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Back in 1998, at a theological conference, I heard a pastor (we’ll call him Pastor V.) of my denomination (the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) recount what had driven him out of his second call, a mission church in Lawrence, Kansas. It was the early ’90s, and Lawrence was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. A number of businesses had seen the advantages of being near a major research university. Pastor V. said his “outreach strategy” was to unlock the doors on Sunday morning. People streamed in, and the church grew impressively.

Pastor V. was a traditional sort, an “evangelical catholic” like Richard John Neuhaus, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert Wilken, ­Gilbert Meilaender, and other LCMS luminaries (and, for the sake of full disclosure, myself). This was Luther’s preferred term for excommunicated Catholics like himself of the sixteenth century. We never wanted to be part of any church but the Catholic, and when Luther and his fellow travelers got the boot from Rome, they called themselves “evangelical catholics” because it was the evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, that defined their Catholic faith rather than the teachings of the bishop of Rome. Evangelical catholics maintain the ancient Mass and accompanying offices as the best way to worship the Holy Trinity. We draw our doctrine exclusively from the Scriptures as they have been rightly confessed in the creeds by the Church catholic, in the first four ecumenical councils, by the great fathers of the Church, and, finally, as they are set forth by the Lutheran Confessions over against the Council of Trent.

Pastor V. opposed any innovation in worship, doctrine, or practice. He followed the services straight-up from The Lutheran Hymnal, preached on the Revised Common Lectionary (always the gospel appointed for the day), taught classes on the Bible and the Church Fathers, visited the sick, taught and baptized the young, and communed those in fellowship with the Church—emphasizing Christ and him crucified as the sole center of faith, worship, and life.

And this went over ­swimmingly—until it didn’t. The president of the Kansas district, Pastor V.’s ecclesiastical supervisor, was a church growth reformer. Like many in the LCMS leadership, he’d become enamored in the late ’60s and early ’70s with the Fuller Seminary church growth movement. The idea behind the church growth movement was that the mission of the Church was to “reach the lost” and to evangelize the world by following the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations. Luther and the old fathers saw it not as a command to do Christ’s work for him, but rather as a promise of Christ: that he himself will always accompany the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of holy baptism to make the faithful hearers full members of the Body of Christ. This was the mission of the Church as evangelical catholics had always seen it. The goal is not to grow the Church, but simply to be the Church by God’s grace through the faith he alone bestows through Word and sacraments.

Pastor V. was happy to see many new members come into the church he served in Lawrence. He taught them the Small Catechism and received them. They took to the Body of Christ like ducks to water. But this bothered the Kansas district president. The church growth ideology to which he subscribed regarded traditional liturgy, doctrine, and preaching as barriers keeping “the lost” from joining the Church. If you want to reach the lost, you have to make the Church as much like the world as possible. Kids like pop music, so the service should include it. Sermons need to be practical, not doctrinal—teaching not Christ but morals, how to be good parents and successful workers, and, above all, how to persuade friends and neighbors to join the church and give generously.

Pastor V. was urged to take a call to another church. He declined. The district opened another “mission start” with rock and roll worship (“CoWo,” “contemporary worship”) right down the street. That mission failed, while his congregation continued to attract more folks than the mission-minded congregations around him which hewed more closely to the officially favored “church growth” ideology. Finally, the members of the failed mission start, along with a retired pastor, joined Pastor V.’s congregation and urged more CoWo, small group ministries, and sermons that catered to individuals’ “felt needs.” Lutheran Pastor David Luecke’s book Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (which Neuhaus had panned for its shallow semi-­paganism) served as their operations manual. Pastor V. moved on, and the congregation became another little copy of Willow Creek Community Church. It has declined over the years.

Pastor V. said he’d learned some hard lessons. First, that not all numerical growth in the Church ­pleases those who claim such growth is all that matters. Second, that the so-called “Battle for the Bible” that resulted in the ouster of many of the brightest and most ­evangelical catholic types from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and from leading ­parishes of the synod was really less about “higher criticism” than about clearing the way to turn the LCMS into a ’70s-style, nondenom ­Protestant type of church. Third, that the LCMS had for many years pursued a conscious project of ­staffing churches in ­demographically favorable areas with “church growth/CoWo” pastors. He came to the conclusion that his district ­­president would prefer to see no growth in Lawrence than to see growth in evangelical catholic parishes like his. This was part of the vision of leaders of the synod such as the late Ralph ­Bohlmann. By making sure LCMS congregations in the fastest-growing areas were staffed exclusively by CoWo pastors, they could say, “Just look at the stats! All our largest and fastest-growing churches do CoWo! If you want to grow, this is the way!”

Pastor V. was an embarrassing counterexample. Which was Pastor V.’s final point: The CoWo church growth ideology is an ideology. It pretends to be purely pragmatic, but it demands that it alone reign, and will take measures against any who oppose it, no matter how badly it fails to deliver the promised goods and services.

Back in 1998, I thought Pastor V. was a little paranoid. I’d seen evidence for what he presented but did not want to believe things were that bad. We had a “confessional Lutheran” for synod president at that time who ostensibly was opposed to this. Surely things would straighten out soon!

But matters only got worse. Twenty years after that conference, I’ve come to realize that Pastor V. understated the case. There is an unofficial group in our synod called the Pastoral Leadership Institute that, for about $10,000, will train a pastor in a two-year CoWo/Fuller Seminary–style program. In the “mission-minded” district I serve, it is rare to see any but PLI pastors in demographically favored parishes. It would be interesting to see how a Pastor V. would fare in such a parish, but the powers that be seem even more eager today to avoid such clinical trials.

There is an irony that Martin ­Luther pointed out in Bondage of the Will: The harder we try to reform ourselves, the worse we get. The more we harp on good works, the more evil works proliferate. Only when we give up trying to reform ourselves can Christ Jesus reform us by his cross, through gospel Word and sacrament, as his free gift through faith alone. Similarly, when we try to reform the Church to make it larger and more appealing to the masses, we separate ourselves from the Word of the Cross that truly reforms all, and we ­usually end up shrinking or sinking the Church.

Since the late ’90s, the LCMS has declined for the first time in its history—and precipitously. We’ve lost almost 20 percent of our membership since 2000. In striving to reach the world, we’ve become worldly.

Those who preach the gospel faithfully as the apostles delivered it and administer the sacraments properly have a rough road in the Church these days. I spent a couple years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and I found that it was easier to be a liturgical traditionalist there (somewhat). But it was much harder to be a ­committed ­supernaturalist—someone who believes Jesus rose bodily from the grave on a spring Sunday morning around a.d. 30, ascended into heaven, and will return bodily to judge the living and the dead. If you believe the things confessed by the apostles of Christ are really so, really happened, and will all happen as promised in Holy Scriptures, you will end up on the sidetracks of mainline liberal Protestant churches. Such preaching is dangerous. It could draw a crowd, and if it did, suddenly there might be copyists, and then a whole movement could start of churches demanding such preaching and teaching and worshiping of Christ Jesus as Lord.

After twenty-five years of parish ministry, I am not despairing, though. I’m not even discouraged. The pseudo-Christianity that has ravaged American Christianity is collapsing. Americans are smarter than the ecclesiastical elite give them credit for being. They may not read much theology, but they have a keen nose for trimming. The “missionalizing” and mass marketing of the Church have neither increased the numbers in the pews nor filled its coffers. But they have led to millions of people being lost to the Church.

I remember a scorching article Richard Neuhaus wrote when he edited the old Forum Letter before he started First Things, in which he ripped contemporary worship as a betrayal of the gospel and called for getting the worship right because then the doctrine and the practice will fall into line. I believe he was right then and is still right on this today.

Kevin Martin is a parish pastor serving Our Savior Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Photo by Justin Brendel.