V1N3A3 Bart Simpson on Church Growth Methodology

  Bart Simpson on Church Growth Methodology

ramblings by John W. Berg 


Episode 248, “I’m goin’ to Praiseland,” begins with the dysfunctional Simpsons dutifully arriving for services at the First Church of Springfield. To their surprise, rather than a service, an ice cream social is in full swing with the hapless Reverend Lovejoy not behind his pulpit but behind a stand with sundae toppings reading “Cruci-fixin’s.” Eyes widened by seeing the bounty before him, everyone’s bad boy, Bart, glibly says, “I’m intrigued… but suspicious.” Thus the sardonic Matt Groening’s (writer and creator) take on Church Growth Methodology through his alter ego, Bart Simpson.


As anyone in tune with popular culture, and thus an avid watcher of the Simpsons, knows, the show savagely, blasphemously and, I confess, humorously attacks hypocrisy and stupidity.  Nowhere is this bite more severe than when it comes to the church. Sometimes no one sees ecclesial hypocrisy better than those outside the church, Groening following in the tradition of cynics before him.


Now Bart is not the first to see through the shallow and shameless bait and switch techniques some employ in “growing the church.”  So one wonders, if the pagan world, whom we are trying to convert after all, sees through this charade, why doesn’t the church, let alone a Lutheran church who still has Augustana V on the books? The current charade in question is the so-called Church Growth Movement (CGM).


Enough has been written about the Church Growth Movement that a rehearsal of its history and theology is unnecessary here. Must reading is the Reverend Kurt Marquart’s treatment, “Church Growth as Mission Paradigm: A Confessional Lutheran Assessment.”1 Rev. Marquart examines the movement in light of our Evangelical Lutheran Faith, and to say that he finds it wanting, is to make a great understatement.  It ought to be, if it is not, required reading for all seminary students, pastors and especially mission executives who are tempted, as we all are, to dabble in a theology of glory.


One brief caution, however. The charge “that’s Church Growth” is too easily and too often made by so called conservative and, even confessional, Lutherans. I recall much derision at a conference directed at a “Ministry of Valet Parking” we heard about, some of it coming from my own profane lips.  Yet, I ask ushers to park cars for people on our infrequent rainy days. Call this “service” a ministry if you will, but “Church Growth”?  No, good manners.


Not Us?


But that the movement has influenced the Wisconsin Synod, the group in which I was formerly insured and pensioned, is beyond question. Already in 1977 in the inaugural issue of The Evangelism Life Line (with the acronym TELL get it?) in an article entitled “Church Growth Worthwhile for WELS?” the author offers the now standard endorsement cum caveat


I believe we in WELS can profit greatly from the writings of the c-g leaders. Surely a blanket endorsement cannot be given to all they have produced… However, the good, in my estimation, far outweighs what is heterodox.2


Since that time, many entrepreneurs within this church have and still continue to try to cash in on the profits.


Prima facie evidence that the “CG” bug has bit the Wisconsin Synod is that words such as “growth,” “techniques,” “lay ministry,” “spiritual gifts,” “contemporary,” “innovative,” “cutting edge,” “programs,” “methods,” “effective,” and the current mantra of all mantras, “change,” abound in its periodicals, on conference floors and in the smoky back rooms of the power brokers. Within the Wisconsin Synod, a maverick group calling itself “Church and Change,” whose name enjoys the benefit of self-explanation (so the group can hardly be accused of having a “secret agenda” as some “conservatives” have unjustly accused) has now been synodically corralled under its Board for Parish Services as it is desperate for a magic finger to stick into the leaking dike of its nose diving synodical membership (which recently dropped below the “Mischke” line of 400,000). That at a recent convocation Kent Hunter was guest speaker, and not Kurt Marquart (now sainted), should be informative to our readers in the LC-MS and those who have kept abreast of this “Movement.”


But all are assured this is only about common sense and good manners, which begs the question, does one need a heterodox movement to teach good manners and common sense? Not if one would listen to his mother and father. However, only the naïve would believe that this “Movement” and its methods are merely about not so common, common sense. This “Movement” goes to the heart of the matter at hand, how does the church grow. We are being told we have something to learn. We can “spoil the Egyptians” and not be spoiled in return, despite the historically poor track record on that particular stratagem. 


But what of and what is, “church growth”?  Suffice it to say that we are all for church growth, whatever that means, but no one would confess to espouse the false theology of the CGM, which is about as reassuring as the confessional statement “we believe the Bible.” It should come as no surprise to anyone that the official position of the conservative Wisconsin Synod is that it does not endorse the “false theology” of the CGM, as its website’s Q/A once assured a nervous questioner “the Wisconsin Synod believes what the Bible believes.” (Whew!) The then-administrator for the WELS Board for Parish Services wrote in the then-Northwestern Lutheran


There is no Church Growth Movement Program in our synod. Our church body is opposed to the false theology of the Church Growth Movement. We have no programs inside or outside the budget with that name. Nor do we have any programs with a different name which utilize Church Growth Theology. 3


Perceptive readers quickly note the upper case denial. But official pronouncements do not always define a church’s practice or people’s beliefs, as our readers know well. A paragraph later we read


There may be pastors or congregations which use methodology which church growth people use. This does not mean they have adopted the theology of the [CGM]. Our Lutheran Confessions allow complete freedom among our churches in methodology that does not conflict with the gospel.


Fine, but how many have left for greener Protestant pastures since this was written in 1992? But all the requisite caveats are in place. “Church Growth Methodology not false Church Growth Theology,” “change the methods, but not the message,” “strain out the bad and use the good,” or as our dear, separated brethren in the Missouri Synod were told ad nauseum, “it’s just style, man, not substance.” This is precisely the claim of proponents of the CGM for the Movement itself, that it is theologically neutral. But as those who confess AC V we must ask ourselves, how can anything that professes to “grow” the church, let alone “style,” be doctrinally neutral, especially that with Reformed and Arminian designers?


All Methodology is Theology


With apologies to Dr. David Scaer (who rightly observed, “All theology is Christology”), let me assert that all methodology is theology. Theology is not simply words on a page and the domain of doddering old professors in seminaries or too sure of themselves seminarians in taverns. It is that theology in practice. Our Confessions state that the Church’s Spirit-given “growth” comes kerygmatically and sacramentally (AC V) and they define our  methodology, the “how” of how we do it - the “right” preaching and the “right” administration of the Sacraments with Christologically centered ceremonies in accord with the church Catholic (AC Cl. V). The Divine Service, therefore, is the front and rear guard against the assaults of the unholy axis of Evil, the Troika of devil, world and flesh. Thus, a well articulated, confessional, Sacramental theology that does not translate into a rich, congregational, Sacramental life is a modern day version of making one’s “phylacteries broad,” where the Lutheran who must fast on the “off” Sunday remains as famished as the Protestant who has dutifully observed his “Ordinance.” Not only “Church Growth” churches, but even “conservative” ones can suffer this malady.  


Unfortunately, this “movement” is as wide as it is thin and an analysis of its impact invariably settles on anecdotal evidence and, although there is plenty of that, this is not the place for it. But I do agree with Church Growth advocates who say that it is a mindset.  But even with the best of intentions, Church Growth methodology creates an anthropocentric mindset, which results in the astigmatism of church growth eyes (needing the corrective lenses of AC V and IX). As it asserts for itself, the theology of Church Growth is its methodology and its methodology comes from its conversion theology and at the core of Church Growth Methodology/Theology is a synergistic, Arminian understanding of conversion, faith as decision, abetted by right knowledge (Rationalism) and the right mood or feelings (Pietism). 


So, in order to induce people to favorable decisions, they need to be in an accepting frame of mind. The question for Lutheran Church Growth sycophants is, how can we appeal to people, how can we make the unbeliever feel comfortable enough about himself so that he stays. If vestments make him uncomfortable, divest. If creeds are not automatically accessible, simplify to ambiguity. If a closed Table makes him angry, hide it away or reduce the potential detriment or open it with a blind eye.  If the thought of a terrible God before whom we bow and beg Kyrie Eleison, frightens, transform him into a, like, awesome God, dude. If a trained pastor intimidates, let a lay man or women who has discovered they have the gift of “shepherding” do it (see David Vallesky’s “Spiritual Gifts” test to divine whether you, too, can be a pastor, rite vocatus N/A).  If the crucifix offends, how about a picture of Jesus playing soccer with a little boy (available at most Lutheran publishing houses). If preaching and Sacraments are too objective (extra nos), then have an enthusiastic (ejn qeov") testimony or song or two. If the hymns of Lent are too solemn, just clap your hands and stomp your feet. If the unchurched won’t come to a Divine Service, how about a no strings attached Friendship event. If you fear a “stained glass barrier,” build sterile office buildings and call them “ministry centers.” If the unchurched balks at the preaching of law and Gospel and catechesis, how about a bike rodeo, drug awareness seminar, parenting class or whatever other program you can think of to improve people’s behavior and lives and so to draw them in, hey, an host an ice cream social. This new methodology has a profound effect on the Divine Service, turning it from a place where we meet Christ to receive his forgiveness, to a seminar for improving lives and behavior. So the Christological center morphs into an anthropocentric one, with Christ on the periphery.  When the suggestion of an every Sunday service celebration of the Sacrament and an ordered liturgical service (which is nothing but a long quotation of Scripture) is said to be detrimental to visitors, we know the center has moved.


But in the Lutheran Church we know of no conversion methodology apart from the application of water.  There is no life apart from a death by the hammer of the law and life in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ breathed into us by the Holy Ministry of AC V. There is no growth without “food for immortality.” Anything else is a shameful and deceptive means.  If a church is looking for a program, I offer what my friend Rolf Preus once said to me “the church has a program: confession and absolution.” 


The Weakest Link


The Divine Service is the battleground, and, in my opinion, here is where the Wisconsin Synod is especially susceptible to the ills of Church Growth Methodology. The Divine Service is its weakest link. It has never had a strong liturgical or sacramental practice and that of late seems to be guided by the Holy Grail of adiaphora. Questions of liturgical and sacramental practice are usually framed with the narrow biblistic principle “the Bible doesn’t say,” rather than by asking what do these things say about Christ, the Gospel and the Sacraments. When this biblistic understanding of adiaphora becomes the guiding principle, then matters of liturgy degenerate into mere aesthetics and personal taste with the ditty “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Oh-oh” (sung to the tune of Louie, Louie) claiming its place along side of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (sung to the tune of Herzlich tut mich verlangen) and a homemade hymn sandwich praise service replacing the Hauptgottesdienst with the service extended by The WELS Connection video and not the Sacrament.  Why? “Bible doesn’t say.”


This mindset, incidentally, creates strange bedfellows. Under the canopy of “it’s all adiaphora,” the cutting-edge, big-screen, power-tie-wearing innovator and the “this is the way we have always done it” (well, at least for two generations) “Geneva”-gowned, by the book (such as it is) old school, Herr Pastor, who on the surface seem to be the antithesis of each other, can be no different. Both suffering from the same lack of liturgical expertise, sacramental understanding and Christological hermeneutic really share the same liturgical philosophy separated only by questions of taste. Both look askance at those equally impoverished pastors who are struggling to learn and promote a rich Lutheran liturgical renewal, a return to the regular practice of confession and absolution, and an every Lord’s Day celebration of the Sacrament.  (So The Motley Magpie can humbly take credit for bringing these two disparate groups together!)


One of the strengths of the Wisconsin Synod was in the area of music.  Its Martin Luther College can rightly boast of many sound Lutheran musicians on their staff and in their graduating classes. Its Commission on Worship’s administrator is one of its best in the areas of music and liturgics (one wonders whether he will still have a job after all the budget cuts are made).  Yet under the standard of “but I like it” the anthropocentric tunes of Contemporary Christian Music, Christian Rock, Alternative Christian Rock etc., are wafting about, not only around campfires, but in its schools, colleges and its seminary as well in its services.


Couple all of this with its squishy understanding of the office of the Holy Ministry, the regular encouragement for lay led Bible studies, the pushing of what Rev. Marquart calls “the spiritual gifts scheme,” and you have a porous defense against the usually imperceptible, yet always deadly influences of Satan and the world who very piously try to draw us away from Christ and his work, to the Christian and his.  Without the context of a sound liturgical and sacramental framework built by the Fathers and Confessors one easily foregoes the wisdom of the ages for a wisdom of the moment as one seeks to contextualize the Gospel with analogies and forms familiar to modern man, rather than bringing modern man into the context of Scripture by means of catechesis, leading to the concrete forms and blessed realities of the Holy Sacraments.


Saint Paul, the Blessed Innovator?


When objections are raised to this chicanery, the card that trumps all is played, the blessed apostle Paul’s word to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (NIV). This card is regularly played, as in a recent issue of the “President’s Newsletter.” In speaking about a recent “Church and Change” conference it was said that the attendees “share Paul’s approach to ministry” and “are either innovators in ministry, willing to become an innovator, or just looking for new ministry approaches to take back home and use.” 4


However, I question whether this passage can carry the weight with which el Presidente burdens it. Paul is not speaking about being an “innovator in ministry” but about applying the Word, specifically the law and the Gospel, to individuals in their particular spiritual circumstances.  Paul, nor we, become adulterers to win the adulterers, or self-righteous to win the self-righteous. But with an understanding of people in their relationship to the law and Gospel, we apply them in the way that is best for them, something I suspect the majority of faithful pastors do quite well, thank you, without resorting to entertainment or flesh friendly gimmickry. “Being all things” does not mean presenting the message in a way that people feel is best for them or innovatively luring them by “packaging”, “selling,” “spinning” or, as I heard once, searching “for the most effective ways to present the bait.”  But here is the irony, by attempting to be all things to all men, that is, trying to accommodate all tastes and styles, especially in the Divine Service, means that you can only accommodate some of the people some of the time and must be most unaccommodating to most of the people most of the time.


A word should be said about the simple adverb pavntw" translated by the NIV “by all possible means.” This adverbial form of pa'" seems to be becoming the Lutheran equivalent to the Jesuit rule “the end justifies the means.”  Modifying the verb “save,” the force of the adverb pavntw" is the “all-ly” saving in all situations. The ambitious use of this word was seen in the brochure of the recent “WELS TECH” technology conference “By all possible means – advancing ministries in the digital age.” Paul’s pavntw" is not common sense’s “by all possible means,” meaning using the technology available to us (be it wax tablets, movable type, or computers) in our work of saving some by the correct application of law and Gospel and the proper administration of the Sacraments, the only possible means of salvation. No, common sense tells us to use these things.  (Worse was the logo of a computer mouse and cord wrapping around a cross, à la the bronze serpent.)


Quo Vadis?


“No generalization is worth a damn, especially this one,” it has been said.  Much of the foregoing, granted, will fall under that indictment. But let me, undeterred as I am, posit the generalization that the Wisconsin Synod is at a crossroads. And if there is any truth to the old saw that the Wisconsin Synod is 15 years behind the Missouri Synod, it is in for rough ride. Observe what happens when a cutting-edge innovator follows a “maintenance minister” (guess who picks the labels) or vice versa - disaster, with lay and pastoral causalities. Where will it all end as both go their asynchronous ways? Just go back to the future and take a look at what is happening among the old Synodical Conference mates. 


Yet, more and more one hears “what can we do to grow the church?” The answer that comes to mind may not be “an ice cream social,” but it seems the Wisconsin Synod is not that far off (if it hasn’t arrived, one of its missions advertises an every Lord’s Day, festivals and when people ask for it “Starbucks Coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts” and promises a “fun” time!) One can only pray that the Lord will raise up a few Bart Simpsons in its midst to sound the warning, “Suspicious.” §



The Reverend John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in FremontCalifornia. This article was written for the July 2003 issue.



1  Luther Academy Monograph, Our Savior Lutheran ChurchHoustonTX 1994. See also Dr. Rodney Zwonitzer’s “Testing the Claims of Church Growth, CPH, St. Louis, 2002, also Steve Scheiderer’s fine treatment “the Church Growth Movement: A Lutheran Analysis” Ft. Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary.

2 Vol. 1, Number 1, April 1977, Reuel Schultz. p. 5.

3 February 1, 1992 p. 50. In the same article Rev. Mueller notes that “the Coordinating Council invites Bible scholars to come in to review Scripture teachings and warn of false doctrines (including Church Growth) which affect our church.”

4 December 2002, p. 7.



Letters to the Editors 




Here are a couple letters this article and our journal produced. When introduced by the words “among other” things, the letter has been edited to the issue in question.


Milton Gibbs among other comments, asked,


I have run into the Church Growth movement and need some help with it.  What is it? I cannot find a definition for it but it seems to arouse fear in confessional and conservative Lutherans. Maybe a discussion of it in a future issue of the Motley Magpie would be in order. Didn’t Jesus give us a growth movement when He told His disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature?


8MM Thank you for your inquiry. You asked an important question, one whose answer needs more than this brief answer, but let me give it a start. Our Lord indeed gave us the charge to preach the Gospel to every creature and it is this Gospel alone that works faith in hearts, and so builds the church. However, some press the term "growth" onto Scripture, meaning numerical "growth." But that aspect of the kingdom is hidden from us and so is not our concern. The command, as you correctly noted, is to “preach the Gospel,” not “grow the church.” Although this might seem to be the same thing, it is not. What happens is that the concern shifts from the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, to concerns about numbers and how to numerically grow. The focus thus shifts from "faithfulness" (our concern), to "results" (the Lord's domain).


It is here where the so-called Church Growth Movement (CGM) has sprung up. Yes, it comes from a legitimate concern to share the faith, but the means by which it purposes to do so departs from the only means of salvation our Lord has given us, the Gospel. What the CGM crowd does is to use human means and factors to assist in the "growth" of the church. Of course, they will claim to use the "Word" but in effect they supplant the Word with human means. For example, we are told we can draw people into the church by offering to correct problems in their lives (called their "felt needs") and once in the church, we "hit" them with the Gospel! This is being ashamed of the Gospel, and dishonest. The mission of the church is to bring to people to their knees in repentance by the preaching of the law and to faith by the preaching of the Gospel; and yes, Christian love will always accompany that. But what happens is, that if a church (read: the pastor) is not "growing", the assumption is that church (read: the pastor) is not doing its job. If a pastor is faithful to his call, he is, regardless of the "bottom line."


Part of this "growth" notion comes from the misleading translation of the NIV in Matthew 28 where it is said that the Eleven are to "Go, and make disciples of all nations." The object of the verb is not "disciples" but "all nations," the verb not to “make disciples”, but to authoritatively teach as a master teaches a disciple. Better is the King James Version, which reads, "Go, and teach all nations."


When someone is brought into the church on the basis of (fill in the blank,) something other than the Gospel, then their foundation rests on shaky ground. There is no end to the things that are used to "attract" people, and so the Gospel is displaced by "another Gospel." That the Lord's Supper is usually considered to be an impediment to the visitor by CG advocates (since he or she must wait until they are properly catechized) is indication that this Movement (i.e. its techniques) is not Lutheran.


I hope this gives you a small start on investigating this misnamed Church Growth Movement. For a fuller answer see Dr. Kurt Marquardt’s excellent treatment “Church Growth As Mission Paradigm: A Confessional Lutheran Assessment,” (Call CPH), also Dr. Rodney Zwonitzer’s “Testing the Claims of Church Growth, (CPH, 2002), Steve Scheiderer’s fine treatment “The Church Growth Movement: A Lutheran Analysis” (Ft. Wayne, Concordia Theological Seminary), and a partial analysis in our Vol. I:1’s “The WELS is Dead.” (JWB)




The Reverend Father Ralph Tausz wrote


Kudos to the editors of the Magpie. There is much to commend in your first issue. You have a publication that is passionate, bold, interesting, and theologically right on the money. May the Magpie keep splattering his deposits square on the head of Zwinglian forces in our midst.  Long live the Magpie!


 8MM (Belated) thanks for the compliment and analogy (which you will later note we appropriated). Suffice it to say that some others have a decided different take on our offerings. But if one can’t have a beer, discuss theology and talk scatologically once in a while, what’s the fun of being a Lutheran?  Viva Fr. Tausz!  (JWB) §