The Temptation of a Church Growth Culture

—Ryan J. Ogrodowicz

In seminary my theological thinking resembled a refined box of perfect corners and refined edges. Every question had an answer; every situation had an applicable Bible passage. The ministry would be easy, I mused. By dynamic preaching coupled with a sharp understanding of doctrine, people will come in droves, filling the coffers and showering praise for my fidelity to confessional Lutheranism.

Once in the parish, however, I realized what I should have known: abstractions and reality don’t always play well together. Making a quia subscription was easy in seminary. Why? I wasn’t facing firsthand budget concerns, slow growth, and a concerned congregation. Against such obstacles, the right confession hangs in the balance as the devil chisels at your faith and integrity with questions that were previously dismissed out of hand. Am I doing something wrong? What more can I do? How far can I push the envelope? Maybe I should change some things.

It’s hard to be faithful when the old Adam never stops taking inventory and looking for the fruits of his labors. Just a glance at the gap between budgeted figures and year-to-date giving thrusts me into we-gotta-grow mode, as if growth is to be done for the sake of filling the treasury instead of serving sinners. At times it seems as if getting people in the doors at all costs is the end-all solution.

Here’s an example.

At the January voter’s meeting, one of the agenda items was to vote on moving to the Lutheran Service Book (LSB) from The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH). Allegiances were well known, as some strongly desired to retain TLH while others earnestly wanted to move to LSB. Personally, I was ready for the move. The vast majority of the LCMS uses LSB; our Altar Book is already LSB; the rites I use come from the LSB Agenda; we’re almost there, so why not complete the process? Arguments were made and the votes were cast. When the dust settled, the result was this: LSB can be used for everything except Matins, which will be done out of TLH. On hearing this, the old Adam once again put me in a choke hold. TLH Matins? How are we going to grow with this? How will people new to Lutheranism ever learn Matins from a 1941 hymnal? We’re in the 21st century and we need to cater to 21st century mindsets. This is not going to fix our budget issue.

Lord, have mercy. It’s as if I thought God was inhibited from saving because of our liturgical preference.

The truth: God has grown the church well before we went to LSB. And He did it not through gimmicks, practices, and modern hymnals, but through his spoken word. It was through his gospel that people were bestowed faith to believe in our crucified savior Jesus Christ, something human reason and strength cannot do. How foolish it is to think God cannot work through an older liturgy. How foolish it is to think God will work better when we provide emotional stimulation via bands, lights, and lapel mics. But such thoughts are powerful, and the temptation is real to jettison the emphasis on God’s objective means of grace for some human invention just to get people in the door. And the reasons for this, as mentioned, are not always good and godly, but sometimes just financial.

Thanks be to God we have a Savior whose Word never changes, and who speaks to us a freely given and underserved absolution. And we hear something we cannot hear too much of: God is faithful to do what He sets out to do. His Word will not return void, which includes bringing people through the doors to receive the gifts He promises to give.

The Rev. Ryan Ogrodowicz serves as pastor of Victory in Christ Lutheran Church in Newark, Texas.


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