Monday, January 20, 2014

‘Church Growth’ Inroads in the WELS: An Analysis of the Website Home Pages of Ninety WELS Congregations

As reported earlier today, this post gives a “first look” at the results of an analysis of WELS congregational website home pages. This work was first proposed on Intrepid in September, 2013 (click here). As described in the proposal, the analysis was based on the information found on the website home page of selected WELS congregations regarding the Gospel, the Means of Grace (God’s Word and the Sacraments), and confessional Lutheran standards (the name “Lutheran”, the Lutheran Confessions and the liturgical service).

Evaluation Criteria & Scoring Methodology
  1. The Gospel message – Score green: clear Gospel message, including both sinand forgiveness, yellow: vague Gospel message, without a clear presentation of sin and forgiveness, red: no Gospel message
  2. The Sacraments – the Means of Grace. Score green: Lord's Supper or Baptism is specifically mentioned, yellow: vague reference to the Sacraments, without specific mention of Lord’s Supper or Baptism, red: no mention of the Sacraments
  3. God’s Word – the Means of Grace. Score green: a verse from Scripture, yellow: a vague reference to the Bible or Scripture without a verse from Scripture, red: no verses from Scripture or references to Scripture.
  4. The Lutheran name – Score green: the word "Lutheran" is part of the congregation’s name and is clearly and prominently displayed, yellow: the word "Lutheran" is not part of the name, or is minimized in small font, red: the word "Lutheran" is not found on the home page.
  5. The Lutheran Confessions – Score green: a clear reference to the Lutheran Confessions, such as the Apostles' Creed or Book of Concord, yellow: a confession that is faithful to or consistent with the Lutheran Confessions, without reference to them, red: no confession consistent with the Lutheran Confessions
  6. The liturgical service – Score green: acknowledges use of a liturgical service, yellow: no mention of the form of worship, red: promotes a contemporary service, or doing their own thing, or promoting "breaking the rules" of worship
Congregation Website Selection and Evaluation Process
One circuit was randomly chosen from each of the twelve districts of the WELS. Six to eight congregations were selected from that circuit for analysis. Only those circuits which had at least six congregations with a website were considered for the analysis. A total of ninety congregational websites were selected and analyzed according to the criteria described above. At least five individual lay people submitted input for each website homepage of each congregation selected. The individual inputs for each criterion for each congregation were averaged to minimize the effect of human subjectivity.

Analysis Results
A high level representation of the analysis is presented in the following chart. Vertical columns represent the average input for each of the criteria; horizontal rows represent individual congregational websites that were analyzed. For this first look, the results are grouped and reported by district, but the districts and congregations are not identified.

WELS Congregational Website Analysis Resutls

In the simplest terms, areas of green reflect confessional Lutheran standards clearly communicated on congregational websites. Areas of yellow reflect vague, incomplete, or minimization of confessional Lutheran standards. Areas of red indicate an absence of confessional Lutheran standards.

This analysis, as described in the original proposal of this project, was limited to the home page of each website analyzed. Clearly, the analysis has the potential of providing different results, perhaps very different results, if one were to “drill down” into those websites where additional pages existed. But the intent here was, in part, to see what congregational website planners and administrators considered most important. The assumption is that what one considers most important would be most obvious on a website, and therefore be present on the home page. As confessional Lutherans, we would expect to see evidence of:
  • our purpose, to spread the Gospel.
  • the Means of Grace through which the Holy Spirit works, the Word and the Sacraments.
  • the Lutheran Confessions, as they properly reflect the truths of Scripture.
The absence of these standards may reflect an influence or tendency toward ‘church growth’ methodology, which utilizes things other than the Means of Grace – God’s Word and Sacraments – to “put people in the pews,” rather than a reliance on the power of God’s Word and Sacraments.

Observations Made
In this “first look”, the following observations could be made. Each of the observations is stated in the context of the prevailing behavior.
  1. A majority of WELS congregational websites surveyed do NOT have a clear Gospel message on the home page.
  2. A vast majority of WELS congregations surveyed say NOTHING about the Sacraments on the home page.
  3. A majority of WELS congregations surveyed do NOT use a verse from God’s Word on the home page of the website.
  4. A majority of WELS congregations surveyed USE the name “Lutheran” on the website home page.
  5. A vast majority of the WELS congregations surveyed say NOTHING about the Lutheran Confessions on the home page.
  6. And finally, a vast majority of WELS congregations surveyed say NOTHING about the type of worship service on the home page of the website.
There is an additional observation that can be made, considering these results as a whole. It is a fact that there is an extreme diversity in content found on the home pages of these ninety WELS congregations. In a self-proclaimed confessional Lutheran Synod, when that diversity ranges from one extreme that is devoid of Scriptural content, to the other extreme of good and proper use of the Means of Grace, one can’t help but wonder where that unity of “walking together” is that we hear so frequently proclaimed?

A follow-on post will take into consideration any questions that might arise from this work, and examine the results in more detail.

Intrepid Lutherans: Moving into the Future

For those of our readers with an interest, we are pleased to announce that Intrepid Lutherans is in the process of reorganizing with a new Board of Directors. This will take some time, and we expect that some changes will result in terms of direction and purpose. We expect to make comparatively swift progress, however, and will keep you all apprised as developments proceed.

In the meantime, we will resume publishing with semi-regularity, beginning later today with the first installment of an analysis project proposed by Intrepid Lutherans in September 2013, in our post Church Growth Project. A brief description excerpted from that post is as follows:
    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.
Following our September post announcing this project, a number of volunteers joined Mr. Vernon Knepprath, over the past several months, have conducted a rather extensive survey of WELS Congregational websites. Their results are most interesting. Stay tuned, and visit again later today for the first installment of their study results.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Going – But Not Forgetting

Going – But Not Forgetting

          Please permit me a point of privilege today. I am leaving Intrepid Lutherans as a director and editor. But before I go, I would like to share with you a few reflections of my thirty-five years of service in the public ministry of the Wisconsin Synod, and the past nearly four years working with Intrepid Lutherans. First, please listen to St. John the Apostle as he writes to the churches under his care:

            The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth, for the sake of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father. Now I ask you, lady, not as though I were writing to you a new commandment, but the one which we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full. The children of your chosen sister greet you. (Second John)

          As I meditated on these verses recently, it occurred to me that just four little words pretty much sum up my Pastoral experiences over these past third-plus-century of service in the public ministry of the Gospel, and especially the last three and a half years working on Intrepid Lutherans. These words are – Truth, Love, Obedience, and Duty!

 TRUTH: Truth is whatever God says, period. Let me repeat that. Truth is whatever God says, period! It’s just that simple, and just that black and white. There can be no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If God says it, it's true, no matter how we feel or what we think, whether we like it or not, and even whether we believe it or not. And this applies to every word God has preserved for us in His Holy Scriptures, but only to those words. We are not allowed to "read between the lines," or make up doctrines based on what we think God said, or on what we see as the "logical conclusion" of His clear words. Of course, His words are indeed always clear, understandable, and unmistakable. However, there are some, that, due to our sinful natures, we just don't "get." Thus, our formulations of God's truth must always take second place to His plain and simple words in the Bible. My simple rule has always been: When in doubt, throw it out!   

          As I said, God's truth is basically quite simple; but easy, no, not always. It’s very easy to accept God’s Word when He speaks about sin and grace in general. We all accept that we’re not perfect, that as Luther says, we indeed sin much every day. It's also easy to accept what God says when He speaks of forgiveness, either the general payment won for all sins by Christ on the Cross, or the specific forgiveness of some sin we lay at the foot of that Cross when it seeks to damn our souls. Those are times when we eagerly and readily listen to God, accept His Word and take great comfort in His truth. On the other hand, it is very hard to accept God’s truth when it comes to some of those specific sins, especially those we’d rather not talk about, or those where we think God is just plain wrong. We often think, "Oh come on, it can’t be wrong to sleep in on Sunday morning, or give tiny offerings, or cuss and swear just a little, can it? And its really not wrong to over drink, over eat, over spend, or look at just a little bit of internet porn, right?" All of the sudden God’s truth is very hard and very unpleasant. And the same is true when it comes to forgiveness. "Hey Lord, do I really have to forgive that brother who hasn’t spoken to me in ten years, or the sister who forgets my birthday every year, or my mother the drunk, or my father who beat me, or my son who lied and stole from me, or that neighbor who purposely revs his motorcycle every morning at 5 AM as he leaves for work, or that co-worker that misuses Your name whenever he’s around on purpose? Can’t I hold just a few grudges? Can’t I hang on to my anger and bitterness just once in awhile. God’s truth surely can’t apply across the board, can it?" Yes, it does, or it's not God’s truth. If I and all our sheep and all my brother shepherds would simply listen to and live God’s perfect truth more often, and stop questioning God, or trying to out-think Him, we’d all be a lot better off!

          And when it comes to truth, that's where my biggest complaint comes in regarding those Pastors and churches in our synod that are basically ashamed of being confessional Lutherans. First, please allow me to set the record straight once and for all: I have NEVER EVER said, nor do I believe, that those pastors and churches who have tossed out all or most of the historic Western Rite of the Christian liturgy in exchange for so-called "contemporary" worship are guilty of unbelief, rejection of the Bible, or denying Christ's Gospel, nor do I believe they are outside the pale of the Holy Christian Church on earth. In other words, I have never, and will never teach that following the historic liturgy is necessary for salvation. Get it? Got it? Good!

          That being said, I DO believe that worshipping according to the Apostolic, orthodox, and historic Christian liturgy, after the pattern established by God in the Temple, used by faithful Old Testament believers in the synagogue, copied by the earliest Christians, and defended and espoused by our Lutheran Reformers in the Book of Concord, is NECESSARY in order to be a member of and claim the title, whether public or private, of Lutheran and the Wisconsin Synod. Those who do not want to worship like Lutherans should not call themselves Lutherans or remain in a Lutheran church body. It is simply dishonest to do so, and lacks the integrity and truthfulness that God expects of Christian shepherds and congregations. Again, this is NOT about salvation, but about honesty and truth!

          Still, I am called a legalist, Pharisee, and worse, and I can't seem to make my brother pastors understand that I am not calling them lost heretics – I'm just saying they're not Lutherans!

LOVE: There is no love in the world without pain. Again, allow me to repeat; there is no love in the world without pain. God’s love for us hurt Him. Christ’s love for sinners hurt Him. Indeed, sacrifice is the heart and soul of love. Just look at the great and powerful examples of love in the Bible: Abraham, Joseph, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and especially Jesus Himself, and then His Apostles. God teaches us over and over again that to love is to give of yourself, to put the needs of all others before your own; to think of others first, to give to others until you have no more; to put your ego, your pride, and yes even your life on the line for others, even those who hate you.

          The thing is, most people want to be sacrificed for by anyone and everyone else, but hesitate or even refuse to sacrifice themselves for anyone. This is the main cause of most of the problems in this word, within church bodies, and between and within Christian congregations. This is what makes the ministry so difficult and frustrating. My main job has been and remains to constantly preach and teach the Gospel – the greatest sacrifice ever known in the history of the world – and to use that message, and that message alone, as the only proper motivation for any kind of work in the kingdom. Yet, no matter how often I hold the sacrifice of Christ before the eyes of pastors and people alike, they still can’t seem to follow the example of that love. They want glory, crowds, excitement, fun, success, accolades; to be appeased and entertained. But love is pain; God’s pain for us. We all need to put up with a little more pain for others!

          Thus, what is often referred to as "the theology of glory," seems to have permeated our church body. Small, struggling, rural congregations are being ignored, left to decay, and finally shuttered. The same is true of congregations in poor areas of some of our cities – some of our oldest congregations. Yet, at the same time, new "missions" are being encouraged almost exclusively in areas where the demographics are quite good. Therefore, the WELS has acquired the nickname, "Country-Club Lutherans." Is not a soul in a ten or twenty member, 100 year-old-congregation in the middle of nowhere as valuable as a soul in the fancy suburbs of a prosperous city? Do we not have more of a responsibility for souls in places we have already served for a hundred years, or even fifty years, than we do for souls in areas we have never served before? Should we not sacrifice for these places, even if it is expensive or doesn't bring us the glory of big numbers? I think so, but I have not made a dent in the policies or thinking of most of my dear brother pastors.

 OBEDIENCE: Nothing, and I mean nothing, shows both truth and love better than simple, abject obedience. Again, I say, nothing, absolutely nothing, shows both truth and love better than simple, complete, total, abject obedience. To speak God’s truth is great. To talk of His love is fine. To proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified is good and necessary. Ah, but to obey God; that’s where faith and affection meet. That’s where our devotion is tested and proven. This is true of God in His dealings with us. He doesn’t just proclaim the truth of His grace and talk about His love; He acts it out. He does exactly what He says, when He says, where He says, and how He says to whom He says. This is also true of Jesus. As we might say today, He not only talked the talk, but He walked the walk – all the way to the tomb!

          This is where we really fail most often. We say we believe, that we accept the Word as truth, and that we love God and His Son and His kingdom, but then we refuse to obey Him. We say: "I’ll read my Bible – tomorrow. I pray – another day. I’m late for work, so I have to run that red light. I’ll never forget or forgive what my boss did to me. Oh, how my life would be so much better if I had her for a wife. Why did I have all these kids?! Capitol Records is rich; a few pirated songs won’t bankrupt them. Pssst – don’t do business with that guy, I’ve heard his wife is a drunk and his kids are druggies. Boy, if I could only hit it big at the casino, I’d have everything I ever wanted or needed in life; so what if I use the mortgage money." And Pastors think: "I know it's wrong to have women voters, but if I call it decision by consensus, I can get away with it, and not lose any members. And hey, a few Reformed songs with a tiny bit of false teaching hidden in them can't be that bad for our congregation; besides, people keep asking for them. We need to do everything we can to fill the pews; the Means of Grace are wonderful, but they need all the help they can get!" So it goes.

          How often I have seen rotten trouble and problems in my own and others lives and ministries that could have been avoided if we would simply have obeyed the Lord, and trusted Him and His Word!

 DUTY: In the face of such failures, why continue? Why stay in the ministry, or why keep trying to live for Christ? Because that is our duty! Duty is doing what you are suppose to do whether you like it or not – whether you want to or not – whether you think it’s important or not – whether you get rewarded or not – whether anyone appreciates it or not – and yes, even if it kills you or not! To repeat; duty is doing what you are suppose to do whether you like it or not. We all have the duty to worship and serve God at all times no matter what else we do. Most of us don’t. And none of us do so as much as we should, myself included. Still, this is why I try to go above and beyond what is expected by the world. Therefore, I don’t see the ministry as a 9 to 5 job, but as a 24/7/365 job. No, I don’t like being called out at night, or disturbed during dinner. Its not fun being beside sickbeds, or deathbeds. Listening to the same problems over and over from the same people who either can’t or won’t follow my advice gets to be very hard.

          And, of course, there are those sweet souls who tell me to take more time off, to take more vacations, to not work so hard. Why do I keep at it the way I do? Duty – to God, to my sheep, and to myself. But I always hope and pray that my example of duty will encourage others to do likewise. If even only a few do so, the past 35 years will not have been in vain. Nor will the next how-many-ever years, God willing.

          Also, I see Synod problems keep getting worse, and can’t seem to get our leaders to do what needs to be done. Neighboring Pastors and churches can’t seem to get God’s work done without fighting and arguing. Brother Pastors accuse me falsely, twist my words, refuse to even try and understand the points I am endeavoring to make, sully my motives, and try to silence me year in and year out.

          Let me make it clear that it is not merely such opposition that is causing me to step away from an active role in Intrepid Lutherans. I have put up with such since my Walther League days back in the mid-60s. Opposition does not deter me. However, I simply do not see any hope anymore that our synod will go back to being one hundred percent confessional, orthodox, historic Lutherans. Five years of publishing my independent newsletter, the Orthodox Lutheran Forum back in the 90s, nor these past three and a half years putting out the Intrepid blog, has frankly made any dent. Oh, sure, I get phone calls and emails from dozens and dozens of WELS Pastors and laypeople telling me they agree with me, and encouraging me to continue to speak out. But, very few want to speak out themselves, for various reasons – it doesn't really matter why. And what is the outcome of this almost total silence from otherwise confessional people and pastors? This is what has happened over the past three and a half years: In every District of our synod today, and even probably in every Conference, there are now congregations, both old and new, that ignore the historic apostolic liturgy, hide the Sacrament of the Altar from the public, substitute entertainment for reverent worship, cater to the wants and desires of people, rather than serve them with all the Means of Grace, and freely make use of Calvinistic and Arminian songs that appeal mostly to people's selfish emotions, rather than point them to God and what He has done for them in Christ. And not only are these pastors and churches allowed to be as unLutheran as they want, including being ashamed to use the name "Lutheran," or sometimes even "Christian" in their names, but they are actually supported financially by our synod, lauded by our leaders, and set up as examples for the rest of the synod to follow. All this has taken place even with a very fine and confessional Synod President. Even he has been unable to stem the tide of these unLutheran churches in the WELS. What chance, therefore, do I – or even Intrepid Lutherans – have? Our District Presidents, for the most part, and our Boards, Committees, and Commissions, seem bent on taking our synod as far away from historic orthodox Lutheranism as possible. They must see this as the only way to survive as a church body. Obviously, I can't change them, or even move them to re-think their path.

          Therefore, I now see my duty in a little different light. I have a congregation of precious souls to care for, and that shall be my main focus. I now have seven grandchildren, and they too will receive more time and attention. Matters outside my church, which have always taken second place anyway, whether people believe that or not, will now receive less and less of my energy and effort. I will, perhaps, from time to time still comment on Intrepid Lutherans and elsewhere, and I hope and pray that I am wrong, and that not only the Intrepids, but many, many others within our synod will someday be able to turn the WELS back to a solid and truly unified confessionalism. May God in His mercy grant this, and soon!

          Some of the others involved as leaders and officers of Intrepid Lutherans have told me that they would like to see the blog continue. A number of our readers have also ask that Intrepid keep operating. While I myself may see such efforts as having not even a snowball's chance in Hades to make positive and constructive changes, I fully understand some folks still wanting a place to go to see confessional postings, and a place where they can voice their concerns. So, I will leave the future of Intrepid Lutherans to others.

Truth. Love. Obedience. Duty. Perhaps these words and what they mean to me will stay with you for a while. Thank you for listening to me. May God bless all of you. And may God bless all truly confessional Lutherans, both in the WELS and everywhere else.  Amen.

 Pastor Spencer


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License