‘Church Growth’ Inroads in the WELS as Observed on WELS Local
Church Website Home Pages
If one is unfamiliar with the term ‘Church Growth’ (hereafter referred to as CG), it would be easy to assume that anything named CG must be a good thing, just as “church” plus “growth” would be a good thing. After all, God has commissioned us to go into “all the world” to teach and preach His saving Truth. Of course God wants more people to hear and learn the Gospel. Of course God wants more people in church worshipping Him on Sunday mornings.
But the term CG is commonly associated with a movement that is not primarily about “growing in the knowledge and truth of God’s Word.” It is primarily concerned with putting more people in the pews. And to do that, it utilizes things other than the Means of Grace – God’s Word and Sacraments. The CG movement is a danger because it leads to situations where the Means of Grace, the only means of creating and sustaining faith, are diminished to the point where there is no longer a focus on “growing in the knowledge and truth of God’s Word.”
That the CG movement has made inroads in the WELS there can be no denying. Sadly, the emphasis on buildings and programs and methodologies has become so prevalent, that it is increasingly difficult to recognize the Scriptural purpose of the church in many congregations in the WELS. This can be observed by simply looking at the home page of some WELS church websites. The prominence of CG methodology on these websites can be a good indicator of CG practices within the local church itself.
The home page of any church website gives a unique view into the purpose and mission of a church. The website home page does, and must, speak for itself. It is a unique opportunity to provide a message for visitors to the website who might never consider walking into the physical church building or calling on the telephone to inquire about services. What message will the website visitor find on a church’s home page?
With that question before us, a project is being undertaken, and is described in this proposal, to characterize websites of WELS churches to assess the message found on the website home page. The analysis is limited to only the home page of WELS church websites, and the intention is to have the analysis be simple and straightforward and factual.
The home page of a WELS church website will be assessed by looking for clear evidence of the Gospel, the Means of Grace, and confessional Lutheran standards. Specifically, the analysis will look for clear evidence of 1) the Gospel message, 2) God’s Word, 3) the Sacraments, 4) the name “Lutheran”, 5) the Lutheran Confessions and 6) the liturgical service. Further explanation of these six criteria is given in the following paragraphs:
- The Gospel message – we are all sinners in need of a savior, and Jesus Christ is that Savior. The Scriptural purpose of a Christian church is clear, to spread the Gospel. A church which takes that purpose seriously will have the Gospel message, in some form or fashion, on the home page of their website. CG methodology may steer clear of a specific Gospel message out of fear that acknowledging all people as sinners in need of a Savior would be offensive to some.
- God’s Word – the Means of Grace. God works through the Means of Grace, and that alone. In many cases a church has only one chance to proclaim God’s Word to a website visitor. That one chance is the home page. A website visitor may never go further than the home page, therefore one cannot take for granted the possibility that a website visitor will dig deeper into the web site to find God’s Word. CG methodology may steer clear of specific references to God’s Word because website visitors might not consider it “real” or “relevant” to today’s world.
- The Sacraments – the Means of Grace. Very few Christian churches confess and teach that the Sacraments create and strengthen faith, treating them instead as mere symbolic acts. CG methodology may steer clear of the Bible’s clear teachings about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper because they obviously conflict with the opinions of many, including many Christian churches.
- The Lutheran name – Those who believed and confessed as Luther did were called "Lutherans" by their enemies. Christians who believe, confess, and teach what Luther taught rightly call themselves Lutheran today (paraphrase from wels.net). CG methodology would likely not want to draw attention to the “Lutheran” in their name, if it exists, out of fear of seeming exclusive or “sect-like.”
- The Lutheran Confessions – Lutherans believe that Bible truths were correctly understood and shared in writings that early Lutherans provided in the Book of Concord (finished in 1580). These are known as the Lutheran Confessions. Reading these confessional statements and examining them in the light of the Bible (always the primary and central authority) is to be encouraged (paraphrase from wels.net). CG methodology would likely avoid mention of the Lutheran Confessions out of fear that they would be considered even less “real” and “relevant” than the Bible.
- The liturgical service – The liturgy provides the fullness and richness of God’s Word, and only God’s Word. Visitors to a liturgical church can be assured that worship services will be Scripturally sound. CG methodology would likely avoid mention of the Liturgy in an effort to appear “modern” and “in.”
The following is a sample of six WELS congregations from the NW Wisconsin district (names excluded here), providing an example of the scoring matrix for the six criteria indicated above.
Along with the spread sheet scoring matrix, a screen print or “snip it” of the church website home page is captured on a PowerPoint slide. Some website home pages change frequently, while some change rarely or never. It is important that the website home page on which the scoring is based is captured (with the date) for record keeping. An example can be seen below:
The work completed on this project to date has been done by two individuals, taking into consideration suggestions and direction from others. This proposal serves as an announcement of this project and a call for assistance. Additional input is welcome. Those who wish to assist are asked to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to coordinate and align efforts.
The project scope will include websites of a significant number of WELS congregations in each district. Analysis will be performed in a manner to minimize individual bias by having multiple inputs for each congregational website. Analysis will compare results and look for trends within each district, and compare results from district to district. With more resources, the project scope can be expanded to include more congregations in the analysis and more inputs can be provided per church website. The project could be carried out in multiple phases, with each phase including more districts or more congregations within each district.
Results could be reported many different ways. One decision yet to be made is whether scoring should be associated with individual church names, or whether identifying information be excluded from the report.
Excluding individual church names will limit the analysis to looking at general trends within a district and from district to district, and making a general assessment of the extent of CG influence in the WELS. This approach has a benefit of minimizing the potential for a defensive reaction by individual congregations that might not be happy with the scoring results assigned to their website home page. If defensiveness can be avoided, the likelihood of congregations considering the project results and adjusting their web site home pages to a more Scriptural and confessional Lutheran message might be enhanced.
Including church names and associating them directly with the scoring results has the benefit of highlighting the real divisions and variations in teaching and practice that already exist. But that emphasis might provoke defensiveness that could have the effect of inhibiting some congregations from moving to a more Scriptural and confessional Lutheran message on their website home page.
As previously stated, the purpose of this project is to characterize CG inroads in the WELS. There is obvious bias in that statement. Everything has bias. It is never a question of whether bias exists, but whether the bias is perceived to be favorable or unfavorable. The bias that exists in this project is toward faithfulness to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. It is a bias that I believe most faithful Christians would view as favorable. And it is a bias consistent with what the WELS and all member churches claim to be in agreement with.
While the purpose of this project is to characterize CG inroads in the WELS, there is another more positive perspective to this work. That perspective is to consider what might be good and reliable guidelines for a confessional Lutheran website home page.
Shouldn’t a home page, first and foremost, display the Gospel message? Shouldn’t one find, first and foremost, the Means of Grace, because this is what God works through to bring the lost to faith. Shouldn’t one find a confessional statement or reference? Or is our faith in God’s promises so compromised that one must promote contemporary worship on a website home page as a clever technique to draw people in. Must we on a Christian church home page advertise a preschool/daycare facility, or announce a fund raising event, or promote a life coaching seminar in place of a Gospel message, a verse from God’s Word or a confession of faith?
What is most important to a congregation should and can be found on the website home page. What is the message a church is trying to convey on its website home page? Is CG most important, or is it sharing the Gospel message to a dying world?