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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Authentic Alternative

By Larry Beane

This post is intended as a follow-up to an earlier recent post about worship style and the latest battles within the LCMS over worship.

The church growth movement (the term may no longer be popular, but let us call a thing what it is) and its defenders accept the premise that style is divorced from substance, that doctrine is unrelated to practice.  This is a longstanding debate that has continued to foster disagreements in the LCMS since the emergence of the church growth movement (and this latest discussion is just yet another incarnation of that philosophy).

The Lutheran confessions themselves routinely link doctrine and practice.  The ancient connection between "lex credendi" and "lex orandi" is made explicit in the Book of Concord.  So, it does matter whether the pastor wears vestments or casual wear.  It is a confession of what is happening at the altar and an expression of a pastor's commitment to the church's confession of Catholic continuity.  If it is a case of need, want, poverty, or extenuating circumstances, that's obviously a different story.

But the church growth movement is a deliberate theological thrust away from the Book of Concord and a rejection of the Catholic tradition, just as was the state of general American Lutheranism when our forbears founded the LCMS.  This different thrust is what led the early LCMS into clearly articulating an explicit "quia" position on confessional subscription as well as a more unpopular stance against Lutheran unity, and likewise against incorporation of popular, but non-Lutheran, elements in worship.  This current debate actually gets to the very roots of the LCMS, and is in part why we've tended not to join in fellowship with other Lutherans, and have been parodied as grumpy sticks in the mud.

The current discussion is similar to when people link Lutheranism to the "Lutheran" church down the street with the "nice lady pastor."  One could argue that she is teaching the same doctrine, and is maybe even a better law/gospel preacher than many LCMS men.  She is truly officiating over valid sacraments (an argument that I don't accept) and saving people from hell (I don't believe this either), and so we should not be critical.  Whether or not to ordain women is merely a style issue, based on individual tastes and preferences, not a matter of doctrine (so the argument goes), and therefore we should be "nice" about it all and offer no criticism.  But to the contrary, this is a doctrinal issue, it does scandalize the faithful, and it destroys faith.  It's wrong, and we should say so.

Many also accept the premise that none of this church growthism is spiritually harmful.  It is.  People are scandalized by this.  I nearly left Lutheranism when I moved to a different part of the country as a layman and found all sorts of LCMS congregations and pastors that wanted to be entertainers.  My own parishioners are scandalized when they go on vacation and find this kind of thing.  It's not simply that these churches have blue doors and our door is red, this is a deviation from (among others) Article 24 (an article that one church growth pastor actually told me is no longer binding on Lutherans!).  There is also an obsession with numbers among church-growthers that is at odds with our confession of the Holy Spirit, predestination, election, and our condemnation of Arminianism.  This touches upon the article of justification itself, and is no mere window-dressing - all the protestations that "we're all just like you" notwithstanding.

We traditionalists/conservatives are routinely told to shut up and go with the flow.  Don't like gay marriage?  Then don't marry someone of your own sex.  Don't like abortion?  Don't have one.  Don't want a woman pastor?  Don't call one.  Above all, don't criticize others who are different, but coexist, just like the bumper sticker tells us to do.  Our churches all have LCMS on the sign out front, and even if they don't, they're secretly part of the LCMS - as evidenced by the church worker benefit plans, and possibly even financial support and subsidization from their districts.

I believe the church growth movement is a deviation away from our confessional heritage, that it seeks to drive a wedge between doctrine and practice, necessarily leads to splitting the Lutheran confessions into articles that are bonding vs. articles that are not binding, and harms people spiritually.

I have no doubt that church growth pastors and lay leaders are sincere and mean well.  But a lot of people are sincere and mean well.  That isn't the hallmark of what is orthodox, godly, or within the rubric of what is authentically Lutheran.  When we traditionalists are compared to the Taliban, mocked as being "Romanizers" or "chancel prancers," when our sacred liturgy is cast as a losing proposition that chases people away, when our Book of Concord is marginalized and actually laughed at (and yes, I have heard this repeatedly my entire ministry by church growth advocates), when we are told to shut up about the nice lady "pastor" or the congregation with the big screens and charismatic worship style - that's all okay.  When we write critiques - be they systematic arguments against such practices, or tongue in cheek parodies and satire, and we're told we're being divisive or engaging in polemics.  Luther was likewise criticized when he would not link arms with Zwingli over what many perceived to be a minor issue that did not actually divide us.

It did, and it does.

The good news is that in the long run, the fads always burn themselves out.  Traditional worship was here when we were all born, it will be here after we are all dead.  It was here when our Lord manifested Himself in the Tabernacle, and it will abide even until Christ returns.  First-world fad worship - be it cowboy church, biker church, dancing girls and rock music, secular narcissism, entertainment worship, and everything of that ilk - will ultimately end up like 8-track players and leisure suits.  The problem is that in the mean time, people are confused about Christianity, worship of the one true God, and the Lutheran confession of the faith by being told diametrically opposite things by groups all claiming to be teaching the same things.  The church growth movement cheapens the faith by recasting the profound as shallow, by shifting the focus from eternal transcendence to the life-cycle of a 140 character tweet, from the theological to the anthropological, from atonement to enjoyment.

"In our churches Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc."  If a pastor and congregation can't say that - and it is by intention and design (rather than an inherited anomaly to be changed pastorally) - then such pastors and congregations are simply not part of the "our churches" - unless the Book of Concord is no longer relevant, binding, normal (in the sense of being the norma normata of "our churches"), and that which defines what it means to be authentically Lutheran.

One of the tenets of the church-growth movement - to which its advocates pay lip-service - one that I actually agree with, is the need for authenticity.  People will inevitably sniff out the inauthentic.  Authenticity for us Lutherans is spelled out in our confessions.  Anything contrary to what Dr. Kenneth Korby called "our Catholic Book of Concord" invalidates claims to such a pastor or congregation being truly Lutheran, and is a big red flag that says "counterfeit."  I think people are tired of counterfeit religiosity and are increasingly wary of being manipulated.  I think the church growth movement is not just wrong, contrary to the Lutheran confession of the catholic faith, and spiritually toxic, but will ultimately prove ineffective of even its own goals, because it is, by definition, inauthentic.  It is rationally self-defeating and logically self-contradictory.  Its necessary postmodernist gymnastics are incongruous with the exclusive truth claims of the Christian faith itself.

Love, both for the sinners for whom Christ died as well as for the truth itself, demands that we expose the church growth movement for what it is, articulate this reality in different ways, and present people with an authentic alternative.