Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Pastoral View of "Ablaze!"

I’m pleased to present this essay on Ablaze!®, written by Pastor Jack Kirk. He serves a dual parish in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Bremen, Kansas. Pastor Kirk was one of the people who first alerted me to some of the serious undercurrents of the Church Growth Movement many years ago, such as the strange world of “paradigm shift” and “Total Quality Management.” I was so impressed with what he had to say that I’ve kept in sporadic email contact ever since.

Pastor Kirk is uniquely qualified to discuss the Church Growth Movement (CGM) and Ablaze!® He’s had extensive training in CGM during his twenty years as a Chaplain in the Navy, and as he mentions, “I lived it.” He also has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration.

He originally wrote his essay for his own use to explain to others why he didn’t support Ablaze!®, and was kind enough to share it with me, and now with you. Here it is:

I applaud the evangelistic and missionary fervor of our Synodical President (SP).

I believe that the Holy Spirit grows the Church through the faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments1 Christ gave to the Church.

However as a Lutheran I cannot in clear conscience endorse the “Ablaze movement,” and that for the following reasons:

First and foremost, I believe Ablaze to be a Lutheran synthesis of Church Growth Movement (CGM). It is my belief that Ablaze, in so far as it is CGM, synthesizes the “power of God unto salvation” with the tools of psychology, sociology, and the pragmatic of business and industry and essentially makes the success of the Gospel dependent on the behavioral disciplines. I understand and believe this because I have formal training in CGM. In my experience, the Church Growth Movement is not Lutheran, it is not theologically neutral, and it is not benign. CGM is deeply enmeshed in/with evangelical theology, its “theology” is behavioral pragmatic, and it effectively shifts the central doctrine of the Christian faith from Justification by Grace to The Great Commission,2 anticipates the outcome in numerical growth, and equates its expected numerical growth with God’s blessing.

(I note that the question is never about the preaching and teaching, doctrine and practice; the question is always, “How many.” Growth is not the Mission of the church! Growth is the business of God the Holy Ghost! Acts 2:47)

The Mission of the Church is to confess and deliver the Gospel of the Justification of the sinner by the Incarnation, shed blood and Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ to a lost and dying world. CGM brings a perilous dual message that secondary issues (structural) are primary and primary issues (doctrinal) are secondary.3 Are we in danger of having an entire generation of pastors committed to clever programming instead of Scripture? I fear that very real probability. I lived it in the Navy/Marine Corps community.

The Church has
been rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Christ and Justification by Grace. Some years ago, The Report of the Church Growth Study Committee of the LCMS correctly stated, “The Church has never preached the sociological message of increasing numbers, the psychology of human behavior, or the application of business principles of profit and loss.”4 Judging from the financial difficulties of synod, the Ablaze financing initiatives, the removal of source funding for missionaries, the necessity of restructuring, and disunity over Ablaze’s CGM theology, Ablaze is betraying just such an application!

The fact of the matter is that CGM is the utilization of modern marketing techniques by the church, in order to draw and hold large numbers of people by meeting their “felt needs.” The church then “converts” them, and “disciples" them through the use of modern organizational management [Total Quality Management-style] techniques, so that they can effect "change" in the community, and the world.5 This is a new paradigm and is not centered in theology, but rather it is focused on structure, organization, and the transition from an institutionally based church to a mission-driven church.”6 This is the Church Growth paradigm. (I note that the Synod is currently moving to restructuring.) Ablaze is born of its parent, CGM, and I have every reason to believe that the kinship is very close.

Simply stated for me, the Lutheran paradigm has always been that the Holy Ghost works faith in the heart through the faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Christ, the message is Justification by grace!7 Where the Gospel is taught in its truth and purity and the Sacraments are rightly administered, there you will find the Church!

The Holy Ghost works faith in the heart. Faith in Christ comes by hearing the Word not by human reason or strength, to include the use of modern marketing techniques by the church, nor through the use of modern organizational management; but the Holy Ghost calls, gathers enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.8

Correctly understood, paradigm is a completely different way of thinking.9 Ablaze has all the marks of the CGM paradigm. By definition related paradigms in the same sphere cannot co-exist. My paradigm is Lutheran, not CGM. CGM and Lutheran cannot stand side by side by definition. A synthesis of the two into Ablaze will by definition yield something far different than either of the two original paradigms. For me the term mutation comes to mind.

This is why I believe that it is folly to attempt to “take the best out of this one, that one or the other thing, and somehow put them all together and you will end up with a “cracker jack” program or approach, or in this case, a “movement.” I can’t find anything wrong with Scripture’s approach of Baptism, the faithful preaching and teaching of the Gospel, and the same faithful confession of Christ by Christians in their daily lives. The Spirit motivates by the Gospel, not by “motivational movements.”

By definition, related paradigms in the same sphere cannot co-exist: this is a prime principle of CGM and one of the first things taught me by Win Arn from Fuller. Ablaze is a Lutheran-CGM synthesis. The parts designed for a Ford do not fit or work well on a Toyota. The clearest paradigm statement illustrating my example is from the SP himself: “This is not your grandfather’s church.”

I do not believe that numerical growth or bodies-in-the-pew are of themselves indicative of the blessing of the Spirit, nor do I believe it ought to be the goal. I believe where the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered

you will find the Church. I believe the business of the church to be the faithful confession of the incarnate Son of God, not growth in numbers. The Word will accomplish that for which God sent it. Those added to the number are the Spirit’s business, and that may or may not be where “the big numbers” are. If it were otherwise, then I must perhaps recognize and give due credit to God for His expansion efforts in the LDS church and the Moslem world, both of which are growing in great numbers.

I do not endorse the elimination of direct LCMS funding of missionaries,10 to include salary, benefits and support, while at the same time placing so much of LCMS emphasis and resource to consultants.11 J. David Schmidt & Associates, employed before the 2004 Convention, is a CGM consultant.12 SP continues to use CGM consultants; the economic cost is high. And doesn’t the LCMS have current and severe financial difficulty? Has LCMS no “experts” of its own?

I believe it improper to direct funding efforts toward the Ablaze agenda, extending synodical bureaucracy to support it, while canceling radio evangelism and leaving missionaries to be trained as fund-raisers who must go out to raise their own funds.

CGM is primarily about breaking down any and all “barriers” to said numerical growth. LCMS is now clearly within the Ablaze-CGM paradigm. CGM proponents state that “Pure Doctrine” is the biggest obstacle to growth, that being defined as growth in numbers.13 Judging from the bringing of the “Purpose Driven Life/Church” into Lutheran pulpits and churches, the “approved” unionism of Dr. Benke at Yankee Stadium and even his 2008 “greeting” to the Pope, the rampant open communion across synod, the contemporary worship and hymnody, the cancellation of Issues, Etc, and much more, I am left to conclude that the breaking down of the barrier of pure doctrine is well under way.

I do not endorse the “marginalize, isolate, eliminate” approach to raised Doctrinal issues and to the conservative pastors and laymen who hold fast the Doctrine. Saying, as does the SP, that the synod is united and it is just a difference in practice betrays an agenda that defines solid Lutherans as “barriers” to numerical growth which must be broken down and eliminated.

I believe that importing the language of CGM also brings with the terminology the theology of CGM, its definitions and concepts. They come together. To think they do not is to not understand a paradigm shift. As Lutherans we believe in verbal inspiration of Scripture. The early church fathers, the Athanasian fathers, the Reformers, obviously understood this. They applied Scriptural terms and definitions and were careful to apply Scriptural doctrine where they “coined” a descriptive, such as “Trinity.” The words and terms chosen were of sound doctrine, and there was no compromise or synthesis.

In example, outreach is not the same as evangelism. Outreach refers to anything and everything that is employed to “attract” people into a particular church. The more colloquial term to describe outreach is “advertising.” Outreach focuses not on Law and Gospel but on the “felt needs of people” as defined by people themselves and determined through the tool of a “needs assessment.” Outreach can be viewed as the church’s response to the results of the needs assessment. Using the terms outreach and evangelism interchangeably does not make them interchangeable.

Ablaze does not appear to me to focus on discipleship. Wasn’t the context and direction of Jesus to make disciples? In 2007 Bill Hybels confirmed through one of his “surveys” that his “outreach” technique was yielding large attendances but was not making disciples.14 Some years prior George Barna documented that churches were growing by the rearranging of the saints.15 Evangelicals are simply playing 'musical churches,' moving around to more exciting, larger churches.16 CGM was not reaching the un-churched as stated. If Ablaze applies this method it is most reasonable to presume the results will be the same.

The Pastoral Leadership Institute (PLI) is a major connector to Ablaze. The primary objective of PLI is to assist pastors in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to "Connect People to Jesus" in a more dynamic and effective manner. I thought this was the Gospel! Is Ablaze supposed to enhance the Marks of the Church by “sharing the Gospel” whatever that may mean and however one may define it? Does the “power of God unto salvation” really require such assistance? There is a significant implication here: The Gospel needs our help! What the LCMS has been doing all this time must not be dynamic or effective. I will not argue the sinner’s shrinking from confession of Christ in daily life, but for our church to even hint at what the above statement from PLI says frightens me to the core.

The formal CGM training(s) I attended were taught to Navy chaplains of 18 different denominations. Hey, everybody can use this, we were told. From a pragmatic standpoint CGM “looked” good . . . until examined. Understanding paradigms and paradigm shifts was basic. “Red star clusters” for me went off all over! If one wanted success, we were taught, meaning have people come to services, package the message properly and the people will come. Since chaplains from across the denominational span could all package as required, the prime emphasis would shift from content to package, from faithful preaching and teaching to externals. The message wasn’t anywhere as significant as the people and their needs, and the church meeting those needs by breaking down any barriers to those needs. My question is: Where does Scripture ever speak of/like this?

CGM Working presuppositions:

1. Barriers basically are anything that hinders attendance (Growth).
2. People will not attend or return if they “feel” uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Break down and deliberately remove actual/overt and perceived target audience barriers to growth.
Of the many areas to examine, the following sample areas are not immune, especially in light of “the purity of doctrine” comment:
a. Preaching the Law and sin, thereby making people uncomfortable.
b. Closed Communion
c. Prohibitions against women’s/lay involvement
d. Pastoral authority
e. Liturgical worship (vice “emotion” oriented and entertaining worship)
f. Lack of serendipitous character
g. Having conditions on membership and involvement vice full privilege from day one.
h. Thorough doctrinal training/instruction classes for membership
Does Ablaze do this? Does the philosophy of Ablaze allow for this? Well, because Ablaze is a Lutheran synthesis of CGM, the following are things I have heard from reliable sources, and things that I know. You tell me.

How about the church in Omaha that has the girls serve coffee during service? How about the church in California whose adult classes leading to communicant membership are two hours on an afternoon? What about the churches that have broken down the barrier against women and now there is a woman at the Nevada church who regularly assists at the distribution of the Sacrament? And what about the churches that now have women elders? How about Yankee Stadium? How about pastors who participate in unionistic and syncretistic services in their locales through ministerial associations, and that after publication of “Its OK To Pray,” and others who officiate jointly at weddings and funerals with pastors with whom there is no fellowship? What about the endorsement of the philosophy and theology of Rick Warren in his “Purpose Driven” series? What about the Lutheran Witness even publishing a letter to the Witness suggesting that what we ought to do is read Rick Warren with Lutheran presuppositions? What about Kansas District offering a “Purpose Driven” brief at the professional workers seminar in Manhattan? What about the 2002 graduate from Seward, a DCE, who was not placed because she was conservative and confessional and not an “Ablaze-type” advocate? What about the DCE who would not be placed because, she was told, she was not liberal enough, meaning she didn’t buy into Ablaze or CGM and held fast the profession of the faith without wavering! What about the foreign missionary whose missionary education was received at Saddleback? Why is synod not addressing doctrinal issues but is instead fully intent on organizational restructuring? I could go on.

Here is a statement from CGM: “This new paradigm is not centered in theology, but rather it is focused on structure, organization, and the transition from an institutionally based church to a mission-driven church.”17

Rick Warren describes this paradigm shift as the shift to a “21st Century church,” and he describes pastors as "change agents."

Now, you tell me! PLI most strongly tends to the “change agent” statement according to its web page. The LCMS did not adopt this synthesized CGM approach in convention; it was leader initiated. You can follow the change pattern of Ablaze in John Kotter’s article in Harvard Business Review entitled, Why Transformation Efforts Fail, and read Peter Drucker and Rick Warren. Does the 50 days Ablaze sound a little like Rick Warren’s 40 days in Purpose Driven? Structure and organization is right now under review; will it be “directed” to so facilitate Ablaze? I can read a map.

I agree with Klemet Preus. The Lutheran paradigm rests solely in the Gospel, Justification, the Sacraments. CGM paradigm rests in pragmatism based on the tools of psychology, sociology, business and industry. Synthesize them and you “come up with a very different animal.” It appears to me it is called Ablaze in the LCMS.

I am not against our church body. I am not, I repeat not, against evangelism. Dating back to my confirmation in 1963 evangelism issues have always been there, and on the “front burner.” There have been “programs” to encourage “telling others” every few years or so. I expect there will be more in the future. The encouragement is always needed, to all of us. But I am contra the use of CGM. If Ablaze is CGM I firmly believe it will continue to bring with it a theology and practice that is Calvinist/Reformed, American evangelical, pragmatic, sociological, business-like, and very foreign to faithful confessional Lutheranism. I lived it; I have seen it done; I have felt its sting. If Ablaze is CGM I cannot in good conscience participate.

My comments contained herein are not polished for publication, they are pastoral. I pray they help someone. I wonder: I read that SP, in response to a question on the future possibility of women pastors in LCMS, told the Ohio District Convention "You are not free to preach or teach publicly that Synod is wrong on any given issue." He wanted us to be sure we understand that, so he repeated it. Slowly. No one may publicly preach or teach that Synod is wrong on any issue, ever.”18 Any issue?

Some of my resources aside from the training I received:

The Scriptures

The writings of organizational management master Dr. W. Edwards Deming, leader in Total Quality Management.

Dr. Peter F. Drucker, a recognized and leading authority in the area of management in business and industry. I have a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration and I have read Dr. Drucker in the past, often. He is very influential in CGM.

Dr. Robert Klenck’s work, “What’s Wrong With The 21st Century Church. Dr. Robert Klenck, an orthopaedic surgeon dismissed from Saddleback for his stand on Scripture vice CGM. His paper is on line.

Bob Buford of The Leadership Network. (Bob Buford, the founding chairman of the secular Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, also founded the "Christian" Leadership Network, which helps pastors and church leaders build "successful churches" based on Drucker's management policies and philosophy.)

The websites of Willow Creek and Saddleback College.

Thomas Kuhn,
The Structure of Change

Rick Warren

Dr. Ralph H. Elliott, senior pastor of the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago in the Christian Century, August 1981.

The Theology of the Church Growth Movement: An Evaluation of Kent Hunter's Confessions by Klemet Preus.

Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?
Chicago: Moody Press, 1992

The Report of the Church Growth Study Committee of the LCMS

Minutes, Board of Directors, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod August 2003, November 2006

Paradigm Shift in the Church by Christian A. Schwarz

Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast: An Evangelical, Confessional Lutheran Takes a Hard Look at the Church Growth Movement. By Kent Hunter. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, 1997.

PLI website

Ablaze website


1. II Timothy 4, The Augsburg Confession
2. The Theology of the Church Growth Movement: An Evaluation of Kent Hunter's Confessions by Klemet Preus.
3. Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church? Chicago: Moody, 1992
4. The Report of the Church Growth Study Committee of the LCMS
5. What’s Wrong with the 21st Century Church?, Synopsis Part 3, by Dr. Robert Klenck
6. Leadership Network, Bob Buford
7. Romans 1, Ephesians 2
8. The Theology of the Church Growth Movement: An Evaluation of Kent Hunter's Confessions by Klemet Preus, Logia, Epiphany 2001, Vol. X
9. Thomas Kuhn,
The Structure of Change

10. Minutes, Board of Directors, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, November, 2006
The LCMS-Its Past and Future
by Rev. Wallace Schulz
12. Minutes, Board of Directors, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, August, 2003
13. Paradigm Shift in the Church by Christian A. Schwarz
14. Willow Creek website
15. George Barna, Marketing the Church, Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO
16. William Hull, Power Religion, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1992
17. The Leadership Network


Ken Humphrey said...

I am curious if the upcoming symposia in St. Louis will be used as a framework for synodical restructuring, especially as Walther's and Loehe's ecclesiology are "no longer adequate." The event is listed here: http://www.csl.edu/EventDetail.aspx?eventId=117

Scott Diekmann said...

Ken, I don't think the symposia you reference will be discussing restructuring, but there is a theological convocation in St. Louis on August 18-20 that will discuss it.

For a timeline on restructuring events, here is a link:

Megan said...


Thanks for posting this. It was very interesting to read and I found that it summarizes many of the thoughts I have regarding Ablaze. I have always been uneasy with the concept and this essay solidified why.

I truly appreciate Pastor Kirk's constant emphasis on salvation coming from the Word and Sacraments, not by marketing schemes to reach "big numbers" or make people feel comfortable when they come to church.

"The Word will accomplish that for which God sent it." What a great statement; no need for Ablaze or CGM to get in the way of an already perfect plan.

Thanks again!