Monday, May 25, 2009

Can “Transforming Churches” Be Fixed?, Part 1

By Johannes

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and by teaching them to cling as if their life depended on it to everything whatsoever I authoritatively said to you.” Matthew 28:19, 20a (Interpretive Paraphrase)

Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

(Paul Speratus, Salvation Unto Us Has Come, LSB 555)

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Do you remember Clara Peller? She was the little old lady that appeared at the window, holding a tiny hamburger in a large bun, demanding, “WHERE’S THE BEEF?” You can still see some of those Wendy’s ads on the Web ( With respect to Transforming Churches (TC), Clara might be asking a similar question of our synod mission executives: “WHERE’S THE GOSPEL?” The Gospel hamburger would be much tinier, while the TC bun would dwarf the burger. Indeed, the Means of Grace are conspicuous by their almost complete absence from TC: one can barely find any beef in the TC entree.

Transforming Churches has been shown to be a spiritually dangerous program for several reasons:
  1. It “transforms” the Gospel into Law—Justification by grace through faith is replaced with the Great Commission as the central article of faith; faithful people are clubbed with a truncated version of the Great Commission (“Make new disciples, [only]”), as the sweetness of the Gospel is replaced by the terror of the Law;
  2. It emasculates the office of the Holy Ministry, changing the pastor into a CEO: rather than a steward of the mysteries of Christ, he is master of the congregation, and the two kingdoms are hopelessly entangled;
  3. It turns the Priesthood of Believers into functionaries under the thumb of the CEO; the sheep are no longer to be fed, but rather organized into ministry brigades;
  4. It is threatening to the spiritual well-being of the members of our congregations; they are told to rely on themselves, while denying the promises in God’s Word, thus destroying faith.

Some believe this non-Lutheran, non-confessional, non-biblical program ought to be abandoned; in fact, pastors and congregational members may be in need of spiritual rehabilitation after experimenting with TC. Yet many pastors and congregations do have legitimate concerns, declining attendance, for instance (see “Why revitalization” below), which raises the question: can and should Transforming Churches be “Lutheranized?” Is it possible to effect substantive changes to this program so that it can address the concerns of so many congregations, and still maintain scriptural and confessional integrity?

Transforming Churches (formerly Transforming Congregations—one wonders why the name change?) is not without its merits, albeit perhaps unintended. The emergence of this program has caused many of us to take a hard look at ourselves, and get back to our core beliefs and doctrine. When we place TC under scriptural and confessional scrutiny, its many flaws become apparent. Scott Diekmann’s series on TCN (Transforming Churches Network) has exposed these flaws, based on a thorough-going review in the light of God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions. We should thank Scott for his “masterpiece” as one Lutheran theologian described it. We should also be grateful that TCN (or simply TC) has had the effect (though unintended) of renewing and revitalizing our scriptural and confessional awareness and identity. Let us look at TC then, with an eye to (1) discarding what is dangerous to our spiritual health (2) salvaging what is truly useful, and (3) adding generous prescriptions of real health-promoting Gospel correctives. When this has been done, TC may well undoubtedly be a shadow of its former self; its “transformational” identity transformed into a true revitalizing character.

Why revitalization? What are the issues facing our congregations? Why would a congregation think it needs “revitalization”? The most obvious is declining membership and attendance. Young people leave and do not return, and the remaining membership is steadily “graying.” In many congregations, male activity and leadership is greatly diminished—it seems the church is becoming feminized. There are budget problems: one “growing” congregation reported that many of the new families have little or no history of proportional giving, and as the older members retire or move, their incomes are reduced, so the church budget must be slashed. It is difficult to find volunteers: board members, Sunday School teachers; burnout is common. There is urban flight and rural flight. And many Lutherans are drawn to the big-box community churches, with their feel-good messages, programs for everyone, and emphasis on sanctification. “We’ve got to do something,” one man said to me. And TC seemed to be “something,” so they did it. So have others—at least 265 congregations in the 24 participating LCMS districts (

What does TC offer? TC promises hope—“your church can be transformed.” A current TCN brochure promises growth—growth in attendance, members (“disciples”) and growth in giving. TC says it can help you figure out what you are doing wrong (or not doing at all), and help you fix it. Unlike equally dangerous Natural Church Development (NCD), large numbers of people are not required for TC, and, unlike NCD, it is very inexpensive. Districts offer weekend consultations and a year of coaching at minimal cost to the congregation. There is activity: focus groups, self-study documents must be gathered, organized, and submitted. Leaders and non-leaders are involved; the pastor may preach on the upcoming consultation, and there may be “temple talks.” Part and parcel of TC strategy is that a sense of urgency is imparted— things must change—TC promises that they will.

The philosophy of TC. The underlying philosophy of TC seems to be “The Law is our friend.” The Gospel is information only, and has no inherent power; the sacraments get no mention—whether in Paul Borden’s Direct Hit or on a typical Lutheran TC weekend. The vehicle for administering this Law-based program is the Accountable Leadership Model. One pastor has said that Jesus saved us so that we can make new disciples, another that “we are saved for service,” in effect saying, “Jesus saved you, so get to work!” These are not isolated instances: the TC leaders say the same. In Direct Hit Paul Borden belittles faithfulness, equating it with a “maintenance mentality.” Vision, growth, “cosmic praying,” and “dynamic leadership,” define the effective pastor/CEO, who is restoring his congregation to health (translation: growth). The absence of the Gospel and the Law/Works character of TC, and the massive by-law changes required by TC project a transformation that is decidedly unhealthy, both for the congregation and the pastor. The truncated TC version of the Great Commission is “Go into all the world and make [new] disciples— period.” Inherent in the TC philosophy is decision theology.

Can any good come from TC? The issues facing many congregations are real and they are serious. Revitalization seems to hold out hope for turning things around. Despite its many and obvious flaws, TC does have some potential for good. TC’s concern for those outside the church is admirable—missions of all types have always been a priority in the LCMS. The emphasis on reaching out to the unsaved is commendable and raising the sensitivities of the members is praiseworthy. The self-study process, with some modifications, can be very helpful. The weekend consultation needs major revisions, but could effect some positive results, as specific issues within each congregation are identified. For instance, concerns about the physical plant, maintenance, and appearance of the facility are often well-founded. Assimilation of new members is often an issue, as is friendliness toward visitors; follow-up with visitors is also a common failing. Focus on the surrounding community is emphasized. TC appropriately makes much of the chain of Accountability/Responsibility/Authority, a common failing in many congregations.

Fixing Transforming Churches (Overview): If we truly believe that it is indeed through the Means of Grace—Word and Sacrament—that Christ builds His church, then these means ought to predominate throughout TC from self-study to consultation weekend, from “strengths” to “concerns” to “prescriptions.” Church consultations should be viewed through “Gospel eyes,” rather than “growth eyes”: all aspects of TC should be “bathed” in the Gospel, and in prayer. The Gospel is glaringly omitted from TC. At best, it is a “given”—information only. TC promotes its own Means of Growth—the Means of Grace are nowhere to be found. The Gospel must predominate, however, for it alone is the “power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). A.C. IV, V, VI, and VII will serve to frame our overhaul of TC:

Augsburg Confession, Article IV & V: “Furthermore, it is taught [in our churches] that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3:21–26 and 4:5. To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.”

Augsburg Confession, Article VI: “Likewise, they teach that this faith is bound to yield good fruits and that it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God. For forgiveness of sins and justification are taken hold of by faith, as the saying of Christ also testifies [Luke 17:10]: “When you have done all [things]. . . say, ‘We are worthless slaves.’ ” The authors of the ancient church teach the same. For Ambrose says: “It is established by God that whoever believes in Christ shall be saved without work, by faith alone, receiving the forgiveness of sins as a gift.”

Augsburg Confession, Article VII: “Likewise, they teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4:5, 6]: “One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .”
(Kolb-Wengert, Book of Concord).

TCN advocates be forewarned: This diagnosis and prescription will require major surgery, large doses of Gospel medicine, significant “transplants” and major “lifestyle” changes!

What God did in His Law demand and none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand for man, the file offender.
Our flesh has not those purse desires the spirit of the Law required,
And lost is our condition.

Next time: Fixing Transforming Churches—specific prescriptions—correcting errors (I).

Jump to Part 2

This entire series may be downloaded as a single document in Word or PDF format.

"Johannes" is a retired layman who has served district and synodical organizations. He has also served as a delegate to district and synod conventions, and is active in his local congregation. Because of policy considerations, he has chosen to remain anonymous at this time.


Anonymous said...

"4) It is threatening to the spiritual well-being of the members of our congregations; they are told to rely on themselves, while denying the promises in God’s Word, thus destroying faith."This is also enthusiasm in that it is apparent in TCN that the Holy Spirit comes to us immediately. Word and Sacrament ministry are completely side-stepped. The "evidence" of the workings of the Holy Spirit come from numerical growth of the congregation.

Thank you for a great essay.

Anonymous said...

You're most welcome. You make some excellent points. When we consider the source of TCN, we shouldn't be surprised at the clear evidence of enthusiasm. "Side-stepping" W & S ministry describes perfectly what's going on.