“Johannes” is a retired layman who serves district and synodical organizations. He has also served as a delegate to district and synodical conventions, and is active in his local congregation. Because of policy considerations, he has chosen to remain anonymous at this time.
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my need, and well provides me,
Loves me ev’ry day the same, Even calls me by my name.
(Henrietta L. von Hayn, 1778, I am Jesus’ Little Lamb, LSB 740)
“What about the wee ones?” I was communicating practically one-on-one with a lady who identifies herself only as “Dutch”, courtesy of BJS, on the subject “How Do You Revitalize a Congregation?” In the course of our exchanges, Dutch raised the issue of LCMS Revitalization’s “Transforming Churches'” effect on our children: “What about the wee ones?” As of this writing, perhaps as many as 300 LCMS congregations have been exposed to this spiritually dangerous program, and are in various stages of “transformation.” Does TC present a spiritual danger to our children and young people?
The “Transforming Churches Network (TCN) was formed ostensibly as the LCMS’ response to 2007 Convention Res. 1-01A, “To Support Revitalization of LCMS Congregations.” Neither TC nor its equally dangerous counterpart, Natural Church Development (NCD), were referenced in the resolution, but TC had already begun as a pilot program in the Mid-South District in 2005. It was already a “done deal.” Scott Diekmann has done a masterful job elsewhere of analyzing this program. My paper, “Can Transforming Churches be Fixed?” was an attempt to show how TC might be “Lutheranized.” Rather than a re-hash of all of TC’s many shortcomings and faults here, I will assume the reader is familiar with the program, and will only give a broad and somewhat selective overview.
The TCN Process (Overview): Transforming Churches is the creation of Paul Borden, a Baptist minister. Its whole focus is on numerical growth: proper organization and manpower allocation will result in more members, similar to Kent Hunter’s “(D+Rx) x HW + PG = Changed Church.” (Diagnosis plus Prescription times Hard Work plus the Power of God will lead to change in the church.) Couched in spiritual “God-talk”, TC is, to quote one BJS contributor, “basic business operations & theory.” The lynchpin of TC is re-writing the congregation’s constitution and bylaws into the “Accountable Leadership Model.” Basically, the pastor becomes the congregation’s CEO, while “staff” does much of the work the pastor formerly did. The members (“ministers”) carry out the work delegated to them by the staff. Everything is geared to increase membership. According to Borden, the staff members “oversee the basic ministries of the congregation and are held accountable as individuals for how many disciples will come to Jesus under their ministry.” If a staffer does not perform, the pastor relieves him/her of his/her duties, and someone else is appointed to take their place (and, presumably, get results). We read this in Borden’s book “Direct Hit,” (page 113) but we certainly would not expect that the LCMS would adopt such language. Here’s the verbiage from the LCMS document “Implementing the Accountable Leadership Model”:
“The Pastor shall hire, direct, compensate, and fire any and all Church Staff in compliance with the Guiding Principles established by the Board.”
We can be thankful that the language referring to new membership goals is missing, but this paragraph tells us a great deal. The pastor-turned-CEO has been given powers and duties far beyond those of a shepherd. It’s clear that Borden (and some of our synod TC officials) have a far different view of the Holy Ministry than the confessors of Augsburg:
“To obtain such [saving] faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.” (A.C. V, Kolb-Wengert, Book of Concord)
What does all this have to do with our children, and TC’s effect on them? In “Can TC be Fixed?” I identified two of the major dangers of TC:
- “The philosophy of TC does violence to the Gospel, ‘transforming’ the Gospel into Law. Justification by grace through faith is replaced with the Great Commission as the central article of faith; faithful people are clubbed with a truncated version of the Great Commission (“Make new disciples, [only])”, as the sweetness of the Gospel is replaced by the terror of the Law;
- It damages the office of the Holy Ministry, changing the pastor into a CEO: rather than a steward of the mysteries of Christ, he is master of the congregation, and the two kingdoms are hopelessly entangled.”
As we consider the potential effects of TC on LCMS children and youth, several related questions need to be considered:
- How well (or poorly) are we serving our children presently?
- What overt spiritual damage might TC do to our children?
- What is missing in TC that our children need spiritually?
- Does TC have any potential to influence our children for good, spiritually?
We will examine TC in the context of the Gospel and Holy Ministry, and address these questions in each area.
1. TC Violates the Gospel:
- With respect to the Gospel, how well (or poorly) are we presently serving our children? It is disingenuous to point an accusing finger at TC, if we are not presently serving our children faithfully. The Gospelâ€”Justification by Faithâ€”is the central article of the Christian faith. It is what separates us from all other religions. It is the lifeblood that flows through Christianity’s veins. The Gospel is heavenly manna, food that every person needs, adults and children alike:
“Furthermore, it is taught [in our churches] that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5.” (A.C. IV, Kolb-Wengert)
Congregation and pastor should ask themselves these and other Gospel-related questions:
- Do we evangelize our children and young people?
- What kind of teaching materials are being used and where do they come from?
- Do the lessons teach the Gospel or do they moralize?
- Do the teachers know Law from Gospel and do they teach them correctly?
- Are the children taught the meaning of their baptisms into Christ, and do they celebrate their baptismal “birthdays”?
These questions are basic to the entire education program of the congregation. How we answer them is critical to our children’s spiritual welfare. If the answers don’t demonstrate a clear Gospel orientation, a genuine Gospel revitalization is needed, and, as will be shown, there’s no reason to believe that TC is the vehicle for such revitalization.
- With respect to the Gospel, what overt spiritual damage may TC do to our children?
- TC, with its Baptist roots is based on decision theology. Lutherans are not immune from this. Although decision theology may be absent from our teaching, it doesn’t seem to have been washed out of our synod’s program. For instance, in the LCMS video presentation one person says of his baptism, “I washed my sins away.” This is dangerous. As our children celebrate their baptismal birthdays, they need to be taught that it is not them, but Jesus who has done the washing, and still does.
- Here’s another excerpt from the above referenced video. A relatively young mother (not a new Christian) is speaking: “One of the things we were kind of looking for when we were looking for a church was a place that could really help us grow our family, spiritually, which we hadn’t really found in the past, and every single lesson that we’ve learned at LakePointe has applied to our life, and I’m really excited that my children are going to have the opportunity to grow in that church and to be able to be a part of this church because I think that this church is going to do amazing things. And I don’t know that we would have found that anywhere else, so we’re just, I mean we feel like we’re home at LakePointe.” Scott Diekmann has seen through this: “There is no sense of a daily life of repentance and forgiveness lived out in Christ. Instead, they give the impression that “church” is about turning your life around, solving your problems, committing your life to Christ, making you feel better, and learning important life lessons that can be applied to you and your family. The focus isn’t on Jesus and His obedience, it’s on you and your obedience. It’s a Law-driven message, and highlights the mindset of those “transformed” by TCN.” (Diekmann, TCN, pp 4,5).
- One of the most common TC prescriptions is that the pastor preach a sermon series on the “missional nature” of the church. There is a very real temptation for the pastor to continue this theme into all his preaching and teaching, creating guilt among all his members for their failure to be outward focused. This can easily infect the teaching of our children, as the Gospel has been turned into law. Our children and young people may easily be led into a Law-based relationship with their Savior: “Jesus died for you, so you need to get to work.”
- With respect to the Gospel, what is missing from TC that our children need spiritually? The answer is simple: the Gospel is missing from TC:
- Borden barely mentions the Gospel in “Direct Hit. Based on personal experience in an LCMS setting, the Gospel is often treated as a “given.” As one TC trainer expressed it, “Yes, it’s [the Gospel] important too,” and “Yes, this is what God has doneâ€”we need to ask them [non-Christians] to join us in making new disciples.” Is this what we want to teach our members and our children? The Gospel is missing here. It can never be a “given!” The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.
- As a Baptist, Borden has a low view of the sacraments, and so that vital sacramental focus is missing from his material. It is also missing completely from the Lutheran TC presentation, so indirectly, our children are affected. Unless the pastor is faithfully maintaining a sacramental focus, TC ignores the sacraments, as though revitalization is possible without them! To ignore the sacraments is to ignore the Gospel.
- With respect to the Gospel, does TC have any potential to influence our children for good, spiritually?
- As it stands, if the pastor, staff, and members have bought into the TC program and philosophy, with its emphasis only on growth then it would not appear that there is much hope that our children would be influenced for good. Faced with the “crisis” of declining attendance and membership, many well-meaning pastors and laypersons may well lose sight of the centrality of the Gospel.
- We pray that pastors who begin this program would continue to faithfully study Scripture and preach the Gospel, TC’s works-centered prescriptions notwithstanding.
- Perhaps some will see the manifold errors in TC, and abandon the program, returning to a truly Gospel-centered approach to their congregation’s ministries. That may be a beneficial, though unintended consequence of TC.
- However, as it is currently being “sold” to our congregations, TC does not appear to project any influence for good, with respect to the Gospel. Read again the excerpt from the LCMS video which hardly gives cause for optimism:
“…I’m really excited that my children are going to have the opportunity to grow in that church and to be able to be a part of this church because I think that this church is going to do amazing things.”
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me,
Into pleasant pastures leads me;
When I thirst, He bids me go Where the quiet waters flow.