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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

District Presidents and Church Growth

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I'm not a fan of our polity.  I agree with the fathers of the Lutheran confessions that the church would be best served by sticking to the traditional polity of the church.  Our sister church body in Siberia has done just that: having a bishop, elected by the pastors, consecrated into the episcopacy by other Lutheran bishops, and who serves for life.  The congregations do not have boards of elders or voters' assemblies.  They also don't have non-liturgical or entertainment-based worship or various liturgical innovations that are commonplace in our synod.

Having said all of that, polity is an adiaphoron, and our synod's polity reflects our American commitment to democracy - for good and for ill.  And so, we are governed by our congregations with synod and district being advisory (whatever that means).  We have a synod president (and other members of the Praesidium) and 35 district presidents (who form the Council of Presidents).  Our presidents serve three-year terms and must stand for election.

One of the weaknesses of our system is that we often (though not exclusively) incentivize men to leave behind altars and pulpits in exchange for high salaries and full benefits (are there any DPs who work second jobs or lack health insurance?).  We impel them to stand for election every three years under penalty of loss of "job."  We create a synod culture that virtually assures that in conflicts between pastors and congregations, the district president and other officials will side with a congregation at the expense of a pastor.  We do not incentivize that the brightest and best exegetes, liturgists, and seelsorgers become our presidents (of course, there are exceptions), but rather we incentivize the elevation of administrators to the role of oversight (episkope).  There is also an inordinate amount of secrecy in the COP, in my opinion.  I have been told that there is a secret addendum to pastors' forms that only DPs are permitted to see.  I have also been told that there is a secret DP handbook or manual of some sort.  If this is not true, I would appreciate being corrected by someone in a position to know.  But if this is true, I believe it to be bad policy that invites abuse.

Having said all of this, there are men serving as district presidents who are, if not still pastors, men who are pastoral in the literal meaning of that word.  There are DPs who are able exegetes and notable scholars, men who are capable of walking into our seminaries and teaching classes, many of whom know their biblical languages and have a knowledge of the Bible that exceeds their knowledge of the bylaws of synod and Robert's Rules.  

My critique is not directed to individuals but rather to the shortcomings of our system of incentives.

I do want to give credit where it is due, and support our presidents when they write and speak truthfully and articulately.  My district has a new president, the Rev. Eric Johnson.  I have disagreements with him, but in our district's latest newsletter for church workers ("This Ministry That We Share” - here is the link) he wrote a column that should draw support by readers of Gottesdienst.

He opens by saying: 

Stop Church Growth

STOP! Take a breath. Relax, and let’s talk about this.
I got a call Tuesday afternoon, a pastor excited about an opportunity to start a new worship service to attract millennials to his church asking for my input and ideas. (Sigh) I don’t want to be a wet blanket, or pour cold water on someone’s enthusiasm to reach new people, but the old church growth movement stuff of starting worship services and trying to attract people to your new service just doesn’t work for most of our Lutheran churches.
If you are now, or are thinking about using your worship service to attract new people to your church in the future, let me encourage you to STOP! Take a breath. Relax, and let’s talk about this.

President Johnson's remarks had me cheering.  He continues...

Experience, statistics, and common biblical sense indicate that most people, who are not already Christians, will not be attracted to our programs or services. There are some exceptions. If you have a School or Early Childhood Development Center, you can attract some parents and family to come to a program that feature their kids. But most people who have no connection to your congregation, who aren’t in relationship with you or your people, will not be enticed, attracted, marketed, or motivated to come to your church program.
Relationships are the key! Most people won’t be attracted to come to your church where they can hear the Gospel, but those who have developed a relationship with you and/or your congregation members outside the church building are far more likely to come to your church building for a special service or event. Remember this one statement, “Relationships are key!”....

Relationships are key! Often, when a congregation decides to try and reach out to their community, they pour lots of energy, money, and talents into programmatic events that are mostly doomed to failure, then say see outreach doesn’t work. Outreach doesn’t work when by outreach you mean trying to attract people to come to your church building for worship.

He also says bluntly:

Attractional worship does not work.

This is a refreshing perspective on Lutheran worship coming from a district headquarters, and from a district president, to boot.  

One of the biggest gripes against traditional and authentically Lutheran worship, our Gottesdienst, is that it isn't "relevant" and won't "attract the youth."  Not only does this bait-and-switch marketing approach fail to achieve its own stated goals to "grow the church" - as President Johnson has stated - it is also disrespectful to young people.  They see right through the snake oil sales job.  For all of their faults, millennials and their younger cohorts have a bubulum stercus detector, maybe not for all things, but they do pick up on when their elders are engaging in marketing for the sake of drawing them in.  No generation in history has been so bombarded by ads and slick campaigns.  We are foolish if we think having a Beyonce service is going to attract anyone other than white baby-boomer virtue-signalling leftists who are already arrayed against Christ, the Church, and Holy Scripture.

Our Lord said that we should let our Yes be Yes, and our No, No.  We ought to lay our cards on the table and be authentic.  We cannot win them over unless and until we earn their respect by not being deceptive.  We should let our liturgical flag fly.  We should see the Divine Service as pastoral care for the redeemed rather than outreach to the lost.  There are other ways to proclaim the Gospel in a post-Christian world, ways that are more effective than tampering with our Holy Liturgy.  We should stand once again with our fathers in not only confessing this, but confessing it without a hint of irony or deception:


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.
— Ap 24:1

I do hope to see more such wisdom from my own district president and from other presidents in our synod.  I want to thank President Johnson for having the courage to write something that flies in the face of the lingering culture of Church Growthism that stubbornly refuses to go away. It really is long past time for this old nag to be sent to the Glue Factory.