Monday, February 3, 2014

‘Church Growth’ Inroads in the WELS: An Analysis of the Website Home Pages of Ninety WELS Congregations – Part 2

Two weeks ago, we published Part 1 of this analysis as “A First Look”. At that time, we indicated that additional installments would be forthcoming, and, as promised, here is Part 2, “A Deeper Look, ” with additional analysis yet to come.

The Home Page of a Website is Like the Cover of a Book

The sub-title above references an analogy made by one commenter who responded to the “first look” of the WELS website analysis project. It was a good analogy and it rings true. Walk through the aisles of your local book store and look at the book covers. What’s the purpose of the book cover? A book cover communicates information about the book. A well-designed book cover captures, in a simple yet powerful way, much of what the book is about. A book cover communicates the book’s identity.

And so it is with the home page of a website. A home page, intentionally or otherwise, communicates the identity of the church itself, and of the larger church body to which it belongs. It does this, not with voluminous content or detailed theology, but with a simple display of a limited amount of information.

The WELS is a self-proclaimed Confessional Lutheran church body. Does a church within said church body convey a Confessional Lutheran sense of identity on the home page of it’s website? If not, is another identity being substituted for a Confessional Lutheran identity?

The criteria chosen for this analysis were deliberately selected to reflect the Confessional Lutheran identity. Some critics found fault with the criteria, but no alternatives were offered by them. Other criteria were considered, but the ones chosen were considered major criteria, and in many ways, incorporated the lesser criteria. The team of lay people used these criteria to look for evidence of a Confessional Lutheran identity on the home pages of WELS church websites. The analysis was nothing more than finding out whether WELS churches are communicating on the home page of their website what they claim to be. The search for evidence was carefully broken down and organized into six components so that the existence or absence of evidence could be clearly determined and communicated.

Scoring the criteria was not precise, but any standard of measure is always limited by the uncertainty of the measurement. Numerical measurements tend to be most precise, but even those are limited by the accuracy of the gauge. And sometimes, an “illusion of precision” implies that a measurement is more precise than what it really is. The strongest reactions to the “first look” post were related to the scoring, and specifically the existence of “red”, and in some cases, heavy concentrations of “red”. This report will take a closer look at the prevalence of “red” and the significance of the criteria for which the red exists.

Overall, combining the observations of all six criteria for the ninety church home pages, the distribution of scoring looks like this:

WELS Congregational Website Analysis Breakdown of Results - 1

For all observations of the analysis, 50% of the scoring was red, 30% was yellow and 20% was green. Focusing on the positive observations, there was clear evidence (the green) of Confessional Lutheran identity, as defined by the six criteria, in 20% of the observations. The results are reported to the nearest 10%, to avoid the illusion of precision.

There were some comments to the first post questioning the validity of expecting certain criteria to exist on the home page of a church website. The criteria mentioned most were the name “Lutheran”, the Lutheran Confessions and mention of the liturgy. The next chart removes the observations associated with these three criteria. What remains are observations associated with the Gospel, and the Means of Grace - the Word and the Sacraments.

WELS Congregational Website Analysis Breakdown of Results - 2

The results don’t change very much. The percentage of reds actually increases a modest amount, at the expense of yellows. The green percentage is unchanged at 20%.

Limiting the analysis even further, to a single criteria, the Gospel, results in the following:

WELS Congregational Website Analysis Breakdown of Results - 3

Again, the results don’t change much. In this case, red is back down, yellow is up, and green again remains unchanged at 20%.

Limiting the number of criteria from the analysis does not significantly change the results. Clear evidence (the green) of Confessional Lutheranism does not exist on the home pages of these ninety WELS congregations in the majority of cases. An absence of evidence (the red) of Confessional Lutheranism on the home pages of these ninety congregations was observed in roughly half the cases (a range of 40-60% for the three variations of the criteria displayed).

Sequentially removing these criteria is meaningful beyond demonstrating the analysis above. In many cases, removing these standards of Confessional Lutheranism are the very arguments that advocates of Church Growth would likely make. The influence of Church Growth Methodology can and does end up diminishing, and eventually destroying the identity of Confessional Lutheranism. Many church bodies already offer an identity that is free of Confessional Lutheranism. WELS claims to identify as Confessional Lutheran. Evidence of that claim should exist on the home pages of WELS church websites. If and when it doesn’t, it leads to a follow-up question of what information is being used in place of Confessional Lutheran standards? The next report will speak to this question.



Unknown said...

"The influence of Church Growth Methodology can and does end up diminishing, and eventually destroying the identity of Confessional Lutheranism. Many church bodies already offer an identity that is free of Confessional Lutheranism. WELS claims to identify as Confessional Lutheran. Evidence of that claim should exist on the home pages of WELS church websites."

See? This quote, and really that whole paragraph, demonstrates what I and others were concerned about. There are two key flaws in this study.

First, you create an arbitrary list of criteria that any "Confessional Lutheran" homepage "should", i.e. must, meet.
Second, you then directly link the failure to meet these criteria to Church Growth methodology.

I'll show you how silly this is. The article itself makes the claim that a congregation's homepage is like the cover of a book. Right now, I'm looking at the cover of my Concordia Triglotta. The cover is green and contains the words "Concordia Triglotta". That's it. Nothing at all about the Means of Grace or the Gospel or anything. So, based on your own criteria, Concordia Triglotta is not truly Confessional Lutheran and is evidence of Church Growth influences. Right?

Joel Dusek said...

"Your site Home Page is the most visited page of the site and often users make a split second determination to either stay on the site or “move on” based on their inital reaction to your Home Page. Attention to the page layout and content is critical to creating a good first impression of your organization." - Martin Spriggs, WELS Chief Technology Official, blog post from June 12, 2013
The full post is here:

Here, Mr. Spriggs validates the idea of this project, that the homepage is where important content that makes a first impression on a visitor should be placed. Mr. Parsons, you seem intent on criticizing this project, but be aware that you are criticizing a WELS official, also.

To extend the book cover analogy, and be more precise, a website homepage should be more like the back cover than the front. A front cover usually has an image, title, author, and maybe a reviewer's comment. The back cover, in the same amount of space, conveys more information and can gain a reader's interest, before they even turn to the table of contents. Some of the website were very "front cover", an image and a name and some links. Some if them were "back cover", containing information. Some were very busy and overwhelming, some sparse and uninformative. While web design is very dynamic and varied, there are industry standard best practices that would be beneficial for admins to review from time to time. This ensures that both design and content are up-to-date and conveying what the congregation desires.  

ReWood Products, LLC said...


I would not call the Gospel or the Means of Grace arbitrary criteria. I would call them the most important criteria one could consider when considering a church.

And analogies such as the "book cover" have limitations, which means you can always take it to the extreme and make it no longer hold up. Any analogy your pastor uses in a sermon can also be taken to the extreme to prove him wrong.

As you well know, the analogy was not one of a "blank" book cover such as the one you describe. If you simply want to view the home page of a church website as nothing more than the church name, then that also becomes very silly. In ninety cases, we found no such website home pages.


Unknown said...

Oh no, I criticized a WELS official! Alarms are sounding in Milwaukee. Soon there will be a knock on my door.

If we really want to use this book cover analogy, one could make the argument that you want to put just enough on the cover (front or back) to get someone interested in reading more. The really good stuff should be saved for inside.

But the larger point is that there are different ideas about what should go on a homepage and what shouldn't (and whether it's supposed to be like a front cover or a back cover or no cover at all). So, obviously, when I talk about arbitrary criteria, I'm not saying the gospel is arbitrary, I'm saying it's arbitrary to judge what a congregation's homepage must contain or should look like. It's even more arbitrary to then use this data to claim that it's due to Church Growth.

In this study, a thoroughly Confessional congregation and a thoroughly Church Growth congregation could get an equal number of reds. Thus, the results aren't able to be used to make any claims about Confessional or CGM influences.

ReWood Products, LLC said...


You said in the concluding remarks of your last comment:

"In this study, a thoroughly Confessional congregation and a thoroughly Church Growth congregation could get an equal number of reds."

Although it seems like another extreme example, perhaps your statement exists in real life. This study didn't look at congregations, only their home pages. But using your example, the influence of Church Growth Methodology is to look at this study and be indifferent to it, or perhaps even attack it. But if one were intent on upholding the Scriptural standards of Confessional Lutheranism, one could look at the results of this analysis and see that the home page would be a perfect place to let the light of the Gospel shine. Even Mr. Spriggs in the link Mr. Dusek provided said the use of God's Word on the home page of a church website is a "no brainer". That sounds remarkably similar to what this study was looking for, evidence consistent with upholding the Scriptural standards of Confessional Lutheranism. How is it that evidence of a "no brainer" was only seen clearly in the minority of the cases in this analysis?


Unknown said...


I don't think it's an extreme example at all. Pastor Rydecki previously mentioned that his congregation's website would have gotten at least some red marks if it had been part of the study. If that's the case, and even congregations that are scrupulously Confessional are getting red marks, then red marks must be completely useless in making any sort of determination about the level of Confessionalism or Church Growthism in the WELS. You're making judgments based on faulty evidence.

Listen, I'm sure you probably spent lots of time putting all of this data together, and I agree with you that the CGM has made inroads in the WELS, but at a certain point you just need to concede that this particular study was flawed from the outset rather than making unfounded allegations against a synod and her congregations.

AP said...

For the record, I was not involved with putting this study together. My comments on it are mine alone.

With some things, there is no mystery about identity. When one walks into a McDonald's anywhere in the world, it is with a very clear understanding of what to expect inside. I have a hard time believing that anyone who would own or seek out a "Concordia Triglotta" would not be aware of what it is, especially since it was pretty well meant for the use of educated confessional Lutherans in the first place. So, do not attack so-called false analogies with more false analogies.

Identity is not self-evident the case of "Lutheran" or even WELS churches. If you live in the South for any period of time, you will come to see that most southerners associate Lutheran with liberal Christianity, gay marriage, etc, because ELCA is the predominant Lutheran church in most of the south. Having lived in the south myself, I have noticed that even some more conservative Lutheran churches will drop the name Lutheran from their schools (and downplay it in advertising about the church), in part to avoid the association with liberalism. I have also found that I really don't always know what I'm going to find in a WELS or LCMS church. I can think of one town in Wisconsin with two WELS churches on the same street whose practices are so different that one could easily think they are from different denominations altogether. It is thus very important for confessional (and by that term I also mean liturgical) Lutheran churches of whatever synod to clearly identify who they are on their online front door to the world--the home page. Again, Lutheran means certain things--the things highlighted in this study for example. It is not at all difficult without cluttering the home page to clearly incorporate these things and make a clear statement about confessional identity. I know there are all kinds of reasons why home pages are what they are, but I'm also kind of mystified as to why a confessional church would not want to make its identity clearly known on its most visible online space.

No one has ever named names here. No one has ever said that "red marks" automatically equal the presence of church growth. This study of 90 churches simply demonstrates that for whatever reason we have an identity problem on many of our church home pages. There could be any number of reasons for this problem as I have said before. The presence of church growth theology might be one. For confessional churches that have "red marks", the study might just suggest rethinking the home page. Is that really such a terrible thing, to think about a home page and what is on it? Maybe the church decides the home page is fine just the way it is. It should at least have the discussion and have some valid reason for what the home page is, whatever the home page is. How, though, can there be any harm at all in asking churches to just think about what goes on the home page and why? I simply do not understand the extremely defensive insistence upon being offended by this study.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

Joel Lillo said...

I think this study shows how right Mark Twain was when he said (paraphrasing for a family friendly blog): "There are three kinds of lies in the world: lies, darned lies, and statistics."

--Joel Lillo

Joel Dusek said...

"Oh no, I criticized a WELS official! Alarms are sounding in Milwaukee. Soon there will be a knock on my door."
Indeed! Watch for the Schwann's truck to deliver your excommunication papers! WELS's cultish collectivism is a debate for another time and place. My point is that WEL's own CTO puts the same importance on homepage content that this study does. Some of the main criticism ahs been that the homepage doesn't need to proclaim the congregation's identity, as this can be found in other areas of the website. This study, and Mr. Spriggs, suggest that it should.

Again, you seem single-minded on criticizing this study, now even going so far as to tell Vernon – and by extension all of us who were involved – that we just need to concede to your viewpoint. Sorry, I've never been a "shut up and color" guy, and I do not concede that the study was flawed. This study set out specific criteria based on a specific hypothesis, examined a substantial number of websites based on those criteria, and tabulated the results.

You disagree with the starting hypothesis of Church Growth. That's a fair criticism, but consider that one of the methods within the Church Growth Movement, in all three of their predominant models "Attractive church", "Missional church" and "Praise church", is to remove and diminish denominational identity in favor of a more generic, anthropocentric Christianity. This study begins with the expectation that a confessional Lutheran congregation would boldly proclaim its orthodox Christian & Lutheran identity. It may do so elsewhere on its website, but, going back to Mr. Spriggs, the homepage should be expressive of this also, even in summation. The criteria set forth were the basic Confessional Lutheran things we would expect to see some of on the homepage; things that set Lutheran congregations apart from generic, non-denom, and sectarian congregations. Many congregations may not even realize they are mimicking CGM methods, so at the least this study may serve to inform, if the people are wise enough to take instruction and correction.

You are certainly entitled to your opinion, and to express it; the debate is healthy. However, do not accuse us of making unfounded allegations against the synod and its congregations. This study is an examination, not an allegation, and it is founded on the expectation of Confessional Lutheran identity, to which the WELS professes to subscribe.

Grace and Peace.

Joel A. Dusek

Unknown said...

Dr. Palmer said: "There could be any number of reasons for this problem as I have said before."

I agree.

Dr. Palmer said: "No one has ever said that "red marks" automatically equal the presence of church growth."

I disagree. The title of this series is "Church Growth Inroads in the WELS". The last paragraph of this article draws a direct connection between red marks and Church Growth Methodology. The claim that this article is an unbiased presentation of the facts is simply untenable.

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...


Your selective reading of this report seemingly betrays a motive to protect the WELS despite the evidence. In your first comment, above, you lead-off with a quote that conveniently omits an immediately preceding sentence which pointedly defends the value of a study like this. That sentence reads, "In many cases, removing these standards of Confessional Lutheranism are the very arguments that advocates of Church Growth would likely make."

Positive evidence of Church Growth inroads is NOT entirely bound up in positive observations of "contemporary happy-clappy" or otherwise "sectarian worship," of grossly imbalanced emphasis on evangelism (now frequently referred to as "Functional Arminianism"), nor of crass organization building through manipulative marketing and other number-chasing techniques. It is, especially among so-called confessional Lutherans, also primarily observed in a CONSPICUOUS RETREAT from the MARKS OF THE CHURCH. In its primary task of organization building, CGM requires that all resources be invested in the most rationally efficient means of increasing organizational membership and revenue, and this is accomplished by focusing on man, on determining and catering to his supposed needs and preferences. Centering all attention on Christ, on the other hand, the Marks of the Church draw attention away from the anthropocentric priorities of CGM, and impedes the "progress" demanded by it. Use of the Means of Grace, much less mentioning them, can in no rational sense be justified as efficient means of increasing Church membership and revenue. Hence, an absence of use or mention of the Means of Grace -- i.e., the Marks of the Church -- is indeed a legitimate indicator (though not the sole measure) of CGM influence.

Fifty percent of the categories in this study provide a picture of whether and to what relative degree Synod's congregations consistently choose to bear the Marks of the Church, front and center, in their public representation of themselves as Christian and Lutheran. What are those Marks? The Word rightly preached and the Sacrament rightly administered. Without these Marks, a congregation cannot legitimately claim to represent or be part of Christ's Church, much less be Lutheran. Yes. They are that significant.

Continued in next comment...

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

...Continued from previous comment.

The categories of this study which measure the prominence of the Marks on the home pages of WELS congregations are easily identified: "God's Word," "the Gospel" and "the Sacraments." And, as Vernon indicated in commentary following Part One, the thresholds this study adopted for satisfying those criteria were fairly low. But still, and very oddly for a Synod that is known for gloating over its own purity and its evangelical ambitions, the majority of congregations sampled in this study did not meet those thresholds.

Finally, and this needs to be emphasized (again): no single congregation is represented in the picture that emerges from this study. Rather, it is a picture of Synod as a whole composed by the intersection of criteria, sampled from individual WELS congregations across the Nation, that are fundamental to confessional Lutheran identity: the "Marks of the Church," a basic admission that a congregation is "Lutheran", basic reference to the Confessional documents that define that term, and indication of an intentional "catholicity."

Instead of a balance across such criteria, the picture presented by this study seems to suggest that, across the board, public assertion of Lutheran identity in WELS is primarily vested in the term "Lutheran." It is a sad picture. The results of this study are very sobering, and ought to be taken quite seriously. While I'm not certain that this study is sufficient to firmly conclude that CGM is entrenched across Synod, it is sufficient to suggest that there is a consistent pattern of indifference toward the Means of Grace -- the Marks of the Church -- as either signature aspects of Lutheran identity, or something of vital importance to immediately present to homepage visitors, whether they be unregenerate, heterodox or fellow Lutherans.

The Lutheran Church is primarily a confessing Church. It confidently asserts its Confession not just in word (words are cheap) but in practice, as well. It is a reasonable and just expectation of confessional Lutherans that their Fellows make bold confession alongside them. When the Marks of the Church are conspicuously and consistently absent from the public representation of congregations across a Synod, it is more than justifiable to question what new manifestation of "Lutheran identity" is being promoted by the Synod, its leaders, and its teachers, or whether a genuine confessional Lutheran identity, as it has been historically understood, is taken seriously or valued by them at all.

My Opinion.

Jami Thomas said...

Mr. Palmer made a good point regarding why some church websites may downplay certain confessional Lutheran standards, specifically the name "Lutheran." And it is reasonable that some website designers may not expect website visitors to understand "Lutheran confessions" or "liturgy." The purpose of this latest post is to show that even when "confessional standards" are limited only to a clear presentation of the Gospel, only 20% of the 90 WELS congregations included in this study offer a clear presentation of the Gospel on the home page of their website.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." (Matthew 5:13)

Call it "church growth" or call it whatever you want. But those websites without a clear presentation of the Gospel typically have something else in its place. Replacing the powerful message of the Gospel with words of men is not a faithful representation of God nor an accurate description of His Church.

God has strong words in Revelation for the church He described as "lukewarm." If the WELS is not "lukewarm," we are not doing a good job of reflecting that on our church website home pages. Six criteria were chosen because the study was looking for positive evidence. That doesn't mean that every church website could or should include all six. But this study is valuable if it leads a reader to consider the content of his or her own church's website. It is worthwhile if it causes one or more to volunteer to help maintain a church website that not only proclaims the Gospel of Christ but also uses the power of God's Word to boldly confess our need for a Savior.

Jami Thomas

Unknown said...

Jami said: "this study is valuable if it leads a reader to consider the content of his or her own church's website. It is worthwhile if it causes one or more to volunteer to help maintain a church website that not only proclaims the Gospel of Christ but also uses the power of God's Word to boldly confess our need for a Savior."

I agree. But then why not present a helpful and encouraging series of articles leading congregations to think about what they present on their websites, maybe giving some ideas and suggestions along the way? I'd be highly supportive of such of thing.

But this series is not encouraging or evangelical at all. Nor does it take the words and actions of others in the kindest possible way. It begins with a legalistic assertion ("Your website must contain these six things or else...") and ends with the uncharitable assumption that congregations are purposely hiding the gospel because they are influenced by false teaching.

If the Confessional movement wants to win hearts and minds in the WELS, it must do so in a positive and winsome way, not with negative "gotcha" pieces like this.

Alec Satin said...

How sobering it is to read the comments of this post.

As someone from a Reformed background actively seeking a solid, confessional Lutheran church, I am frankly scared for the WELS. Let's be real. There is a large battle going on across American Christianity. It's present in liberal, moderate and ostensibly bible-believing and confessional churches. It seeks to convert churches to businesses as a way to make them more successful, as measured by growth in numbers of people. The bottom-line philosophy is not Christian, and certainly not Confessional Lutheran. (cf Chris Rosebrough's Resistance is Futile

The authors of this website study use a scientific approach to reach an objective understanding of reality. They take an idea (are WELS church home pages presenting the gospel, means of grace and Confessional Lutheran standards), devise a study, carry it out, and then analyse the results. Why go to all this trouble? To be able to have a conversation based not on emotions and subjectivity, but rather facts.

As Christians, we naturally want to be in reality for lots of reasons, not the least of which is to be a honest witness of our dear Savior Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice he made for us on the Cross.

It is one thing to discuss or even argue with an exploratory study. It's quite another to attempt to shut down discussion through the use of ad hominum attacks (against the person's motives) or reductio ad absurdum (exaggeration to absurdity) arguments. Insisting that "solutions" or "encouraging articles" must be provided is another way to get people to be quiet. How can anyone understand what, if any, solution is needed before anyone is clear about the problem?

Does WELS have a strong Confessional Lutheran witness? Over the last weeks I've met a few times with a WELS pastor in my community. He is doctrinally sound and has taken the time to meet with someone who is not even Lutheran. Now that I'm beginning to trust this pastor, I'm scared to go to a service for fear of finding overhead music videos or electric guitars, just as in every other broadly evangelical missional church in town. How I wish that the church's website had a statement that their services used an historic conservative liturgy.

Reading the Book of Concord over the last few weeks has been revolutionary for me. How many Christians outside of Lutheranism have ever even heard of this book? Do you know what a treasure you have? Why doesn't every WELS church have a weekly Book of Concord reading group? You can bet that would be an innovative means of church growth. It may or may not attract great numbers of people, but it would strengthen the faith of everyone involved, including your existing members.

Or, how about a website page with quotes from the Smalcald Articles. So many non-Lutheran Christians are taught that Lutherans did not separate enough from the Roman Catholic Church. A few glances into this part of the Confessions puts that fear to rest and could well help WELS find many dedicated new parishioners.

Please, WELS, don't try to be like everyone else. The charismatics and so many others have more experience at putting on a good show.

Alec Satin

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alec, for your reasonable words of support. It is good to see positive comments on the study from an external source, and comments that put the best construction on the study – you know, taking it in the kindest possible way.
I think you will find that there are good, solid, confessional Lutheran churches, pastors, and parishioners in the WELS. However, it's been my experience that there is also a strong bureaucratic top-down mentality that results in a collectivist organization, and a Synodical Stockholm Syndrome that automatically defends the Synod against all criticism or questioning. I pray you find a good congregation and pastor.

Joel A. Dusek

ReWood Products, LLC said...


Like Joel Dusek, I also want to thank you for your comments. An external viewpoint is very helpful and beneficial in this discussion. And it is so good to hear you say that you have found great value in the Lutheran Confessions.

I can understand defensive reactions from people inside the WELS to this study. It's human nature to react negatively to unpleasant results, particularly when there is a vested interest. And it takes a high level of maturity to move beyond the defensiveness and recognize that there is always opportunity to improve.

I pray that if you decide to pursue the WELS church further that you are now considering, that you find this church is faithful to Scriptural truths reflected by the Lutheran Confessions. Yes, it would have been nice to see evidence on the website home page. And contrary to what some of the critics have said, this study does not imply that the lack of evidence of Confessional Lutheran standards on a hom epage automatically judges that congregation as thoroughly CGM. I think you understand that.

Thanks for putting down your coments in this blog so that others could read and consider them.


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