Pastor Messer Writes a Nice Summary of What’s Wrong with Churches Like The Alley

I have been thinking that it would be good to write a summary critique of the problems with the move toward the “unchurch” church in the LCMS and other denominations. I have not had that time but noticed that Pastor Thomas Messer wrote just such a piece in the comment section of one our posts. He was responding to one of the comments by a member from The Alley. I have reprinted the relevant part of that post below and then followed it up with Pastor Messer’s comment.

Before getting to that let me share a few more thoughts. We have had several defenders of this new emergent style of church comment on our site. That is good on many levels. It is good that we can have these discussions. I thank all of you members of The Alley and others for taking the time to discuss these matters. We sharply disagree but I thank you for investing the time and thought to engage. While you are here discussing with the readers of this website we hope you may learn where we are coming from and take some time to read the Lutheran Confessions. We would love to add your church to our list of Confessions reading groups.

So member of The Alley Mark Boatman wrote this:

Much about the Alley that has been shared on this blog is misleading supposition and misinterpretation. How many of you with concerns and criticisms of our church (yes I did call us a church) have actually set foot in the door? Had a discussion with Pastor Ben? Actually talked with someone in leadership? Perhaps before criticizing, you should consider visiting…and even sitting down with us and working through your concerns in a spirit of cooperation and love (you know…like how Jesus might approach it). We’ll not agree on everything…but I think you’ll find we’re not as scary as you seem to think.

In response Pastor Messer said this:

Mark Boatman,

God forbid that I would draw conclusions about the Alley based simply on what someone else said, even if that someone is Rev. Rossow, whom I trust and for whom I have a great deal of respect.

I began looking into the Alley when a story about it appeared in one of our official LCMS publications many moons ago (don’t remember exactly when). I’ve visited the website, read all of the content, looked at the pictures, listened to the audio and watched the video on “the teachings,” and followed the blogs. All of this (the Alley’s public testimony of who they are, what they believe, and how they practice their beliefs) is enough for me to conclude that the Alley wants to be “a Lutheran church for those who don’t like Lutheranism.”

Do I really need to investigate further? Really? Why? Is what happens at the Alley different from what the website says happens? Are the pictures posted there inaccurate? Has the audio and video I’ve heard and seen been tampered with in some way? I suppose it’s possible that everything the Alley says about itself in public is inaccurate and what really happens there is genuinely Lutheran, but I highly doubt it. And, even if that were the case, my criticism about the Alley being dishonest would be just as valid, since it would be presenting itself to be one thing (some unique, independent blending of traditional, contemporary, Americanized Evangelical, and emergent which magically results in the genuine Christianity found in the 1st century), while practicing something completely different (confessional Lutheranism). Of course, we both know that the exact opposite is true. The Alley’s public testimony about itself is accurate, which means that it wants to be considered Lutheran, but has no desire to put confessional Lutheran doctrine into practice.

Besides all this, Mark, I have my own experience upon which to draw. Believe it or not, the Alley is not as unique as you might think. There are plenty of congregations masquerading as Lutheran to be found in our synod. I have witnessed the transformation of three LCMS congregations with my very own eyes. They went from being decidedly Lutheran in doctrine and practice to completely un-Lutheran in doctrine and practice. The only thing “Lutheran” about these congregations which remains is the “Lutheran” one sees on the sign outside.

I was a member of one of these congregations for years. It was a very traditional, liturgical Lutheran congregation. I was baptized and confirmed there. I was taught the Holy Scriptures and our Lutheran Confessions there. I was taught to cherish the precious means of grace, the Holy Word and Sacraments, through which our Lord brings us into, and keep us in, the one, true faith.

But, all of that changed in the late 80s/early 90s. My pastor studied at Fuller and received a Master’s degree in “Church Growth.” Suddenly, the vestments disappeared, the hymnals were chucked, the altar gave way to the “praise band,” the sermons were replaced with “motivational messages” (often given in the form of skits and videos), spontaneous “testimonies” became commonplace during “worship,” and so on.

I can’t tell you how many one-on-one conversations I had with my pastor about all this – lots! I was confused. Everything I had learned was being pitched out the window and replaced with all of this “new and improved stuff.” But, I gave it a chance. I had loads of respect for my pastor and I trusted that he was leading us in the direction we should be going. “Thomas, the hymnal doesn’t appeal to the un-churched,” he would say to me whenever I questioned him. And, for a while, I bought into it. I tried to embrace this new version of Christianity, but, alas, it didn’t take. I guess I had been taught too well in my younger years. What I was seeing in my church didn’t feel authentic. It felt fake. It was all about having fun and “getting down with Jesus,” and that’s not why I had always come to church. It didn’t take long for me to see that what was happening in my church didn’t jive with what I learned in Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions. The Holy encounter with our Holy God in which I came on bended knee to confess my sins and plead for mercy, receiving the forgiveness, life, and salvation I desperately need by means of His Holy Word and Sacraments was gone. In its place was an hour of people-pleasing entertainment in which we were taken on an emotional roller-coaster each week, and had me asking myself week in and week out, “Where’s Jesus?”

The thing that hit me hardest about the transformation my congregation made was the lack of care given to our members. The new “philosophy” was that if you’re already “in,” you don’t matter. We the members were told constantly that our church wasn’t about us, but about the lost out there. Our “job” was to go out and bring the lost in. We were all “ministers,” after all, and our ministry was to seek after the lost and get them into our church. Everything – everything – became about that.

I remember a brother standing up during a “Bible Study” where this “philosophy” was being taught once and saying, “Yeah, but, I thought the church existed to feed the sheep.” He was answered, “That’s a secondary function of the church. The primary function is to find the lost and make them sheep. If you want to be fed, get into one of our ‘small groups’ or sign up to serve in one of our ‘ministries.’ That’s how you’ll be fed.”

Droves of people left that congregation. But, it didn’t matter. More people came in to replace them. This happened constantly and the congregation’s “leadership team,” with the pastor as the CEO, never blinked an eye. They were following a “So what, who’s next?” approach. No use crying over lost members; we’ve got souls to save out there!

I could go on and on, but I’ve already written too much. The point I’m making is that I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a Lutheran congregation follows the latest fads, which is exactly what the Alley is doing. I don’t need to come for a visit or sit down and have a heart-to-heart with Pastor Ben. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (literally!).

So, back to the point I was making in my first post: If congregations like the Alley want to follow the latest fads and do their own thing, fine. Go for it. Have fun. Just stop claiming to be Lutheran at the same time. That’s dishonest. How can anything good come from being dishonest? Why not just embrace who you really are and what you really believe?

The truth is, Mark, I’ve been involved in this battle for years. I’ve read all of the classic “Church Growth” texts and am familiar with the progression of the movement to this day. I know all of the arguments backwards and forwards. I could probably take the pro-Church Growth side in a debate and argue its case better than most who actually embrace it. The problem, of course, is that it’s all bunk and has no Scriptural foundation (and most definitely no foundation whatsoever from our Lutheran Confessions) upon which to stand. So, it is not as though pastors like me have no clue what we’re talking about in this regard. Contrary to popular belief, our heads are not “stuck in the sand.” We don’t live in some fancy “ivory tower,” where we spend every waking moment with our faces firmly implanted in our Bibles and Confessions. We live in the real world, just like you. We’ve investigated these matters thoroughly and our conclusions are not off the cuff.

But, you want specifics. Fine. I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked countless pastors and laypeople who have embraced the “style of worship” found in places like the Alley: Where in Holy Scripture do you find God’s people engaged in that “style of worship”? Where in our Lutheran Confessions is that “style of worship” condoned? Simple questions, really. Should lead to simple answers.

In Christ,
Pastor Messer

Thank you Pastor Messer for saying it better than I could. (For the entire series of comments click here. Pastor Messer’s comment is #58. Mark Boatman’s comment is #48. He also wrote in a similar fashion in comment #55.)

For a similar approach to  Pastor Messer’s,  you may want to check out the comment string for comments by  Paul in O’Fallon. He too has “visited” The Alley and has some important commentary for us. You can read about his visits here (see comments 10 and 14).

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