Church Growth God’s Way — Sermon by Pastor Rolf Preus

Church attendance has been dropping throughout America for a long time.  All church bodies – mainstream Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics – are affected.  People are quitting church, or they never join.  The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has lost a quarter of its members since I was ordained.  Why don’t people come to church?  What can we do to get them to come?

As church attendance has declined, an industry has risen to meet the challenge.  It is called the Church Growth Movement.  The Church Growth Movement applies marketing strategies used in business to help churches grow.  These strategies are given a religious sounding veneer and pawned off as spiritual principles.  One such principle that a congregation must apply if it wants to grow is the “felt needs” principle.  What are people looking for in a church?  The church must provide it, whether it is quality child care, relevant messages, contemporary music, informal and casual atmosphere, or whatever.  The church is market driven.  It packages its product to attract the most customers.

The marketing experts told us that you will not grow if you emphasize doctrine and follow a traditional liturgical service.  Churches sprouted up all over the country offering little solid theology.  Instead of teaching the mysteries of God, the religious entrepreneurs taught how to succeed in finances, personal relationships, overcoming bad habits, or whatever.  The historic liturgy of the church was discarded in favor of “praise” services that focused more on the religious feeling of the worshipper than on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The church should listen to her Lord instead of the self-appointed “experts” on church growth.  The church grows by doing what Jesus says to do.  Jesus grew up learning carpentry, not fishing.  Simon Peter was a fisherman, and a good one.  Peter knew where the fish were.  He knew that there were no fish where Jesus told him to let down the nets.  Nevertheless, when Jesus told him what to do, Peter replied by saying, “At your word, I will let down the net.”

“At your word,” he said.  We do what Jesus says to do.  We do it even when sound reasoning and our own life’s experience tell us that he is wrong.  We do it because he says to do it.  Peter speaks for all faithful Christians when he says, “At your word.”

Jesus told his church to go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded them.  He told them to preach the gospel to every creature.  He told the ministers of his church to feed his sheep.  It is by teaching the teaching Jesus teaches that the net is let down into the water.  This is how you catch men.  This is how sinners are saved.  Do what Jesus said to do.

Today’s so-called Church Growth experts promote the problem and call it the cure.  The problem is that people are ignorant of Christian doctrine.  They don’t know the basics of the Christian faith.  They haven’t received instruction.  That’s why they are not interested in Christian doctrine.  They don’t know Christian doctrine.  They don’t know what they are missing.  They don’t know what they need.  They know what they want, but they don’t want what they need.  The strategy of meeting the “felt needs” of people misses the point.  Their “felt” needs aren’t their real needs.

What did Peter say when he discovered that he was in the presence of Almighty God Himself.  He said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  Jesus displayed his divine power and Peter was afraid.  He knew he had no right to stand in the presence of his Creator.  He was not worthy.  Peter knew he needed mercy.  He needed forgiveness.  He needed a Savior.  That was his felt need.

Most people don’t feel the need for forgiveness because they don’t reckon with their sin.  That doesn’t change the church’s mission.  It is Christ’s church and Christ is the Savior of sinners.  Church is about Jesus the Savior, not Jesus the financial planner, Jesus the politician, Jesus the moral philosopher, or Jesus the advice columnist.  Jesus is the Savior of sinners.  If you don’t see that you’re a sinner, you won’t be interested in this.  You won’t have a “felt” need for it.  The reason people don’t go to church is because they aren’t looking for what the church has to give them: a Savior from their sin.  They don’t feel their sin.

Oh, they feel their problems.  Life is hard or unfair.  I can’t do this or that.  Money is tight and everyone else is getting the breaks.  If only my wife or my brother or my boss or someone else would stop doing what they’re doing, why then I’d be able to get on with things.  If I could overcome this or that or the other obstacle to success, my life would improve.  Problems, problems, problems, people know that they have problems.

That’s not enough.  You need to know your sin.  You need to know that the difficulties of life, the lack of opportunity, or the wrongs you have suffered from others are not your real problems.  Your real problem is that you have not loved the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself.  That makes you a sinner.  You have no right to stand in the presence of your Creator.  Until you know this, the heavenly doctrine won’t touch you.  The message of Jesus’ suffering and death to take away your sin will give you no joy.  The absolution won’t bring you peace.  Receiving Christ’s body and blood with the sacramental bread and the wine won’t interest you.  The truth about God and the wonder of his becoming flesh and blood for you, to bear your sin and to set you free from your load of guilt will leave you cold unless you are looking for a Savior from your sin.

The preacher is called to preach the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.  Jesus called Peter to this public preaching office when he said to him, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  First he tells him not to be afraid.  God forgives him his sins.  Then he tells him he will catch men.  He will preach to others the gospel of the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus forgave Peter.  Then he called him to preach.  Preaching the gospel of the forgiveness of sins is casting out the net that catches the fish.

The church doesn’t adopt the standards of the world to market her goods.  She preaches Christ crucified for sinners.  She preaches a law that condemns everybody and spares nobody, driving guilty sinners to cry out their sin to God in terror of his justice.  The message of how to get God to meet your felt needs is a con.  We don’t manipulate God by doing religious stuff.  God’s in charge.  He’s the One whose law condemns us.  He’s the One whose gospel saves us.

The Christian Church is created, sustained, identified, and saved by the preaching of the cross.  God became sin for us that we might become righteous.  What a beautiful exchange!  Every sin that drags us down to the grave and abandons us to eternal punishment is imputed to Jesus who in innocence bears it and takes it away.  His goodness, purity, holiness, justice, and love – his obedience – is imputed to us.  For his sake we are righteous, not with our own righteousness, but with Christ’s.  It covers us as a beautiful robe of righteousness that makes us righteous before God.  He became sin to give us his righteousness.  He became the curse to give us his blessing.  The preaching of the cross brings the fish into the net.

Sinners need this Savior, whether or not they feel their need.  The church tells sinners that their real need is to be reconciled to God.  Christ alone can do that.  As the hymnist writes:

Christ alone is our salvation
Christ, the Rock on which we stand
Other than this sure foundation
Will be found but sinking sand
Christ, his cross and resurrection,
Is alone the sinner’s plea
At the throne of God’s perfection
Nothing else can set him free.

The preaching of Christ is Christ’s ministry among us.  It is the ministry of reconciliation.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them.  This ministry brings us into fellowship with God, at peace with our Maker.  We have nothing to fear from God.  We have seen God in Jesus and Jesus has taken away our guilt, our sin, our fear of death and punishment, and has given us his own righteousness in exchange.  This gospel belongs to all Christians.  The preachers preach it publicly.  God calls every Christian to confess it to his neighbor in need.  St. Peter wrote in today’s Epistle Lesson,

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.

This gospel is the most precious thing we have in this life.  Nothing else compares.  That’s why those fishermen left everything to follow Jesus.

The gospel does what the gospel does because it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.  The gospel is its own power.  You cannot make it work.  It is God’s power; not ours.  That’s what today’s Gospel Lesson teaches us.  We don’t bait the hook.  There is no bait and no hook.  Peter fished with a net.  We don’t lure people to church by claiming we can meet their felt needs.  Who are we?  We preach the truth.  We confess the truth.  We cast the net.

We talk about God.  We talk about who he is and what he has done.  We talk about our need for Jesus and we talk about Jesus.  As we talk this God-talk God casts into the waters and brings souls into his kingdom.  We never actually see it, because faith is invisible to our eyes.  But we know that it is happening wherever and whenever God’s word is preached, taught, or confessed.  God’s Church Growth method is that we who know the truth confess it, urge our pastors to preach it, and support this ministry in any way we can.  Through it sinners receive what they really need, regardless of what their “felt” needs might be.  Amen

About Pastor Rolf Preus

Pastor Rolf David Preus grew up on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the fourth of ten children, where his father, Dr. Robert David Preus, taught for many years. Pastor Preus graduated from high school in 1971, from Concordia College, St. Paul, Minnesota in 1975 and from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1979. He was ordained on July 1, 1979, at Trinity Lutheran Church, in Clear Lake, Minnesota. He served Trinity Lutheran Church in Clear Lake (1979-1982), First Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1982-1989), St. John's Lutheran Church in Racine, Wisconsin (1989-1997), River Heights Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (1997-2006), and First American Lutheran Church in Mayville, North Dakota and Grace Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minnesota from (2006-2015). On February 15, 2015 he was installed as Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Sidney, Montana and St. John Lutheran Church, Fairview, Montana. Pastor Preus received his Master of Sacred Theology degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1987. His thesis topic was, “An Evaluation of Lutheran/Roman Catholic Conversations on Justification." Pastor Preus has taught courses in theology for Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Concordia University Wisconsin, and St. Sophia Lutheran Theological Seminary in Ternopil, Ukraine. Pastor Preus married Dorothy Jean Felts on May 27, 1975, in Coldwater, Michigan. God has blessed Pastor and Dort with twelve children: Daniel, David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, James, Mary, Samuel, and Peter. David, Paul, John, Mark, Stephen, Christian, Andrew, and James are pastors in the LCMS. God has blessed Pastor and Mrs. Preus with sixty-three grandchildren so far.


Church Growth God’s Way — Sermon by Pastor Rolf Preus — 108 Comments

  1. Mr. Poeppel, one feature of your many posts that I find rather mystifying is your constant reference to the LCMS as if the LCMS is the church. Your repeated criticisms are criticisms of the Christian Church. Why do you direct them specifically against the LCMS? When I think of the Christian church I never think of a particular synod or church body. When you criticize the Christian church you always level it against a particular synod or church body. I’m not sure what to make of this. Why do you think this is?

  2. @Kurt Poeppel #99

    Sure, the claims of the Bible seem extremely difficult to the unbeliever – and yeah, even to believers on account of the sinful nature that we wrestle with and against in our hearts. I won’t deny that. But, let’s be honest. The claims made by scientists regarding Evolution and Cosmology are also quite grand as well. I know a number of atheists who have difficulty with the theory of Evolution as well as the Scientific teachings regarding the origins of the universe. We can argue all day as to what the merits and detriments are to any purposed ideology regarding the existence of all that is. But, again, I will defer to others on this matter as they have carried out that discussion with you already.

    As for my ‘plan’ for gaining new members outside of the church and retaining members inside the church… I don’t have one. That isn’t really for me to do, either. Proverbs 19 tells us that: Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. Plans are not my thing, however, I do have a vocation as a pastor. My vocation calls me to preach the Word of God and administer the Sacraments faithfully. It is not my job to convert or come up with plans to get people to believe in God, that task belongs alone to God through His means – Word and Sacrament. Even as a Christian, it is not my ‘job’ to proclaim the Word – the Good News. It is my joy and privilege as one who has been redeemed, forgiven, and made new in Christ to share this Good News. It is part of my vocation as a Christian, carrying the hope which I have forth into the world with joy to share the Gospel through which God works to save, regardless of what the ears hearing may or may not think about the message.

    The Gospel sounds insane to the unbeliever, but to the regenerate man, it is a message of peace, comfort, and strength which comes through knowing that by the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have eternal life. Christ will sustain His Church through the means that He has established – He doesn’t need my plans and schemes. I need no plans. Christ has done the work and continues to do the work. His Word is sufficient.

    You have your reasons and beliefs, they are what they are. I pray that by the grace of God, your heart would be turned and your eyes opened to the truth of His Word. I truly desire that for you. I want for you to have the peace which surpasses all understanding. I don’t mean that in a patronizing manner, but, in the truest hope for you as one whom God has created and dearly loves. You may not like the idea of the cross, but the death of Christ upon it was for you, and still is for you.

    Penn Jillette (an outspoken atheist) states: I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that. I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.

  3. @Mark #100

    5) a human blood sacrifice approximately 2000 years ago can make a person live forever, by satisfying the wrath of a deity and reversing the punishment in claim (4). –Poeppel

    Yes, unless said person forgoes His provision, which is to be expected unless and until the Holy Spirit intervenes.–Mark

    Mark, don’t give him that one!

    Christ was God and man.
    No purely “human blood sacrifice” atoned for sin!

    And now I’ve broken my own rule!
    {And the last 50 posts may have been as futile as the first 50.}

    Auf wiedersehen!

  4. @Pastor Rolf D. Preus #101

    The LCMS is the type of Christianity I am most familiar with. Many Christian groups have very different beliefs, especially the more liberal Chistian groups.

    I speak of the LCMS to be specific, since there are so many different types of Christianity.

  5. @Mark #100

    Yes, that is what the LCMS and other evangelical Christians teach. I know the doctrines well.

    Those are extraordinary claims about reality. How do you expect the average American to buy into those claims?

  6. @Rev. William Ringer #102

    It sounds like you get an emotional benefit from believing. Fine by me.

    But I don’t have the ability to “believe what I know ain’t so” as Mark Twain famously put it. I desperately tried, but cognitive dissonance is hard to live with.

    Even when I was still a believer, I didn’t get much of an emotional benefit from it. I’m actually much less afraid to die as a non-believer than I was when I was a believer! Evangelical Christian beliefs were actually making my fear of death worse, not better.

    Eternal life sounds great at first, but after the first 100 billion years I would probably go crazy. And 100 billion years is literally nothing compared to eternity. Even 72 virgins, dead relatives, and streets of gold would get old after awhile. And there’d be no escape! Even suicide would be impossible since I’d already be dead! Eternal life would be a kind of ultimate prison.

    There’s an ancient proverb that goes something like this: “when the gods want to punish us, they grant us our deepest wishes.”

    It’s very common for evangelical Christians to see non-believers as inherently defective. Probably because a true believer can’t possibly admit that non-belief is perfectly rational. 😉 But for many former believers (including myself), leaving the fold was a very hard thing to do. I was dragged out of evangelical Christianity “kicking and screaming”. My rational mind kept telling me it was false, but my emotional mind clung to it desperately.

    Leaving was not some act of rebellion. I didn’t go out and engage in sex, drugs, crime, or heavy metal music. I don’t even like heavy metal music. I’m pretty much the same boring person as I was before.

    My point: many people are leaving the church because evangelical claims about reality are not credible. There’s zero evidence for a 6,000 year old universe with no death at the beginning, zero evidence that a blood sacrifice ~2000 years ago made a certain portion of the population immortal, zero evidence for the Risen Christ (why isn’t he still walking among us today and converting people? Why was he conveniently taken back to heaven, hmmm?), and zero evidence for heaven and hell.

  7. The LCMS church to which I belong, is endorsing Church Growth and all of its humanistic extra-Biblical mistakes. The problem is that the pastor(s) are almost bullied into it by the elders and other authorities who are crying about numbers and of course economics. They recruit the Theology of Vocation to justify every worldly tactic – the righteousness “coram mundo”, the second Great Commandment about loving neighbor – is fulfilled by responding to their felt needs. All the poor lost sheep need is a hug and possible some pastries and coffee and they will surely turn. No need for heady doctrines and confession. This is what Jesus was all about- serving people’s needs. You clarified that very well. The Jews wanted a Savior to liberate them from Roman oppression. They didn’t realize for the most part that their real bondage was sin.
    Thanks for the confessionally informed and biblical article.

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