Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The new brands of Christianity...

Even as the old "brands" of Christianity fade as interest in and loyalty to them diminish, new brands arise.  There is, however, a deep and significant difference between the new "brands" and the old ones.  The former "brands" (think denominations) were forged by theological consensus and united in confession.  Some may have been looser than others.  Some may have been formal documents while others less concrete confessions.  But the point was that what occasioned and sustained the unity of people and places was a Biblical and doctrinal perspective.

Lutherans have their Concordia.  The Anglicans their Thirty Nine Articles.  The Reformed their Westminster Confession.  The Baptists their fundamentals.  The points at which the clergy and congregations intersected were dogmatic and these formed the boundaries of both their association and their conviction.  As these faded, the denominations also found themselves weaker and less relevant in the greater scope of things.

Many had hoped that as they faded a new association might emerge in which the boundaries of the old "brands" might be bridged so that a realignment could take place.  In this hopeful scenario, those who held to a high view of Scripture, for example, would gravitate together.  Those who held to a high view of the Sacraments would find common ground.  The old barriers of denominational division would give way to a more honest definition of what was truly believed, confessed, and taught.  It was a romantic idea.  But I will admit to being caught up in this romance.  Not so much anymore.

To my surprise, the old "brands" have been replaced by new associations that are less theological than methodological, less doctrinal than personal.  Instead of bringing together people of like confessions, these new "brands" have brought together people who use the same models, paradigms, and methods to be church and grow church.  We have the Saddleback association and the Rick Warren crowd.  Strangely, even some Lutherans have exchanged the forty days of Lent for the Forty Days of Purpose.  Confession has taken a definite back seat to methodology and personality.  We have the Osteen spin offs in which a smidgeon of Christian theology is hidden in a positive, practical, and personal approach to life, seeking less the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and more personal achievement and happiness, less the eternal life prepared by Jesus so that we might be where He is and more the better life now.

The language and vocabulary of the new "brands" is less Biblical than it is descriptive of the values and processes of these larger than life personalities.  These missional folks think strategies, visions, mission statements, program evaluation, and measurable barometers of success.  The old language of cultus, catechesis, repentance and reformation is hardly mentioned among them.  Instead, they share stories of what works in the ever present move to build and sustain congregations the size of small denominations, franchising their identities through satellites and financing the operation through successful books and workshops that feed back into their marketing side.

I have no doubt that these folks believe in what they are doing, that they sincerely believe that the church is broken and has to be fixed to survive, and that they see themselves as a new move of God and the Spirit, a version of the Reformation(s) of the sixteenth century. My problem is that denominations, even those with larger than life personalities, survived because of common confession.  What will enable these new "brands" to survive past the lifespan of their founders?

I have seen it personally in churches built upon persons and personalities.  They do not transition well past the one who gave them life and identity.  Surely some will point to Lakewood Church and the Osteens as one example of smooth transition.  The only problem here is that the church of the son is a different church than the one begun by the dad.  The family name is the same but the preaching and shape of the church is very different.  We watched as the Crystal Cathedral was sold off to the Roman Catholic Diocese to become a real cathedral.  We watched as the Oral Roberts operation has faded into memory.  Falwell's Liberty University has flourished but his Thomas Road Baptist Church no longer holds the sway it did when Jerry occupied the pulpit and seemingly single handedly organized the moral majority.  The Stanleys are now talking to each other but it is pretty clear that Andy will not follow in his father Charles' footsteps.  I could go on.

What will the future of Christianity be if the old "brands" forged by common confession truly give way to the new "brands" shaped by personality and methodology?  It is anybody's guess.  If I can hope, my hope is that these will fall as quickly as they have arisen and Christian people will return to unity shaped by common understanding of Scripture and common confession of what Scripture teaches (doctrine).  That is my hope, anyway.


ErnestO said...

The Church will not fail, yet many in the Church will not see heaven.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Strangely, even some Lutherans have exchanged the forty days of Lent for the Forty Days of Purpose."

It does not matter if my church states it is "Lutheran." My LCMS congregation is a member of Willow Creek. In adult new member, err, "information" class, we never opened a catechism. There was little to no structure in the "information" class. I guess the pastor was afraid that actual study of Lutheran doctrine might scare prospective members away. Instead, we watched videos and were given a "time and talent" survey to indicate in which church activities we would like to serve.

Two out of our three worship services are contemporary and feature a praise rock band with jumbotron screens. The 8 am traditional service is reserved for "old people." (Never mind that the contemporary service is offered at a later time in the morning, 10:45 am, when it is much easier to get our small kids ready.) Our LCMS pastor uses books and videos from both Willow Creek and Saddleback as a basis for all his bible studies and sermons.

Sadly, some (most?) LCMS pastors and district presidents see the Church Growth movement as the only way to combat sagging church attendance. As an LCMS Lutheran, I can no longer tell the difference between my congregation and the big box non-denominational church down the street. Because of this, I have had nagging doubts why I remain a Lutheran. If some (most?) LCMS pastors do not care, then why should the laymen? If you condition laymen like me to worship and pray like a non-denominational, please don't be surprised when we leave Lutheranism. Why settle for ersatz coffee when you can drink from the original source.

Because I was raised a Lutheran and have studied the catechism for two years prior to joining the LCMS, I cannot bring myself to joining a non-denominational church. Lutheran doctrine was hammered into me, and I cannot let it go. My wife joined the LCMS after we got married, but she never had any exposure to the catechism and therefore does not have the same strong sense of attachment. She would have an easier time leaving.

I have decided to stop attending Sunday morning bible study at my LCMS church. (I don't want the Rick Warren stuff). Instead, I use that time to read authentic Lutheran books such as those by Gene Veith. If I want Lutheran doctrine, I will need to seek it out on my own. I fear that people new to Lutheranism and know only the "Willow Creek way" will never yearn for a deep understanding of Lutheran doctrine. Sad, isn't it?

Are there any signs of the LCMS becoming less dysfunctional? Where is the good news?

Janis Williams said...


How sad your situation. We were much more lucky (blessed). In desperation after being raised Southern Baptist, trekking through Reformed theology (Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist), we went to our local LCMS church. Thankfully, Fr. Peters was and is the pastor. Real Liturgy, real belief and adherence to Concordia were what we found.

There are islands in the stream. If you don't listen to Pirate Christian Radio and Issues, Etc. go there for more 'food.' There are other churches like Grace Lutheran, Clarksville. When we were searching for real Church, we drove 90 miles (one way) to attend a Reformed Baptist Church. Sometimes leaving is the only option in order to retain sanity. Don't know where you are, but look for a real Lutheran congregation. It may be small, since Church Growth is in the hands of the Spirit.

We've been Lutheran 5 years now. We've spent time in the catechism and "real Lutheran books." We simply believe that most people truly are unaware of real church, and even the True Gospel.

I wonder if we are not facing a new "Dark Age" in which the Church will survive, but will have to persevere until the next Reformation.

Pastor Jim Wagner said...

There are still many faithful Lutheran Churches, both LCMS and (contrary to popular opinion) ELCA. Look around. Check them out. There are faithful, biblical and liturgical churches!

Carl Vehse said...

Coming soon to your methobapticostalufauxran church - "Explore God".

Anonymous said...

Janis and Carl: Thanks for your kind thoughts. I pray that confessional Lutheranism is growing in the evangelical-dominated areas of TN and TX. Since I do not want to start a battle at my current LCMS congregation that I know in advance that I would lose, I remain anonymous. I can only reveal that I live in the midwest.

As the poster of the first anonymous comment, I also wanted to add that my
LCMS congregation promotes giving to non-Lutheran causes such as Compassion International, Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Salvation Army. The
church library wall has a large frame featuring the pictures and names of Compassion International children supported by individual parishioners.

None of those children are Lutheran, and there are no plans to convert them. How does the Church-sponsored siphoning of LCMS laymen money for non-Lutheran causes assist in the strengthening and growth of the confessional Lutheran church?

Although the aforementioned non-profits are fine charitable organizations, I don't see them promoting ideals compatible with Lutheran doctrine. I would prefer to see LCMS congregation money being used to win new converts to the LCMS and to strengthen the faith of existing Lutherans.

I am committed to the grade school that is run by the church. That is the only thing that keeps me from leaving. One sad note: The LCMS grade school is afraid of offending non-Lutheran students with Lutheran doctrine out of fear of losing those students and the tuition money that they pay. What kind of church is the LCMS if the church is reluctant to witness on school property that it owns?

Pastor Wagner: Thanks, Why would I want to join a congregation/denomination that is under turmoil and is shattering into pieces. Who wants to join the ELCA only to see the congregation torn apart regarding a current or pending heated debate to leave the ELCA for the NALC or LCMC. Those splinter groups are still trying to figure out who they are and what they should believe.

My impression of the ELCA is that hundreds of ELCA pastors are trying to keep the congregation calm until they can quietly retire in another ten years. I know the strategy: Keep all money within the congregation, ignore the directives of synod (district) and headquarters, and all is well. This strategy is the main reason why the number of congregations leaving the ELCA every year has slowed.

I am still waiting for the NALC to become more confessional, but that might
take decades, if at all. Altar and pulpit fellowship with the dysfunctional LCMS and its renegade districts is a nice thought, but not realistic anytime soon. I do have (unrealistically) high hopes for Pastor Harrison's administration to make an impact on the LCMS that will last decades. He is the best thing to happen to the LCMS since Preus.

In the meantime, I continue to remain in my LCMS congregation and hope that my pastor eventually becomes disillusioned with Willow Creek and Saddleback. To ensure that my contributions do not get spent on frivolous "church growth" projects such as the latest Rick Warren-endorsed all-church bible study, I always designate my offerings for specific, confessional causes. I remain an obedient rebel.

Pastor Peters: I trust you, Gene Veith, Rev. Fisk/Worldview Everlasting, Chris Rosbrough/Pirate Christian Radio, and all the guests on Issues, Etc. I do not trust my LCMS pastor nor the district president. How many districts are working to sabotage Harrison's efforts?

I do hope you understand why I style myself as a "cafeteria (or lunch line) Lutheran."


Cafeteria Lutheran

Anonymous said...

As an adult convert to the LCMS and to "Willow Creek" Lutheranism, my wife has had zero exposure to the small catechism and has little understanding nor appreciation of the hymnal and the liturgy. She would not be disturbed by recent developments in the LCMS because the "Willow Creek" seeker-church model is all she knows about the Lutheran church. For that reason, a "missional" LCMS pastor could boast to outsiders that few young people are fleeing the church; Mostly "old" people are complaining and/or are leaving.

"Missional" Lutheranism is not intended to serve adherents to the faith who remember the ways LCMS congregations worshiped and prayed in the 20th century. Anyone who expects otherwise should make plans to leave the LCMS. Brand us members of the LCMS who have been with the church longer than fifteen years as crabby, "old" and revisionist, I guess.

Pirate Christian Radio, Issues, Etc. and Worldview Everlasting have taught me to view the Willow Creek and Saddleback pastors as frauds. It bothers me that LCMS clergy are promoting the teachings of such pastors. I do have patience with my LCMS pastor, but I don't know if can wait another 10 years for him to wake up. If people new to Lutheranism are not bothered by the adulterated theology, why should the pastor?

I doubt the LCMS will survive another 20 years in its current form if the confessional pastors are being squeezed out by the districts. Which is better: 1.) Stay with the "new" Willow Creek LCMS; or 2.) Leave the LCMS and trade the Willow Creek garbage for a congregation that promotes Reformed or generic protestant beliefs? It appears that Dr. D+ has chosen option #2 and become an Anglican priest. I respect him for that decision.

I will continue to hide in the weeds and watch and wait for President Harrison to restore the LCMS - If the congregations will allow it to happen.