When it comes right down to it, my biggest beef with the whole "church growth" movement is its evident lack of confidence in the Word of God or any of the means of grace in general. This is not surprising, given its origins among latter-day enthusiasts, but it is a scandalous shame when Lutherans put more stock in gimmicks, programs, and methodology than the Word of the Lord.
Many of the divisions within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod tend to run along these lines. The "liberals" (if I may speak simply for the time being, at the risk of aspersions) tend to favor "church growth" tactics at the expense of the Liturgy (that is, an orderly and reverent preaching of the Gospel and ministering of the Sacraments). The "conservatives" appear to be all over the map with respect to various issues (including liturgical practice, the Office of the Ministry, and church polity), but in general they have in common a commitment to the Word of God and a wariness of whatever does not rest upon the authority of that Word.
For the sake of clarification, my own sympathies and proclivities are very much with the conservatives, even where I may disagree on particular points, and even when the personalities of conservative colleagues rub me the wrong way. I agree with a dear friend and brother in Christ who once observed that, yes, some of our conservative brethren can act like real horse's patoots, but they are often correct in their critique, and, more important, they do preach Christ Jesus, for which reason we bear with them in love and cover their boorishness with charity and forgiveness. In any event, I am grateful that so many others do the same for me!
It does not surprise me when "church growth liberals" resort to political tactics in trying to achieve their goals for the life of the church. There is a consistency and continuity in such an approach, which does not trust and rely upon the Lord to govern His Church by His Word and to give life to His Church by His means of grace. No, I'm not suggesting that "liberals" across the board have spurned the Word of God or the Gospel; I'm actually quite convinced that the vast majority of them are well-intentioned and sincere, and are simply mistaken and misguided in their zeal for "evangelism" and "church growth." In their actual practice, however, many of them do not appear to be proceeding in the confidence of the Gospel, but in reliance upon their own human wisdom, ingenuity, strategies and efforts. Indeed, I am guilty of falling into the same traps and temptations in my own way, for which I also need to repent, but the fact that we all make such mistakes does not make any of them okay.
For the record, to repeat what I have often said before, I am not opposed to politics, properly speaking, which is simply to make use of the established polity of the community (the polis) by the members or citizens of that body for the good governance of their life together. Praise God for that good gift of daily bread. It is like the use of reason or rhetoric, or any other part of the Lord's creation; all of these things are to remain servants and handmaidens of the Lord, and dare not be vaunted as lords and masters over Him and His Word.
A potentially bigger problem than the abuse of politics, in my opinion, is what often passes for "politics," but which really stands outside of the established polity of the polis, and is primarily a way for special interest groups to lobby the populace and the powers that be for favors and dispensations. If this is done in the way of conversation and persuasion, that is all fine and good, and it can serve a genuinely healthy purpose. When such para-political activity becomes a self-perpetuating end unto itself, however, it is kicking against the goads and setting itself against the governing authorities that the Lord Himself has established and arranged under His permissive will. It is precisely at this point that I have begun wonder, Do we trust the Word of God or not?
If it makes a certain kind of sense for "liberals" to rely upon political tactics to achieve their goals, it surely does not make sense for "conservatives" to adopt such a strategy, especially on the part of those who oppose the methodology of the "church growth" movement. Politics can and should be used to serve and support the Word of God, to assist in giving it free course within the life of the Church and throughout the world. Yet, it is not the politics but always and only the Word of God that establishes and sustains the Church as such. Even in using the politics that the Lord has provided, our faith and trust and confidence are in the Lord Himself, in His Word and promises. When we submit to the governing authorities, as did Isaac when he submitted to his father Abraham and permitted himself to be trussed up on the altar as a burnt offering to the Lord, we are willing to suffer persecution in the confidence that the Lord who orders our footsteps by His Word will not abandon us to Sheol. Just as Abraham himself considered that the Lord who had promised to name his descendants by Isaac was able even to raise the dead, and he proceeded in that faith.
What is my point? I fear that some of my colleagues have become so caught up in para-political strategies, that they may be in danger of forgetting the Word of God as that which is alone sure and certain. Their intentions are good, I have no doubt, but good intentions never do justify acting contrary to the Word of God. There is a real temptation for each and all of us to trust in ourselves and our own wisdom, reason and strength, instead of relying on the grace of God in Christ and depending on His Word and Holy Spirit. We trust not in princes, who are but mortal, and that includes each and all of us, who shall also return to the dust from which we were taken.
I'm not suggesting, nor am I in favor of, blind allegiance to the polity and practices of the corporate LCMS. God forbid! Where decisions are made and actions taken that are unwise, ill-advised, detrimental to our confession of the faith, or contrary to the Word of God, then certainly the pastors and congregations that comprise this Synod should speak up and take steps to oppose such actions and rectify such decisions. For the sake of conscience, in duty bound to the Word of God above all else, there must even be a willingness to separate from the temporal fellowship of this Synod, if and when it becomes impossible to remain faithful within that fellowship on earth. However, all such procedures must be undertaken in the humility of repentant faith, and we must ever guard our hearts against all manner of self-righteousness.
A case in point is the recent proposal of a Special Convention of the Synod in 2009. This was a major item at the Convention this summer, and it has been a matter of debate in the weeks and months since. I struggled with anger and resentment in my own heart toward some of those involved in proposing the Special Convention, and I was grateful to be called to repentance for that sinfulness of mine. As to the Special Convention itself, I have been somewhat ambivalent, and I now have similarly mixed feelings about the fact that it will not be happening after all. I believe that our Synod does need to address our polity and governance, and that some serious deficiencies could be rectified through a careful restructuring. At the same time, I've also had some real concerns and have been somewhat skeptical of what might actually happen in the case of the contemplated restructuring, which a Special Convention in 2009 would have considered. Now that President Kieschnick has recommanded, and the Council of Presidents has concurred, that there not be a Special Convention in 2009, I expect that the restructuring will be dealt with at the Regular Convention of the Synod in 2010. I'm not sure whether that will prove to be any better, or worse, from the standpoint of my own concerns and hopes for the future, but I am going to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and trust the Lord to guide and govern His Church on earth (with or without, and within or without, the temporal fellowship of the LCMS).
But here is my more immediate concern: Over the past month, many of my colleagues have been quite openly and vocally opposed to the proposed Special Convention. I have respected their opinions in this matter, and have listened to their arguments, even though I have remained unconvinced regarding their conclusions. Irrespective of my own ambivalent thoughts, their position has been clearly and forthrightly stated, for which I thank them and commend them. Yet, now that President Kieschnick has concluded that a Special Convention should not happen in 2009, and the Council of Presidents has followed his lead, at least some of the same colleagues who have been calling for this very decision are interpreting some kind of conspiracy behind it, a hidden agenda, a strategy of deception, or what have you. I've even heard the suggestion that the Special Convention was never anything more than a ploy and a decoy, and that President Kieschnick intended all along to "pull the plug" on it, for the sake of garnering sympathy and support in 2010. That may be a remote possibility, but I don't believe it for a minute. Frankly, there are any number of possible explanations for the sudden turnabout, and the most plausible of them are far more innocent than the conspiracy theories that are being bandied about. Maybe there is solid evidence to support some of these negative interpretations, but so far all that I have seen or heard are conjectures on the part of people who don't know any more of the facts than I do.
There is the matter of the Fourth Commandment and the Eighth Commandment. We ought to honor the office and authority of the President, for the Lord's sake, and we ought to defend our neighbor, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest possible way. That doesn't appear to be happening in a number of cases. Particularly troubling are attempts to read the President's heart and the outright impugning of his motives and intentions. We rightly judge the man's outward actions and public confession, whether these be good and right or contrary to the Word of the Lord, but let none of us presume to plumb the secret depths of his heart and mind. He is a sinful man, as are we all. He is also a baptized child of God; his Father in heaven loves him; and his Good Shepherd, who died for him, is ever seeking him out and recalling him through contrition, repentance and faith in the forgiveness of all his sins. We can assist him, our neighbor and our brother in Christ, by speaking the Word of the Law and the Gospel to him, by making the good confession of Christ as we are given that opportunity. But we do not serve our neighbor, nor the will of God, by assuming the worst and making unfounded accusations.
I believe that it comes down to our trust in the Word of God. Do we trust Him, who commands us to honor the governing authorities and to speak well of our neighbor, that He will not fail to govern and protect His Church on earth and us who are the sheep of His pasture? Perhaps even more to the point, do we not trust that His Word of the Law and the Gospel is able (and alone is able) to bring about repentance in the heart of our neighbor? I have no reason to doubt that President Kieschnick has been attending the Divine Service in the weeks and months since the Convention, that he has been hearing the preaching of the Word, that he has been confessing his sins and receiving Holy Absolution from his own pastors, that he has been eating and drinking the Body and Blood of His Savior in the Holy Communion. Should I not, then, be more ready to believe that the Lord has worked in him a change of heart and mind, wherever that may have been necessary, than to suppose a wicked intention and evil strategy at work in the man? Is it only ever to be political action (or para-political activity) that is credited with the ability to correct or rectify the divisions and deficiencies that plague our life together in this sinful world?
The Lord actually has a pretty good track record in bringing people to repentance. He did it with David and Manasseh, with Peter and Paul. He does so for me, by His grace and mercy, and I trust that He does so for President Kieschnick, as well. I'm not convinced that the proposed Special Convention was even a case for which repentance was needed, but for those who were convinced that it was a bad idea, it would be more appropriate to thank the Lord for guiding and directing the President and the Synod away from that course of action, than to impugn the President's motivations and intentions. For my part, I'm less concerned about any of this politics than I am about an erosion of confidence in the Word of God, which shall not fail to accomplish the purposes for which He speaks it. As Dr. Luther has written, "Christ will continue to reign to the end of the world, but in a wondrous way, as He did under the papacy."