Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is the World Really So Different Today?

An oft-quoted public statement made by President Kieschnick (PK) on numerous occasions is, "This is not your grandfather's church."  He has taken a lot of criticism over this from many, myself included, who happen to like "our grandfather's church."   Indeed, taking a look at what PK and his administration have introduced in our synod over the last 8-plus years, that criticism is valid, since they have done their best to ensure that we are "not our grandfather's church."  But, PK thinks he has been misunderstood.  So, in an attempt to set the record straight regarding this controversial statement, PK writes in his book:
When reflecting upon the vast changes that have occurred in the world and in our own country in the past 125 years, I've also contemplated the changes that have occurred in the church during that period of time.  On occasion, I've observed that in many ways the church of today is different from my grandfather's church.  Let me unpack and explain that a bit (p. 91). 
PK spends the next few pages unpacking what he means by identifying several sociological and cultural changes which have occurred since his grandfather's day:  changing demographics, rise of atheism and antagonism toward Christianity, drug problems, living together, divorce, technological advances, abortion, homosexuality, small businesses giving way to large corporations, urban decline, etc.  He is right, of course.  The world has changed around us.  His grandfather did live in a different day and age, where many of the societal issues we face today were seemingly absent.  I serve older people in my parish who have witnessed how very much the world has changed in their lifetimes and readily testify about the same.  Indeed, I have witnessed myself in my own lifetime how much the world has changed around us.

But, what does any of this have to do with the need for the Church to change?  Has the world really changed so much since PK's grandfather's day that the Church must now be forced to change with it?  That seems a little naive.  I mean, there have been massive changes experienced in this world throughout history which have not caused the Church to change who she is, what she does, or how she does what she does.  In fact, one of the principles upon which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has always stood is to withstand the temptation to change with the ever-changing world.  The Church has never followed the philosophy that she must adapt herself to the culture in which she finds herself, and has certainly never adopted the principle that the culture should instruct the Church.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being overly dense, of course I would acknowledge that the Church has undergone changes throughout her history, and that many of those changes were made for the purpose of reaching out to the changing world with the unchanging Gospel of Christ.  Putting the Bible, the liturgy, and hymnody into the vernacular comes to mind.  But, in making these, and other changes, the Church has always been careful not to sacrifice purity for pragmatics, reverence for relevance, or steadfastness for popularity.  In other words, the Church has undergone some changes in her history without really changing at all.

It wasn't until McGavran, Wagner, Arn, Schaller, and company came along and introduced the Satanic Church Growth Movement that the idea that the Church must change who she is, what she does, and how she does what she does was introduced in the middle of the last century.  The sort of change advocated by the CGM is not limited to finding ways to reach out to the changing culture with the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Rather, the CGM calls for a complete overhaul of the Church, one in which the very nature of the Church is changed.

The CGM turns the Church into a business and makes no apologies for doing so, since it follows the false belief that God demands success, measured by numerical growth, in His Word.  According to the CGM, the Church, following a business model, must learn to treat unbelievers as potential customers and develop an aggressive marketing strategy to reach them with the product it has to offer - the Gospel.  In developing this marketing strategy, the Church must ascertain, through demographics studies, surveys, etc., what it is that their potential customers are looking for and figure out a way to re-package their product (the Gospel) in a way that would interest and entice them into purchasing it (join the church).  Like any business, the Church, following the principles of the CGM, must set goals and do whatever it takes to accomplish them, always measuring its success, or lack of success, by how many new customers it has gained.  Anyone who argues that the CGM is not all about numbers simply hasn't read the classic texts responsible for introducing the movement.

But, anyone who has read those classic texts and studied the movement can easily identify it coming through in PK's writing.  This should be no surprise to anyone, since he has publicly endorsed these CGM principles and has allowed them to shape the way he has led our synod as president.  We have heard more about numbers, goals, statistics, vision, etc. during PK's time as president than we did in our synod during the whole century and a half before he took office.  The Ablaze!(tm) counter that continues to plague our synodical website serves as proof positive that the CGM is alive and well in our synod under PK's leadership.  It is obvious that the sort of changing PK believes is needed among us is more in line with the change advocated by the CGM than by the changing the Church has always done in proclaiming the unchanging Gospel of Christ to the changing culture around her.

The danger with PK's book is that this will not be obvious to Grandma Schmidt when she reads it.  There is a reason the CGM took off like wildfire here in America.  It's because it sounds so good, so reasonable, so necessary to unsuspecting ears.  Who doesn't want the Church to reach more and more people with the Gospel, after all?  Doing "whatever it takes" seems like a laudable strategy, since the end result is said to be eternal salvation for more and more people.  The CGM has been so "successful" precisely because it makes sense to our sinful human reason.  It is how WE would do things if the Church was OURS!

So it is that when PK responds to a list of challenges and opportunities he sees facing the 21st century church, he will be interpreted as making a whole lot of sense to many:
The answer [to the seven challenges/opportunities he lists] is to use every means available, without compromising or apologizing for who we are or what we believe, clearly communicating the Good News of God's love in Jesus Christ, who alone is the way to eternal salvation.  Our task and privilege is telling "the old, old story of Jesus and His love" in ways that address the deepest spiritual needs of people whose life experience differs greatly from our own and most certainly from that of our parents and grandparents.  It means being faithful in the process of putting "new wine" into "new wineskins" (Luke 5:38 NIV) (p. 95 - emphases mine).
Sounds good, doesn't it?  Not really.  It actually sounds exactly like what one reads in the classic CGM texts.  Using "every means available" is just another way of saying "whatever it takes," and "ways that address the deepest spiritual needs of people" is just another way of saying "meeting people's 'felt needs'" (which PK does just come right out and say on a couple of occasions in his book), and pitting the "life experiences" of others against our own, as if they differ so greatly from ours, is classic CGM stuff.  Indeed, as I read through this section, I was waiting for the obligatory reference to 1 Cor. 9:20-23 (". . . I became all things to all people . . .").  And, sure enough, PK did not disappoint.  Immediately following this paragraph, there it was.  And, following that text from 1 Cor. 9 was this:
The culture in which the church exists today more than ever requires listening to and discerning the hopes, dreams, cries, and pains of the people in our communities.  We need to translate what Scripture tells us about God's grace into the everyday language of people for whom Scriptural concepts are not part of everyday conversation.  In many cases, this means venturing into unknown and unfamiliar territory.  It includes the necessity of exercising careful, sensitive, discernment of the deeply felt but often camouflaged spiritual needs of people who may not even be aware that those needs exist (pp. 96-96 - emphases mine).  
Here, again, the principles of the CGM come screaming through.  First, notice the urgency with which PK speaks - "today more than ever" - as if the culture in which we live is so vastly different from any culture ever before in history that the Church needs to take drastic action.  This is something the CGM has been repeating for over 50 years.  Yeah, that's right, back in the 1950s and 1960s, CGM advocates were saying the same exact thing as PK is saying here, that their culture at that time was so different from any before it that the Church had to take drastic action.  And, what is the drastic action the Church must take?  Translating her message into the language of the unchurched (unbelievers).  But, how does the Church do this?  By "venturing into unknown and unfamiliar territory."  All of this is code for "the Church must CHANGE NOW or DIE!"

In PK's estimation, we must "not be afraid to take appropriate risks for the sake of the Gospel - risks that today are quite different from what [his grandfather] faced in his lifetime."  For him, the end justifies the means, which is, again, a classic CGM principle.  Our zeal for reaching the lost for Jesus should trump everything else, even if that means forsaking the purity of our doctrine.  Indeed, PK has made it vividly clear many times that he believes that we do not have time for "incessant, internal purification" while people are dying without Jesus out there, which further proves him to be a disciple of the CGM, since another fundamental principle of the movement is that the Church must be solely outward, not inward, focused.

PK goes on to write:
Indeed, in many respects, the church of our grandfathers is quite different from that of our grandchildren because the world in which our grandfathers lived is markedly different from the world in which our grandchildren live.  In many ways the church of the 21st century is a challenged church, seeking to discover how best to respond to the changes going on all around it and even inside it and how to seize the opportunities accompanying such changes.  We are living in this time of transition from the church of our parents and grandparents to the church of our children and grandchildren.  In so doing, we must never forget this truth:  "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8) (pp. 97-98).  
One wonders how Jesus Christ can be the same yesterday, today, and forever, while His Church, of which He is the Head, must necessarily change as the world changes.  Ponder on that for a bit and I'm sure you will see the flaw in the principle espoused by the CGM, expressed in PK's thinking here.

If PK's goal in this section of his book was to put to rest the criticism he has received for saying so often that "this is not your grandfather's church," he has failed miserably.  What he has done is shown that he either doesn't understand why many of us have criticized him for saying this or that he simply doesn't care.  Whatever the case, he is just plain wrong.  The world is not so different today than it was in the days of our grandfathers or their grandfathers or even in the days when our Lord walked the earth in our Flesh.  It is just as sinful as it has always been.  It is just as opposed to the Gospel of our Lord as it has always been.  The nature of the this dead and dying world has not changed one iota.  And it stands in need of a Savior just as much, and no more, than it always has.

It probably sounds like I'm contradicting myself, since I noted above that the world has changed and here I say that the world is not so different.  That's not a contradiction.  Both assertions are true at the same time.  We have seen many changes in society over the years.  The world has always consisted of different societies and cultures which are changing all the time.  We have witnessed different worldviews during different historical eras dominate the scene in different places.  And, no one would argue that technological advances have not changed the way the world thinks, moves, and communicates.  But, none of these changes has significantly changed the world in relation to its opposition to the Gospel and need of a Savior.

Just look at the history revealed to us by God in His Word.  The world was so bad, so evil in the days of Noah that God destroyed all living things, save the 8 people and animals on the Ark, with a flood.  When the Israelites took up residence in the Promised Land, having to conquer their way in, they dwelt in a society wholly opposed to their religion and God, Yahweh - a society that was pagan through and through.  And, if people think things are so bad today in American society, they need to study a little history and read up on how things were in the Roman Empire (or, take a look at the ancient Egyptian culture, or fast forward and get acquainted with life in the Middle Ages).  The point is that it is the height of naivete to think our world is so vastly different from the world of yesteryear.  The world has always been evil.  We 21st century Americans are not the first culture in history to experience an increase in societal immorality or a growing antagonism toward the Gospel and the Christian Church.      

It is a dire mistake for the Church to think that she must change with the culture or die.  Such thinking shows a lack of faith in the Lord of the Church, who promises that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church (cf. Matt. 16:18).  It is not given to the Church to decide how best to reach out to people with the Gospel.  The Lord has established the only means by which that can be accomplished, via His Holy Word purely preached and His Holy Sacraments administered, according to His institution.  The Church is tasked not with finding new and creative ways to "win the lost," but with faithfully delivering her Lord's means of grace.

Furthermore, the sort of changing advocated by the CGM and suggested by PK is very clearly anti-Scriptural.  Where, oh where, in God's Word do we EVER see Him advocating for His people to change with the culture?  Where, oh where, in God's Word do we EVER hear Him telling His people to repackage His message in a way that will appeal to the pagans surrounding them?  On the contrary, we hear Him time and time again commanding His people to stand firm and remain steadfast in His Word - to RESIST the temptation to compromise with the world!

The Israelites made the same mistake those following the CGM today make.  They allowed the pagan culture around them to influence and inform them, so that they ended up with a compromising, defiled, impure "religion."  Did God compliment them for their willingness to take risks and adapt to their surrounding culture?  Um, no.  He sent prophets telling them to repent and return to Him.  He was none too happy about their willingness to compromise and adapt to the pagan culture.  None too happy at all!

Fast forward to the days when our Lord walked the earth.  What was His message to His disciples (and to us)?  Was it to do whatever it takes to win people for Him?  Was it to take risks and be willing to compromise with the culture?  Not at  all.  In fact, He tell us to abide in Him, even though doing so will make us enemies with the world.  The world will hate us, He says, because the world hates Him.

Of course, the response to this will be that Jesus did take risks and did reach out in new ways to the societal outcasts around Him.  He ate with tax collectors and related to prostitutes, after all.  Sure, but did He ever compromise His message?  Did He ever advocate adapting to the culture or allowing the culture to inform and influence His Church?  Did He ever repackage His teaching to make it more appealing to the masses?  Absolutely not!  When His teaching became too difficult for people to take, they left Him.  And His response was not to go running after them to try to get them to stay.  It was, rather, to look at those who remained and ask, "What about you?  Do you want to leave me, too?"

Do not buy into the lie that our world is so different today that it is necessary for the Church to change, my friends.  Do not allow the urgency with which people like PK speak to bewitch you.  Instead, abide in the Word or your Lord, Jesus Christ.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so is His Church.  Yes, there have been, and will continue to be, changes noticed in this world.  But, Jesus and His Church remain the same.  The Gospel must never be repackaged or reinvented for the purpose of making it more appealing to the dead and dying world.  It must remain pure and undefiled, free from worldly principles and concepts, for it is only through that pure and undefiled Gospel that sinners receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation they need.  Oh, and as for numbers, God is not at all interested.  He is into faithfulness.  Always has been; always will be.  That's why He speaks so frequently in His Word about the faithful "remnant."  He is pleased not by us finding new and creative ways to make His Church more inviting to unbelievers, but by us remaining steadfast in His Word.  For He knows what PK and other CGM advocates don't know, namely that His Church is NOT for unbelievers, but for believers.  If unbelievers will become believers it will not be because we have made Church more appealing to them, but because they have been slain by God's Law, preached in its full severity, and made alive by the Holy Gospel, preached in its full sweetness.  Oh, and one last thing:  Let us always remember that when we are gathered together around our Lord's Holy Word and Sacraments for Divine Service, we are in a Holy House of Prayer, not a concert hall or house of entertainment - a concept that is most definitely lost on PK and other CGM advocates.

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