Be back in a few weeks

I will be traveling and doing some family vacationing throughout July. Thus posts are going to be rather few this month. I hope to get back at it more regularly in August.


Rev. Woodford


The Church is Declining: Now What?

Missional guru Ed Stetzer recently reported on his blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been in decline over the last number of years. It’s a trend that seems to be afflicting most of the North American church, Lutherans included.

As such, consultants, researches, and church leaders are pressing for answers. “Why is the church in decline? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to change? How can we reach new people?”  They are good questions to ask. It’s always good for the church to take stock and self assess. But what it’s assessing is always the key.

Stetzer notes that the SBC has had its lowest growth in 60 years. “Baptisms in the SBC are also on a slow decline, and have been for over ten years – a 20% decrease since 1999. Baptisms ticked up a little this year – but this is the second-worst year we’ve had in more than 60 years –” However, what’s curious, or perhaps ironic, is that the SBC has been in the midst of intense “missional” and evangelism emphases for at least the last decade. Stetzer himself is a champion of it, even co-authoring a book that claims to have broken the missional code.

In fact, his 2006 book Breaking the Missional Code, is described this way: “One size does not fit all, but there are cultural codes that must be broken for all churches to grow and remain effective in their specific mission context. Breaking the Missional Code provides expert insight on church culture and church vision casting, plus case studies of successful missional churches impacting their communities.”(Front Flap).

To be sure, having read through his book a couple of times I found that Stetzer (and Putnam) have some very thoughtful things to say: “We have to recognize there are cultural barriers (in addition to spiritual ones) that blind people from understanding the gospel. Our task is to find the right way to break through those cultural barriers without removing the spiritual and theological ones.”

However, if numbers are the measurement of success (which they have so often been in the past, and for some, still are today) it would seem that the breaking of this missional code has not been so revolutionary or effective. In fact, the numbers would seem to indicate that perhaps it is even counter-productive.

But then, I’m not that much of a numbers guy. And as long as I’m making admissions, I’m not all that keen on letting the culture position the church’s theology either. I appreciate Stetzer’s desire for the church not to lose theology in the midst of removing cultural barriers, but I worry he (along with those in my own church body who feel he’s got it right) flirts too close to letting the culture position the church’s theology, and therefore change the message of the Gospel.

Remember how Robert Schuller got his start? Before there was the Crystal Cathedral, there was the Orange County Drive-in church. A recent article from The Atlantic captured its beginnings as well as how it was recently sold, and has now come to and end:

For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car…  The Schullers, and their contemporary  entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged. As one former congregant put it: “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”… [However, now] The Cathedral’s current congregation is doing with pain what its predecessors did with ease half a century ago: driving away.

So my question is this, is the decline of the church really with the church’s inability to break the cultural barrier? Or could it be the church is in the midst of a generation of determined unbelievers who simply are refusing to hear the gospel? If so, would all the claims of the church’s need for cultural relevancy and to change with the times need to be reconsidered? Could what the church has done for ages be what is actually needed for today? Could the aim to be culturally relevant even be contributing to the decline?

Don’t get me wrong. I fully desire, with the Lord, that all people come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). And I fully recognize Paul’s testimony about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  However, when one of the most well known culturally “relevant church” bodies continues to decline, might that be reason for Lutherans to pause and think about such cultural claims?

Even so, I refuse to play the numbers game. The church must be measured on its faithfulness to the Word of God and how it is apostolic, not on the nature of the results that it gets.

It’s happened before. Remember Elijah. “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”(1 Kings 19:10).

Elijah was surrounded by a land of unbelievers (“pre-believers,” “unchurched,” and “dechurched,” all seem to be lobbed together here). He thought he was all alone. So he sought out the Lord. And where did he find him?  11And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  12And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-2).

The living voice of the Lord spoke to Elijah. Despite the cultural conditions and unbelief that Elijah faced, he was to remain faithful to that living voice. In so doing, he would encounter 7,000 faithful others who the Lord had reserved for himself.

The church of North America has found herself in a similar situation today. But I would contend that the answer is not drive-in churches or culturally relevant churches. The answer is the “low whisper” of God’s powerful voice of the Gospel speaking in the midst of culture, speaking through culture.

Yes, of course we need to know the language and the beat of our culture. And of course we need to take people where they are at. But if culture dictates how the church is to act, and what the church is to say, will God’s voice actually be able to be heard, or will people simply be prone to drive away at the end of the show?

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). 


Rev. Woodford

2nd Issues Etc. Interview

Had another chance to be on Issues Etc. this past Wed. talking about the Emergent and Emerging Church. Check it out if you have time.

Word and Music or Word and Sacrament: Which Ministry is it?

The argument that often continues among Lutheran brother pastors is the nature of our worship. In my own district there remains a distinct divide among the brothers regarding various perspectives on worship and the way that worship shapes ministry. Contemporary or traditional, vestments or jeans, paraments or video screens, formal or informal—which one is best, which way is right? Some feel one can attract more people. Others feel one is more proper.

Sadly, the divides have become so significant that various parties have been formed, labels have been given, names have been distributed, closed meetings take place, and animosity only grows. Though not formally affiliated with any group, I have been labeled one way by one group, and another way by a different group. But the only label I desire is the one given me at my baptism—redeemed.

Nonetheless, I realize this often happens when political movements are afoot. Our district is nearing a convention. Elections will be taking place. Troops need to be rallied. Propaganda needs to be distributed. Allies need to be forged. Both sides do it. Power is at stake. The thought is, “If our guy is elected our problems will be solved.” However, “power” does not create theology. Not if we are being honest. That belongs to God’s Word alone. Power simply creates the illusion of control. And when we crave it too much, it becomes dangerously intoxicating.

Certainly the church needs solid, compassionate, pastoral leaders. My prayer is that they will stand on the power of the Word and not their position of power as they lead. But back to the topic at hand.

As of late, the worship debates seem to surround one central subject—the issue of music. Contemporary advocates feel that a “contemporary” form of worship provides a greater appeal and attraction to the people of our contemporary world. Therefore the use of a less formal, less ordered, contemporary music based worship setting is employed. This often includes higher volumes of music produced by electronic pianos, guitars, and drums.

Traditional advocates argue that bringing too much of secular sounding music into the realm of the sacred distorts and disorders the means of grace being given in worship. In short, the argument is that the musical setting and the emotional atmosphere it creates becomes the central element of worship rather than the truth of God’s Word and Sacraments alone.

This is an interesting development for Lutherans. The debates about music in the church are a curious one. Historically Lutherans have understood the central elements of worship and ministry to flow out of Word and Sacrament, where they were ordered and celebrated in a formal manner: “The Church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” (Augsburg Confession VII).

In short, music was not a central identifying mark to the Church. But it seems  to be becoming one today. Churches are evaluated and critiqued not so much upon the objective presence of the Word and Sacraments being purely taught and rightly administered, but on the subjective appeal and presence of musical forms. To be sure, musical excellence and quality should be a concern in our worship services. But it will be alarming if music becomes the defining element of Lutheran worship.

Do you see the potential shift that would take place? “Word and Sacrament” ministry would become “Word and Music” ministry. The theological and practical implications would be significant. If the sacraments become second to music, how would such ministry shape the beliefs of our people? Will the sound of music now be the manner in which people believe they encounter the love of Christ? Will the emotional appeal of a particular instrument or song be the manner in which people believe God comes to us?

Please note I’m including all instruments here. The reality is that music, whatever the instrument, whether organ, violin, trumpet, French horn, guitar, piano, or drums, cannot, does not, and will not ever forgive sins! But the Water and the Word of baptism does, likewise with the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. If music has become more prominent than the sacraments, I believe we have a problem. And if music has become more desirable than the sacraments, I know we have a problem.

In my book, Great Commission, Great Confusion, Great Confession I argue that the Church would be well served to emphasize Word and Sacrament ministry by a return to the historic liturgy of the church. However, I am amazed at how some people think this means I am simultaneously advocating the use of a specific musical instrument. I believe this to be evidence of just how conditioned or uninformed people (on both sides) are about the liturgy.

As I express it in my book, there is flexibility, within limits, where uniformity cannot be legislatively imposed, but where there are indeed non-negotiables (both theological and structural) to Lutheran liturgy(p.182). But no where do I advocate for any particular instrument. In fact, I offer the following in a footnote on p.179:

Lutheran Worship has room for use of multiple different instruments. However, music, whatever the instrument, is always meant to be in service to the liturgy and is to never displace or surpass in prominence the means of grace given in the Divine Service. Thus the following description remains helpful for any musical use in the worship setting: “Music in the Lutheran tradition is noted by the following adjectives: doxological (it focuses on praising the Trinity), scriptural (the texts are rooted in God’s Word), liturgical (it fits into the ordered Divine Service within the pattern of the Church Year), proclamational (it communicates the Gospel of Jesus Christ), participatory (the congregation actively sings), pedagogical (it teaches the truth of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ), traditional (it is built on the best of the past), eclectic (it employs styles and practices from various sources that aid the Gospel), creative (it eagerly explores new expressions), and it aspires to excellence (it desires and seeks to give God the best).” Maschke, Gathered Guests, 265.

My point is that our worship must, above all, be preoccupied with the Word and Sacraments. If our fascination with music and its various forms supersedes this in anyway, then I believe we will have indeed changed the marks of the Church from “Word and Sacrament” to “Word and Music.” If this happens, it is sure to lead us down a very hazardous and foreign theological road. What do you think?

As always, this blog aims to move past partisanship and demonizing of those who disagree, and endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, foster the goal of talking about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford

Issues Etc. Radio Interview

Last week I had a chance to be interviewed about my book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Great Confession on the radio talk-show Issues Etc.

Great experience on a great show. Take a listen if you have time.

Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

As a pastor and student of theology, I like to keep up on the various movements within the Holy Christian Church. One recent movement is known as the Emerging or Emergent Church Movement. I’ve posted on it briefly in the past, but a recent article has caught my attention. Enough so, that I felt compelled to write a response to it here (and perhaps pursue a formal one as well.)

The article was from the just released Spring 2012 issue of the Concordia Journal and is titled, “The End of Theology?: The Emergent Church in the Lutheran Perspective” and written by Ph. D. candidate Chad Lakies. I’ve never met Chad and I’d love to talk to him in person about this, but as I read his article I’m not sure it was as helpful as he had hoped.

His title would make one think there would be some thoughtful evaluations of the movement and its theology from a Lutheran perspective. Curiously, that was not the case. Rather, as Lakies states, “I want to show what they are ‘up to’ in a way that, perhaps, does not cause us to raise so quickly the alarm of concern” (p.118). In short, he takes particular issue with what he considers an overly negative assessment of the Emergent Church movement by Dr. Carol Geisler in her May 13, 2011 article “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” (He is also critical of a corresponding CTCR document about the Emergent Church Movement. His desire is “to suggest a different kind of evaluation that is more congenial for interacting with ‘cultural sensibilities’ as they are manifest in the life of the church—for this is what I suggest emergents are doing, manifesting a sensibility, rather than presenting an entirely new theology” (p.118). I would respectfully disagree. To be sure, I agree they are intentionally manifesting a sensibility, but it is one that most certainly informs and shapes an emerging tendency to create “new” if not, amorphous theology (not to mention ecclesiology).

Lakies primary objections fall in that there is no official Emergent “church body” to fairly evaluate, as well as Lutherans who have a knee jerk and uninformed reaction to movements like these:

“Typical of Lutheran authors who set themselves up to examine the beliefs and confession of a different body from their own, Geisler begins comparing what she sees as the beliefs and confession of emergents with those of Missouri Synod Lutherans. A major problem with this approach is that fact that there really is no particular body or denomination called ‘the Emergent Church’…From the outset, the assumption, which is uncritically employed, is that Lutherans are plainly and simply right. From the very beginning, it is as if confessional Missouri Synod Lutheranism owns the market on theology…Such a methodology of evaluating the beliefs and confessions of others is problematic for a whole slew of different reasons. But ultimately it assumes that ‘theology is over,’ that orthodoxy has once-for-all been established and is guarded and maintained in our Confession, and thus it is our God-given task to sound the alarm when others get out of line…For all the good intentions that are the impetus for both works [CTCR document and Geisler] in trying to help the church understand emergents, I am concerned that both works are based only on bibliographical research alone” (p.119-120, 125).

I’m not exactly sure what Lakies aims to communicate with this. Should confessional Lutherans not subscribe to the orthodoxy of their faith? Should they not declare, with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”? How else should confessional Lutherans evaluate other faith claims? I certainly embrace the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, but I am uncomfortable with what Lakies seems to insinuate about Lutheran orthodoxy. In sum, Lakies desires to give the emergent church movement a more favorable treatment with the hopes “that this different approach might prove informative and helpful for those reflective practitioners who are attempting to navigate relationships with the emergent movement…” (p.125).

First, a couple of brief concerns, and then I’ll offer a more in-depth assessment in narrative (emergent) form. To begin, Lakies rightly sides with the Emergent premise “that what one really believes is evidenced in what one does” over against the current “flawed” model and “bad anthropology” of contemporary Christendom that emphasizes (only) right belief with little or no emphasis on right practice or life (p.121). But then he acknowledges that “Their criticisms (which are aimed mostly at evangelicalism since many of them come from that tradition) demand they tell a different story” (p.121). However, he fails to note that Lutheran theology has always had a robust love of neighbor and doctrine for life inherent in it. This seems to imply that Lutherans are also in need of this emerging corrective. But if this is so, and perhaps sadly in some cases it is, it will only go to show how some Lutherans have abandoned thier historic confession of faith and adopted evangelicalism, as opposed to somehow insinuating that Lutherans need to embrace what emergents think they have discovered.

Second, I find it interesting (and partially true) that Lakies feels it unfair to wholesale evaluate the movement since it is not an official denomination. But then he wishes to go and defend and speak for it wholesale. I find this a bit inconsistent, i.e. “Emergents do not want to end up simply repristinating the kind of ‘violent’ practices and positions from which they are ‘emerging’” (p. 122). Further, as one who has not only read volumes of emergent books, documents, and blogs, has interviewed emergent leaders (i.e. Doug Pagitt, of Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis, MN) and has written and published a detailed chapter about the Emergent Church in my recent book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Or Great Confession? (see chapter 5), I feel it is in fact legitimate to provide wholesale evaluations. Perhaps there may be various brands that need to be noted, i.e. “Emerging” and “Emergent,” but they do tend to be very similar, where the above notion of “manifesting a sensibility” does certainly tend toward “new” hermeneutics and new theology (or in some cases, retreads of old trendy theology).

One short but startling example comes from a book that Lakies notes, but fails to adequately evaluate. Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, makes a bold assertion. She states that the notion of using “Luther’s sola scriptura… is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.” (p. 151). Tickle then goes on to explain their new hermeneutic and its “authority base” as it flows out of the idea of “network theory” and “crowd sourcing.” In short, if “manifesting a sensibility” means abandoning Sola Scriptura, then it most certainly is a new theology.

And this brings me to my final point. I fear Lakies over plays and under evaluates the claim that Emergents are really just about “having a certain sensibility.” In fact, if I might be so bold, I think he has played right into the hands of the emerging hermeneutic. I’ll try to explain by way of a narrative (emergent) hermeneutic.

Consider Jane Austen’s well know novel, Sense and Sensibility. The title of the book conveys the philosophical depth and intent of this 19th century classic romance novel. The “Sense” or prudent, good judgment of the novel is most notably embodied by Elinor Dashwood. She is the reserved eldest (19) daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is portrayed as one who has a keen sense of responsibility to her family and friends and so places their welfare and interests above her own, suppressing her own strong emotions in a way that often leads others to think she is indifferent or cold-hearted.

This is contrasted with the “Sensibility” or the passions, (the following of your heart above all other rules and conventions) of the novel which are embodied by Marianne Dashwood. She is the romantically inclined and eagerly expressive second daughter (16) of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood, who develops an intense affection for the philanderer, Mr. Willoughby.

As the novel plays out, the reader is invited to see how the variations of “sense” and “sensibility” unfold in each of the characters’ lives, particularly in Marianne and Elinor. The reader is meant to become romantically enthralled by the impact and consequence of each characters decisions as they’re set in the midst of their 19th century British upper class cultural and social norms.

In the end, Marianne comes to assess what has passed with “sense” rather than emotion, i.e. “sensibility,” and sees that she could never have been happy with Mr. Willoughby’s immoral and expensive nature and so eventually comes to marry the more honorable Colonel Christopher Brandon.

Though this is simply a romance novel, it is nonetheless a descriptor, a narrative of life that speaks to the realities of life. In it “sense” is found to offer greater clarity, while “sensibility” tended to cloud judgment. I wonder if Lakies has disregarded the “sense” of Lutheran theology and fallen in with the “sensibility” of emergents. I don’t mean that as a disrespectful slight, but rather, as it was for Marianne Dashwood, a surrender to the charming allure of a “sensibility” that seemed so much more appealing, more visceral, and more compelling, which prompted her to, for a time, disregard “sense.”

In the end, I’ll stand with John Pless who provided an early astute evaluation of the emergent church movement: “Missing Luther’s radical move, the Emerging Church begins with life not doctrine, and with ethics not faith. While claiming to be generous, open, and tolerant, McLaren—with his incessant focus on the necessity for authentic discipleship, obedience rather than knowledge, and lives characterized by compassion slips into a rigidity that is unattainable. While the language might sound inclusive and undiscriminating, it is the language of the law… The Emerging Church is not nearly as free from the dreary moralism that they decry. Gerhard Forde has helpfully observed that those who begin with the presupposition of freedom end in bondage. Only a theology that begins with the presupposition that humanity is in bondage can end in freedom—the freedom of the Spirit.” “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly (July/ October, 2007), p 320.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford

A word from a few others…

Sorry about so few posts lately. It’s been crazy busy with ministry and life. But for the moment, (and I know it’s a bit indulgent so please excuse me) a few words from others about my book release:

One of my most cherished teachers of theology, Dr Sasse, insisted that we would learn more from those who differed from us than those who agreed with us. Only if we first exercised a hermeneutic of appreciation which first understood them in their own terms with what was right and true in their thinking could we properly criticize them. Such generous large-mindedness enlarges the mind and sharpens its perception of reality.

In his book on the use and abuse of the so-called great commission by the advocates of church growth Lucas Woodford takes us with him on a personal journey that is marked by that kind of critical magnanimity. In it he tells the story of two challenges to him as a young Lutheran pastor, the pastoral challenge from a congregation that has been polarized by attempts to implement the tenets of church growth as well as the theological challenge to evaluate it and its intellectual foundations fairly to gain what he could from it.

Beginning with Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed in his Small Catechism, Lucas examines the role of confession in the church, the use of Matthew 28:16-20 as the essential mandate for the church in its mission by the proponents of church growth and their concern for cultural relevance, the impact of modernism and post-modernism on them and their critical disciples in the emerging church movement, and the value of the great confession of faith in the orthodox tradition with its emphasis on liturgy, orthopraxy, and the whole Biblical story as counter-cultural meta-narrative. So after taking his readers on a journey through many new places with many new ideas, he brings them back home but with new eyes that now see what is so valuable in what was largely familiar and yet unappreciated by them.

This study, then, is of great value, and most helpful, to any faithful pastor or educated Christian that longs to seize the wonderful opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel practically and winsomely to this confused and confusing generation.

John Kleinig, Professor and Author


Pastor Woodford takes on one of the most timely questions and theological conflicts of our age: the hidden confusion of an ecclesiology reinterpreted through the lens of pragmatism, rather than the lens of Sola Scriptura.

 Rev. Jonathan Fisk of