Friday, March 19, 2010

"Fuller churches make for fuller churches"

I shared the following in another forum when an LCMS pastor, who is an advocate for doing contemporary worship, was arguing that one of the principles which should guide pastors is the desire to make our churches "fuller."  It should go without saying that every pastor would love to see the pews packed on Sunday mornings.  It would be wonderful to have "standing room only."  What pastor in his right mind actually enjoys looking out on empty pews?  But, when having "fuller" churches becomes a guiding principle for pastors, what is almost always sacrificed is the true guiding principle which should be driving pastors, namely to have "faithful" churches.  Anyway, here is the (slightly edited) response I wrote to this pastor:
In reference to the idea of "fuller" churches, my pastor from many years ago, who, after 20 years in the Ministry, went and got a degree in "church growth" from Fuller Theological Seminary and subsequently changed everything about our congregation, used to tell me, in the midst of our many debates on the changes he was making, "Fuller churches make for fuller churches!"  At least he was honest.  He readily admitted that he was employing principles and practices that were at odds with our Lutheran theology.  He still considered himself a Lutheran because he still believed that Lutherans had the "fundamental doctrines" right, but mainly because he believed that Lutherans were right about the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament.  He was fond of arguing that he thought it prudent to retain the best of Lutheran theology, but to also supplement it with the theology of others.  In his estimation, Lutheranism wasn't enough.  And, as for his approach to our Lutheran Confessions, he would just flat out tell you that they were wrong in some places, particularly in what they confessed about worship.  He believed that our Lutheran forefathers had not done enough to break free from Rome and that the way they spoke about worship in the Confessions proved as much.  In fact, years later, after much study under my belt, I brought up the whole quia vs. quatenus issue with him (for those of you who may not understand what is meant by these terms, they're descriptors for how one subscribes to our Lutheran Confessions; a quia subscription means that one subscribes unconditionally to our Confessions because they are a correct exposition of the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture, while a quatenus subscription means that one subscribes conditionally to our Confessions in so far as they are in agreement with the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture - all pastors in the LCMS are required to hold a quia subscription), to which he responded with a derogatory comment about me living in an "ivory tower" environment and so forth.  When pressing him further, he said he couldn't care less about the "q-words," stating emphatically, "The Lutheran Confessions are NOT the Word of God!" 

"Fuller churches make for fuller churches!"  This pastor was on the front lines of the battle we still fight today when that battle was still in its incipient stages.  He was doing contemporary worship before it was en vogue.  He, and his friends, some of whom hold prominent leadership positions in our synod today, knew full well that they were abandoning confessional Lutheranism.  They would just come out and tell you so.  Lutheranism wasn't enough.  Our Confessions were just plain wrong about worship.  They were honest about it back then in a way that we don't witness today.  I've written about this before, here and elsewhere - about how these guys knew they were abandoning Lutheranism to the point of making sure that their "Fuller" ways were kept hush-hush, since our synod wasn't ready yet.  But, now their friends are in the highest positions within our synod and they're out in the open.  Only now they've stopped being honest.  Now they try to sell the idea that what they're doing is perfectly Lutheran.  And they've convinced a lot of unknowing, unsuspecting people, so they feel empowered to march on with their new brand of Lutheranism, which is no Lutheranism at all. 

The battle will continue, to be sure.  And the disciples of these guys who started the contemporary worship movement (based on principles of the "church growth movement" taught at places like Fuller) in our synod, or at least provided it the momentum it needed to become the given it is today, can argue till they're blue in the face that what they're doing is perfectly Lutheran, but they're following masters who definitely knew better.  I liked it much better back in the day when they were just plain honest about things, admitting that their principles and practices did not originate from our Confessions, but from the theology taught at places like Fuller; when they would just say that they were following the mantra, "Fuller churches make for fuller churches!"

Further thoughts:  A couple of years ago, I spent some time reviewing the past minutes from Church Council meetings and Voters' Assemblies which took place during the 1980s in the congregation I serve.  I was simply amazed as I read the pastors' reports during this time.  A great many of those reports contained information about various "church growth" seminars the pastors had attended.  And, the influence those seminars had on these pastors just comes screaming through, as they are constantly reporting about the changes the congregation must make to grow numerically.  Flirtation with the "church growth movement" was all the rage in our synod during the 80s.  I wonder if our inability to prevent that flirtation from leading to widespread acceptance in our synod had to do with being exhausted over the "Battle for the Bible" (Seminex) which was fought in the previous decade.  Perhaps our concern over making sure that our pastors (and congregations) confessed the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God, worthy as that concern was, resulted in us taking our eye off the ball when pastors (and congregations) began flirting with, and adopting, the principles of the "church growth movement."  After all, Fuller and company hold a traditional, conservative ("fundamental") view of the Bible, believing it to be the Word of God, so maybe, just maybe, many in our synod didn't flinch, as they should have, when pastors started doing the whole "Fuller" thing, since, well, at lest they still believed in the Bible.  I don't know.  It's a theory worth exploring, I think.

At any rate, whether today's "contemporary worship" advocates in our synod want to admit it or not, they are following in the footsteps of those whose mantra was, and really still is, "Fuller churches make for fuller churches!"  


IggyAntiochus said...

The problem with Fuller Theological's view of the Bible is precisely that they hold a "fundamentalist view."

Rather than seeing the Bible as God's divine plan of salvation for his people or the means by which God comes to His people (a sacramental view), fundamentalists see the Bible as only a pattern or model for the Christian life.

The sacramental view is filled with the bitterness of the Law and the sweetness of the Gospel. The fundamentalist view is overflowing with the Law and barely touches the Gospel.

Just out of curiosity, did that Pastor from 20 years ago also absorb teachings like Millennialism, decision theology, or believer's baptism?

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


You're touching upon the differing hermeneutical (interpretive) approaches between Fuller and Wittenberg. What I'm saying is that both view the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God (at least, officially, anyway). How that Word is interpreted - yeah, HUGE differences!

As for my old pastor absorbing Millennialism, decision theology, or believer's baptism, the short answer is, "No." The long answer is that the practice he put into place did nothing to prevent those in the pew from absorbing these false teachings. The regular use of resources (books, videos, songs, etc.) written and produced by those who promote these false teachings lent itself well to having people adopt them as truth. Case in point: The woman who was appointed as the head "prayer warrior" in the congregation was an avid supporter of Jan and Paul Crouch and their "Trinity Broadcasting Network." A couple of "Pastoral Aides" (sort of like "elders") I served with were ardent fans of Hal Lindsey and Jack Van Impe, and so on.

IggyAntiochus said...

My eyes are playing tricks on me again! I read "fundamentalist view" in the second-last paragraph.

You wrote, "fundamental view."

It's one of my crusades. We hold such a wonderful distinction here and it gets hidden among mainline Protestant denominations. Sometimes I cant stop myself from proclaiming it!

As for absorbing other traditions, I suppose it had to creep in somehow. If not through the pulpit, then through the membership.

Off topic here, but "Pastoral Aides" sounds like something congregations make up so that women can serve a capacity previously held by men, such as elder or deacon.

Scott Diekmann said...

"He still considered himself a Lutheran because he still believed that Lutherans had the "fundamental doctrines" right, but mainly because he believed that Lutherans were right about the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament." Seems like a read something similar in a book somewhere.

IggyAntiochus said...

I think something like that woke up in a "giant" book somewhere.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

Scott (and Iggy),

My pastor of old is good friends and of like mind with the author of that book - there is a scary amount of men holding leadership positions in our synod today, whose names I knew long before they became "famous."

IggyAntiochus said...

Fasten your seat belts, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.