Monday, August 9, 2010

Innovation or Extinction?

Anyone who has studied the classic Church Growth Movement (CGM) texts (McGavran, Wagner, et. al.) knows that the underlying principle which gives birth to all the other principles is the idea that the Church must change or die.  That person also knows that the CGM advocates that the sort of changing the Church must do should be based on successful business models in the secular realm, the idea being that the Church must think of herself as a business and learn how to market herself and her product(s) in an effective and efficient manner, so that she might better appeal to, and attract, more and more customers/consumers (unchurched people) and, thereby, grow and thrive.  A successful business is one that realizes that it must always be willing to change and adapt in order to meet the ever-changing desires and demands of the customers it targets.  Likewise, the Church, according to the CGM.  A successful Church is one that is willing to take risks, change and adapt, and do whatever it takes to meet the desires and demands of the customers it targets (unchurched people).  The customer is always right, after all, and the goal is to win that customer and keep him happily coming back for more by offering him a product that appeals to him.

It should go without saying that Lutherans should avoid the CGM like the plague.  It is built upon theological principles so at odds with Lutheran theology that this should be a no-brainer for Lutherans.  Unfortunately, this hasn't been a no-brainer for many Lutherans, who have, sadly, bought into the false theology of the CGM.  For the past nine-plus years, the LCMS has been led by President Gerald Kieschnick, who has never shied away from making it well known that he is an advocate of many of the principles of the CGM.  Even before he was elected to serve as synodical president, he was outspoken in his support of the principles of the CGM.  While serving as President of the Texas District, he endorsed the book, "Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast," written by LCMS Pr. Kent Hunter, stating:  "Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast will prove to be one of the most significant writings of these latter days of the 20th Century."  From the development of the Ablaze!(tm) Program/Movement to the steady and continuous promotion and endorsement of LCMS pastors and congregations who employ CGM principles to the writing of his own book, "Waking the Sleeping Giant," which is replete with CGM principles, President Kieschnick has charged full steam ahead with the goal of providing a welcome home for the CGM within our Lutheran synod.

But, don't take my word for it, listen to what President Kieschnick himself has to say.  What follows is the latest "Perspectives," a weekly, e-mail message President Kieschnick sends out to those who subscribe:
Perspectives - Volume I Number 44 (August 5, 2010)
“Innovation or Extinction?”
A world renowned business consultant is quoted as saying, “An established company which, in an age demanding innovation, is not able to innovate, is doomed to decline and extinction.” I think often about those words. How does a national church body that prides itself on the past even begin to think about such innovation without risking significant elements of its 163-year old heritage and tradition? The sainted Dr. C.F.W. Walther, first president of The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States, said, “If we lose the German language in our worship services, we will lose the Gospel.” Yet the time came when our people said, “We’re Americans now, and Americans speak English. We can’t keep replicating the past. The language of our worship must be something our countrymen will understand.” Making this change was a risk. It was not readily accepted and ultimately resulted in a serious internal conflict. But can you imagine what The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod would be like today if its congregations still conducted worship and education only in the German language?
For nine years I’ve worked to bring about responsible innovation in the LCMS. Some of that work has been successful. More of it remains to be accomplished. That task will soon fall to the shoulders of other leaders. The challenge is to retain the non-negotiable, unwavering belief that we are saved only by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, who is revealed in the pages of God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word, while recognizing that certain traditions—not doctrine, but traditions, for they are not the same—must be expanded to meet the opportunities God is giving us today. We are called not simply to look back on what was, but, honoring and appreciating all that was, to go forward with new ideas to win the hearts of sinners for Christ. Our Synod’s success in meeting that challenge, under the forgiving love and grace of God, will play a significant role in determining our Synod’s future—innovation or extinction?   
May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!
Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, President
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Note how President Kieschnick begins this missive by quoting "a world renowned business consultant."  There's the first clue that CGM stuff is to follow.  The Church must think of herself as a business.  And, what is the point of this quotation, which President Kieschnick thinks often about?  It is that a business which is not able to innovate is doomed to decline and extinction.  Immediately, President Kieschnick begins to apply this to the Church.  For him, it is simply a given that this business principle applies to the Church.  The Church must be innovative or it will become extinct (the Church must change or die!).

He then tries to support his case by drawing our attention to our own synodical history, pointing to the change we eventually made from German to English in our worship.  He includes a Walther quote that he and those like him often toss around, but conveniently never provide a reference for the quote.  I've searched high and low and cannot find where Walther is quoted as saying what he is alleged to have said here.  It seems to me that a bit of revisionist history is being done here, which is par for the course among those who endorse and promote the CGM.  That is not to say that there wasn't a battle in our synod regarding the change from German to English, or that Walther himself didn't oppose such a change.  Surely, there was conflict over this.  But, I find it hard to believe that Walther, or any of the other great theologians in our past, would have concluded that the Gospel would be lost if our synod changed to English.  That would be rather absurd.  If Walther did say what he is alleged to say, I'm sure there is more to it than we are being led to believe. 

Whatever the case, what I do know for sure is that Walther and company were adamant about the fact that Lutherans needed to be, and remain, Lutheran in doctrine and practice, and they believed that doctrine and practice went hand in hand, something that is simply lost on President Kieschnick and those like him.  How do I know this?  Consider the "responsible" innovation President Kieschnick has spent nine years bringing into our synod.  These innovations are not merely "traditions" which stand apart from doctrine.  These innovations come directly out of the CGM playbook and are doctrinal innovations through and through.  It is quite a different thing to endorse and promote the employment of a false theology of worship, which is built upon the doctrines held by those our very own Confessions condemn, as President Kieschnick has done during his time in office, than to debate actual "traditions," such as putting the liturgy and hymnody into the vernacular, which do not bring about doctrinal changes.  Trying to compare the two is an exercise in comparing apples to oranges.  They are different matters entirely.  Innovation which has as its source false doctrines and practices cannot be compared to innovation which truly belong to the realm of adiaphora (those things neither commanded nor forbidden by Holy Scripture).  But, see, herein is the problem for President Kieschnick and company:  The CGM considers everything adiaphora, employing the "whatever it takes" principle.  What, really, is taboo for the Church which follows the CGM?  Nothing!  Everything is permissible.  Do whatever it takes.  Change however you must.  Grow the Church at whatever cost.  The goal is success, and success is determined by the numbers you bring in.  Period!  And, thus, the Lutheran who follows the principles of the CGM, at the end of the day, will, at best, consider many things which are not adiaphora to be adiaphora, and, at worst, will end up considering everything to be adiaphora.     

Already, before any innovations are actually done, we see the false theology of the CGM at work in the reasons it gives for why these innovations need to be done in the first place.  It's a vicious circle.  Why does the Church need to be innovative?  Because winning people for Jesus is why the Church exists, and the Church will win more people for Jesus if it is innovative and makes itself more appealing to the masses.  This is false theology at work.  Winning people for Jesus is NOT something we EVER do.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith through the Word when and where He pleases.  The Church's task, then, is NOT to come up with new ideas on how she can make herself more appealing to the masses and win more people for Jesus.  No!  The Church's task is to preach the pure Gospel and administer the Sacraments according to Christ's institution, so that the Holy Spirit can do His work.  The Church's task is not to be innovative, but to be faithful to her Lord and Head, Jesus Christ. 

Thus, when President Kieschnick states that we need "to go forward with new ideas to win the hearts of sinners for Christ" and that our efforts to do this will determine the "success" of our "synod's future," he is a) showing himself to be a faithful son of the CGM, and b) openly proclaiming false theology to everyone who hears him.  And, furthermore, that he ends his missive with the question - "innovation or extinction?" - shows how very far he has fallen away from our Lutheran confession of the faith, for no true Lutheran would ever dare pin the existence of a church body upon the willingness, or lack thereof, of her members to be innovative.


Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Fr. Messer:

I, also, am unaware of the historicity and origin of the Walther quote. I must say, however, that I don't have a problem with it, per se. If Walther said this, I think its meaning is simply the valid concern that the move into English would open the door to the theologically poisonous winds which had already in Walther's time made some inroads in our congregations, such as Methodism.

We know, similarly, that Wilhelm Loehe did not desire the Ft. Wayne seminary to ever give up doing Theology in German. It was chief in the list of conditions he set when he officially gave the seminary to the Synod. This in no way implies that he was unconcerned about the spiritual needs of those who spoke other languages. No one was more zealous for missions than Loehe. Indeed, one of his fervent desires was that the Ft. Wayne seminary train men for active mission work among the Native Americans. This never happened.

The concern for preserving theological intergity in the curriculum by means of keeping it in German, I think, has been to a certain degree vindicated by subsequent history.

Regarding the dogmas of the Church Growth Movement, I find it significant that after nine years of having the power to promote and enact the ideas of Hunter, and like minded men, the Synod has not in fact had some great increase in numbers. I wonder if advocates of those ideas will attempt to answer this obvious incongruity.

Dennis Peskey said...

Pr. Messer - Are you claiming the original Gospel was NOT written in German?

Paul said...

"We are called not simply to look back on what was, but, honoring and appreciating all that was, to go forward with new ideas to win the hearts of sinners for Christ. Our Synod’s success in meeting that challenge, under the forgiving love and grace of God, will play a significant role in determining our Synod’s future—innovation or extinction?" Unless we adopt GK's "new Ideas" we face extinction? I don't think so. President-elect Harrison and the critical mass majority of the LMMS will prove him wrong.

repristinator said...

On the introductory pages of Walther's Law and Gospel: A Reader's Edition (CPH 2010), it is written on p. xxx:

"While the Missouri Synod's work at this time was done only in German, this did not mean Walther was opposed to the use of English in Lutheran churches. This became apparent in 1872 when Walther had a free conference with English-speaking Lutherans in Missouri who hoped to join the Missouri Synod, though at this time the Synod was technically the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. Walther believed the Missouri Synod had a particular mission to reach out to those in the United States who spoke German. Therefore, he urged those who spoke English to form their own English Evangelical Lutheran Conference of Missouri, which was from the beginning in fellowship with the Missouri Synod."

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

Deacon Gaba,

You bring up an excellent point in mentioning the "theologically poisonous winds which had already in Walther's time made some inroads . . ." I would add that there were also "theologically poisonous winds" already present at the time of the Reformation. The idea that things are so vastly different in our day and age, requiring us to change and adapt (and borrow practices from those whom our Confessions condemn), simply holds no water. Those who hold that idea, like PK, either don't know our history or choose to ignore it.

As for the German issue, I think you're bang on right. It was about preserving theological integrity among the still German-speaking Lutherans in America, not about some irrational fear that the Gospel could not be translated into English and, thus, would be "lost."

As for those who adhere to the principals of the CGM answering the obvious incongruity of not seeing some great increase these past nine years when these principles have been promoted, I'm pretty sure they would blame this on those of us who have refused to "get with the program." It's not that these principals don't work; it's that there are too many stubborn Lutherans in our synod who refuse to implement them. If only all of us would jump on board, our synod would explode with growth! It's akin to the Word-Faith heretics who always include the convenient disclaimer that if things don't go well, it's 'cause you didn't have enough faith. :)

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


Far be it from me to suggest such a thing. We all know that the original Gospel was written in German! :)

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


I pray you are right, my friend.


Thanks for the quote from the new edition of Law and Gospel, which I have, but have not begun to explore as of yet. It puts things in their proper perspective, for sure. I think the main point that needs to be emphasized is the fact that, while we did have struggles regarding the language issue in our history, this does not even remotely compare to the sort of "innovation" PK and company have attempted to bring into our synod. As I mentioned in the post - apples to oranges.