading Your Church Through Change, p. 13).   This 80% figure seems to have become something of an urban legend, perfect for maintaining the heightened sense of urgency required to facilitate the CGM paradigm shift.

TCN asks:   “How will we know when a congregation has been transformed?   Well, when it is regularly and consistently making new disciples, and it renews it members so that they’re making new disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit” (quoted from TCN video).   Do these quotes from TCN materials sound like the work of the Holy Spirit to you?

Congregational consultations, quality research on what the Holy Spirit is doing, developing leadership skills, stump speeches, strategies, bench marks, scorecards and time logs, extensive statistical research, accountability, pilot projects field testing materials, and using the pulpit to cast vision and to create a sense of urgency.


If not, then how does the Holy Spirit work?

First off, God does not deign to share with us His “church growth plans.”   At times He grows His church with increasing numbers.   At times He grows His Church with decreasing numbers.   It is a theology of glory to claim that a church is healthy only if it is growing.   As the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Church Growth Study Committee reports,

Therefore, it is spiritually harmful:


– When it is thought that saving faith can be imparted by human market strategies or that the growth of the Holy Christian Church can be adequately or accurately measured by numbers (Matt. 7:13–14; 16:18; Acts 2:47; Col. 2:19).


– When a congregation sees itself as necessarily more faithful because it is not growing. Or, conversely, when a congregation views growing numbers and income as an indication that Christ is necessarily building His church. Numbers, large or small, are not a litmus test of the Gospel’s power (Matt. 7:24–27).


– When anything other than faithfulness by pastor or people to the pure Gospel and Sacraments of Christ is used to measure the “health” of a congregation (1 Cor. 2:2).


What happens when church growth becomes so important that it eclipses all other considerations?   Those holding to the CGM “vision” develop “strategies designed to reach certain bench marks which are consistent with the national revitalization definitions. These benchmarks include a minimum of 5% growth in worship attendance each year, and increased percentages of adult to child baptisms and confirmations. Growth in healthy small group life and community involvement are also measured” (quoted from the online TCN page “Coaching the Pastor and Leaders of the Congregation).   It comes up with bullet points such as these, quoted from the Groups Ablaze! PowerPoint “Revitalization Learnings”:

Holding [District] staff accountable enables them to seek to hold pastors and congregations accountable.


Underachieving staff receive no raise or are let go.


Pastors need to be held accountable for results.


Ineffective pastors are asked to move on.


When these types of bullet points are advocated, it’s obvious that those involved have abandoned their trust in the Word, and have placed their trust in man-made results.   The pastor is no longer considered the called and ordained servant of the Word, but is now considered an expendable “equipper.”   (One TCN document warns “Expect resistance from the pastor as he shifts from ‘care-taker’ and ‘shepherd’ to more of an equipper role” (online reference)).  If Jeremiah were around today, he too would be “asked to move on;” his congregation had definitely “plateaued.”


Coming up next, we’ll take a closer look at the TCN congregation consultation weekend, where these “plateaued” congregations receive their “inward focused” label.





About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


The Transforming Churches Network: Part 3, Eliminating Regressive Attitudes, by Scott Diekmann — 17 Comments

  1. Our congregation just swallowed the TCN concept hook, line and sinker. It’s turning my stomach, but ‘majority rules’ in congregation decisions.

    The concept of a divine call goes right out the window; the pastor must leave if the program fails (even if the congregation wants him to stay) because the district and TCN team has said he must. If we do become a congregation with a pastoral vacancy, and choose to (re)extend a call to the current pastor, what could the District and TCN consultants do, kick us out of Synod?

    Our pastor preaches and teaches solid Law/Gospel/God’s Word/Christ-centered, cross-focused sermons. But none of that matters because “we’re not courageous enough to ‘get out of the boat.'” The TCN guest-preacher basically told us we were a bunch of weak, timid, dysfunctional Christians who didn’t understand the real mission of the church and your congregation is DYING, followed by “Now go out there and invite your friends and neighbors to join this congregation!” After that sermon even I wanted to find a different spiritual home, my congregation is so bad.

    So far, Scott’s pieces have been spot on accurate.

  2. Oh, and the TCN rep said that those among us who don’t agree to do this the prescribe way should just leave now or be pushed aside by group ridicule. I guess us Lutherans won’t be welcome in a transformed and networked LCMS congregation.

  3. JC, I’m curious: How did such a ‘guest-preacher’ get invited into your church to preach?
    Whose idea was that?

  4. Susan R.–the guest preacher is usually the leader of the weekend consulting team. Oftentimes, he becomes the “coach” for the year following the TC prescriptions, if the cong. accepts them. At least JC didn’t get a powerpoint sermon! I think! I hope!
    J.C.–check Borden’s sermon below to see how closely it resembles the one you heard.


    p.s. Here’s some websites you might visit to get other denominations’ take on TC. They seemed to download rather slowly, but your patience will be rewarded:

    Here’s what the Black Seventh Day Adventists have to say about Borden and TCN:

    Here’s a blog by another protestant who smells a rat – note the comments below regarding the trail of devastation NCD left in its wake:

    And finally:
    Here’s a consultation report Paul Borden did personally for a Methodist church (looks like a boilerplate report form that could have been used in any LCMS church, except the pastor is a woman)

    Here’s the sermon Borden preached the weekend of his consultation at that Methodist church:

  5. Who set this process in motion in your church, JC? Elders? The pastor? The council?

  6. Susan R asks a good question. I imagine something of this magnitude requires the approval of the pastor, council and/or board of elders before it can even begin. Since these are the decision making bodies for our congregations in LCMS polity I suggest you start by speaking to these groups in your congregation before spilling your guts on a web site. Good luck.

  7. Slick powerpoint presentations, promises of growth in numbers and offerings, low cost to congregations, push from synodical and district officials, including synodical websites: all are pretty hard to overcome–I know. I don’t see anyone spilling their guts on a website–this is a very real concern. Check the websites I listed above in comment #4. Other than those references and Scott Diekmann’s great series on TCN, the average parishoner has very little to help her/him–it’s a lonely “battle.”

  8. In small congregations, there’s often only a few people willing to take on the daily grind duties in the church: heading committees (often, a committee of one), attending meetings, filing reports, etc. There’s little that can motivate reluctant people to fill what are perceived (somewhat wrongly) as leadership positions.
    Long before the slick TCN presentations began, was there no inkling that either some church council member, or some elder, or the pastor (and of those socalled leaders) were entertaining some notion that things had to change; that the church needed new blood or better ideas or needed, more than it needed anything else, to grow? That, by lack of growth in members, a church body was doomed to die, or to become irrelevant, or wasn’t fulfilling its purpose?
    Were all the member’s heads in the sand, only to pop up one Sunday morning and find some future consultant speaking from the pulpit, instead of the pastor, indicting the members for their lack of zeal for missions; not offering them law and gospel as, hopefully, their pastor had been faithfully doing?
    What I’m getting at is this: TCN people don’t just show up. They don’t kidnap the elders and the council and the pastor and take over the microphones. They’re INVITED in. Someone, from within the church, asked them to come and deliver this dying body to glory.
    Was there never any grumbling, from someone with the power to invite a ‘guest preacher’, that the pastor wasn’t doing his job, the evidence of that being a lack of growth, a lack of zeal, a lack of accomplishments, or whatever? Did no one of a more confessional mind ever take this person aside and remind him/her what the church’s function really is, and the pastor’s?
    I’m partially with Steve #6 on this: I hope you whose churches are inflicted with this program are doing more than grumbling. I’m grateful for Scott Diekmann’s hard work of revealing this abomination, and grateful for the comments from those suffering it, and for the links to other churches that are infected with it.
    Having listened to Borden’s ‘sermon’, helpfully linked to in comment #4, and presuming that this is the type of talk some TCN consultant would give some black Sunday, I can’t imagine that no one didn’t stand up from his/her place within the congregation and say, ‘Who the H are you and what are you babbling about? This is church, not a sales meeting.’
    My point is: the TCN people showing up and hi-jacking the church service in the first place is possibly not the real problem within a congregation. It’s a symptom of a disease already there, not being treated or even recognized.
    If we’re hearing people grumbling about poor growth and Pastor’s ‘merely’ law-gospel sermons, and about our lack of appeal or sensitivity to the unchurched, and wondering what can we do to turn things around; if people wonder aloud why we don’t forsake liturgy for something more emotional, dynamic, and people-pleasing, but aren’t being answered by those who understand who we are and why we do what we do; if we’re not talking to one another openly, outside of church, about being and remaining Lutheran *in spite of trends and temptations to indulge them*, then we’re all doomed to Black Sundays of our own.
    I imagine that, once a consultant has stood in our pulpit and told us to get busier and get with the program, it’s way too late, and a ‘dying congregation’ has just died. but by its own hand.

  9. Underachieving staff receive no raise or are let go.
    Pastors need to be held accountable for results.
    Ineffective pastors are asked to move on.

    Are these bad in an of themselves? Shouldn’t staff who are not confessional Lutherans and who don’t do their jobs be let go? Should Pastor’s be held accountable for their teaching/preaching, for their catechesis? Shouldn’t Pastor’s who are negligent in these duties be asked to move on?

    I’m hardly saying that TCN is working with such assumptions, but is the rat in the attempt by Pastor and people to refocus themselves off themselves, or in the theology and motivation for doing so?

    External forms do not a Church make or unmake, but how and for what those forms are used makes all the difference in the world.

  10. ‘I’m hardly saying that TCN is working with such assumptions, but is the rat in the attempt by Pastor and people to refocus themselves off themselves, or in the theology and motivation for doing so?’

    The nail has been hit on its head, Revfisk.
    If a Pastor or a council or board of elders or a ‘concerned congregant’ thinks TCN-type ‘theology’ is just what they need, then their theology has been screwed up long before TCN got its foot inside the door and a body into the pulpit.
    It’s long been my thought that, in ‘doing evangelism’ as a confessional Lutheran, the ones most in need of Lutheran evangelism are our fellow Lutherans, many of whom are hot to be called Lutheran, but less than lukewarm in gaining any understanding of the name; who think the confessions–and probably much of the Bible–are just ancient testimonies on ancient history.
    If we’re not evangelizing our own, outside of divine service–calling those who fall behind in attendance and speaking words of truth (vocation, vocation, vocation), supporting our confessional pastors, etc.–a program foisted from outside the truth only seals a foreshadowed doom–a doom any Christian should’ve seen coming.
    Are TCN-imbibing congregations victims, or are they maybe willing participants, getting what they wanted all along? And all that because of what they have believed all along; what their theology was all along?

  11. “Direct Hit” by Paul Borden is a must read. He emphasizes that the pastor needs to push the urgent need for change. Think about it: “Change you can believe in”–a response to the economic “crisis.” The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Structure is being sold on the basis of urgent need for change in the name of efficiency (tranlate: money). Not all pastors push the “urgent” button, but circumstances often have that effect. So, as one man said, “We gotta do something.” Well, TC is “something,” so they did it. The extreme theology website published an interesting piece on change in the LCMS over a year ago: go to
    and look for the “change in the LCMS” article.
    It’s all around us.

  12. Oh, yes, Susan. I forgot to mention–the LCMS has a fascination for “programs” for 30 years. I believe this is because many do not have a high view of scripture, falling back on programs because their preaching of works has failed. A serious indictment, perhaps, but valid I believe. TCN (and it’s cousin NCD) are just the latest programs that substitute for the Gospel. Your 11:28 a.m. comment is absolutely right.

  13. Again,

    It is completely appropriate to see Borden’s book and its teaching that the Pastor must “create” urgency, even is there isn’t any there, in order to get the people to move toward his vission/converts at all costs, as a grave danger and denial of the clear teaching of Scripture about conversion….

    But…I do see an urgency in my congregation and many others – it is an urgency for repentance – a need to cry out “Take not your Holy Spirit from us” – an urgency to be called back to Scripture and *confessing* the confessions to the world as the (ahem – forgive my use of the word) “mission” of the Lutheran Church.

    So I still ask, where is the real rat? Is it in recognizing true urgency and leading people to what is right and good and True? Is it in interventions/consultation which call congregations to repentance of their self-absorbed games?

    Without question, we cannot rely on TCN to do that work for us. But, I ask you, how shall we do that work?

    My great concern is that when faced with the very real threat of TCN’s theology and assumptions, we neglect to address the (all too often very real) problem TCN was created to address – that is, congregations living “incurvatis est” to its fullest measure, and thinking they’re the Church because of it.

    Keep the conversation going!

  14. Revfisk has raised a profound question–it cries for an answer. Revfisk–I offer, not an answer, but at least a response. (First, I believe the “real rat” is in Satan’s ploy of substituting Law for Gospel). Now the feeble response to your main question:

    From first to last, even during his last week, Christ called His people to repentance. Thesis 1 of 95 says that the entire life of the believer is one of repentance. And Christ proclaimed forgiveness, even from the cross. As one who is not a pastor, I ask Revfisk, how does a pastor proclaim the need for repentance? I am personally extremely uncomfortable with TC’s “Season” and “Day of Repentance” programmed approach. It seems manipulative. Borden (and the LCMS TC practitioners) don’t use the “sin” word much, if at all (I’m not sure I saw it in “Direct Hit.”) A.C. XII tells us repentance consists of both contrition (sorrow) and faith in Christ’s promises.
    But do you need a programmed approach to bring your people to repentance? Hardly–just the hard work of honing your skill in properly dividing and preaching Law and Gospel. After all is said and done, it’s that simple and at the same time, that difficult. We layfolk can only cry out, “Oh, pastors, yours is a formidable task!” So we try to encourage you, and we pray for you in your holy calling.
    We thank God for you. May you ever be faithful!

    Philippians 1:3-6

  15. Johannes,

    Thanks for your words. We (striving to be) confessional pastors need all the love we can get!

    I agree about the problems with Borden’s book, unequivocally. I’m also right there with you in that the Christian life is a life of repentance. And I can’t stand the manipulation (rooted in pietism) which seeks to motivate people with the Law – in various forms and often miraged as a “Gospel” imperative.

    I just want to keep us thinking as Lutherans. Repristination is important, but not for its own sake. The confessions don’t just speak Truth in a vacuum or Truth to the 1500’s. They have real meaning for us today.

    Then, do we, as Lutherans, really want to focus our critique of TCN on a day or a season of teaching repentance? Ash Wednesday? Lent? If a congregation truly has mired itself for years with “Law/Gospel” on its banner but “Us/Building” in its practice, is it so wrong to call the community to think deeply about what it’s doing in an event which involves them all and tells them all this is about your future as Church?

    See what I mean?

    Again, I really don’t want to defend TCN per say. But I do believe that confessional Lutherans do need to find ways to “reform” Lutheran congregations who have gone astray – especially congregations who have an inkling that something’s gone amiss but have neither the trust of their pastor (often for good reason) nor the confidence in the Gospel (which they haven’t heard for years) to make real changes which might be very needed very quickly simply to keep that Law/Gospel preaching going a few more years. When one throws into the mix a congregation’s literal limited life as a non-profit org due to serious fiscal difficulties, the conundrum compounds itself. Such situations may not be the norm in the midwest, but out here in the east I’ve seen so many of these neglected parishes as to weep.

    I truly lament that our process of intervention (which used to be the jobs of DP’s and circuit counselors) is being reinvented with a material principle other than “Word and Sacrament” – that is, as TCN would say, “Mission.” (Although, if we define “mission” Biblically, we would get “Word and Sacarament” rather than “conversion” as the meaning of the word!) But as we critique TCN (as we should,) I hope we do so as discerning Lutherans, critiquing the theology where it is not Scriptural, but examining carefullly the concept and need for a Lutheran process which tries to help struggling congregations refocus themselves off themselves and back onto the Word and Sacraments of Jesus for the life of the world.

    TCN will not do this. But we must.

    Again, thank you for your words. Your prayers for St. John ELC of Springfield PA are deeply needed and appreciated.

  16. Revfisk,
    A truly “Lutheran process to help struggling congregations refocus themselves off themselves and back onto the Word and Sacraments of Jesus for the life of the world” would likely be focused on the very congregations our current SP sees as “healthy” (and which the Blue Ribbon boys are trying to put in the driver’s seat at all future conventions.) They are the people loosing their lives by struggling to keep them.
    The big lie is that the Bride of Christ is called to be “effective” rather than “faithful.”
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  17. Matt,

    A truly “Lutheran process to help…” would likely not be invited to the congregations you speak of. But you are correct in that it neither would it see those congregations as the chief models of faithfulness. Ironically, many of the “model” congregations have long since ceased supporting Synod, financially or otherwise.

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