by Rev. Clint K. Poppe
When my boys were younger, one of their favorite cartoons was “Transformers.” I don’t remember the names of the characters anymore, but it seems like they all ended in “-tron” or “-con.” The one thing that did stick in my long-term memory was the cartoon theme, complete with heavy techno vibes, “transformers, robots in disguise.” The plot was a simple good-versus-evil theme, with robots having the ability to disguise themselves as regular cars or trucks while their real identity remained hidden. Over time, the original comic books and cartoon have morphed into major motion pictures. Is something similar happening in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS)?
Many folks in the LCMS are at least vaguely familiar with the initials TCN, which stand for Transforming Churches Network. The LCMS in its 2007 convention passed a resolution to “revitalize” 2000 congregations by the year 2017. According to the official LCMS website, the congregations to be revitalized are those that are “stagnant or declining” and the process will help them become “mission outposts.” The website continues: “God desires all Christians to be missional, and in most cases, people have just forgotten what their first love was and why they existed as a congregation to begin with. As dying congregations begin to thrive, their success stories will encourage others in similar situations to seek help too.” TCN is the vehicle through which this “revitalization” is set to take place.
In January of this year, TCN Executive Director Terry Tieman called for 2010 to be “The Year of Transformation” for the LCMS. How does he propose this to happen? By spending time with God, praying, fasting, and by asking him into your heart? No, I didn’t make that up. “Jesus himself has promised to build his church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Mt 16:18). So, why don’t we invite the Lord of the church to do great things in our midst in 2010? Why don’t we ask him to begin a church transformation mvement in the LCMS? And why don’t we ask him to start in our own hearts?” Has Dr. Tieman had a transformation himself? Perhaps when you work with Baptists, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals, you begin to sound like them; perhaps the transformation is more than just speech patterns.
I would humbly submit that there is really nothing new with regard to TCN. The Charismatic Movement of the 1970s and 1980s transformed into the Church Growth Movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The Church Growth Movement has today transformed into revitalization, Natural Church Development, and, in the LCMS, the Transforming Churches Network. The techniques of TCN are widely available and accessible via the Internet, and are being used by many different denominations. Recently the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church rededicated itself to the process of transformation. The LCMS has spoken clearly and faithfully in the past with regard to the Charismatic Movement and the Church Growth Movement, but there are few voices today that are speaking out against the push for revitalization and TCN in our midst.
I believe that there are two main forces at work with this new mind-set of missionism among us. Revitalization is just another way of saying “let’s have a revival” without the hillbilly accent. “Let’s have a revival but make it mainstream!” The Lutheran Church in America was nearly wiped out by the revivalism of the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Today the anxious bench has simply been replaced by finger snapping. The weekend consultant team has replaced the camp meeting. The new measures have been replaced by the consultant’s report. The hollering, shaking, rolling, revivalist preacher has been replaced by a transformation coach.
Second, to revitalize something implies that it is dead and we must make it alive again. The Pentecostals, Baptists, and “mature” Lutheran pietists have long said that the Lutheran Church is dead, or at least a sleeping giant. I have often joked with a brother pastor that all we need do is watch Trinity Broadcasting Network to see what the newest LCMS program will be. The “Revitalization Process” that is being forced upon many faithful pastors and congregations is no joke. To measure anything other than faithfulness to Christ and his word is an affront to the gospel and is a mockery of our crucified and risen Lord.
TCN is Pentecostalism in disguise and the transformation of the LCMS is happening before our very eyes. We are being told that congregations that resound with the doctrine of justification and the historic liturgy are dead because of measurable declining membership numbers. In order to make them alive we must incorporate revivalist worship and hymnody, be more welcoming at the communion rail, blur the distinction between the office of the holy ministry and the holy and royal priesthood, and focus more on relationships and the community around us. Theology by the numbers game is a theology of law and a theology of glory. It is that plain and simple.
If you are looking for new life in the revitalization process that flows from American revivalism, I beg you to look before you leap. You will be transformed. That much is certain. If you are promoting and forcing this “life” on supposedly dead congregations, I remind you of Christ’s words, “I know your works. You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rv 3:1). After all, when Christ’s doctrine is attacked and those who confess it are silenced, where are you to turn? To yourself? To your own works? Your own methods? Charles Porterfield Krauth once said, “A man, or body of men, may cease to be Lutherans, but a doctrine which is Lutheran once, is Lutheran forever.” I suggest that the “revitalization process” as we know it be transformed into something Lutheran. Better yet, let it die a quick death and let us trust in what the Lord has given: preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins (Lk 24), baptizing and teaching (Mt 28), using the office of the keys (Mt 16; 18; Jn 20), and receiving his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar (Mt 26; 1 Cor 11). “Where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation,” the Small Catechism teaches. Indeed. Through these means of grace Jesus gives his church the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life! That same Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith! We are not in control. The Lord Jesus is, through the work of the Spirit in his mandated means of grace. Kyrie eleison!
Rev. Clint K. Poppe
. Scott Diekmann has done an excellent job of tracing the non-Lutheran origins of TCN; http://soundwitness.org/misc/tcn.doc
. http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CTCR/charismatic.pdf and http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CTCR/charismatic_Movement1.pdf.