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Church, Inc. and Why Imitation is No Strategy for Lutheranism

March 22nd, 2009
Marketing Advertising Blog — VuManhThang.Com

    I received a postcard in the mail yesterday from "Church.Inc" [note: The material in quotes in this blog post are exact quotes from the postcard]. The front of the postcard showed a silhouette image of a stereotypical family: Mom, Dad, daughter, son [so much for people who are not in a stereotypical family].

    The card said "Church. His presence purpose." Then it told me that this group is having an "opening celebration March 29!" And at the bottom of the card it said: "There's a new church and it's made just for u." The back of the card told me that "Ur: unique. creative. passionate. family. needed. church. determined. loving." And then the card told me, "we want to be who you are, because when that happens, the world becomes a different, better place. Church. —come just the way ur." Then it said: "casual dress. contemporary music, kids ministry for all ages"

    This is modern evangelicalism today. Summed up in one post card. Everything right and wrong about it. Right? Passion for outreach, getting people involved in a church who are not involved. Can't criticize them for their intentions and wanting to get people in touch with God. OK, fair enough there. No point in arguing that point. Can we Lutherans do better? Of course we can. Yes, we must. Yes, got it. Check. Wrong? Pandering to the lowest common denominator. The statement "we want you to be who you are, because when that happens, the world becomes a better place" is wrong, dead and deadly wrong, on so many levels. What this postcard illustrates dramatically is pretty much exactly what Michael Spencer had to say recently about the coming collapse of Evangelicalism.

    And the good thing is that Spencer is an Evangelical, not some old, fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, dogmatic, confessional Lutheran like me who is obviously totally out of touch with real ministry, real needs, and the real world. [At least that's what people like to say about guys like us].

    Now, here's my question. Why would The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod want to imitate these trends, techniques and gimmicks? I see this happening in my church and it always leave me baffled and puzzled and scratching my head in confusion. Why, when we have groups and churches popping up all around, sending out postcards like the one that appeared in my mailbox yesterday, would we want to give the impression we are basically "into" this kind of thing ourselves? It never makes any sense to me.

    I've said it before, but I'll say it again, no business in the world would think of rebranding themselves simply to try to be a carbon copy of their competition. It's institutional suicide. They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but it is no strategy. So, here's a wild and crazy idea. How about we Lutherans focus on finding creative ways to put the message out to the world that Lutheranism offers something distinctly unique from what one will find at any "big box non-denominational" church down the corner and around the block. Let's help folks learn and understand what the original "Evangelicalism" is all about.

Your thoughts?

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. March 22nd, 2009 at 10:54 | #1

    I agree with your positions, pastor McCain. I believe there has to be ways for the Church to reach the community without watering down the Gospel message. It does take skill to present that we are all sinners without mentally beating up the person who is new to the message. Foremost is preaching the grace of God through Jesus’ death and ressurection. Hopefully, our pastors and teachers can find ways to articulate the message to a 21st century audience.
    I think people will always be intrigued by the person of Jesus.
    ‘Who do you say the Christ is?’ I believe a number of people strive to find who Jesus is, beyond the politics and culture that they normally associate with the church on earth. Millions of people are unsatisfied with the postmodern view of the world, though it is promoted by the media.
    There are alot of challenges. I believe the church leaders and lay people need to do more to present the Gospel message to the lost, and that includes the divorced, single mothers, college students, and apartment dwellers. I don’t believe there as many ‘seekers’ as people who are beat up by life, and need the community the Church provides. If people in the church would take time to talk to visitors, and discuss what problems they’re facing, and talk about Christ’s forgiveness – that would do as much as sending them to a focus group the church has. If people show genuine interest in one another, that would help the Church to grow.

  2. Matt Phillips
    March 22nd, 2009 at 22:55 | #2

    How many people actually pay any attention to the those postcards? really…I’d be interested if any non-believer joined a church because of postcard.
    First, we must remain faithful to the God’s Word and its true exposition in the Book of Concord. We can display this in our worship services, sermons, bible studies, and other congregational ministries. The foundation of this really is the training of solid pastors.
    Second, our LCMS congregations should continue to establish and maintain our elementary schools and secondary schools. These institutions allow us to educate our own kids and serve as an “evangelistic outreach.” Luther, Melanchthon, and Bugenhagen understood the schools to be the center of the Reformation.
    Third, we should display the fruits of faith in our actions in society. This is what Luther and Bugenhagen described as the liturgy after the liturgy.

  3. Boz
    March 23rd, 2009 at 01:51 | #3

    Maybe the problem is we talk too much about what’s wrong with other churches (or churches in our synod) and not about what’s right about Lutheranism. Let’s show others how in Scripture, Jesus always responds to people calling to him for mercy (Kyrie Eleison!), and the liturgy teaches the story of Christ. Or how the beautiful Gospel of our hymns can comfort and assure us in our troubles. Or the awesomeness of the moment when Christ physically comes to the congregation as a community, and the holy duty the pastor has to ensure it is taken worthily. We need to teach the beauty of traditional Lutheranism.
    We need to avoid unconstructive criticism. If we see true error, it must be addressed, but we must resist the temptation to construe every questionable statement or practice as an opportunity to condemn heresy or bad doctrine. If Confessional Lutheranism is going to be have any success at persuading others, the crowd that takes the “you disagree with me on doctrine and so you must repent” attitude has to rethink what it is doing. We should more humbly try to avoid the attitude of the one looking for splinters in everybody else’s eyes. We preach Christ Crucified in liturgy and song, and we should do a better job of it on the internet.
    When others see our love of Pure Gospel, they will want what we have.

  4. Jeff
    March 23rd, 2009 at 08:34 | #4

    I want to agree with the blog post. We should have a passion for unreached people. Confessional Lutheran evangelism is rooted in Word and Sacrament. We invite folks to come hear the Law that puts us to death and the Gsopel which raises us. All along the Holy Spirit is at work creating and sustaining faith. “Come and see..” This is our evangelisation strategy. Jeff…a confessional Lutheran who happens to be ELCA.

  5. March 23rd, 2009 at 09:51 | #5

    How about a blog contest to update that old saying to apply it to this kind of imitation:
    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s the ____________ form of strategy.”
    I’ll start off filling the blank in with “lamest”.

  6. Ryan R. Mueller
    March 23rd, 2009 at 21:57 | #6

    Marketing 101 for the the LCMS (no answers, just questions):
    Product: What is the church selling? Doctrine according to the BOC? Eternal Life? Hope of a better present? A way out of the despair of this world via an understanding of God’s plan? An understanding of one’s place in the universe? Personal relationship with Christ? A chance to worship with other believers?
    Price: What demands does/should the LCMS place on people? Weekly attendance at church? Daily bible study and daily prayer? A signature on a statement of confessions? 10% of household earnings? 75% of household earnings (pre-tax)?
    Place: Where does the product get consumed &/or ‘purchased’? At church (bricks and mortar)? On the internet? In the heart? In the home? In an email? At the coffee shop in small groups? At work places in the form of the a quiet witness?
    Promotion: How should the LCMS let people know about the prior 3 items? Post cards? News paper ads? Newspaper editorials? How does one go about letting the unchurched know that their Savior Jesus Christ is eager to have a relationship with them? Non-church-site non-Sunday ‘Sunday School’?
    I don’t ask these questions because I have the answers figured out, and I may have left some of the most important questions out…but maybe these questions (using the 4 P’s of marketing) will help guide some of the thinking on these issues.

  7. Christine
    March 24th, 2009 at 09:14 | #7

    Thanks be to God that “old, fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, dogmatic, confessional Lutheranism” was there for me to come back to.
    Word and Sacrament are the lifeblood of the Church and we dare not discard these treasures.
    I agree very much that our schools are an added treasure and that we also very much need to educate our people and inquirers as to the history of the church. The last couple of generations have been very disconnected from that and need to relearn that as evangelical catholics confessional Lutherans are firmly rooted in the history of the church all the way back to Pentecost.
    It is modern evangelicalism that is actually the newcomer on the block.

  8. Luther Gulseth
    March 24th, 2009 at 22:40 | #8

    I have long believed that Hollywood gives church an identity. Many movies and TV shows portray church in a confessional manner using Catholic or Orthodox type buildings and a liturgically based worship environment. How often do you see a praise band there? (Friday Night Lights and Sister Act 1/2 excluded.) Many southern based movies do have praise chorus type worship, but nearly all of them are in a small country church that is predominantly black.
    Hollywood is brilliant at stereotyping, why can’t Lutherans embrace this stereotype and enjoy the 500-year heritage of worship and hymns? Why don’t we proclaim Christ Crucified in the same manner as Paul and the Apostles? Proclaim our worship as a place to receive 100% pure Gifts from God with no strings attached. Worship is receiving God’s Gifts in His Word and Sacrament and our return thanks and praise. It may be “old-fashioned,” but I’m certain that God will not allow his pure Word and Sacraments to come back to him unused.
    In Christ crucified,
    Luther Gulseth

  9. Aaron
    March 25th, 2009 at 10:04 | #9

    My questions regarding the blog:
    1) So … are we in “competition” with the “big-box” churches?
    [[McCain: One could come away with that impression when we see LCMS congregations imitating the big-boxes]].
    I understand that we tend to have a more grace-oriented message to share.
    [[McCain: We have a Christ-centered message that is painfully lacking in much of modern American Evangelicalism, as the article points out, and as hundreds more like it are bemoaning]].
    But come on! Quit focusing on competing by being better or by tearing down the big churches. Granted, there are some that have lousy preaching – a lot of fluff and no true call to repentance or healing with the gospel. But many of them, if you pay attention, do a very good job of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen and sins forgiven.
    [[McCain: We would hope they do, but, again, pay attention to what many Evangelicals are decrying and you'll see that the message of Christ and His cross is not central to much modern "ministry" out there.]]
    Besides, Jesus told his disciples: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).
    2) Why are we trying to “sell” LUTHERANISM anyway?! Just share CHRIST! Preach Christ and BE the body of Christ for people. We believe that the Holy Spirit will turn hearts. Trust that He will. We’re called to preach the Kingdom, not divide the Body.
    [[McCain: What is the difference between Lutheranism and proclaiming Christ? If there is no point in being Lutheran, why bother? And if we make no compelling case for being and remaining Lutheran, who will? It is naieve simply to assume that differences do not matter, and ironically, when we take that attitude we end up simply looking a lot like the big-box non-denoms.]]

  10. March 27th, 2009 at 08:50 | #10

    The answer to your question, “Why would The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod want to imitate these trends, techniques and gimmicks? ” is simple: Theological adolescence.
    Those in the LCMS urging us to ape empty evangelicalism are theological adolescents. And, like most adolescents they are bored and embarrassed.
    They are bored with faithful preaching and administration of the sacraments, and embarrassed to be seen with their theological parents.
    And, like adolescents, they slavishly imitate other theological adolescents, convinced that they are being unique, marching to the beat of their own drum, setting-trends –all in a desperate attempt to look, sound and act like anything but Lutherans.

  11. Susan R
    March 27th, 2009 at 10:07 | #11

    Pastor Wilken writes:
    ‘…to look, sound and act like anything but Lutherans.’
    Or, to continue his train of thought: ‘to look, sound and act anything like grownups.’
    Or: ‘their elders’.
    Or: ‘their grandfathers.’
    The problem with adolescence that lingers beyond the years of physical adolescence is the likelihood that this warped and unnatural state is not likely to change. Maturity is unlikely; it’s less likely with every gain that adolescence (immaturity) affords.
    Spoiled brats don’t give up goals and gains without tantrums, defiance, and utter rebellion.
    Trouble is, they never seem to understand that their rebellion is against more than just their elder/adults/grandparents/Lutherans. Their rebellion is against He Who made grandparents, the church, and even themselves.
    Failure to get over onself is the mark of immaturity, whether in how one handles Dad’s car or how one shepherds Grandad’s church.

  12. Lindsey
    March 27th, 2009 at 12:10 | #12

    Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate.
    As an LCMS Lutheran who has received much spiritual growth and maturity from Evangelicalism, I think I need to put in my two cents.
    Evangelicals as a whole are FAR better at ministering to people of all age groups than are Lutherans. Tailoring specific ministries to different demographics and age groups is not “compromising” the Gospel, it is expressing it in ways that I believe Paul is talking about when he says “To the Jews I became as a Jew, to the Greeks, I became as a Greek, I have become all things to all men that I might save some.”
    Now, it is true that there ARE problems with some of the techniques that many Evangelicals have adopted. Shallowness in worship is one that immediately comes to mind.
    I’ve been to several different Lutheran churches that at first glance, appear to be Evangelical churches in terms of their music, sanctuary layouts, church ministries, etc. However, trust me from experience, these churches are distinctly Lutheran. They do not compromise their core beliefs and identity, they simply present them in more “Evangelical” forms.
    Never have I been to a “contemporary” Lutheran church that denied infant Baptism, the real presence in Holy Communion, the Trinity, justfication by grace through faith, etc. and all those other tenets that make a Christian Church “Lutheran.”

    • March 29th, 2009 at 19:31 | #13

      Lindsey, thanks for your response and helping this conversation along with this counter-point.

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