Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Spirit Tracker?

The Northwest District of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is leading the way in pioneering a “new” program called Tracking the Spirit (TTS). This program (which they call a “movement”), is described as “following and joining Him [the Holy Spirit] as He leads people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” Describing the program is a five page document, which consists of a brief introduction, followed by an article “written by a Northwest District pastor to his congregation after having attended one of the first TTS informational events in 2001.”

Tracking the Spirit has some very positive attributes. First and most obvious, its ultimate goal is to share the Gospel with those people who don’t know Christ as their Savior. It should be commended for exploring other ways to start a church besides “the way we’ve always done it.” It’s also designed to minimize the cost of a “traditional” church startup, and be more nimble in doing so. Its emphasis on the relational sharing of the Gospel is a good one, as long as vocation is emphasized. At the same time, it has negatives associated with it, which are described below.

The first sentence of the introduction states that TTS is not “all about us.” Having read Pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life, this comment is worrisome. Pastor Warren stated at the beginning of his book that “it’s not about you.” He then proceeded to spend 319 pages talking about and glorifying “you,” and cajoling “you” with the third use of the Law. If it’s so obvious that TTS isn’t about “us,” why point it out? This defense of the “obvious” is reminiscent of Senator Bumper’s comments at President Clinton’s impeachment trial, when he said "When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money' – it's about money. And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex’ – it's about sex.” And when you hear someone say “It’s not about us,” it’s about us.

So is it about “us,” or “you,” or not? Consider the beginning of the pastor’s article:

What is our “Business” as a church?

“What business are you in?” Have we thought about that? Ponder the Great Commission and your personal obedience to it. What am I doing, not only to BE a disciple, but to MAKE disciples?

So apparently it is about “you.” It’s about you and what you’re doin’ for the Lord. It’s about your personal obedience. It’s about a Law-driven, guilt ridden, message. This prodding to “MAKE disciples” turns God’s good Law, in this case the third use of the Law as a guide, into a club and naked moralism, confounding Law and Gospel. Coercing people with the Law produces hypocrites, Pharisees, and despairing Christians, rather than the good works that flow from faith. (Reference C.F.W. Walther’s Thesis XXIII in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel).

The article moves on to relate how LCMS membership is paralleling the decline of the general “churched” population in the United States, calling the LCMS “part of that unhealthy picture.” At this point we need to take a time out, because this statement makes an erroneous assumption. To equate the size of the Church with the health of the Church is a theology of glory. God grows His Church as he sees fit. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. To quote the 2001 LCMS report of the Church Growth Study Committee (titled “For the Sake of Christ’s Commission”), “As at Pentecost, God built His church with dramatic increase in numbers through the proclamation of the cross; so in the days of Noah, Elijah, and Jeremiah, He built His church in times of decreasing numbers (1 Pet. 3:17–22).” A more appropriate posture concerning “numbers” would be that of the Lutheran pastor, who when asked how many people were in his parish, replied “As many as the Lord has given us.”

The author describes “Tracking the Spirit” as “a movement within our district to empower churches to improve their health and to grow, implementing the two foundational factors mentioned above – SMALL GROUPS (outreach based) and CHURCH PLANTING.” According to TTS, these two factors are foundational, and “what makes for healthy churches.” This thought is completely foreign to Scripture and our Confession. Healthy churches are “made” through the power of the Word, preached, joined with water, given and shed, in which unworthy sinners are declared righteous through the substitutionary death and resurrection of their Savior Jesus Christ. It’s not about us and what we’re doing - it’s about Jesus Christ and what He is doing to daily recreate us in the waters of Baptism, in His body and blood, and in the hearing of His Word. Here’s how the Solid Declaration puts it:

Out of His immense goodness and mercy, God provides for the public preaching of His divine eternal Law and His wonderful plan for our redemption, that of the holy, only saving Gospel of His eternal Son, our only Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. By this preaching He gathers an eternal Church for Himself from the human race and works in people’s hearts true repentance, knowledge of sins, and true faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. By this means, and in no other way (i.e., through His holy Word, when people hear it preached or read it, and through the holy Sacraments when they are used according to His Word), God desires to call people to eternal salvation. He desires to draw them to Himself and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them. SD II, 50.

TTS begins in the wrong place. Instead of starting with the Confession, it starts with a man-centered solution to the perceived “problem” of shrinking numbers. It claims that the “current” way of starting churches is expensive, requiring land and “a salaried professional ‘mission developer’ (that means a trained pastor – in short supply);” their pragmatic solution is a house church with no pastor, ending up with the “house,” but not the “church.” They state:

Is this a NEW approach? Actually, it is a return to something we see in the New Testament, where the church grew by the beginning of small home-based groups. Paul’s missionary method allowed him to start a new congregation in a host home, appoint leaders, then move to the next city and do it again.

What this pastor fails to mention is that these were house churches started by Paul, not “home-based groups,” and the “leaders” of these house churches were pastors, not laymen. The TTS plan “is primarily lay-led and utilizes existing congregations and pastors for foundational support. ...In other words, it allows us to start new churches without pastors, land, or new buildings up front.” The Northwest District hopes “that God will lead gifted lay people to be trained for Word/Sacrament ministry in the LAP (Leadership Advancement Process) model. (Trained lay leader under pastor’s supervision).” This type of structure is rightfully shot down by the Church Growth Study Committee:

Therefore, it is spiritually harmful:

...When programs of “leadership training” result in (1) substitution of lay leaders for public ministers of the Gospel or (2) inadequate training for the proper theological preparation of preachers.

The Church Growth Study Committee also finds it spiritually harmful “when ‘spiritual gifts’ are substituted for the Means of Grace as the organizing principle of the church.” TTS, on the other hand, sees this as prescriptive for the beginning of a church plant:

We also need (in my mind, at least) six “church planters” (single or couple) who will covenant to take up this work as their primary service to the Lord. The spiritual gifts that would seem helpful are HOSPITALITY, EVANGELISM, and SHEPHERDING (not “TEACHING). [sic]

The TTS “slogan” says “Tracking the Spirit is following and joining Him as He leads people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” The question is, who’s really leading here? “Leaders in our district have a vision…in their ‘picture of a preferable future,’ they envision a minimum of 5000 new people in the Northwest District coming to a saving relationship to Jesus Christ by end of 2004.” Is this the Spirit’s “vision?” No. This is man leading, not the Spirit leading. They comment: “So it is the desire in this movement to let the Holy Spirit do the leading into health and growth. We are following His ‘tracks’ into a healthier future.” This statement brings to mind a Hermann Sasse quote:

We seek the Holy Spirit where He is not to be found when we take it as self-evident that the way our church is developing is altogether due to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (We Confess: The Church, p. 20)

Their arbitrary “vision” of a certain number of converts fits the “self-chosen worship” discussed in the Formula of Concord – Solid Declaration, VI, 20.

The author goes on to say that

Although it is “not about the numbers or reports but about hearts,” numbers and reports are a good way to “track” how the Holy Spirit is working....

When you hear someone say “This is not about numbers” – it’s about numbers. The Church Growth Study Committee again reminds us:

Therefore, it is spiritually harmful:

...When it is thought that saving faith can be imparted by human market strategies or that the growth of the Holy Christian Church can be adequately or accurately measured by numbers (Matt. 7:13–14; 16:18; Acts 2:47; Col. 2:19).

The author notes that this program “may involve a change in our picture of what a ‘church’ looks like.” In this case, the “picture” is one which ignores and contradicts the Confession which our pastors have taken an oath to uphold.

This lack of care in the construction of TTS, containing so many ways in which the components of this program are spiritually harmful, points directly back to those who designed it, and to those who support and promote it.

After years of pragmatism trumping doctrine, it has come to this: for those to whom numbers are so important that the Great Commission has become the material principle, rather than justification by grace through faith, the Book of Concord is no longer relevant, and doctrine takes a back seat to whatever works. This is a hard, sobering fact. It’s also a testament to lex orandi, lex credendi – that practice influences doctrine and vice versa. These are not deductions on my part, or assumptions made from observation, they are the words from the mouths of district officials. It’s something they’re proud of, and trumpet as though they will not be held accountable.

I take no pleasure in writing these things, but they are the facts. And it is unlikely that this attitude towards our Confession is limited to this particular district. I am not attempting to single out specific people, but rather point out the problems that exist, so that we would return to the teaching of Christ. The time has come to speak out. We can no longer ignore these problems and pretend that things will be better in the morning. We must fight false doctrine, and the erosion of the true doctrine, wherever it is found.

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:1-8

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition of the Word of God except precisely that one point which the world and the Devil are at that point attacking, I am not confessing Christ however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is tested. To be steady in all other battlefields is mere flight and disgrace if the soldier flinches at that one point. (Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s Work’s, WA, Vol. 3, p. 81f)

Let us walk together in our Confession as we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, building His Church through the means which He provides given from pulpit, altar, and font. Repent and believe the Gospel.

photo credit: m.prinke


Frank Gillespie said...

I hear stuff like this all the time in my circuit’s mission meetings. It’s not always verbatim, but the buzz words always get played, and with the buzz words come a theology like it or not.

Anonymous said...


Oh, boy! Here we go! All I can ask is "why?" Why must we stupidly think we can improve upon the great commission? Why must people tinker with sound doctrine? I pray that the Lord will wake us up and that those who want to take the synod to American Revivalism will repent with us and receive the word and sacraments given to us by God.

Frank Gillespie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Gillespie said...

Jim, the “why” is the one question everyone likes to tiptoe around so as to not disturb it.

Kurt Onken said...

Thanks, Scott, for this excellent analysis.

This program always makes me think of Elmer Fudd wearing a clerical collar (or not), walking around in the woods, looking at the camera, and saying, "Shhhhhh! Be vewy quiet. We'we twacking the Spiwit. Huhuhuhuhu."