By Jaime Nava –
Reading a fellow writer’s recent post got me thinking. There’s a lot of Christian denominations to choose from. I say Christian because God’s Word is presented in a Trinitarian way with Jesus Christ as dying for sins. So whether Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Revival-oriented (i.e. most non-denoms), or what have you, there are Christians present in those places because God’s Word doesn’t return void. The Jesus they preach is the same that Christendom has always preached: the God-man (100% both), who is the second person of the Three-In-One, died for our sins. Cool. Preach Jesus. Even so, denominations differ. Emphases are placed on different things. What’s the big deal? Let’s consider our American history.
Consider the freedom of worship the United States began with. It was a new frontier that was wild in so many ways. All the formal education was back in that other country. Those ivory towers were overseas. This meant that many new denominations began to sprout and grow without much in the way of oversight. For example, consider the Church of Christ (not the United one). A father and son decided to go back to the apostolic ways with no more instruments in the service. Even the Lutherans mingled with Methodists for a time. In 1859, a letter reached our first synodical president that said this, “There are five German churches out this way: one in Sacramento, one in Stockton, two in San Francisco. These four are Methodist…But many people have their children baptized here and are sending them to Sunday schools to let them learn German…” Plenty of Baptist churches started in the US. The Shakers did too. Seventh Day Adventists found their start here. With the Azusa Street Revival, Pentecostalism soared. The list is long. The freedom we hold so dear as Americans has certainly prevailed in founding denominations as well.
So why choose one denomination over another? The prevailing thought is that denominations are like flavors. You find the one the works for you. Even within denominations are congregations that one might prefer over another. Maybe the pastor is a better speaker or the music is more moving. If we see churches like flavors, then what keeps someone there? What brings someone there? Maybe one place is good at feeding the community. Maybe another makes knocking on doors a priority. All of these places are going to put their best foot forward because they want people there. What church wants to be empty? That’s dumb.
Suddenly, we have church marketing. Churches take on the strategies of business. We come up with vision statements. Pastors read books about leadership for their congregations that were written by non-Christians. I just read a quote posted by a LCMS pastor from a book by Edwin Friedman on Facebook and folks ate it up. You see, to reach the lost, we have to market, plan, strategize, and lead. We have to find the target audience and reach them with maximum potential. We need innovative leadership that is missional and incarnational. We have to present the best product so that we make the sale. We do this because not only is there a church market, but also other religious (or non-religious) ideas that are for sale, too. So we put up our best lemonade stand on the street corner and see how many people we can make the sale for. It’s absolutely natural to the American psyche.
There are two assumptions with all of the above. One, denominations are flavors. Two, the First article of the Creed is superior to the Second and Third. Let’s deal with the second assumption first.
The Creed has three Articles about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The First Article reflects God’s created order and how He maintains that order. In this article people can see that there is a God, but they can’t see which one. In this article, we know that murder is wrong and we assume that the sun will come up tomorrow. We could even say that, in this article, the color red will draw more attention than blue or green as someone drives by. It’s the normal and natural law that everyone experiences. The Second Article is the alien work of Christ for us. It’s His miraculous incarnation to His ascension and promise to return. It entails all that Jesus did and does for sinners. The Third Article is how the Holy Spirit grows the Church without any merit or worthiness in any Christian. It’s how the Holy Spirit keeps us in the Church until the end.
The focus of the Church should be the Second Article. It’s through this Article that the Third has any work. The Holy Spirit cannot grow the Church where there is no Gospel proclaimed (Romans 10:14-15). The problem arrives when we look for techniques from the First Article of Creation to cajole people into hearing the Second thinking that we’re doing the work of the Third. As one Church Growth guru once wrote, “Church growth is simultaneously a theological conviction and an applied science, striving to combine the eternal principles of God’s Word with the best insights of contemporary social and behavioral sciences, employing as its initial frame of reference…” You see, science, i.e. First Article. If your pastor talks more about leadership principles or looks to social science to reach the lost, he’s doing it wrong. If the sermons are more about life principles and ways to be a better witness, he’s doing it wrong. The Church does not grow because of principles of this world. Churches don’t die, either. The Church is the body of Christ which is held together by the Holy Spirit who points to Christ and His Word. Any First Article things we use should sit underneath the thing that should be front and center: Christ and Him crucified for sinners. (1 Cor. 1:23)
The other assumption is that denominations are flavors. I think C. F. W. Walther said it well,
“To these theologians the distinction between our church and others is a matter of degree, not substance. Therefore they consistently speak only of ‘denominations’ and believe that those who in their arrogance claim to be the best must appear totally ridiculous and prove themselves to be a sect. This label ‘denomination’ or ‘evangelical denomination’ for all protestant groups, except perhaps the Unitarians, serves our opponents in the ‘Church Council’ as a substitute for the more vulgar expression ‘union.’ It implies that all Christians who are not either papists or gross rationalists are to be considered orthodox and that all these various orthodox groups must cultivate church fellowship with one another. But this label is just as distorted as the concept it implies.”
The truth is, either a congregation is proclaiming whole truths or half-truths. It’s not about flavors but adherence to the Word of God. I firmly believe and publicly vowed that the teachings of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod found in the Book of Concord of 1580 are true and clear teachings of the Word of God. It’s not that I think it’s a better flavor. It means that I think it’s the crystal clear teaching of God’s Word. It’s not bigoted to say since pure teaching is part of the core of Christianity (James 3:17, Romans 16:17).
The Gospel is not for sale. It is sufficient and effective. We don’t need to dress it up in business models, leadership models, or other First Article dealings. By itself, it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. Sadly, it can even divide. It is crucial to know what we believe and why we believe it. It is essential that the Gospel be central to all that we do, inside and outside of Sunday morning. Divisions exist in the Church Visible. It sucks. I hate it as much as the next guy. Let’s not pretend they aren’t there. Let’s not pretend that some pastors of my own church body don’t think the grass is greener elsewhere. For the love of God, let’s stop selling what is not for sale.