Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Transforming Churches Network: Part 3, Eliminating Regressive Attitudes

This entire series may be downloaded in Word or pdf format.

The base assumption that drives the Transforming Churches Network (TCN) and the revitalization “process” is that a church that is not growing is an “unhealthy” church:
It has been estimated that 80% of the congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are plateaued or declining in Sunday worship attendance. While a great deal of excellent ministry occurs in many of these congregations, the lack of growth is a constant concern. Typically such congregations are preoccupied with issues of institutional survival which is counterproductive to outreach. By making the needs of unbelieving people and the lifestyle outreach of church members the focus of the ministry, many of the regressive attitudes and disabling circumstances so prevalent in the institution will give way to hope, new life and new members (cached online reference).
Dan Southerland, another Church Growth Movement (CGM) expert, states “According to recent studies, 80 percent of churches in North America are plateaued or in decline” (Transitioning: Leading Your Church Through Change, p. 13). This 80% figure seems to have become something of an urban legend, perfect for maintaining the heightened sense of urgency required to facilitate the CGM paradigm shift.

TCN asks: “How will we know when a congregation has been transformed? Well, when it is regularly and consistently making new disciples, and it renews it members so that they’re making new disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit” (quoted from TCN video).  Do these quotes from TCN materials sound like the work of the Holy Spirit to you?
Congregational consultations, quality research on what the Holy Spirit is doing, developing leadership skills, stump speeches, strategies, bench marks, scorecards and time logs, extensive statistical research, accountability, pilot projects field testing materials, and using the pulpit to cast vision and to create a sense of urgency.
If not, then how does the Holy Spirit work?

First off, God does not deign to share with us His “church growth plans.” At times He grows His church with increasing numbers. At times He grows His Church with decreasing numbers. It is a theology of glory to claim that a church is healthy only if it is growing. As the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Church Growth Study Committee reports,
Therefore, it is spiritually harmful:

- When it is thought that saving faith can be imparted by human market strategies or hat 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).

- When a congregation sees itself as necessarily more faithful because it is not growing. Or, conversely, when a congregation views growing numbers and income as an indication that Christ is necessarily building His church. Numbers, large or small, are not a litmus test of the Gospel’s power (Matt. 7:24–27).

- When anything other than faithfulness by pastor or people to the pure Gospel and Sacraments of Christ is used to measure the “health” of a congregation (1 Cor. 2:2).
What happens when church growth becomes so important that it eclipses all other considerations? Those holding to the CGM “vision” develop “strategies designed to reach certain bench marks which are consistent with the national revitalization definitions. These benchmarks include a minimum of 5% growth in worship attendance each year, and increased percentages of adult to child baptisms and confirmations. Growth in healthy small group life and community involvement are also measured” (cached online reference). It comes up with bullet points such as these, quoted from the Groups Ablaze! PowerPoint “Revitalization Learnings”:
Holding [District] staff accountable enables them to seek to hold pastors and congregations accountable.

Underachieving staff receive no raise or are let go.

Pastors need to be held accountable for results.

Ineffective pastors are asked to move on.
When these types of bullet points are advocated, it’s obvious that those involved have abandoned their trust in the Word, and have placed their trust in man-made results. The pastor is no longer considered the called and ordained servant of the Word, but is now considered an expendable “equipper.” (One TCN document warns “Expect resistance from the pastor as he shifts from ‘care-taker’ and ‘shepherd’ to more of an equipper role.”)  If Jeremiah were around today, he too would be “asked to move on;” his congregation had definitely “plateaued.”

Coming up next, we’ll take a closer look at the TCN congregation consultation weekend, where these “plateaued” congregations receive their “inward focused” label.

Jump to Part 4

Go to Part 1

This entire series may be downloaded in Word or pdf format.

References updated 5-10-13.


Matt said...

One of the bad assumptions behind all this is that if your church has no numerical growth, you are doing something wrong.

This ignores the powerful effect of demographic forces that have nothing to do with our style of worship or "leadership." And recent demographic changes have not worked in favor of the LCMS.

If you mapped where most LCMS folks live, you would get a picture of the upper Midwest, from Montana and Wyoming on one end to Ohio on the other.

There is a lot of population decline going on in parts of this "Lutheran Heartland." Michigan, in particular, is suffering terribly because of economic forces and the congregations there are similarly effected.

We have also seen demographic decline in rural farming communities on the plains where our congregations are aging and shrinking and struggling to maintain historic buildings.

I think our Synod has a promise to keep to these people "left behind" to continue to provide them with pastoral care, and not disparage this important work as "maintenance ministry" as if the growing of congregations of young families is all that the church should be doing.

I think the LCMS should focus on providing local Lutheran worship, led by a called and ordained pastor for every community in the United States, both inside and outside the LCMS heartland. Instead, we seem intent on sending our best and brightest pastors to play the megachurch market in Dallas and Orlando, and starving our flock in less glamorous pastures.

Matt said...

To build on that last comment, I think current synodical efforts are being driven by a sense of panic about this demographic decline, which translates into an unsustainable financial situation at the Synod level. Such panic, I believe, demonstrates a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit to do the real work of the visable church through word and sacrament.

The reaction is "don't just stand there, do something!" So we get the Blue Ribbon task force rushing through a list of proposals to change everything about our governance without allowing time for proper deliberation, and this misguided effort to change everything about the structure and governance of congregations that have "plateaued."

What is really at stake here is the small amount of prestige that our leaders enjoy from official positions in the church body. If this continues, LCMS, Inc. may go bankrupt. We may have to sell our lovely purple headquarters building and our classical music station that all the cool kids in St. Louis love. Our leaders won't be invited to inaugural prayers or unionistic public prayer services. Our visibility will decline.

But our ability to proclaim the Word of God and administer the sacraments in our local congregations won't be great affected. That may be why the leadership is having a hard time pushing its panic down to congregation level and so has hatched this misguided transformation effort.

Jim Robertson said...

Regressive attitudes? Could this be faithfulness?

Anonymous said...

So I guess if your church has to close its doors for lack of members (maybe they all die off of old age) that is the surest sign that your church is healthy. Perhaps in the lutheren denomination one knows the Holy Ghost is present by the fact that the church is empty.

Reasonable people can be persuaded that doing things just to get people through the doors is not a good idea. But to wear the decline of your churches as some sort of badge of honor?

I suppose the author of book of Acts was wrong for pointing out that the koine was growing by the thousands. Someone should have taken him aside and pointed out that numbers don't matter.

I hear lutherans considered getting rid of the book of James at one time. Why stop there? Toss the book of Acts while you're at it. ;)

Christian Soul said...


The only sure sign that your congregation is healthy is that Christ is in it. The only sure sign that Christ is in it is that His Word and Sacraments are there.

What we see today matches the picture of the Church we see in the book of Revelation.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous"--please don't be too hard on us confessional lutheran types. We have seen 30 years of church growth, and our churches are not growing. We struggle with evangelism, and we are not unconcerned about our shrinking numbers. We do not wear our emptying pews as badges of honor, as you suggest. The LCMS has been from its very inception, a mission minded church--it was formed to train pastors and missionaries. But the emphasis on numbers is seductive and misleading. TC is not all bad, in spite of its awful law-based theology, and neglect of the Gospel. When my former congregation sent four people to a foreign country, I asked what was wrong with our own neighborhood? Now, after a TC weekend, they are looking into--guess what? Their own neighborhood. Oh yes, we love the book of James!